Written in Celebration of Dad’s Birthday, October 2013
Stepping out of the car, we would open all the doors and begin putting together our backpacks. Zip-lock baggies full of weathered camping supplies distributed amongst our packs. Freeze-dried meals and small snacks divided. The tents and sleeping bags strapped on. Dad would carry the majority of the weight while still allowing me to carry my part so that I may know the feeling of bearing the weight of life’s bare essentials. The hours spent combing Quest Outdoors, turning over the basement in search of supplies, plotting maps, and checking the list twice led up to that moment as we strapped on our backpacks and began to walk.
Turning one last time to see the car, we would say goodbye to civilization and enter into God’s creation – where all of our plans and control faded away and we were at the mercy of the wilderness. Like the creatures that roamed the hills, for a short time we would become those who dwelled in the wild.
I always loved the way my dad’s soul would seem to come alive underneath the canopy of trees. Awe overtook him and he became a child again – marveling at the wonder of creation. He would identify the towering trees above us in their Latin name. He would point out the plants. He would anticipate the beauty that lay right around the corner. Nature is my dad’s sacred and magical playground. It is the place where I learned some of the most important lessons life can offer.
I learned wonder on the trails of Cumberland Gap. Visited many times in my youth, we would walk the trails that led to hidden wonders – the vista up on the rocks, the vastness of Sand Cave, the abandoned village of log cabins from long ago. Away from the trappings of modern culture, we would look down at our feet and feel one with all those who had come before us. Dad would recount the stories of the pioneers who travelled through these trails in search for a better life – Daniel Boone and the others who walked this Wilderness Road in the name of adventure. Experiencing the connection with the past, I learned to live in awe of the world around me.
I learned gratitude on the Appalachian Trail. The 32-mile hike along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina was the most strenuous and longest hike I had taken. In the throws of adolescence, I tasted freedom on the trails. The chains of social pressures, materialism, and idealism melted away and I had time just to be. I still remember the taste of that freeze-dried meal after the first long day of hiking. As I stood around the campfire, I hesitantly brought the spoon to my mouth and I was in awe – for hands down, it was the best meal I had ever had. Standing atop Big Hump Mountain, I remember the strong winds that whipped over the open meadow. Experiencing the simplicity of life, I learned to give thanks.
I learned humility on the trails of Yosemite. After some long days of giving every amount of strength we could muster, we relaxed in our campsite for we knew we were close to the finish-line. As the sun set, we lay on a rock and watched the stars. My eyes took in all the beauty – the large granite cliffs, the quiet of the wilderness, the deep green life all around us, the expansive night sky. I was humbled by my smallness. The world was big and time was passing. There was life before me and there would be life after me. Experiencing the vastness of the wild, I learned to let go.
I learned the beauty of hardship on the trails of Mount Kilimanjaro. After hiking for days, we made our camp at Barafu Hut on piles of endless shale. After only a few hours of sleep, we awoke at midnight and climbed to the summit of Kilimanjaro with only our head-lamps to show us the way. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth we walked. Meandering up in the darkness, my confidence in reaching the top came and went with every turn. When I thought I couldn’t make it another step, the sun began to rise. The ground before me flattened and we began the final walk up to the top. When we reached the peak, we stood in awe. Out of breath at 19,341 feet above sea level, we took in the sight of the surrounding glaciers, the sun rising over Africa, the joyous crowd of hikers who had reached the top. The climb was brutal but the beauty in that moment made it worth every step. Experiencing trials of the journey, I learned the strength to live this beautiful bittersweet life.
For all these adventures and all these lessons, I give thanks for my dad who has led the way one foot in front of another.