This summer, I hiked 180 miles of the 211+ mile John Muir Trail (JMT) with my 11 year old son. The JMT runs through the Eastern Sierra mountains in California, starting from Yosemite Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous US. For many this isn’t a huge outdoor accomplishment, but for me it was the longest hike or backpacking trip I’d ever done.
A year before, as we stood at a vista point outside of Mammoth looking at the majestic peaks spread out before us, my son offhandedly stated that he would like to hike across Donohue Pass from Yosemite. At that moment, neither of us quite knew the path this passing comment would lead us down.
Being the “dream facilitator” and adventurous mom that I am, I immediately went home and found permits for us to complete the first section of the John Muir Trail starting in Yosemite Valley. It wouldn’t quite get us over Donohue Pass, but would give us a taste of the trail and what it had to offer. After a hard, but fulfilling 3 day – 28 mile trek, our longest ever at this point, we were back at it 2 weeks later when I secured the next section permit – over Donohue Pass.
This was what did it for us. The beauty, the people and the strength we felt as we traversed two passes and amassed 37 miles in 3.5 days. Two days after we got off the trail from this section hike, the forests closed for the season due to extreme wildfire danger. But the dream was set in motion. My son was determined and so was I, we would do the John Muir Trail the following summer. Our Christmas wish list was filled with the items we would need – planning books, bear canisters and more.
For several weeks, starting in mid January, we got up early, poised and ready to secure our permits for the trail. We were unlucky in winning the “Golden Ticket” in the Yosemite lottery, which would have given us the ability to do the entire trail start to finish. However, our second option of joining the trail from where we left off the previous summer finally paid off after 3 weeks of trying. We finally had “our” golden ticket – a John Muir Trail permit with a coveted Whitney Portal exit.
Months of planning and imagining life in the wilderness passed, all the while thinking to myself, can we really do this?
This year has been full of adventure for me personally and has left me wondering, can one have too many life changing travel experiences? Traveling to Iraq to find my adventurous self and reaffirming my faith in human kindness to trekking in the jungles of Uganda with some of the few remaining mountain gorillas left in the world could easily have been life changing trips. However, the most life affirming was actually closer to home, hiking this backcountry trail with my son.
Backpacking the JMT was a challenging hike for me in many ways – not just physically, but also emotionally. The back country is not the place I feel most self assured and confident. However, it’s where my 11 year old thrives. So here I am, a 46 year old mother, letting my small child’s dreams take us into the middle of the wilderness for 15 days.
Being in his element, he would take the lead more often than not, zipping up boulder fields like a billy goat, showing me the way. Or, testing the rocks and logs on water crossings first to make sure they were stable for my unsteady feet. He would cross the tiny ledges without a second thought until he turned around to see my hesitation. Then he would ponder for a moment on how to best help me through. Always one to cherish my independence with an “I can do it” attitude, I was surprised by how often I relied on the fearlessness and skills of my child to get me through each day’s challenges.
Most parents don’t allow their small children to lead the way, to shine at such a young age. My son and I have always had a unique relationship of helping one another in this way. It started when we used to travel across the world solo. It was just the two of us and I couldn’t do everything on my own, so he would lend a hand where he could. He savored that role. Looking at maps and leading us around cities like London, Tel Aviv, Bangkok and so many other destinations were his ideas of fun. Other times, I was the one leading the way, like in Hanoi as we crossed the hectic roadways as he dug holes into my palms with fear.
Being in the back country with no one to rely on but ourselves was much like our travels, just with a new spin. Night one on our trip, my son was terrified of the thunderclouds and rain storms. Stuck in our tent, he cried begging to go home after sitting in lightening position for 2 hours. I knew he didn’t really want to go home, but he was taking after me and letting fear momentarily take over- something he would regret for life if I let him do. I helped guide him through his fear, getting him to trust that we would be OK.
Ironically, he used this same tactic on me 2 weeks later as I sat frozen, terrified to cross the small ledge with the granite “slide” below.
Unexpected Life Lessons on the JMT From My 11 Year Old
This trip reaffirmed for me that the parent child relationship doesn’t have to be one directional, nor should it be. Our children have so much to teach us, if only we are willing to open up and listen. So, without further ado, I’d like to share some of the unexpected life lessons I learned from my 11 year old while hiking the JMT.
Adjust Your Expectations
All of my hardest days on the trail were mental. And as my 11 year old wisely pointed out, they were all due to my expectations. The first mental meltdown I had was after climbing 10 miles to Muir Pass and deciding we would attempt the 3.8 miles down to Starr Camp for the night.
“Sure, 4 miles. We can do that in 2 hours no problem.”
Four hours later we rolled up to camp, my eyes still bloodshot after crying hysterically on the side of the trail “I don’t want to cross any more waterfalls”. I hadn’t expected the last 4 miles to be as difficult as they were – crossing massive boulders on the edge of waterfalls, losing the trail with only drops of mule poop to find our way and walking through rivers as they had taken over the trail.
