Earlier this year I had the big idea that it was time to do another backpacking trip in the White Mountain wilderness of Northern Arizona. I’ve been taking kids of various age ranges to these mountains for a couple of decades, mostly in conjunction with the developmental stages of my own kids. This time, though, had to be special. I had promised the community’s younger kids a wilderness excursion a couple of summers ago, and it was time I paid up. So I picked a weekend in June and opened the floodgates, announcing in church that anyone is invited to sign up – no age limits – with the intent being to attract as many littles and parents as possible.
It worked. At one point we had 34 on the sign-up sheet; a few bowed out for various reasons, leaving 28 people to meet the challenge. There were five family units represented, plus some solo adults and a few unattached kids. I got to see what happens to desert people in June when they spend the night at 9500’ elevation without cold weather equipment.
The closer we got to the trailhead, the more the “loner guy” voice inside my head was telling me he wasn’t so sure this was a good idea; after all, I’m someone who usually does this kind of thing by myself. Or with kids. Kids are fine. But grownups complicate things… It’s a lot harder to tell them to stop complaining and go get some firewood. And this whole trip was about offering something very precious to me, sharing it for the first time en masse. So I worried. I suppose the thing that worried me at the deepest level was the possibility that this place – a place I return to because it is one of my top three places on the planet – would not inspire the same feelings in these people as it does in me. That they’d see it as nothing special, and wish they’d gone to Mt. Lemmon instead of driving 6½ hours to such a remote spot.
I need not have worried. They came into my little valley and experienced the natural beauty, the sounds, the textures, the breeze, and loved it just like me. They all relished the time in the great outdoors – a wandering scavenger hunt and hanging out in the meadow and splashing in the creek and sitting by the fire talking and watching kid-produced theatrical performances. I appreciated how the grownups responded – Lisa choosing to soak in the starry heavens by sleeping outside; Gareth rising early and tending the fire with Anna; Meg watching out for the littles so the parents could do other things; Jake and his glow-in-the-dark frisbee. It feels like they made it theirs, and gave my gift value.
And the kids, well, it was theirs all along. The wilderness is a true wonder to them; they soak in the experience and the new knowledge of things taught or observed; they use the time to plant vivid snapshots inside their brains that will likely never go away. If I’m lucky, they will forever associate me with the mesmerizing rumble-burble of the creek crashing over rocks, the haunting wispy-wavy sound of the wind in the pines and aspen, the snap-crackle-pop of the campfire as it matures, evolves, dies.
Mirth and frivolity, exploration, and – believe it or not – solitude all happened. Deeper connections were made; we had the opportunity to see a new side of each other. It was a good idea after all.