The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that traverses the spine of the ancient mountain humps of the eastern United States. Due to land acquisitions, changes in rights-of-way, and relocations, its length fluctuates to within a few miles from any given year to the next. In 2010, the year my then 10-year-old son and I became part of the eclectic band of travelers known as “thru-hikers” – those who walk the entire AT in one shot – the trail measured 2,179.1 miles.
There is a lot one can learn about a child in that distance.
In an age when many 10-year-old boys might be found glued to their video monitors chasing nazi zombies or being furiously driven from after-school care to play date to soccer practice, my little 80-pound rascal believed he could walk alongside me across 14 states, forgoing nearly all modern conveniences and luxuries to become not even the youngest somebody to attempt such a thing. (The governing body of the AT, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, discourages such age-related record-setting, but it is widely known that, in 2013, a 5-year-old named “Buddy Backpacker”completed a thru-hike with his parents, earning him the “youngest person ever” distinction. You can read about him here: http://www.backpacker.com/special-features/kindergarten-can-wait/.)
Thru-hiking the AT had been a dream of mine since high school, and I had introduced all of my four children to the mountains – with varying degrees of success – as soon as their little legs could propel them up a steep slope with minimal complaining.
But for Scooter (the trail name he would choose for himself on our hike), walking the Appalachian Trail would have to become HIS endeavor. Although many a youth hockey parent might disagree, prodding from without is a poor substitute for desire from within. The good news was that Scooter was the Borek child my neighbors called whenever they wanted rocks moved, logs stacked, or snakes relocated. He had climbed 3,165-foot Mt. Monadnock at the age of six, prompting some teenagers from an urban high school also hiking the mountain that day to point at him and exclaim, “C’mon fellas! If he can do it, we can do it!”
I felt that if he was willing to own his own hike, then there was an excellent chance that he just might be able to finish the entire trail.
The thing is, I couldn’t have asked for a better traveling companion than my low maintenance, long-fused, open-hearted, single-minded, rugged, reliable little boy. He had a way of diffusing the most awful, ridiculous situations with his simple perspective or optimistic outlook.
One night, Mom decided it would be a good idea to tent atop one of the beautiful southern balds. These curious mountains – some as high as 5,000 feet – lack the trees you might typically find at their elevations further north. Scientists disagree as to why these gentle giants are covered only in wild, blowing grasses, but I had been eagerly anticipating this section of trail ever since hearing about the balds, had wanted to pitch our tent at one of their summits and lie under the stars with nothing but atmosphere pressing down.
I probably should have noticed the pattern. For the week leading up to our entry into the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, although we walked each day in pleasant sunshine, every night like clockwork we had been assaulted with violent thunderstorms, forcing us to sleep either in the many 3-walled shelters along the way or set up camp under the protective canopy of forest.
Ignoring the heavenly signs, I timed our long day to end on Snowbird Bald. Standing on its flat peak, Scooter and I could look down a mile in every direction to where the safe treelike began.
Yes, let’s tent here.
I cannot begin to describe the horror of the situation as it unfolded. A few harmless-looking dark clouds skimming across the distant rim of the Smokies became an manic deluge punctuated by sky-splitting, eardrum-blasting rages of light that exploded all around us. As tent stakes were ripped from the ground, I clung to the nylon tent wall to prevent us from being sucked into the maelstrom. Nothing remained dry. Trying to reach the treeline would have been – if possible – an even more egregious error than my initial one, the mile in between an exposed minefield of electricity.
Cowering on top of my foam sleeping pad, praying that the lightning strikes would either kill me instantly so I wouldn’t have to explain my folly to his daddy, or disperse through the ground and not fry both our brains, over and over I cried out to my trembling son, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I was the adult. He had trusted me. How would he ever follow me again?
When at last the storm passed, its cold indifference more heart-rending than a breakup, Scooter and I sagged out of our ruined tent to take stock. And what did he do, this son of mine, who had every right to wail and accuse and condemn?
He laughed! Grabbing the soggy tent fly, he ran around shrieking and whooping in a youthful display of ebullient bravado.
I loved that kid.
Later, as we lay, spent, in puddles of rain and tears, he quietly thanked God for sparing us, tenderly offered me his forgiveness, graciously never brought it up again.
Was this what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”? Matthew 19:14
Surely my little one seemed to get it. Got that finger-pointing and blame-gaming are not the passkeys to the kingdom, that kindness, forgiveness, and awestruck joy are what swing wide the door to Jesus’s crazy, radical, upside-down kingdom. Why do we, as adults, feel that judgment and effort and exclusion gain us entry, when all God really ever requires is worship?
From his ash-heap of suffering, even Job was able to glory, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” Job 12:7-10
Scooter was pretty good at glorying, too.
Toads the size of softballs. Brilliant orange salamanders. Petting-zoo friendly deer barricading the footpath in Shenandoah National Park. Wild-maned ponies. A mushroom masquerading as a tee’d up golf ball, begging to be hit.
All evoked a sacred wonder from my son, a response to pause, contemplate, adore.
Once, in a frenzy to get to the next shelter before nightfall, and somewhat annoyed at my dawdling son caboosing behind me, I hiked right over a coiled-up rattlesnake, eliciting a “MOM!” from his horrified lips.
I had missed it. He had not.
Hiking with a 10-year-old was frequently nerve-wracking, often frustrating, and occasionally downright terrifying. One thing it never was, however, was boring.
Scooter could make the dullest of days a party simply by humming a tuneless ditty about why Mom was mean for not allowing Little Debbie oatmeal snack cakes to be breakfast. He could talk for hours about carnivorous plants, the Everest ride at Disney, or the composition of bear poop. He could laud town food, a found machete, or the attributes of the most comfortable rock to plop down upon. He made me laugh at silly signs, encouraged me when I felt I couldn’t go on, and was polite and generous to everyone we met. He alternated between exasperating and heroic, lived every day like it was a miracle, and made my time on the trail one of richest experiences of my life.
I probably could have hiked the 2,179.1 miles by myself.
But why in the world would I have wanted to?