Water, peanuts, and a pocket knife. That’s all that was in my backpack when my dad took me hiking for the first time. Dad wasn’t a hiker. He wasn’t into anything athletic or outdoorsy either, so when he asked me if I wanted to go for a hike, I was thrilled.
I started to get ready and asked him what I would need to bring.
“This is all you’re going to need.” He handed me my backpack.
“Are you sure? I mean, don’t we need more things?”
“Trust me Mijo, we’ll be fine. This is all we will need to survive the trails.”
We set off for the local hills. The road up to the trailhead was long and winding. There wasn’t many other cars on the narrow road. The few cars we did encounter were driving slow, and when we would get behind them, they pulled over to let us go by. Dad said it was because they were scared to fall off the cliff. I didn’t tell him that I was scared too.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a girl about my age getting out of the only other car there. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. She was sporting a backpack, just like mine. She had a hat on that looked like it was made in Australia, a long-sleeved shirt to protect her fair skin, khaki shorts that dropped just past her knees, and long socks with dirty brown hiking boots.
After we parked she caught me staring at her and tried to hide behind her mom. Her mom said something to her and she responded by pointing in my general direction. Her mom looked at me, and then her dad came around their car and said something. He looked at me as well, then at Dad, who was stumbling out of our car, and then hurried his family away to the trailhead.
Dad helped me fasten on my backpack, and then I helped him with his. He went over some general rules of the trail: No yelling, no littering, no disturbing nature. Stay on the trail. Sip your water. Be alert at all times. Follow me. If you need a break, let me know. If you’re not feeling well, definitely let me know. Most important, enjoy the journey. I wondered where in the world he had learned all of these hiking rules from.
We started toward the trailhead as another car parked in the lot. An older man got out. He was tall, bulky and a bit grizzly. He reminded me of my teacher from the year before, Mr. Starks. Dad used to say that Mr. Starks looked like Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon, just older.
Dad smiled and waved. The Older Man did so in return. An older woman stepped out from the other side of the car. She looked like the grandma version of the girl I had just seen a few minutes ago. Dad and I waved at her.
We walked up to the trailhead and were met with a fork in the path. A map of the trails was nearby in a glass enclosure, and after examining it for a bit, Dad started to lead us to the left.
“Papa, why are we going this way? The other people went the other way.”
“Because this way is better.”
“Are you sure? It looks higher.”
“That’s the beauty of going this way. That is the beauty of hiking.”
I was upset because I wanted a chance to run into that girl from before. I envisioned a scenario where Dad and I crossed paths with her family as they were hanging off the edge of the cliff. Dad rushes to help the parents, while I rush to save the Love of My Life.
“This way doesn’t seem so pretty.”
“Mijo, remember the rules. Enjoy the journey. Vamanos.”
About an hour into the hike we were both keeling over. Dad spotted a bench and motioned to head to it. We sat down and I enjoyed a rush of relief. After losing myself in the moment, I noticed the older couple coming up the trail. The Older Man looked so strong and confident, barely a drizzle of sweat on his brow. The Older Woman wasn’t doing as well. She looked to be suffering as much as Dad and I were.
“Hang in there young fellas,” said the Older Man as he got a bit closer.
“You know we will sir,” Dad replied.
The Older Man nodded to Dad and gave me a wink. “It’s good to bring your children out to the trails every so often. Keeps them grounded with nature. Reminds them of what is most important in life.” He looked at me. “You’re almost there child, you can do it.”
The Older Man waited for the Older Woman to catch up, and when she did they kept on past us. Dad told me to wait a little bit longer. After a couple of minutes, we continued forward.
“Papa, can I have some peanuts first?”
“Of course Mijo, but don’t eat them all. We’ll finish them up at the peak.”
After another hour or so, we got to a second fork. I felt stronger than I did after the first hour. The fork was marked by an old wooden sign with arrows pointing to the left and right. The sign read: “Left: Selwyn Vista Point, Grant Lake, Parking Lot (2.4 miles). Right: Antler’s Peak (6.7 miles) Danger: Fire Hazard.”
