Cursing like a sailor and the mountain of life
My curses echoed off the canyon walls as I stood there on the steep face of the mountain, frozen between my middle son who had just thrown a rock at my oldest, and my youngest son gingerly making his way toward me. I put my hands up to my head, ran my fingers through my hair, and took several deep breaths and tried to calm down. I called my sons to me to give them yet again another lecture about the dangers of being in the backcountry before one of them fell headlong to their death – or killed each other with rocks.
My nerves were shot, my heart raced in fear at their careless behavior, and I thought, “What sort of insanity did I ingest this morning that made me think this was a good idea?”
“I’m sorry,” I said to them. “Your mother is a sailor.”
My boys smiled at this odd statement and gave me questioning looks. I am convinced that no adventure in life is greater than parenthood. Once you bring a person into the world, your world is rocked from that moment on. Having children gives you a life of constant worry, heartache, unbelievable joy, comedy, maddening frustration, and the deepest of love.
Children put you in an eternal test that challenges you to the very core of who you are. They are the mirror that reflects back to you your greatest strengths and most deplorable weaknesses. I liken parenting to Shackleton’s voyage on The Endurance. As a parent, it is your job to get your crew through. It is one thing to climb a mountain; it is another thing to work with and care for the minds climbing it.
Last weekend I decided to take my boys up to Shivwits Arch. It is a short, albeit steep hike located in the Virgin River Gorge and requires backcountry bush-wacking. I had never done the hike before but after getting the beta on it, I was certain my boys could do it with my help and guidance.
All was fine for about the first 100 yards as we started our trek up the rocky mountain. It started like a tickle of water, just slight complaints about backaches and tired legs. I talked to the boys in an attempt to keep their minds off of hiking. I gave them tips about not running, not grabbing lose rocks for support, to watch where they stepped, etc. I told them to slow down, that it wasn’t a race. Not 15 minutes in my oldest slipped and almost fell into a ravine. It scared the living daylights out of me. I pulled him up and again told them all to go slow and to take their time.
It is at about this time that I started morphing into Captain Ahab. The trickle turned into a full-blown leak. What started out as complaining turned into reckless behavior in a place that requires care and intentional actions.
“Slow down! Take your time! Use you heads boys! Think! Stop running! Don’t fight! Damn it!” I yelled, “Listen to me!”
I repeated these things over, and over, and over. We would pow-wow, start over, pow-wow again, start again. At this point my kids are starting to suggest that we turn around and go home. We are about half way up.
I can see what looks like the eye of a needle in the rock. We are so close!
“Keep going,” I tell them, “You will be so glad you did this when you get to the top. You will learn things about yourself you didn’t know. It will be so worth it. Trust me.”
So we slowly make our way, me pushing and prodding the whole time. My two oldest are up ahead of me and I am helping my youngest down below. Rocks are sliding down so I tell the older two to be careful where they step and to try not to dislodge the rocks. I tell them to look for big rocks that won’t move.
As I am saying this, my middle son dislodges a soccer ball sized rock that starts careening toward my youngest who is right in front of me. I curse, grab my son, pull him out of the way, and move. I look up at my son who had let loose the rock and he immediately started crying.
“I want to go home mom,” he cries over and over.
I hike up to him and hug him. I tell him it’s okay, but to be careful and explained what could have happened if I hadn’t had time to get his brother out of the way. Again, I have to coax, cajole, motivate, and push my boys to carry on.
Just below the arch is a slot like chute that you must go through to get out on top. There are trees in it and it requires some stemming and scrambling. It is at this point that I find out my middle son is afraid of heights. We are almost to the top.
“You just have to think and go slow,” I tell him. “Choose your steps and hand-holds carefully. You can do this, look at how far we have come?” We turn back to the tiny speck that our car has become. This doesn’t help. We are very high up. My son looks into my face with his big blue eyes, “Mom, I’m scared.”
I tell him that I am here. I will help him and again reiterate that he can do it.
And he did. We did.
We got to the top and for a brief moment the trials of getting there were forgotten. We walked round and took in the view. We took some photos and high-fived each other. Our hiatus on the summit was short-lived, however, because we had to get down and it had already taken longer than I had anticipated and I wanted to get started. I had read that there was an easier way down than the way we came so I scouted it out. I found a path. It looked like a deer or cow trail. We headed out. I secretly prayed it would be easier and that it wouldn’t lead us to some ledge or un-passable spot.
While going up certainly has its challenges, going down is almost worse. Having gravity working with you is a double-edge sword, especially with little boys who find the new speed exhilarating. Again I am yelling at them to slow down, take their time, to stop fighting, and to think. Then it occurs to me, their words!
“What are our words boys?” I ask.
“Be alert, stay calm, think clearly, act decisively,” they all shout.
Wildland firefighters have something called “Standard Firefighting Orders.” They are kind of like the military’s general orders. Number six is what my boys repeated. When I went through fire school that one order caught my attention. I loved it. It was simple and straightforward and while it makes perfect sense for a dangerous job, it also makes sense in general – for life.
Basically it’s saying: “Think dummy. Engage your brain and think before you act.” So much danger can be mitigated by simply thinking. I’m not saying that thinking gets you out of all dangerous situations, but it can keep you from getting into them. I liked it so much I had my boys commit it to memory. They repeat those words to me every night before they go to bed. Kind of like a prayer. Trust in God but keep your powder dry right?
It was shortly after my movie-perfect motivational moment that a competitive race down the face of the mountain between my two oldest boys culminated in one getting hit with a rock. My head exploded. Except for the one crying and holding his hand, they all froze in terror. It was probably at that moment that my words all came rushing back. All the things that I had been saying suddenly crystallized in their little minds.
Herman Melville in Moby Dick said, “Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure….. Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle , and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”
We normally won’t meet our own “dreaded creatures” until something pushes them to the surface – kind of like dangerous situations. That is why we really find out what we are made of in a crisis. We are tested when we dare challenging and dangerous things – or downright crazy things in my case. Our true self comes out in those moments. While I was never scared on that mountain that we wouldn’t make it, I was afraid of ending up in an emergency situation. My boys didn’t need a sailor, they needed their mom.
I gathered my boys close, looked at their little tear-stained faces and said, “I love you. I don’t want you to get hurt. Please,” I pleaded, “Please slow down and be careful. Let’s get down this mountain in one piece okay?” They all shook their heads and we started back down.
The rest of the way we hiked without another terrifying incident. We made it back to the car alive and in one piece – and they were all beaming – blood, sweat, tears and all. Despite it all, we did it. I hugged my boys, gave them all high-fives, and told them how amazing they were. I was so proud. All frustrations and near-death disasters aside, it was one of the most stellar days I’ve ever had with them. They overcame fears, learned not to quit, and showed what they were made of. Hopefully they won’t end up in therapy over it someday. I can’t begin to imagine how they will remember that day – but I will remember it as a parental endeavor that ended in success. What did I get in return?
“No mom, you were amazing for getting us through it.”
Posted on February 10, 2015, in Recreation & Adventure and tagged backcountry hiking, child rearing, cursing like a sailor, exploring southern Utah, getting your kids into the backcounty, Herman Melville, hiking in southern Utah, milemarker 23, Moby Dick, parenting, raising kids, Shakleton and The Endeavor, Shivwits Arch, standard firefighting orders, Virgin River Gorge. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.