When we were kids my Father took my siblings and I, along with our Mother, on many hikes. Some were through woods and pastures, and some were up mountains, and he called each one an adventure. Over the years, I went from fresh-faced, willing participant to sullen adolescent/early teenager, who forged way ahead or dawdled way back so I could feel like I was alone and free of the bonds of my family. Eventually, I became an absentee teenager-with-a-job and friends who were more interesting to me at the time, and I begged off as many of those outings as I could. I had other, more interesting adventures to attend to.
Fast forward 18 years or so.By then I was a parent, with two adolescent boys and a lot more perspective. It was January when I not so casually suggested to my father that we take a hike in the White Mountains. Now, the one thing I never got to do was hike alone with Dad. The closest I came to expressing my desire was buying him a “50 Hikes in NH” book when I was a teenager, and pointing out the Lonesome Lake overnight hike and saying “That one looks nice.” Unfortunately, he was not a mind reader and I was not the most communicative teenager, and so, when we did hike it, the whole family went and I was probably 50% sullen and I think the most communicative I got was writing to myself, in my journal. Dad was up for the challenge, and we decided to go up Mt. Lafayette in July, hike up ,stay at Greenleaf Hut, then take the Franconia Loop Ridge Trail, and the Bridal Veil Falls trail down on our way out. I remember Dad looking me in the eye and saying “You’ll have to make sure you’re in shape for it.” To which I replied “Oh don’t worry about me!” A flash of my teenage self emerged. How many times would Dad say “You guys are marshmallows!”when we lagged behind on the trails. I’d show him.
I spent the whole spring that year riding my bike and running like a madwoman and dropped about 10 lbs just to prove I was no marshmallow and be ready for that hike. The day arrived and Dad picked me up and we drove to the trailhead parking lot. Being Dad, he had to go through my pack to ensure I wasn’t carrying anything unnecessary, to ease the weight I was carrying. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little irritated at this intrusion and what I perceived as his doubt about my fitness level, aka marshmallow quotient.
He held up a can of Diet Pepsi. “You’ve got water, you don’t need this.”
“The Pepsi STAYS.” I growled. Fortunately for both of us, he shrugged and put it back.
We were geared up like twins; hiking boots, knee socks, shorts, tee shirts, bandanas around our heads, water bottles dangling from the packs. Up the trail we went. The day was magnificent. Down in the valleys it was hot and humid, up on the leafy green trails the trees shaded us, sunlight poked in hear and there, dappling everything, and the air smelled mossy and clean. We didn’t talk a whole lot, but the silence was companionable. This part of the trail didn’t hold much of a view, but occasionally the trees would part and we could see the view across the way. Dad had me stop at one of these views, so he could take a photo of me. I got a little dizzy looking out, but it passed and I didn’t think much of it at the time. We arrived at the hut by late afternoon, and had time to sit at a picnic table and relax. Later on the crew made a hearty dinner of beef stew and put on a little skit for the guests. Dad and I wandered over to the guest book, where we looked up an entry we had made back in 1977, from a family hike. It was gratifying to write a new, updated entry and add our two names to the book. Later on, I laid awake in the communal bunk area where the women slept, listening to some of them snoring loudly.I wondered if Dad was asleep. I was really excited for the next day, and the Ridge trail, and looked forward seeing the Falls on the way down.
We started out after breakfast and headed to the beautiful Franconia Ridge Loop Trail. We stopped to look at the expanse of the trail before us. The ridge trail crosses three mountain peaks, and is about 8 miles long. On that beautiful clear July day, we could see the ridge in its entirety. The trail is a narrow, rocky area, that drops off on either side into a 3000 foot expanse of dark green mountainside. The sky was a brilliant blue without a single cloud and it went on forever. It was beautiful, and terrifying at the same time. I took a deep breath and followed Dad onto the trail. We picked our way over and around rocks, and I tried, I really did. I tried to breathe, and look at and appreciate the view. Each time I made the mistake of looking down off to the side of the trail, my heart raced a little faster and my head felt a little lighter. I said nothing to my father, who walked ahead of me, confident and straight backed. After a little while, I could barely speak. He would talk and I would give one word responses, all the while resisting the urge to freeze and curl up into a little puddle of melted marshmallow. Gradually, I was crawl-walking, bent way over and scrambling over rocks, hand over hand. I wanted to glue myself to the trail.
Dad stopped and asked “Are you ok?”
“Um, no, not really. I’m afraid of heights!” I had to admit it. I am good at hiding a lot of fears, but my sheer will was no match for this one. I felt like a failure. Defeat leaked in tears from the corner of my eyes.
“Take my hand.”
I looked up, and there in front of me was my Father’s hand. He was still facing forward, holding his arm behind him.
“You can do it, I’ll help you.”
I grabbed his hand for dear life, and this is how we traversed the 1.7 miles of narrow ridge trail between Mt. Lafayette and Little Haystack Mountain that day. Dad walking, holding my hand behind him, me clutching the hand and half crawling, half duckwalking across the ridge. The whole time I glued my eyes to our entwined hands, listening to the voice of my childhood, the one that always knew what to do and say to get me through any hardship. The hand that held mine as we skipped down my childhood sidewalks together, the hand that brushed my long hair in the evenings when I was 7 years old, the hand that squeezed mine the day my first son was born, and the hand that would always be there for me in years ahead, during good times and bad.
When I finally was able to walk upright again, we finished the ridge trail and headed down the Falling Waters trail. Once again the trees embraced us in their shady arms, and the steep views were hidden from us. The trail was not for marshmallows; it was very rocky and steep. We were both silent as we focused on keeping our footing, balance and slowing the speed of our descent. Partway down, Dad slipped and fell on the rocks. Instantly, I was at his side, and this time it was me offering my hand, and lifting him up. He was uninjured, a little embarrassed, but we both smiled.
“I’m impressed with your fitness,” he said. “I’m having a hard time keeping up with you!” I glowed at the praise.
We stopped to rest at one of the beautiful falls that run parallel to the trail. We took off our boots and socks, and sat on a rock, dangling our feet in a pool. The falls roared to the left of us. Surreptitiously, I reached into my pack and slipped out the Diet Pepsi. I wedged the can between two rocks in the ice cold water. After a while, I removed the can and popped the top. The bite of the soda on my parched tongue was something I can still feel today. I offered the can to Dad, he took a sip and closed his eyes.
“Boy does this hit the spot!” He looked at me, brown eyes shining and smiled again. “Good thing you didn’t listen to me and brought it.” I smiled and looked over the water. I could have stayed there forever.
We reached the car a few hours later, ravenously hungry. “Let’s get pizza, I know a place,” Dad said. We wolfed down a whole pizza before driving home.
I had dreams of doing a hike like that once a year with Dad. But, life goes on and gets in the way. We never did another overnighter. In all honesty, I don’t think we could have recaptured the magic of those two days if we tried. And, we did go on to do many other things, as family does. I could write a hundred essays more about our hikes, walks, snowshoeing and skiing adventures that have happened since. And maybe I will one day.
Until then, this one’s for you Dad. You are my North Star. Nobody in this world will ever fill your shoes. Thank you and happy Father’s Day!