I glanced over to the left and noticed some people down near the lake. We were quite a bit higher than them, but I was pretty sure it was the girl and her family. I subconsciously started to drift towards her.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“Oh, um. I thought maybe we could check out the lake?”
“Of course we can, but after we get to the peak.”
“Aw Papa come on, I’m tired. That way looks more harder than where we came from already. Plus, it says there could be fire up there. You wouldn’t want to maybe die from the fire, would you?”
Dad walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Mijo, I know it’s been tough so far. You’re not used to hiking. And you’re right, it’s going to be even tougher from here on. But you need to understand that you can make it Mijo, that you can beat anything these trails throw at you. And the fire? Don’t be afraid of things that might happen. You can’t let them keep you from reaching the peak.”
I was upset. I glanced back at the lake again, watching the girl and her parents having fun. They looked so happy, and they definitely weren’t as weary as I was. I was certain Dad didn’t have a clue what he was doing.
Those last miles up towards the peak were unbearable. Any strength that I thought I had before was gone in the first part of that torturous uphill ascent. After the second mile, I started to go ahead of Dad, who was breathing harder than I had ever seen him breathe. We looked like two people that were caught in a rainstorm of sweat. Every time I looked up to try and find the peak, all I found was a dusty, rocky trail to nowhere but heaven. The scorching heat just made matters worse. I was certain we were going to die there.
“I don’t know if I can do it Papa.”
“We’re almost there Mijo. Are you feeling bad? Do you feel dizzy?”
I hadn’t thought about it, but I did feel dizzy after he suggested it. The world started spinning around me, or me around it, I wasn’t sure at that point. Dad later said that he caught me just before I fell. He laid me down on the ground under a nearby tree and sat next to me.
“Here, sip some water. Cool off a bit, we can stay here awhile. I told you to tell me when you needed a rest. The sun can be brutal, and the mountain is not known for being merciful either.”
I nodded and said sorry. I felt sick. I wasn’t really sorry though. I hated hiking, I hated the heat, I hated Dad for bringing me out to these trails. There was nothing fun about it. We weren’t having fun like the other family.
“I want to go home. I feel bad Papa. You don’t look like you’re having fun too. Are you?”
“This hike wasn’t about fun. It was about enjoying and appreciating what we have at all times. Even the bad times. Tell me, what do you have right now, right now at this moment?”
“I don’t have anything. My water is almost gone and you said I can’t eat too much peanuts until the top of the mountain. I have a knife. What is the knife for? I just want to go.”
“You have your life, que no? You have your strength. You have your ambitions.” Dad looked down at the ground. “You have me. You have your Mom, who’s waiting back at home, making chile verde for us.”
“Yes sir, I asked her if she could make chile verde since it’s your favorite. She said she would have it ready for us when we returned. Your Mom is an angel like that.”
I sprung to my feet with a new vigor that only chile verde could instill in me. As soon as I was standing, I immediately felt the heat’s menacing presence again. I looked up towards the peak and felt a comforting hand on my shoulder. Thinking it was Dad, I turned to hug him. It was the Older Man, and after recoiling a bit from shock, I looked at Dad, who started to laugh.
“Did I frighten you?”
“It sure looked like I did. There’s no reason to fear me child. Are you ready to ascend to the peak with your dad?”
I looked at Dad for confirmation. He smiled and nodded. Feeling much better, he led Dad and me up the rest of the trail.
From that point, we were no more than a couple of minutes away from the top. The Older Man said that he and the Older Woman were just ahead of us and hadn’t been at the peak for long when they heard us behind them. That’s when he noticed we weren’t doing so well and started to come to help us.
When we got to the peak, I noticed the Older Woman standing over near the edge of the cliff. The Older Man asked Dad if it would be okay to let me go join her, to which Dad allowed. The Older Man then asked me if I wanted to go and check it out.
