I am squatting in the middle of the trail when an older couple almost tramples me as they round a sharp corner. My husband, Jonathan, and our three children are edging along a narrow cliff beyond them—a vertical ledge rising to the Continental Divide on their right and a treacherous drop off to a valley below on their left. I cap my camera and lurch as I stand up, my backpack shifting, my sunglasses dropping into the dirt. My camera clunks into a rock as I try to regain my balance.
I had just taken a picture of our children, hiking in order from youngest to oldest.
Somewhere within their five spanned years—from 9 to 14—the soft and tender becomes leaner and more defined. The relationships that form and evolve between them, and the growth of these five years, had been on elegant, and scenic, display.
The trail is heavily travelled today, with rangers discouraging wildlife selfies and lone hikers zipping past large groups. We have some distance, 12 miles, to cover today. Despite our need to keep moving, I wait for the other hikers to move out of view, to pass behind a rock or into a nook, so that my pictures will show only us.
I am still in fumbling-mountain-goat-with-a-headrush pose, blocking the uncomfortably close couple, when the man says, Ah. The family photographer. Your kids are wondering where you have wandered off to. We laugh and the woman says, But they will appreciate those photos someday. They were here once with their own children, now grown. Her hand gestures vaguely toward them and the boundless wilderness around us. I realize she has just met her younger self on this trail in me, and I my future self in her.
I am indeed often bringing up the rear, snapping pictures of my children walking toward our next adventure, or more often these days, walking toward their own. From back here, I can observe them without causing self consciousness or being creepy. It’s my current version of watching them sleep when they were babies. From back here, I grapple with who they are—who I am—while I set my own pace against theirs, feeling for where I should be so they can keep hiking forward without a glance over their shoulders for where or how I am.
Sometimes, though, I am just trying to keep up with their ever lengthening strides.
Jonathan and I are monitoring daylight, exhaustion, mood, and timing, our car a shuttle ride down the mountain. As parents, we are measuring constantly. How are we doing? When do we need to be where, next? Do we have what we need—needs that evolve across years and between children.
We are hiking this trail because, well, because our children are now old enough to hike it. It is scrambly, long, and potentially dangerous. My hiking guidebook, which I read as carefully as I used to read parenting books, warns against hiking unprepared, and for this trail, advises against families with young children. I dutifully skip to the next entry. And then, I realize we have three older children, no whining toddler to slow us down. That role goes instead to a camera-wielding woman having a quiet identity crisis. What no guide, and no parenting book, mentions is the time altering internal process of setting our own pace and progress as compared to others, determining who and how to safely pass, who to allow to move on ahead, wrestling with fears of becoming lost. Parenting growing children, it’s all about this, about the shifting balance between dependence, safety, identification, and growth, about course corrections, and letting go without losing them.
On the trail, I flatten myself into the ledge, allow the couple to pass, and then jog around the corner, and nearly crash into an elderly man. I hope you have lunch, he grins at me, so they don’t leave you behind.
Even better, I pant. I have chocolate. It is intimate out here, these brief, intense interactions against a vast backdrop. I sprint toward my family before they slip picturesquely out of view. I snap away, wanting to remember the moments when they pause wordlessly at the vistas, put their hands in the glacial runoff, and test the strength in their legs. This is why we are here.
Yet all the bliss comes to a halt when, six miles in, I hear the dreaded word blisters and look at Julia’s feet and realize: we have taken on the rocky wilderness wearing impractical footie socks with our first aid kit in the car. I adjust the socks, shoes, and laces, and remember doing this to her toddler sized and smelling feet. A mile further down the trail, blisters now burst, we sit on a rock, staring at Julia’s bare and wounded feet. A lone man walks toward us. Need moleskin? He crouches down in front of Julia, unzips his pack, and pulls out a first aid kit. I eye the large knife he uses to cut one piece to cover Julia’s blisters, and then two more pieces. Here. In case you need them.
I thank this man of few words as he shoulders his backpack and heads off up the trail.
Nicholas whispers, Saved. By Moleman. I turn to my clever manchild, pulled from the depths of our parenting failure, and decide that, from now on, we will be the ones who always have moleskin, or perfectly timed observations, to share with those we pass.
Hiking again, I pull my camera forward and uncap it, unused since things got grim. It’s nice back here where I can observe, worry, stumble, marvel, document, and predict the unseen as they make their long trek toward adulthood.
These photos will remind them someday of this hike, of who they were at this moment on the trail when we allowed versions of ourselves to pass by and relied upon the kindness of strangers. Though the photos capture just them, I hope we will all remember the other hikers moving along this developmental trail with us. And that our children—noticing the way I framed and selected those photos, how the sun shines between each of their stretching, challenged, and determined bodies—will see me, and see how I saw each of them. Will realize that, by clicking my camera, and by writing these words, I have captured glimpses of their future selves, and glimpses of the future me I was hiking toward that day.
We make it those long, grueling, gorgeous miles. The shuttle is just pulling away, its last run of the day, as we emerge from the woods, out of water, but with unused moleskin and stashed chocolates still in my backpack. Our children dash away from me, toward the bus, without looking back, surprisingly quick despite the twelve miles behind them.
And, breathlessly, laughing and tumbling into each other, politely ask the driver to please wait for their Mom.