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I'm Going This Way


With both hands, my nine-year-old grabs hold of an exposed hemlock root and then kicks his sports-sandaled left foot up to a round, wet granite boulder. He flexes bicep muscles that will almost certainly be larger than mine someday – though for now his arms remain stick-thin – and he pulls, and, yes, he’s now upright, but it does take some effort. Then a moment of tottering imbalance calls to mind my son as a two-year-old teetering down our narrow, sloped yard back in Pittsburgh where we kept chickens with an inclination for waggling after small children. As they’d given chase, he’d giggled, as he does so much; really, those hens were just following his happy lead.


Here, up on this Adirondack mountain, I’d feared that my son wouldn’t make it. But over the last quarter mile, he’s navigated every foothold and grab he’s tried. Still, a parent worries.


I glance back at the trail below us. A rocky channel serves as both creek bed and footpath – sharp crags, three-foot drops, mini falls spewing whitewater. Out here, a cracked skull wouldn’t see medical help for hours.


Kalu shouts “This is awesome!” and then leans in and grabs another root.


I stop climbing and rest my hands on my hips, my wide-brimmed hat tipped back and shoulder pack slouching to one side. Watching Kalu, I shake my head. For days now, while camping in two of Vermont’s wooded state parks, my son had been set to whining with any mention of this pending half-day hike in the Adirondack Mountains, telling me that I’m the one who needs “to compromise, so it’s fair, and others are getting to do what they want to do on vacation, too,” conveniently forgetting all the late-night UNO card games and worm-hooking and setting-up and taking-down of camp. Kalu’s more of a play-on-the-beach, roast-marshmallows, lazy-kayak, eat-a-cheeseburger, and roast-more-marshmallows kind of nine-year-old vacationer. He’s not into hiking. (I readily admit that this might describe almost all nine-year-olds …). Of course, the laws of physics and his physiology work against him as his short stride requires him to double the pace of others in this party – me, my wife, and 11-year-old Nicola. So, Kalu whines. But now, during the last day of a late-summer trip, this 3,254-foot ascent up Crane Mountain has, apparently, proven to be the best thing since the invention of s’mores.


Reviews had described this hike as “family-friendly,” so I talked it up with Kalu, noting that apparently kids half his age had completed this route – Lil’ four year-olds, Kalu! Surely you can do it. Admittedly, this four-mile loop is already proving to be challenging, though. Cynthia has slipped a few times, though without injury, and Nicola isn’t exactly cartwheeling along as she had through every stop in Vermont. I recall that American trail builders didn’t come to utilize the switchback much until they were well west of the Mississippi.

Often, I try to guide Kalu: “Hey, Kalu, there’s a hold there,” I say. “And if you put your right foot on that long rock you can work your way up those other rocks like steps. The other way looks pretty slippery.”


“Nah. I’m going this way.”


Half the time, Kalu has no trouble finding his way, and with each step he seems to be showing me that, Geez, Dad, I can do this just fine by myself! Other times, he reconsiders, backtracks, and, in the end, takes the route originally suggested by dear old Dad. Meanwhile, his pace is all stops and starts. Some moments, Kalu is pressing past me, wedging between a copse of elm and speckled granite and my clambering self, but then in other moments he’s stopping and insisting that I check out the creek and its very cool swirling patterns and sparkles. Then he’s fifty feet behind the rest of us because he’s apparently discovered the singularly fascinating stone on this literal mountain of stones. And so I stop and wait and call out to Kalu, though I learned long ago – from a book, admittedly, and not via my own clever parenting intuition – that children need to see and feel nature up close. I also keep reminding myself that we aren’t in a race against the clock or against other hikers.


We’re about a half-mile in from the trailhead when we stop atop a flat boulder to catch our breaths. Kalu begins pulling his black hoodie over his head.


“Dad, can you hold my sweatshirt?"


“Sure. I can put in the backpack. I’d told you, you might not need it.”


“But I was cold.”


I’ll now, in early August, be hauling this hoodie up a mountain. I punch it into my yellow daypack – giving it long, deliberate thumps, deeper into the bag for good measure, before zipping up the pack.


We walk on. I know that in addition to those patterns in rushing waterways and sparkly stones that Kalu points out, payoff will soon come in the form of vistas – hillsides of hardwoods and pine trees, mountain lakes in the distance, and peaks upon peaks layered all the way to a hazy emerald horizon. For the kids, payoff will also come in the form of Craisins and peanut butter-filled pretzels, doled out as we plod along.


Another half-mile of climbing and the four of us are again breathless, so we rest upon a plateaued section of trail where rocks become benches. I pull Kalu’s water bottle from the pack, hold it up – his school’s gold panther emblem scowling at me from the side – and give the bottle a shake before handing it him.


“Kalu, did you fill this up before we left, like I asked?”


“I wasn’t that thirsty.”


“Kalu we may need a lot of water. The sun’s coming out.”


“Sorry.”


He pulls the nozzle up and tips his head back, squeezes a few sips, palm-closes the nozzle, and hands the bottle back to me. I decide not to drink my own water yet, just in case. Not that we’re romping around in deep backcountry, and it’s not even all that hot – mid-70s with a bit of a breeze – but as climbing guide to this crew, I do feel responsible for ensuring that we not only find blazes and stay on the trail, but also that we avoid heat stroke (not to mention broken bones and wild beasts).


“Need to slow down a bit on the water then, Kalu, or you won’t have enough."


