“I took a walk in the woods and came out taller than the trees.” – Henry David Thoreau
I know the calendar year is what most adults consider “a year,” but for me, my years are counted by the academic calendar. About this time last year I was getting back from Harpers Ferry from my first backpacking trip ever, and now I wrapped up this year taking my kids out for their first backpacking trip. My summer break has come to a close and I realized a few weeks ago that I hadn’t blogged since the beginning of the summer. I did a lot of traveling, we had a ton of doctors’ appointments, and although I did some hikes and nature walks, I didn’t write about any of them. I worked hard to be as present as possible when I had my kids. I’ve often told people that to me, being a mother is a beautiful heartache. I want them to be independent, creative, productive members of society one day. When I notice how tall they’ve become, or they tell me about being worried about what other people think of them, I remember that they aren’t little kids anymore and it becomes hard to face the fact that to get them to adulthood I must let go a little bit at a time. Their burgeoning independence brings with it some pretty cool shit, at least, like I’m less of a pack mule these days, and I no longer have to wipe anyone else’s butt, etc. They don’t need me as much, but they still want to be around me (their teenage years might just do me in). A few weeks back my oldest, James, told me that he was a little jealous that I was going on trips with Ken pretty much every kid-free weekend, and I realized that I had to include them in our last summer adventure, rather than leaving them with my parents. So, at the close of a much needed trip back to my home state, and after some quality time with family, my parents dropped us off in Kent, Connecticut to finish the remaining twelve miles we had left of the Connecticut section. Our starting point was just off of Route 341 in Kent and ended at Hoyt Road, in New York. We hiked 9 miles the first day, stayed at 10 Mile River Campsite and then completed the last 3 miles the second day. Backpacking with my children taught, or reminded me of lessons that can also be applied to parenting in general.
- Prepare to never be on time.
James and Charlie have been hiking for years (and often ask to add weight to their backpacks), plus they got to camp a few times this summer, so I felt like they’d had enough practice and preparation for this kind of adventure. We got a late start leaving my parents’ house in Mystic, which I figured we would. We got to the trailhead around 11:00 am and we knew we wanted to set up the camp site while it was still light, and allow them to play a bit. The hike starting from Route 311 was an incline with an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet. As I predicted, this was tough on the kids. By the time we finished the ascent (which was really a double ascent, we checked the FarOut app to see that we had taken two hours to walk one mile. We had one more ascent to go on that first day, and I worried that we wouldn’t get there until dark at the rate we were going. Ken and I talked to the boys about how great it feels to get to the top, to accomplish goals to motivate them to keep walking towards the next climb. Chris Guillebeau writes about this in his book The Happiness of Pursuit when he relayed the story of Nate Dan, who walked across America from Maine to California. “‘Execution was easy.’ he told me. ‘Once I got going it was pretty much just wake up and walk all day.’ What Nate came to learn is what Odysseus learned, or what anyone who has climbed a mountain has learned. The path to the summit consists of repetitive movements. It is precisely the arduousness of the task that makes the accomplishment an epic one.”
Once we got moving again, we did pick up the pace to more of a one and a half miles per hour range. Like many tasks with kids, practice and preparation are important, but we must be willing to slow down and take our time with children. As in day-to-day life, it’s infinitely easier to clean up after a child, but way more valuable to them to have the patience to get them to clean up their own messes.
- Your expectations are cute.
Another lesson that I was reminded of is to be realistic about your kids capabilities, interests and patience. Charlie is nine, James is eleven and he starts middle school this year. As we were hiking I kept seeing the evidence of how he is two years older than Charlie. Ken took the lead on the hike with James right behind him. I hung back with Charlie ahead of me, and thought about how young his voice still sounds, especially compared to his brothers. I began to worry that he didn’t have the stamina to make the nine miles. Luckily Ken kept talking to him about how strong he is, how he can keep going, and it worked. Charlie was fully capable of hiking nine miles while carrying seven pounds (about 10% of his body weight). Expectations are hard. As a parent if you expect too much of your child, they often feel like a let down, you’re too demanding, and the most dangerous is when they resent you because they know you’re disappointed in them. Conversely if you set the expectations too low, you’re doing them a major disservice. I would have bribed my kids had I been alone (30 more minutes and then you can get candy!) but luckily Ken was there to maintain high expectations. After the initial mile long ascent, there was a descent stretch of ridge walking, and we kept the pace up during that stretch, knowing that we could cover flat ground at a faster pace.