When I expected something to be easy and it wasn’t, I would spiral mentally. When I expected something to be hard and I flourished, I felt strong. It took my second meltdown of the trip for my son to help me really recognize this. Hiking 7 miles to Rae Lakes was supposed to be a breeze. And while we still finished by lunch, I was mentally spiralling the entire way feeling that I had no business to be out here, this was too hard, how could I ever manage to summit Whitney if I could barely do this.
“Adjust your expectations and your day will be much happier” were the words of wisdom from my child.
Don’t Let Fear Control You / Be Fearless
We continually tell our kids how amazing they are, that they can do anything they set their minds to, but do we believe it ourselves? I found on this trip, that I often lacked confidence and let fear get in the way. I am still surprised sometimes that my son is so confident, especially considering that I am a total scaredy cat in the outdoors and have been his main outdoor role model his entire life.
There have been times when he was scared to try new things (things I still wouldn’t do now) and as I told him then, and now tell myself — don’t let fear control you. See it, feel it, recognize it but don’t let it dictate what you can or can’t do.
On the trail, it was time for me to learn from my own saying. I had to stop many times and breathe through the anxiety and tremendous fear coursing through my body as I approached a knife’s edge cliff or rapid river with tiny logs to cross. I have not mastered the “don’t let fear control you” bit, but watching my son navigate through his fears on the trail, while also continually being tested myself has helped me move closer to that goal.
Find Joy in the Small Moments
Being on the trail for days on end reminds you to rediscover your childlike joy. To take time to smell the roses, or mountain lupines as it were. Taking a moment to observe and absorb the environment as you were seeing it for the first and maybe last time, to feel gratitude and find joy amongst the chaos. These were my challenges but things that came naturally to my son.
He is really good at stopping, observing the moment and dropping everything to go examine a clear creek for fish or investigating bugs on a rock as we trudged up a massive mountain. Mentioning to him that perhaps we need to do this trail going the opposite direction to see how it looks from the other direction, he remarked “I always stop, turn around, and take in the views all around me.”
My lesson here was to look behind us, stop focusing on my pain and acknowledge the beauty of where we were and what we were accomplishing each and every moment.
Be Curious & Excited About Everything
This is not specifically something that has come through just on the JMT, but in general in being outdoors and traveling the world with my son all these years. Kids are so naturally curious about EVERYTHING, as annoying as that can be sometimes. But this is the true path to learning. Working hand in hand with taking notice of the things around you, I learned from being with my son to ask questions about everything around me. Why are there fence lines randomly in the middle of the national forests? Why can’t we have fires above 10,000 feet? Why do some mountain passes have sign boards and others do not. Why do some trees look twisted and others do not?
In the backcountry this is especially endearing as there is no way to answer the millions of questions your kids have about things. Instead you are left to wonder, hypothesize and communicate with others you pass. The few times we saw a ranger on our hike, you know we had a list of questions we needed answers to! This is one of the greatest joys I continue to learn from my son — we are never too old to ask questions and to increase our knowledge of the world around us.
Just Keep Moving
Hiking up a mountain is a lot like life in general. As you move along through your days you don’t quite notice the cumulative journey you are making, but as the mileage you have left to complete dwindles and the miles you have passed rises, you begin to see how much you have done – one step at a time. It’s easy to give up, be overcome by challenges or disappointments in life, but on the trail, you often have no choice but to carry on. You can’t quit as you are miles and miles away from an exit point or you need to continue to make it near water for the night, putting aside that your feet feel as if you are walking on a bed of needles. No matter what, you just continue the journey one step at a time. Focusing on each step ensures you are moving toward your goal through good ol’ blood, sweat and tears little by little.
The last mile every day was always excruciatingly difficult. It was easy to get down on myself and think “we have SO much left to go”, rather than looking back and realizing how much we had already accomplished. More often than not, we had to continue on. My 11 year old would remind me that “slow and steady” was totally fine and that it was OK to take a break. This encouragement helped me crush those last miles everyday even when I felt dead exhausted.
It’s Worth the Struggle
I have raised my son to enjoy the journey as much as he enjoys the destination. I will say there were days when it was extremely difficult for me to enjoy the journey. I would find myself muttering ‘I hate this trail’ while simultaneously taking video of its beauty. One thing no one told me before doing the JMT was that a long hike wears you down before building you up. Fleeting lows are followed by soaring highs.
As my son told me, you won’t appreciate the beauty at the top if you don’t have to put in a lot of effort to get there. For me this meant pushing past my fear of heights and turning off my own inner critic.
At the top of Forester, our tallest pass, looking over the valley which we had spent the past few days trudging through getting to this moment, I felt simultaneously drained and fulfilled, knowing there was no shortcut to this moment.
Undertaking a challenge like a thru hike reminds you that you may stumble and you may fall, but you may also really surprise yourself. In the end, it really is worth the struggle.
