When my 20th anniversary of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail came about, my family traveled to Baxter State Park to climb the greatest mountain. The weather was not the greatest however, mist and occasional light rain- no wind. The plan was to traverse the Knife Edge after celebrating at the summit so we made the decision to go after evaluating the weather and how we all felt- strong and confident.
My children were pumped for the crossing. They were ages 7 & 9 and had just recently hiked the last 250 miles of the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado and cycled 650 miles of New Mexico on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail. They were beasts as far as fit little kids go.
Since the drop offs were all fogged in, you had little clue of the extreme exposure, if this was your first time. My kids thought the rock scrambling was great fun. My girlfriend who had been on the mountain numerous times, knew too much. She gripped Sierra’s raincoat sleeve with such force and frequency that she ripped it right out of the socket.
A few of the adults along were quite fearful and not as fit. We had to take care of them- wait for them and encourage them. When we reached Chimney Pond and our cabin for the night, the adults collapsed on the chairs, my kids asked if they could go outside to play. The 12 mile day had not phased them. Certainly “the emotional drama” of the Knife Edge had not exhausted them.
I wrote a feature story for The Appalachian Trailway News Magazine on my anniversary hike and Sierra’s portrait on the Knife Edge in the fog in her raincoat was on the cover. The image sparked readers to comment which were published in the following issue under “Letters to the Editor.” Todd and I were chastised for our irresponsible parental behavior, we even got accused of child abuse. These comments were made by elderly Girl Scout leaders and Todd and I found them amusing. In our defense, we responded back with information about who these cover children actually were, what they had accomplished in their short lives and who their parents were- Triple Crowners. We also had a sleeping bag and stove for emergency purposes which our accusers did not know. Everything in its context.
Baxter State Park has rules pertaining to when the officials feel it is safe to climb Mount Katahdin. Our anniversary day had not been a forbidden climb, it just had an advisory warning attached. And Todd and I had heeded that advice and proceeded with caution, wisdom and experience. We were not breaking any rules or laws with this decision but numerous times in our children’s upbringing, in the midst of an adventure, we did.
I’d like to look at those times, of risk, of breaking laws, of trespassing, of questioning authority, and examining what we are teaching our children, good and bad, by bringing them along as accomplices.
In our marriage, Todd has always been the one who feels it important and necessary to follow rules, heed laws, do not trespass, etc. I, on the other hand, do not always feel so inclined to. We usually can balance.
One particular time, Todd’s vote was to trespass. When we were llama packing on the Continental Divide Trail in Wyoming, we were following a guidebook whose route took you across private property. The other option was a long road walk. We knew we’d be trespassing but the country was so vast, we rarely saw a soul.
Out of all the days to be in mountains, that particular one, the landowner chose to move the cows down from the high country. A solo backpacker could hide but not a family with a string of llamas. A wrangler on a 4-wheeler stopped us to inform us that we were trespassing and had to walk another ten miles to get off even though night was falling. We claimed we were lost to appeal to his emotions. He instructed us to pull out our map. There was a bright highlighted route right on the exact path we were on. We begged to speak to the owner and asked if we could camp somewhere out of the way and he finally consented. The kids were 5 & 7 and did not have a say.
When the kids were 14 & 16, we were adventuring in Hawaii and they did voice their opinions. We visited a local friend who offered to lead us cross-country over the newly formed lava flows in Volcanoes National Park, to where the lava was dumping into the ocean. Armed with headlamps and warm clothing, the plan was to walk out the 2-3 miles to the cliff and watch where it dumped into the ocean by night. We followed the Chain of Craters Road stepping over piles of hardened lava that had broken up the blacktopped road. After 200 yards, a yellow-tape blocked our way and warned that it was dangerous to proceed and that we should not go any further. Stepping over the yellow tape was easy. Dozens of people did it every night.