“Having pets or children can make you a better person simply because it teaches you to be more easy-going, understanding, and accepting of life’s unexpected (not always desired) outcomes. A life that’s too clean, too manicured, or too planned is not a life that I personally believe is worth living. A life without mess is a life without purpose (feel free to quote me on that).” – Kyle Creek aka “The Captain” from Speech Therapy
- Channel Your Inner Chipmunk
The spirit animal for this trip was the chipmunk. We saw many chipmunks on this stretch of the AT, as we had on our previous Connecticut section hike. As a spirit animal, the chipmunk “is always ready for an adventure and loves exploring. When he is part of your life, it’s most definitely time to come out of your shell and find new ventures or discoveries … Living joyfully is one of Chipmunk’s core virtues as is playing and having fun.” (source) As we continued to hike that first day, my boys were beginning to get re-energized just as we approached our second, and last ascent of the day. It was not as tough as the first one, but as we began to climb, Charlie began to feel tired, wanted to take a lot of breaks, and talked about how hard the task was. In order to keep them distracted, we began playing games with them. Worldle is something Ken and I play every day, and since discovering how bad we used to be at geography, we started to memorize the countries on each continent. My boys started to do the same and we now play “Name that African Country” or some variation on long car rides. For this second climb we would take turns thinking of a country, then others would have to guess which one we were thinking of with only knowing what continent it is on. My favorite was when no one knew which Asian country Charlie was thinking of until he finally revealed to us that his country was … Finland.
Engaging with kids, making games and playing with kids helps them complete tasks that are hard, and that is an important life lesson. I see many young people I teach give up quickly when faced with something they don’t want to do. I think the current trends in parenting (helicopter and bulldozing in particular) are so detrimental to a child. Kids need to learn to do hard things. They need to be bored, they need to be challenged, but most importantly they need to be directly taught coping skills and mechanisms for when these events occur.
- No Rules are the Best Rules
After we got to the peak of the second ascent it was all downhill from there, almost literally. As we climbed down we ran into a trail runner, Julia, who warned us of the water situation. There was no good water sources other than a very slow stream, and some water jugs that were left out. We had been warned by several people not to drink from the Housatonic River, nor the Ten Mile River, even after filtration. We decided to take a slight detour off the trail to the Bulls Bridge Country Store to fill up on water. It was hot and humid and the last thing we wanted to do was run out of water. By taking this very slight detour, we got to cross the Bulls Bridge, a covered bridge from 1842. This crossing is rumored to have served as a point of refuge for those who had broken Connecticut’s “Blue Laws.” In 1781 Connecticut was a Puritan Colony and a set of harsh laws were written about how one must conduct themselves. Violators of these could escape by crossing the river where Bulls Bridge is currently located to seek refuge on the New York border, not too far away. Apparently the state officials wouldn’t bother making the crossing and the violators could get away with it.
Kids need rules but they also need time in spaces where there really aren’t any rules. Much like the unruly Puritans, after we crossed into the campground and were only a few miles from New York, we briefed the kids on campsite courtesies, but then they were free to explore. Ten Mile Campground sits just above the river, and my boys went straight there to explore. They began hunting for “shrimp,” which were actually crawdads, and we set up camp, cooked our dinner, and even hunted with them. My boys have chores, expectations and responsibilities appropriate to their ages, but I also make sure they have plenty of time to be in spaces where they are free from all of that. Hiking the AT in sections in airplane mode is the adult equivalent of this for me.
- Play the tambourine
Chris Rock has a great (parents should not watch this in front of children) video about romantic relationships. My favorite part is toward the end when he’s talking about playing the tambourine. The gist of his message is that couples shouldn’t compete and that sometimes your main role is to cheer. Likewise in parenting, praise goes a long way. We all spent the night in our 3+ person tent, a little snug, but we managed. The next day we had a short three mile hike back to the car. This day it was James who was a little bit slower and more tired, but we made good time back to the car. Their sense of accomplishment was huge, especially once we crossed the state line into New York.
Children have hiked the entirety of the AT, but my kids are the youngest I have personally ever seen out there. Fellow hikers, our family and friends have all commented on how awesome it was to see such young kids out there. Although I wanted to boast that I finished another state, my social media post was focused on them, and their accomplishment. It’s easy to overpraise your own children, and to think they are the best. I think putting them to a test is important. After our trip the boys went back to their dad’s house for a bit, and when he returned to me James told me that he had learned a few lessons from our trip. One instance is when he told us that he learned that he was ok not eating a ton all day. He didn’t starve, and he realized it is ok to feel a little hungry but that food will come. By allowing himself to be a little hungry, he was able to fight off that comfort creep that had been so pervasive in his life.