Five Hundred Miles
My 15-year-old son, Milo, and I are hiking along the backbone of a ridge. The land drops away on both sides to deep, green valleys. Beyond the valleys, jagged peaks rise up, red and gray dusted with green. Farther in the distance, more mountains stretch hazy and blue to the edge of the sky. We climb up sharply, heading toward a rocky knob—the high point mentioned in the guidebook, I hope. I lift one foot after the other, repeating a mantra I found in a book on walking meditation: I have arrived. I have arrived. Looking down I notice the track of a mountain bike between rocks.
“What a stupid place to ride a bike,” I say.
“What a stupid place to do anything,” Milo replies.
We’re on day 40 of a 42-day trek of the Colorado Trail, a nearly 500-mile pathway from Denver to Durango. My husband, Curry, and our 11-year-old twin sons have hiked ahead, but Milo walks behind me. He’s developed blisters across the balls of both feet and strained a tendon in one ankle. To slow down and allow his body to heal he lets me set the pace. I’m a plodder. A dawdler. I stop and take pictures, look at the view, study flowers. Having someone hike behind me makes me feel rushed, herded. But today’s the first time I’ve walked with Milo on this hike, so I enjoy his presence at my heels.
Most mornings, Milo and his brothers set off together at a fast clip. Curry either treks ahead with them or stays behind to wait for the tent to dry. I hike alone until lunch, with one of the twins joining me in the afternoon. I rarely see Milo except in camp and at breaks. Once he sets out, he moves as if propelled by an invisible force. I once suggested he take on “The Flash” as his trail name, for his tendency to fly up three switchbacks before the rest of us have shouldered our packs. He smiled, pleased, but chose to stick with “Flaky” for the havoc showering weekly wreaked on his scalp.
But today Milo’s pace matches mine, while I move a little faster than I normally would and forego many photo opportunities. It’s mid-August and autumn has already crept onto this high ridge, turning the grass gold and withering many of the wildflowers. But the Indian paintbrush still bloom in every shade of pink—rose, blush, magenta, fuchsia, coral. To keep my mind off my tiredness, I focus on the beauty of the flowers and hum the Proclaimers’ song “I’m Gonna Be,” a tune we listened to on the drive from Maine, the Scottish accent serenading us across country. “I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more…”
Five hundred miles is an awfully long distance for a teenager and pre-teens to contemplate hiking. We would have to average a little more than 12 miles a day in order to finish the hike and get home before school started. The boys had hiked no more than seven miles with full packs, but I wasn’t worried about their ability to finish the trail. I pictured them racing up mountains while I wheezed and gasped, struggling to keep up, which is how it’s come to pass. More than being apprehensive about the challenge of hiking, Milo was mad that he would “miss the whole summer.” His friends would be hanging out having fun and he wouldn’t be there. He also wouldn’t be able to work a summer job, take driver’s ed, or spend long, lazy hours doing absolutely nothing.
Milo never misses an opportunity to remind me that hiking 10 or 15 miles a day through heat or rain or hail, crouching on the ground to eat cold food, or sleeping on roots and rocks is not his idea of a good time. One evening, after a day of switchbacks that seemed to take us in circles followed by a long, steep climb in icy rain, we huddled in the wet tent, slurping cold ramen noodles. I said to the boys, “It’s okay if you don’t love every minute of this hike. Even awesome things suck sometimes.”
“Yeah,” Milo replied, “and so does this.”
And yet, despite the wisecracks, he’s remained cheerful all summer. He’s tolerated the discomforts of the trail with greater equanimity than the rest of us, has lost his temper far less often, and has hardly complained. He and his brothers have gotten along better than they ever do at home. While they’ve all had to grow up a bit, taking on responsibilities not expected of them in daily life—helping to set up and take down camp, collecting and treating water, staying on the correct trail—away from the pressures and influences of school, friends, and media, Milo is freed to be a kid. Each morning the boys set out together, telling stories and inventing worlds. I catch only snippets—El Loco…Tom Lighthouse’s World…Camper Bob and Camper Joe—before they disappear around a bend in the trail. In camp, they play poker with a tiny deck of cards or invent games, like Harry Potter Trivia or naming a fish for each letter of the alphabet (I=interesting purple jellyfish). Milo doesn’t know it, but this time is a gift, one last summer spent being a boy, a six-week reprieve from teenagerhood, a brief pause before becoming a man.
