What he thought would be a coming-of-age experience for his kids proved to be a spiritual lesson for him.
Posted in , May 26, 2022
The John Muir Trail is a 211-mile footpath through the high country of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It starts in Yosemite National Park and ends atop the 14,505-foot summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 United States.
For many hikers, the JMT, as it’s called, is the adventure of a lifetime, a challenging but rewarding trek through some of America’s most iconic mountain landscapes. Completing all 211 miles usually takes about a month.
My wife and kids and I met our match at mile 135.
It was August 9, 2021. We were on a three-week trek along the southern two thirds of the trail—from south of Yosemite to Mount Whitney.
This trip was my idea. Years ago, I edited a Guideposts story about an Oregon family who’d hiked the JMT when their kids were 11 and 13. At the time, my son and daughter were in kindergarten and third grade. I want to do that when the kids are old enough, I thought.
After seven days along the trail, that seemed like one of my dumbest parenting ideas ever.
We began the day at a rockbound lake above the tree line in Evolution Basin. We hiked up and over 11,955-foot Muir Pass, then descended the tricky, volcanic switchbacks of LeConte Canyon.
We had hiked almost 10 miles, ascending and descending close to 4,000 feet. The sun was disappearing behind the canyon’s western wall, and the air was getting chilly.
The kids were exhausted. Frannie, our 14-year-old, had had a growth spurt right before we left, and her brand-new hiking boots no longer fit. Her feet were covered in bandages and duct tape. She winced with every step.
Benjamin, 11, had started the day buoyant and leading the pack. Now he hung his sweat-streaked head and plodded along. We stopped for water, and I consulted our guidebook. Every campsite we’d passed for the past few miles had been taken by a large horse-packing expedition. The next possible site was close to a mile away.
“No!” the kids cried out. “That’s too far. Please, can’t we stop?”
My wife, Kate, and I looked at each other. Longtime hikers, we’d been taking the kids camping since they were toddlers. Were we overmatched today? I felt a wave of self-doubt. I’d had such high hopes for this trip. Hopes that went far beyond the beautiful scenery.
I’d envisioned a time of spiritual renewal. Restoration of my confidence as a parent. A time of family togetherness before the kids transitioned to high school and middle school. A healing encounter with God in the wilderness after a year of pandemic craziness.
Now I felt like a jerk for forcing the kids to go on this trek. I’d planned our route and the daily mileage, while Kate had taken charge of the food. Every meal had been terrific so far. My route-planning? Terrible, obviously.
We had 75 miles to go until Mount Whitney. From here, the terrain was even steeper and the hiking days I’d planned were even longer.
Kate is an Episcopal priest. She leads a large, historic parish in New York City. It’s a demanding job. When the kids were little, I stepped back from work to take care of them.
I mostly enjoyed working part-time and spending afternoons and many weekends with the kids. (I say mostly because, let’s be honest, parenting is not easy.)
Kate worked long hours, but her schedule was flexible. We prioritized family evenings and time outdoors. Our early camping trips grew into multiday mountain adventures.
It was the kind of life I’d dreamed about while growing up in a household scarred by alcoholism and my father’s debilitating stroke when I was nine years old. Trust is hard for me—especially trust in God and myself. After many years, I was at last beginning to trust myself as a parent.
Then Frannie hit her teens. Not only did she start taking a dim view of outdoor adventures, but she also stopped confiding in me. Rolled her eyes at my dad jokes. Ignored my book recommendations. Made it clear her friends were top priority.
It was all developmentally appropriate. It stung anyway. And I couldn’t help wondering what I’d done wrong. Was Benjamin next?
Hiking the JMT seemed like a way to recover lost ground. Away from school, screens, the city, the pandemic, we could reconnect as a family and I would be reminded of God’s abundant provision.
The kids’ weary eyes bored straight through my gauzy notions. They’d seemed to be having fun up to this point. Probably they’d just been making the best of it and counting down the days till we were done.
We trudged to the next campsite. It was empty! We dropped our packs and stood catching our breath. Peaks soared in every direction. A stream dashed over rocks. Golden evening light filled the canyon.
We washed off in the stream, and Kate and I made some quick decisions. Gathered around our little cookstove, we announced a change of plans.
“Tomorrow we are hiking off the JMT,” I said. Before the hike, we had arranged to pick up a resupply of food at Parchers Resort, a small collection of cabins.