We headed towards the plume in the sky, across the broken undulating lava over gorgeous ropy, curving hardened flows. Sometimes it looked like a frozen, black waterfall. We stopped at the cliffside. It was possible for the cliff to peel off and drop huge sections into the ocean unannounced, but we took our chances. In some places, the lava was still warm to the touch. We sat out there and watched the most amazing light show of steaming bubbling brilliant orange and red lava flow into the ocean and hiss and steam like a wild hot animal. It was incredible. We sat mesmerized for a long time. Clouds of silica particles blew in from time to time, making it sometimes difficult to breathe.
After a few hours of watching the show, we picked our way back, the sky completely engulfed in stars all the way down to the horizon. The ocean, we kept at our side and nearby. Some people get lost out here at night but we kept our directional skills sharp and everyone close at hand. It was one of the most amazing nature spectacles of our lives.
Park officials did not stop visitors from going out. They were aware of it. We went at our own risk and we risked our children’s well-being at the same time. It was a situation where had to weigh the risks and the consequences…being cited for trespassing, perhaps fined, maybe hurt, a remote possibility to all die if a chuck broke off and fell into the ocean. We all wanted to take the chance and have this life experience. The kids had a voice in the decision and they said, “let’s go.”
As parents, we could have trumped their decision and said the risks are too high, but we did not. We all have a sense of adventure in our family, but as parents we must weigh the pros and cons, judge how much safety you are willing to compromise, if what we are doing is disrespecting property, and any time you go beyond the “No Trespassing” sign you are disrespecting property. Sometimes, you evaluate if the sign is an attempt to keep out vandals, which category we do not fit. We would never harm the land or the property nor leave any indication that we were present. We believe in behaving ethically but that does not necessarily equal legality. You need to qualify that every step of the way. If the experience far outweighs the risk, we sometimes chose to just do it.
When we were traveling in Sicily by bus, we found ourselves in the town where the Zingaro Nature Reserve was located. After hiking all day, we discovered that there was no room in the hotels, all the rented rooms were filled or were too expensive and no buses would be entering or leaving town until the next morning. We walked the streets and told everyone in our group to keep their eyes opened for potential “stealth” camping spots. An abandoned pizzeria on a hillside was the accommodation of choice. We waited until dusk feel and then creeped up the one-way gravel road that looped around the property to the restaurant’s patio. We cleared away the glass chards and trash and set up our tent as the mosquitos were horrendous. Every time someone unzipped a tent fly, the neighborhood dogs would bark. We tried to keep silent.
Down the road was an inexpensive but very fancy restaurant- with white linen tablecloths, three crystal glasses at each place setting. We ordered pizza. The kids whispered, “We’re living like the homeless but eating like the rich, this is great.”
After dinner, we kept our headlamps off and walked in darkness back to our abandoned pizzeria. The plan was, Todd would sleep outside the tent, keep watch and rouse us at the first crack of light. We’d pack up and leave before anyone knew of our presence. However, in the early grey morning, Todd was wildly awoken by the crunching of tires on the gravel. My god, someone is coming up the drive! AND, they are shooting a gun! A car spins by and Todd sees a man’s body rising out of the open rear car window, with a rifle in his hand and he is taking aim and firing. Incidentally, the Rough Guidebook to Sicily states that this town had one of the worst reputations in Sicily for Mafia violence in the 1950’s . Eighty per cent of the adult males had served prison sentences and one in three had committed murder. Todd held this thought in his mind as he watched the passing car.
Because of the way we were situated, the gunman would have had to turn backwards after he passed in order to see us and he was too intent on seeking small game, rats, other trespassers, who knows what to shoot at, and didn’t bother looking behind. The car circled the pizzeria, shooting away, and went down the gravel drive. It took twenty minutes for Todd’s knees to stop shaking. We tore down the tent in a flash and slithered out the road. The kids gave us a “high 5” when we reached the blacktop public road and announced, “That was the best night of the whole month-long trip.” And Todd and I looked at one another and thought, what is wrong with our parenting? IS there something wrong with our parenting? What have we created in these children by our example? What are we modeling for them and is it a good thing?
