My husband, Jay, and I planned our child’s outdoor life before he was conceived. We knew any child of ours would love to hike. How could he not? Spending time in the wilderness was fundamental to who we were.
Jay and I have always connected with one another on the trail. Whenever we had troubles, we’d head to the dusty hiking trails of Tilden Park, outside Oakland, Calif., or to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite, to sort out the headaches of merging two careers, two different religions, and two competitive spirits. And it worked. I can’t fully explain the alchemy of hiking in the wilds. The smell of pine needles, dirt, and thinner air, the bite of the pack into my shoulders, and the sharp ache of my lungs all somehow combined to cleanse me, to slough off my insecurities and anger, to give me perspective. It had the same effect on Jay.
Now we live in Helena, Mont., where hiking trails out our front door wend up two of the mountains that shadow our town. Before we had a child, we used to meet after work most days to climb these trails. Although we claimed we scrambled up the hills for exercise, what we really were doing was connecting with each other.
Even if such things aren’t genetic, we figured our child would imbibe our love of hiking with his mother’s milk. But three months after our son Andrew was born, I was diagnosed with a chronic and serious disease called sarcoidosis. The details of my condition aren’t important here, except for the fact that my heart and lungs -– the two organs most essential for hiking -– have been compromised. Whenever we hike now, it’s for short distances, and I must stop frequently to catch my breath.
My sickness has meant that Andrew, now 3, has spent more of his childhood indoors than either Jay or I could ever have imagined. Though Jay and Andrew have shared a few hiking and skiing adventures, most of our trips as a family involve visiting major medical centers, not pitching a tent under backcountry stars. In fact, Andrew has only gone camping a grand total of three times in his life –- each time out of a car.
I mourn not being able to share special places with my son. But even more, I hate that I cannot impart to Andrew the experience of wilderness and how it works on us. Maybe it’s clichéd, but my time on a trail has always been more spiritual than physical. Making a pilgrimage to a remote alpine lake gives me a sense of, if not peace, then acceptance. Dwarfed by the impassive granite face of Half Dome, or watching the wind scour the treetops below me, I see myself as part of a world so vast it defies any comprehension. I sense my utter lack of control, and this calms me down. Or perhaps it’s just the rhythmic plodding of my boots that induces a meditative state. Whatever it is, it’s powerful, and I want my child to experience it. But how can I transmit it to Andrew if I can’t accompany him?
Like every other parent, having a child forced me to recognize how little control over my life I really have. But contracting a chronic illness has magnified this lesson for me. Like it or not, I simply cannot teach my son my love of the trail by doing.
I want to believe that I can accept this fact more gracefully than I otherwise could have precisely because of the hours I’ve spent outside. I try to think of the cloud shadows I’ve seen on hikes, of the mountains whittled away by wind, of sequoia trees older than generations of people. This perspective does indeed make my weakened lungs seem insignificant, but sometimes it’s hard to see your own place in the grand scheme of things.
But other days give me hope that we have somehow communicated our reverence of nature to Andrew without 10-day backpacking trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On an autumn afternoon at our neighborhood park, as Andrew sprinted across the field to the playground equipment, he suddenly stopped and stood stock still, staring at the tree with owl eyes. “Mommy, look at the trees!” he screamed with delight. “Their leaves have all changed colors.” It was the first time that year he had noticed the turning of the leaves. For the rest of the afternoon, he ignored the swings and the slides, and instead fetched me individual red, gold and brown leaves. “Look at this one,” he said, as he placed each gift gently in my hand.
As we walked home, Andrew’s face was illuminated. “Oh, I love fall,” he said suddenly. In that moment, he seemed more purely himself than I had ever seen him, and I realized that perhaps I didn’t have so much to worry about. Perhaps he doesn’t need to see epic views to understand the majesty of the wilderness. And perhaps I don’t need him to see them. Perhaps I can remember the light in his face and his small body flitting under the trees.
Rebecca Stanfel is a freelance writer in Helena, Montana.