“We’ll ask the people at Parchers if we can stay in one of their cabins for a few nights. We’ll rest, maybe get new boots for Frannie, then we’ll find a ride to another trailhead farther along the trail and restart the hike there. We’ll still end at Mount Whitney, but we’ll shave 50 miles off the hike. We can go slower and have more time for fun. What do you think?”
The kids’ faces lit up. “That sounds great!” they said.
My voice must have sounded more confident than I felt. This plan was as much of a gamble as the old one.
Parchers’ cabins had all been full when we dropped off our food supply a week ago. We would need a last-minute vacancy.
We also needed a ride down the mountain to the town of Bishop, an outfitter with hiking boots, another ride to the town of Independence and a place to stay plus a ride from Independence to the new trailhead.
If even one part of the plan went wrong, we’d be stuck. Imagine the kids’ expressions then.
The next day’s hike was even worse, a torturous slog up rocky switchbacks to a campsite in Dusy Basin, just below Bishop Pass.
Parchers was on the other side of the pass, but we were too tired to continue. Benjamin was in tears along one steep stretch. We set up tents and tried for a swim in a nearby lake. Drought had turned the lake into a shallow mud wallow.
“Guys, we just have to give the rest of this trip to God,” Kate said as we gathered around the cookstove that evening.
“We don’t know how everything will work out,” I said. “All we can do is put it in God’s hands and trust.” It’s the kind of thing a parent is supposed to say. I willed myself to believe it.
After dinner, I walked down to the muddy lake to filter water for the next day’s hike. Dusy Basin is one of our family’s favorite places in the Sierras, an alpine landscape of lakes, granite and wildflower meadows surrounded by jagged peaks.
The sun sank behind the western ridgeline, and silvery twilight settled over the basin. I looked back and saw Kate and the kids sitting by the stove, boiling water for tea and instant chocolate pudding. They were silhouettes against the remains of the sunset, their faces illuminated by the stove.
All of a sudden, I felt overwhelmed by love for them. Usually, feelings of love are shadowed in my heart by fear of loss. This time, the wave of emotion built until it seemed to fill Dusy Basin. It was God’s love dwarfing mine, upholding my love for my family and rolling right over my fears.
The sunset became an orange line along the distant ridgetop, then vanished, and stars dotted the sky.
Trust me, the landscape seemed to be saying.
I’ll try, I said.
We woke up the next morning excited by the prospect of returning to civilization. The kids powered over Bishop Pass and sailed down the trail to Parchers.
“I think we can fit you in,” the woman at the reception desk said. “We had a couple of cancellations.”
Turned out, there was a daily shuttle bus from a nearby fishing lake to the town of Bishop. There, an outdoor gear store had hiking boots perfect for Frannie’s torn-up feet. They had one size left—Frannie’s size.
A woman in a burger restaurant overheard us trying to figure out how to get to Independence and offered a ride. “I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail a few years ago,” she explained. “So many people helped me out. I’m always looking to pay it forward.”
We found a motel in Independence, and the staff there arranged for someone to drive us to the Kearsarge Pass trailhead the next morning.
You’d never have known our kids had struggled watching them charge up the trail toward Kearsarge Pass.
Each day of hiking seemed better than the one before. We fell into a rhythm, kids in front telling stories, singing and cracking jokes. We explored streams and lakes, examined animal tracks, spent afternoons reading and playing cards and ended each day with compline, an Anglican nighttime prayer service.
By the time we reached the summit trail to Mount Whitney, it was the kids motivating me. I don’t like precarious heights. The trail isn’t technical, but there are some steep drop-offs.
“You can do it, Dad,” the kids said. Frannie hung back to accompany me up the last stretch.
“Remember that time you took me camping in the redwoods and we got lost and you had to carry me up that steep hill?” she said. “Now it’s my turn to keep you going!”
We clambered up the last rocky section and stood atop the mountain. Peaks in every direction. Chasms, spires and a dome of blue sky.
The kids were ecstatic. We crowded in for a family hug and asked another hiker to take our picture.
I knew Frannie would snap back into teen mode when we finished the hike. I knew Benjamin would be a teenager one day and trust would always be a struggle for me.
But I had learned something on this hike. When I doubted myself, when things seemed to go wrong, I knew what to do. Just trust. Trust my kids. Trust our family. And trust the God who’d brought us to these mountains and who provides for us—on the trail and off.
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