When Todd turned 50, eighteen-year old Bryce announced to his dad that he needed to do something adventurous on this day, to set the precedent for the next decade. We would take him on a mountain bike ride to the Port Clinton fire tower, which is surrounded by a chain link fence with razor wire up top. It is clear that the forest service does not want people climbing it. However, local kids always do and the fence door is yanked up so you can crawl underneath, albeit in the sharp stones and glass chards but a normal sized adult can smash their body underneath and through. Todd was not excited about doing this. He believes all trespassing is wrong. All rules are created for a reason and should be followed.
“You’re doing it,” Bryce announced. Once we were up top, in the glorious breeze and far-reaching view, it was a lovely place to celebrate fifty years on the planet. Had a forest service truck pulled up, we would not be able to race the steps downward before we were caught. The parking lot is also a popular drug dealing spot too, but Bryce and I rationalized and said that it probably occurred at night. “Relax and enjoy the view.”
Here, an adventure involving a trespass was initiated by my adult son. What does that say about his upbringing? What have we created by our modeling? What do we expect?
A few years afterwards, Bryce thought that Todd and I were getting a little too comfortable and needed to stretch ourselves. Climbing up a slanted tree trunk over the Little Schuylkill River on wooden slat steps to a branch 20+ feet above the deep swimming hole was just the place to stretch his parents. We didn’t want to. I have jumped off my share of things as a young adult- metal RR trestle bridges, cliffs etc. But I HAVE gotten more timid as I’ve grown older and Bryce believes what I have always repeated, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space,” a quote brought to you by mountaineer Jim Whittaker, a quote Bryce has taken to heart. Todd and I knew he had us. We consented to jump on a stinking hot afternoon and wanted to just shut our son up.
Todd had no problem handling the climb as he is on ladders to house paint far above the yard and never minds the dizzying heights. But standing on that tree limb, looking down, brought the fear of god into him. He mumbled and swore for twenty minutes about how ridiculous this was, how badly he DID NOT want to do this. Bryce and I treaded water for that whole time, growing chilled from the cold water, Bryce throwing out every accomplishment Todd had done to date in his life- a Tripe Crowner, building his own log home from scratch, a famous and successful chainsaw carver and blacksmith artist, in hopes to build his confidence. “Dad, you got this, just jump.” And so he finally did. Todd enjoyed it so much, he got right back out of the water and did it again. Bryce called it “Jumping off the Tree of Courage.”
So what does this say? What did we teach our children for them to arrive at this point and encourage HIS PARENTS to do the adventurous. Even though here at the Tree of Courage, we were not trespassing or doing anything illegal, we WERE however, making decisions on what is safe and how much risk is involved.
My son wants to climb everything he sees, every rock outcrop and pinnacle. He has only rock climbed twice in his 22 years but he longs to gain height. As a very young boy, we would occasionally wander out of camp and up a rock face. Our friends would run to his rescue as he could not figure how to descend and needed to coached back down. I tell him now- take a class, learn to do it right.
When we paddle rivers, he longs to jump off every rock cliff and bridge. I tell him he needs to swim and search what is under the water first before jumping. He could paralyze himself, hit something that dislodged and floated down the river when it flooded and is buried under the murky water. I tell him I am not interested in wiping his drool and diapering him as a paralyzed adult.
I don’t want to sound like a frightened mother, one who does not want her child taking risks and living an adventurous life. I have lived longer, heard more stories of fatal accidents and want my children to WEIGH the risks. I am sure I am partially responsible for creating this monster and did I model a good example all his life or a poor one?
Todd and I have balanced one another throughout our 30+ years of marriage and our 20+ years of parenting. Our children have both the cautious example and the adventurous example set by their parents and can hopefully, somehow come to a happy medium philosophy of taking chances and living on the edge as they create a life for themselves.