Everyday is a Chance to Start Over
Arriving to camp after a long day of hiking somehow wiped away the exhaustion, tears and frustrations of the day. You begin to learn that every day on the trail, just like in life, is a chance to start again. There is a saying that often came to mind while hiking the JMT.
“If you feel sad, you must be looking into the past, if you feel fear, you are looking in the future and if you feel at peace you are living in the moment.”
It is here, at camp, at the end of the day that I was able to totally and completely be in peace. The fear of what was to come that day was over. The exhaustion was at ease as I sat on a fallen log cooking our dinner.
Focusing on the present moment, you just have to accept what is in front of you and move on. The trail teaches you to let go of negative thoughts and feelings because the weight of that is too much to bare on top of your 35 lb backpack. If today didn’t go as planned, you had a bad day physically, you got sucked into your mind or your feet just hurt, you have tomorrow to start all over again.
We Are All Connected
As John Muir so greatly put it, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” It is here on the trail that you simultaneously feel so connected to the world while also disconnected from it. You can immediately see the impact of stepping off trail onto the delicate meadow ecosystems, but have no clue what is happening in the outside world, nor do you care.
From the relationships and bonds you make on the trail to the impacts on the environment, out here it all is crystal clear. The world doesn’t need us, we need the world.
Seeing a spot of colorful greasy film on a water outlet miles away from civilization makes you realize how our everyday life impacts things in distant locations. When a seasonal stream has run dry early, it changes your day and how you operate. Out in the wilderness, that subtle change can make waves.
Out here we realize that no one will be able to save the planet without each of us owning up to our role of preserving our resources where we can. Forgetting that their are political affiliations, on trail we all have the same unified goal of protecting the beautiful lands with every step we take.
Seeing the beauty of the Eastern Sierras through my son’s eyes made it even more important for me to recognize the need and our individual role in preserving this land for the benefit of our planet, but also for future generations.
Take Credit for Your Accomplishments
Seeing my son through new eyes in the backcountry gave me a hopeful window into his future. A vision of one who is helpful, kind, thoughtful and full of perseverance. The way my 11 year old took charge of the daily map reading, water filtration, rain water trench digging, and talking his mom off a ledge more than he should have had to made me see what a good job I’ve done so far. Hearing from strangers we spent time with on trail how much they admired him, what a great kid he was, and how they were so happy to have met him filled this mama’s heart full.
I always shy away from taking credit for who my son has become, saying he was just born this way. But this trip made me realize I have had a hand in this. I should give myself a little pat on the back. Years of travel, of listening, of allowing him freedom to explore and express himself has created a confident boy who can hold a conversation with a group of adults without a second thought. He can hike 200 miles and be ready for more.
Instead of deflecting credit for our momentous journey, I am learning that it is OK to take credit for hard work, perseverance and grit. Life isn’t always easy, raising a child isn’t always roses, but if we stick to our guns and work hard, things work out and sometimes it is because of the effort you have put in, not just random luck or chance!
Being Thankful & Grateful
I never dreamed of climbing Mt Whitney. It felt like something other people did. And many times along the trail I wasn’t sure I would get there. When I actually did make it, I broke down in tears, giving thanks to my 11 year old. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have made it. Or maybe I would have, because I’m not a quitter even if I want to. But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even have been up on this mountain, much less making it to the top! He helped me, guided me, coaxed me and counseled me through many scary moments just like I had to do for him at the start of the trip. Who knew the role reversal that would happen between us.
Daily on this trail I found ways to be thankful and grateful. Thankful that my out of shape 46 year old body was allowing me this journey and experience. Thankful that my pre-teen child willingly wanted to go on this adventure with me.
Along the trail we met many people who inspired both of us. One of the many great encounters we had was with another mom and son duo – Garden Snail and Balou. Balou carried the bulk of their gear allowing his mother to hike this trail with him even if she couldn’t carry all her weight. Hearing my son suggest that maybe someday he can carry most of our weight gave me pause, a moment to be grateful for all that he is experiencing on this trail. The kindness of strangers, the camaraderie of people we meet, the community that is built so quickly by this shared experience. I know seeing and meeting people like this along the trail will go far in his mind of how to care for others.
On the trail, I often asked myself “What are we doing? Why are we hiking 45,000 feet of elevation gain through hail, rain, flooded rivers and sizzling sunshine?” It wasn’t for some grand reason, to discover ourselves or for redirection in life. It was sort of a “why not?” kind of answer. Being together with my 11 year old in the wilds, without distractions of day to day life was all I needed to get me out there.
In the end, even though I didn’t set out with a big question and I didn’t find any profound answers to the meaning of life, I did learn little things. I rediscovered parts of me I didn’t know existed, made friends and most importantly spent quality time with my son. In a world of social media and always being “on”, it felt good to get back to the little things – focusing on the present, recognizing what makes you smile, what makes you laugh and cry. This journey with my 11 year old will stay close to my heart for my life. It helped me see both myself and my son in a new light and for that I will forever be grateful.
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