“Check what out sir?”
“The view. It’s the reason your dad brought you on this journey. It’s the prize. And child let me tell ya, it’s worth it.”
Dad encouraged me to go. I walked over and stood beside the Older Woman. She was looking out back towards the city. She had on a straw hat, a long sleeve shirt with cursive writing on it, khaki pants and hiking boots. Her backpack looked like mine, but just a bit more weathered. As I got within a foot of her she extended her hand towards me without looking at me. I took her hand and shared the view with her.
“Hello. My name is Claire. Is this your first time at the peak too?”
She looked down towards me and then knelt down beside me.
“Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it the most beautiful sight you have ever seen? It took me my entire life to finally have the courage to come up here. I had always been afraid. Afraid of the steepness, afraid of the fire. When I was younger, I thought I would maybe fall off. My dad told us to never come up here, it was too dangerous. So we stood on the easy paths. The hiking was fun, but after awhile I wanted more. I wanted to see the peak.”
The Older Woman sat down and patted the ground next to her. I sat down and we let our legs dangle over the edge of the cliff.
“How could I truthfully say that I went hiking without ever reaching the peak? Without ever seeing the full view that the mountain offers so graciously? The view is spectacular. I can see everything from here. All the angles, all the sides. I can now say that I have seen the beauty that everything together creates as a whole.”
I looked out at the city where I grew up, a city I thought I knew intimately. I recognized a few things: my church on the hill, my school, the park with the baseball field my friends and I would frequent. There were so many other things that I had never noticed before as well. From the peak, the city was a single entity, something that I was suddenly excited to be a part of.
Tears fell on her cheeks. I agreed with her that the view was beautiful. We got up and she hugged me. Dad and the Older Man came up behind us, each embracing their loved one while enjoying the view that they both journeyed for.
The Older Man put his hand on my shoulder. “I’ve seen this view many a time. It never stops being so wonderful. And it’ll continue to be wonderful well past all of our lives too. Your pops is a good man, bringing you up here. Now we’re all able to say that we’ve see the view. Remember your pop’s number one rule though: Enjoy the journey. The view is great, but it wouldn’t be so sweet without remembering the trail that led you here.”
He held out his hand for a handshake, and after I obliged, he offered Dad a handshake as well and then started off. The Older Man and Woman headed back towards the parking lot. Dad and I sat on the edge of the cliff looking out at the view for a bit longer. We sipped some water and ate our peanuts.
“Did you know them Papa?”
“No Mijo. But I could tell they were good people. Isn’t it nice when you meet good people?”
“Yeah. Papa, why was she crying?”
“I don’t know Mijo. Maybe she was happy. Sometimes we cry when we’re happy.”
Tears were welling in his eyes, but they never fell.
“I knew you were strong. I knew you could make it. I wouldn’t have brought you if I didn’t believe you could. Not everyone can. Not everyone wants to. The last time I came up here, the trail was wild and overgrown. There’s been much more people coming through here. That’s great.”
He looked at me and chuckled.
“Maybe some day you can bring that girl you have been so in love with all day up here. I’m sure she would enjoy the view.”
I liked that idea. I finished my water and peanuts. While digging around in my backpack, I saw the pocket knife.
“So what was the knife for? We didn’t use it at all.”
“Carrying a knife is an old habit of mine. Having a knife ready to go was often a smart thing to have when growing up. Old habits die hard Mijo.”
“And Papa, what about the fire? How many people have been hurt by the fire up here?”
“Mijo, there hasn’t been a fire up here for a long time. Ever since they cleared the brush up here, the fire danger went away. That sign is a relic. There is nothing to fear up here.”
He started to get up and gather his stuff. “Well, I’m done. What do you say we head home to some chile verde?”
It was right then that I thought of a use for the knife. As we walked back towards the city, I stopped by that old wooden sign and scratched out the fire warning.