So, half way up a mountain, seeking an encounter with the grandeur of nature in the middle of America’s largest park, stretching some six million forested acres, and I’ve spent my time telling my kid where to walk, where not to walk, what to drink and eat and what not to drink and eat, what to wear or not wear, what to look at and when to friggin’ move it along, son, because we don't have all day ... and I can’t help but wonder: have I become that bubble-wrap parent that cries out “Be careful!” with every use of a butter knife? If there’s any place a kid should be wild, it’d be the wilderness, right?


What I’ve not mentioned yet is that between investigating cool rocks and discerning the optimal hiking trail, most of Kalu’s communicative energies have been invested in negotiating tonight’s and tomorrow’s dessert offerings, arguing with his sister, and making fart noises – rather adroitly, actually, implementing a demanding two-handed method that he picked up at Cub Scout troop meetings. So, forgive me if, by the time I’ve executed the most basic responsibilities of my parental job description by ensuring that this child doesn’t die today of a tumble down this mountain or of hypothermia (don’t be fooled: it can happen even in these warm weather conditions...) or a run-in with a famished Sasquatch, I’m a bit impatient.


I can certainly overdo it. Three days earlier, the four of us had hiked, at my insistence, to a quiet, low-lying pond amid buggy heat. Even by my own estimation, the payoff for this short walk to what was essentially a swamp promised to be moderate at best, but after so much fishing and bike riding and campfires, I needed to actually get into the woods. The kids tolerated it, swatting black flies, wondering aloud about how we’d spend our time after this hike.


One little, gracious find did provide a nice diversion, though, during that hike in Vermont. Kalu discovered it while returning from that mosquitoed cesspool that his buzzkill father had just made him explore.


“Dad, look!” he shouted. In the middle of our hiking trail, Kalu bent at the knees, resting his weight upon his calves like a baseball catcher.


He brushed damp, matted leaves aside, then pointed. “Look.”


Following his finger, I saw stepping across our path a slow-moving salamander with a bright orange body and tiny crimson spots - a red eft.


“Oh, that is so cool, Kalu. Those colors are amazing. I think that’s the same kind we saw earlier by the cabin.”


Kalu scooped a hand under his new friend, gently. Later I’d read warnings that oils from human hands can harm these little guys.


I’d also learn that the eft is actually the second of three life stages of the eastern newt. First, it hatches in a pond and uses gills to breath. Next, it grows legs and lungs and then walks onto land where it hangs out in moist gullies and along waterways; they creep along slowly without much concern for predators because the eft’s bright colors are purportedly associated with poisonous toxins that make them an icky and sickening treat. Then the newt’s tail broadens and becomes rudder-like so it can return to and retire in its aqueous birthplace.


This eft, just a few inches long, stood still in Kalu’s cupped right hand, so he attempted to pet it with the fingertips of his free hand. The eft moved to evade him. Then Kalu balled his hands together into an eft holding cell – a gentle, two-handed snowball-packing gesture. But eventually Kalu bent to the ground again and freed it, and we walked on.


This gentleness, this deliberateness: one minute Kalu’s bounding up mountains, the next he’s making friends with a red-spotted newt. The moment calls to my mind a highway rest stop in northern Ohio a few years ago. Cynthia, Nicola, and I were watching an injured sparrow scuttling along a sidewalk. We’d been debating a course of action to find the apparently injured creature some help, when Kalu came tromping onto the scene. He was just four years old. Forever eager, he bounded toward us in his way.


“Kalu, don’t…!” I yelped.


But it happened so quickly. His sneaker came directly down upon this bird weighing less than an ounce. Then a quick step back, a look down, a couple beats of silence. Then tears.

Kalu looked at me. Not at his sister or mom, but at me. Because I’d raised my voice, when he’d killed a bird.


To this day, Nicola still categorizes birds, in terms of likability, alongside snakes and rodents. When I ask why, she demurs. “Well, you know, with Kalu ….” And she looks at him sidewise across the room, mumbles something about that day at the reststop.


Even now, I know my occasional quick and strong reactions – pushiness that I justify as practical – can bruise this son of mine who’s carefree and quixotic as he works so hard to perfect two-handed fart noises. This boy who is, at his core, awful tender.


Which is one of the reasons – when Kalu asks me why I’m climbing so close to him on Crane Mountain – I back off.


We seem to be nearing the top of the mountain when we come upon a couple of hand-hewn wooden ladders, placed to help climbers ascend the rockiest and steepest sections. The first ladder has a half-dozen rungs, the second one about twenty. I’m following Kalu closely up the first ladder, mirroring each of his arm grasps and steps, as if our limbs are connected and being moved simultaneously by the same gears. I ready myself to react to any slip.


I’ve convinced myself I’m being subtle about this mirroring, but he complains, half- heartedly. “Dad, I can do this.”


I stop moving, and I let Kalu finish the second, taller ladder on his own.


A few moments later, we alight upon a series of house-sized boulders, and we’re atop Crane Mountain. We each say Wow! in our own ways, with words or a pause, and we scan the rolling vista, treed peaks in every direction. To the east, we can see Vermont. To the north, the High Peaks Wilderness, highest points in the park.


Kalu and I wander further along the ridge and poke past conifer scrub to cliff edges, then retreat to relocate the trail, and then in tight spaces we’re crab-walking and pulling ourselves along with handholds in the rock, then scrambling to the next ledges.


If given the choice again at that highway rest stop in northern Ohio, I would still shout at my kid. He needed to hear my warning and, if possible, spare the wounded bird. And here while Kalu gropes his way along a mountaintop, I do warn him, firmly, to watch for the ledge. Look, I say, at how far the drop is to that next set of rocks and treetops.


But as we both look to the horizon and then scramble more, I try, with what little might I have as a weathered parent, to say nothing.




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