I don’t tell him this, of course. I hike on in silence, focusing on breathing, listening to Milo talk, grunting my replies. After what feels like hours of climbing, we crest the knob of land we’ve been aiming for only to find it’s a false summit. We have to travel downhill a bit and then climb up a higher, steeper, knobbier pile of rocks. I stop to rest, too tired to think of this hilltop as anything but a dirty trick of perspective, but later it will occur to me that parenting is one long trail studded with false summits—moments when we think we’ve reached the peak of rapture or exasperation over our children, only to find another, higher summit beyond.
Dark clouds amass around a jagged mountain to our west and we need to climb up and over this high point and back down to lower ground before the clouds break free of the peak and come our way. We reach the top, the actual, truly high point, and see our destination below—Taylor Lake, a turquoise gem set in red earth. I can see the gold pyramid of our tent, already pitched among the willow bushes, and my younger two sons working their way down the switchbacks. We will make it to camp before the rain.
We arrive home in Maine a week after completing our hike, two days before school starts. The boys don’t want to talk about the trail. When Curry and I propose an overnight backpacking trip in early October, they mutiny. I import my photos, type up my journal notes, but I don’t bring up the trail with the kids. Life returns to normal. Months pass and then I wake up early one morning to hear Milo in the shower, blaring music, as always, but instead of his usual rap or rock, I hear a familiar Scottish voice singing, “I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more…” A few days later I pick up a package of the crackers we ate for lunch on the trail and serve them for dinner alongside soup. I hadn’t intended for them to trigger memories of the hike—I’d bought them because they were on sale—but once we start breaking apart and crunching them, the kids start reminiscing.
“Can you believe we ate these every day?” Milo says.
“Can you believe this was the best food we had?” I reply.
“You know, if it weren’t for the dirty and disgusting parts of the trail, I’d probably do it again,” Milo says.
His brothers chime in:
“I would do it again if we could ride horses.”
“I’d do it again if it was in Norway and I could ride a sleigh pulled by six huskies.”
“Remember how we ate cold oatmeal for breakfast every morning?” Milo says. “And it was disgusting? But you had to eat it or you’d get light-headed and have to sit down with your head between your knees an hour later?”
“Remember the wildflowers?” I say.
“I didn’t really pay attention to those,” Milo says.
“You didn’t see all those wildflowers?”
“I saw them, but that’s not really what I was interested in. I remember the mountains.”
This set off a series of remember-whens: Remember how we pooped in a hole 42 times? Remember the pika with an Indian paintbrush in its mouth? Remember the herd of bighorn sheep? Remember swimming in the ice cold lakes? Remember how I couldn’t sleep in the hotels when we went to town? Remember how hard it was to get a ride when we hitchhiked?
“You know,” Milo says, “hiking the trail is a lot better in retrospect than it was when it was happening.”
“A lot of things in life are like that,” I say. I think, but do not add, including parenting. The trick—which I’m still learning—is to appreciate life while it’s happening, even when you’re cold or hungry or tired or sore, when your baby is crying or your kid is driving you crazy.
I look around the table at my family, crushing cracker crumbs on their placemats and laughing over memories of dirty underwear and cold couscous, and think, I have arrived. I have arrived.
Andrea Lani’s writing has been published in, or is forthcoming from, The Maine Review, If Mom’s Happy, and Saltfront, among other publications. She’s writing a book about hiking the Colorado Trail in 1996 and again in 2016 and 20 years of environmental change in the Rockies. She lives in Maine and can be found online at www.remainsofday.blogspot.com.