Several Ways to Climb a Mountain

Back in the fall, before the snow fell, Boy 12, Boy 7 and their 7-year-old cousin hiked up into the hills near our home. (It’s a mountain range, really, not just a hill. But since they weren’t going far, “hill” gives a truer impression.) Their destination was “the tree house,” which is not a tree house at all, but a pair of rope swings—how the spot got its name I’ll never know. Kids are liars, all.

There are two rope swings tied to a large Cottonwood tree. You sit or hang on the stick tied to the end of the rope and then swing out over the steep trail you just hiked to get there. The tree is on a relatively level spot on an otherwise steep hill, so when you swing out, you’re a good 10 meters from the ground at the apex. Boys, being boys, love it. Even I love it, and I get scared on a Ferris wheel. So the rope swing is a true test of my outer limits. This cheap thrill can be yours for the cost of a steep 20-minute hike up the mountain.

I followed after them a few minutes later with Boy 4. I told him we were going somewhere secret and there was a surprise when we got there. An adventure! It was his first trip to the Tree House and he was excited and chatty as we started our hike. It’s a fairly easy beginning. The first 100 meters or so is on a passable dirt road, but then you have to leave the road and cut trail straight up the hillside to get to the Cottonwood tree. That’s when it gets tough.

Every time I make this hike, this is the point where I wonder why I’m going. Again. I didn’t have to—Boy 4 hadn’t asked me. I invited him. Of course, it was too late to turn back now. I wished I could just send him up on his own.

To his credit, Boy 4 kept his spirits up and gave it everything he had. The trail was steep enough that for parts of the way he hiked with his hands and his feet, chatting away about bugs and rocks and I don’t know what else. But eventually it got to be very hard for him and he asked me to carry him.

“I can’t, kiddo,” I told him. “It’s too steep. If I try to carry you we’ll both fall and roll down the mountain.” He could see this was true and didn’t ask anymore.

He soldiered on, taking my hand at spots and at others insisting he could do it himself. He bounced between intrepid and cautious like a manic-depressive bouncy ball, seeing only the part of the trail that his feet were tackling at the moment. At some points I walked slightly ahead of him, pulling him from above, and at others pushed from behind as he scrambled and slipped and clawed his way upward.

And it was worth it. He loved the hike and the rope swings, even though it wasn’t easy to get there. Especially because it wasn’t easy. Motherhood is something like that hike. You can take the path of least resistance, sending your kids on ahead as you sit at the bottom of the hill, perhaps at least shouting encouragement. You can carry them, but that doesn’t last long and you both might fall. You can pull them up the hills, sometimes against their will, and you can push from behind.

I recommend a mix of approaches, except the first. You have to get out of the Barco Lounger if you’re going to be a father that matters in big ways. No matter how you climb your mountain, I hope the views are spectacular.