Pockets of thick fog ebb and flow across the steep slope of false summits on the way up Saddleback, along the Appalachian Trail in Maine. I’ve been trying to keep my son in my sights, but the mountain seems to know my mission, and its futility. I look up again, and he’s gone. I make my way through the whiteness, unable to see anything but the path beneath my feet, and I follow it, knowing it will lead me to him.
We’ve been hiking together his whole life. As a baby in the backpack carrier, he’d extend his little arm and urge me to move close to the trees so he could place his dimpled hand on the bark. It wasn’t enough to be in the forest; he had to feel it, too. I had a nature-lover, and I intended to nurture his spirit with a steady diet of outdoor adventure.
So we crafted our family life around the outdoors. We explored every inch of our local state park and spent vacations hiking and pedaling through public lands. When he was eleven, we sent him to a sleep-away summer camp that furthered his appetite for adventure, instilled a deep understanding of Leave No Trace, and introduced him to his first 4,000-foot peaks. He returned with stories of heavy packs, water-logged boots, and blisters, and he began counting the days until the next summer.
Realizing that we needed to provide more outlets for him, we started learning about the high peaks of New England and quickly discovered that there are lists for goal-oriented adventurers. And so we started working together toward a shared goal: to summit the 67 high peaks of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. We kept track of our ascents on the chalkboard in our kitchen—at first, it was me out in front, carrying the snacks and offering encouragement, but as each season passed, my son grew stronger. Soon I was just trying to keep up.
Some peaks came easily, some made us earn the rewards, and others simply doled out suffering. We hiked on blue-bird days along soft forest paths that rose gently to open summits. We clawed our way up steep scrambles in high winds towards other-worldly views. We endured ice-cold, thigh-deep water crossings and long slogs through mosquito-filled bogs to wooded, unmarked summits. For my son, who began this journey on the brink of his teenage years, the value of these experiences has been incalculable. They’ve transformed him into the capable outdoorsman he is today, one with a deep well of grit, confidence, and humility.
On the summit of Saddleback, I find my 16-year-old napping against his pack, and I take a seat. As we rest, the fog slowly lifts to reveal the distant peaks we’ll stand on later that day and the next. We linger a while, enjoying the view, and then gather our heavy packs and head north. If all goes according to plan, he’ll reach his 67th summit tomorrow, on Maine’s Mount Abraham (we tackled Vermont’s Abraham a few years earlier). But he also has another motive for this backpacking trip. He’s using it as training for an upcoming adventure of his own.
When we make it to our destination that afternoon we lounge in the lean-to, and he pulls out his Long Trail map, the one he’s been poring over for months now. In a week’s time, he and his friend will walk into Vermont’s Green Mountains and begin their 272-mile adventure to Canada. They’ve planned a 22-day trip, with resupply stops every fifth day. As tough as it is to let him go, I’ve known this day was coming from the moment he reached his hand toward the trees. Since then, I’ve given him the space to learn and grow both with and without me, and he’s used that space to carve his own path. It’s not easy for me, but I’m happy for him.
The next morning, I wake at 3:30 a.m. and wrestle my sleeping bag into its sack. I crawl out of my tent, and my light shines in the direction of my son. His hammock is already down, and he’s collecting our food bags. We pack up, weave our way around the surrounding tents, and head north. It’s a short distance to the peak of Poplar Mountain, a relatively unimpressive summit, but one with easterly views. We lay our sleeping pads out and he boils water for tea and oatmeal as we watch the horizon grow golden. We’re silent as the sun comes up. And then we move on. Mount Abraham is calling. My son leads the way.