(This post originally appeared on Wolfparents.com)
The boys and I always spend several weeks in Seattle each summer. Usually, the long days at my father’s place feel languid, but this particular summer has been a bit chaotic, with multiple friends passing through town and inspiring us to take short trips in various rental cars to points east, west and north.
As a result of our action-packed schedule, I was a wee bit tentative when I announced to Simon and Cameron that I had reserved a cabin at the base of Mt. Rainier. It would mean packing again, throwing the bread and salami in the Trader Joe’s cold bag again, stuffing socks in boots and tucking them into the corners of the car…again.
They love the wilderness, but I knew that their tolerance was running a little ragged, that they hadn’t had much time shooting Zerg and Protos with their friends online, and that they had been looking forward to a few days in front of the computer.
However, I had promised my father that I’d take him to the woods, and now, with my husband back at work in Houston, we had a window of opportunity to spend some time with grandpa. I walked into their room and announced the trip.
“I heard you on the phone,” said Simon. “And I’m not happy about it.”
Cam didn’t say anything. He was deep in battle.
Well, Here’s an auspicious beginning, I thought.
It was hard to compete with allure of Minecraft where the boys, (13 and 10) were alternately fighting and constructing a motion-stop animation to post on You Tube. However, historically, nature had done a pretty good job of it. If I followed parenting rule 2.17, and sat them down to negotiate a daily schedule, they generally wanted to pencil in a hike or a swim in a mountain lake. As long as they had a balance, we were all happy.
Was I upsetting that balance? Well, there was nothing for it but to pack.
“I lost my water shoe,” said Cam, a dark shape in the glassy lake.
Shivering, he emerged from the lake and hopped one-footed to the fire grandpa had built, accepting a salmon burger and a mug of cocoa. When he was finished, he crawled into my lap, while Simon poked the fire with a stick. Sparks flew orange against the night sky, and all was well in the world.
The next morning dawned misty and with a slight chill in the air. Unable to sit still, I took Trevor for a walk and recovered the lost shoe, now bobbing near the shore. When I got back, Simon was lounging in bed; he did not want to leave the cabin; he did not want to go hiking.
"No," he said, but his voice let me know that he knew that he was going to go and he was looking forward to it. I grabbed him by his smelly 13-year-old feet and pulled him out of bed.
Into the Trader Joe’s bag went lunch, the good knife with its protective sheath, and the bio-degradable, corn-husk paper plates. Into the backpacks went the water bottles, the sunscreen and the chocolate. Into the car went grandpa, the dog, and the boys.
Then we were off to see Mount Rainier, the largest peak in Washington at more than 14,000 feet above sea level. We followed the narrow paved road through former logging towns and past shingled vacation cabins to the entrance of Mount Rainier National Park. Here the road continued to snake up the mountain, the trees growing taller and closer until the sky was a narrow strip of blue.
So far, we had not seen the mountain. But then, rounding a bend, it finally came into view. We had seen a lot of mountains this summer, but Rainier was on a different scale altogether. Wreathed in clouds, it connected earth and sky in jagged lines of black granite and milky blue-green fields of snow and ice.
"Wow," came a voice from the back seat.
By the time we arrived at Paradise, a popular visitor center on the south side of the mountain, both Simon and Cam were eager to get a closer look at the massive sleeping volcano. They jumped out of the car and hurried toward the trail, passing visitors pouring out of buses and standing around tour guides. We heard a little German on the left, Japanese on the right; Russian coming down mountain, and Spanish going up.
As we walked through the parking lot, my father became nostalgic. He remembered being taken to the mountain in his father's Buick. As we passed Paradise Lodge, built in 1919 and now on the historic register, he recalled childhood memories of staying there, dressing for dinner, eating in the great dining room, and seeing bears through the windows.
“Woa!” I said, “Dangerous.”
“Different times,” he explained, “They used to leave the trash bins out, and the bears were always around.”
“So what did people do?”
“Stay in their cars.
While we had passed many traditional hiking trails along the road, the Paradise paths climbed straight up. Undeterred, the boys chugged past meadows of pink, violet, blue and yellow wildflowers. Then coming over a rise, they suddenly came face to face with the massive wall of rock and snow that was Rainier. Electrified, they ran the last few steps, breathing in the cool mist coming off the snowfields and racing to pelt each other with snowballs in the open air.
I left my father sitting on a rock and kept climbing, overtaking a man with an infant in a backpack. The child was whimpering, unhappy about being lugged up the mountain with only the back of his father’s shoulders to look at.
“I used to carry my kids, too,” I said.
“Does it get easier when you have two older boys?” he asked catching up with his wife and older son, and gesturing toward Cam, who was screaming indignantly as Simon shoved snow down his shirt.
“Oh yes,” I said, “Lots easier.”
Then I paused. "Well, different anyway. I'm still figuring it out."
]We chatted about the value of getting children into nature when they are young then fell into awed silence, watching Cam race gleefully away from Simon’s snowball. Simon missed, and the two stopped, panting, their cheeks red and their eyes blazing.
It’s all turning out okay, I thought to myself.
I decided to push my luck. When we got back to the car, I pointed it in the direction of an ancient forest, thinking to follow up the wide icy spaces of Rainier with a walk beneath dark brooding trees.
However, in an effort to avoid objections, I broke parenting rule 2.17 a second time and did not inform the boys of my plan. Consequently, when we pulled into the parking lot at the next trail, I had to pay the price.
“Where are we?” asked Simon.
“In the Grove of the Patriarchs.”
Simon looked around and recognized the start of a trail. “NO!” And this time there was no humorous sparkle in his voice. Simon did not want to do a second hike.
“I’m not going either!” echoed Cam.
The steep hike at Rainier and the drive from Paradise had made them sleepy. To make matters worse, the sky had begun to spit rain, and thunder rumbled down from the mountain. The already dark trees seem forbidding, and my sons were ready to put up a fight.
My father and I, ignoring the rain and the boys’ protests, pulled ourselves stiffly out of the car and retrieved our daypacks, checked the water bottles and shrugged them on, delaying the inevitable.
Then I opened the door to the back seat. Simon and Cam were now wrestling and pulling each other’s hair, shrieking in the manner of boys who have been confined for too long in a small space.
“Please stop!” I said, “We have one more small, teeny weeny, very easy hike.”
Aside from the shouting, there was no response. I had my strategies and they had theirs.
Nor did they stop when I informed them that the ancient giants in this virgin forest were up to 300-feet tall. It was too late for rule 2.17.
I tried humor.
“And there are blue hippopotamuses living in the uppermost branches.”
Now Cam was yelling for Simon to stop kicking him. He had a handful of his older brother’s long dark hair, and Simon was aiming sharp jabs at Cam with stockinged feet. The dog was barking, Simon was laughing hysterically, and Cam was getting angrier by the minute.
Over the hood of my father’s car, I noticed a woman in a red anorak. She was looking at me concernedly. Beyond her, another family was also watching, though they looked away when we made eye contact.
“Are you killing your kids?” asked the woman, cautious but friendly.
“No, they’re killing each other,” I said wryly. “I don’t need to.”
“Thought so,” she responded.
“Too much time in the car,” I explained to the crowd of onlookers.
“I don’t want to go!” Simon growled. “We already went hiking!”
“I can’t leave you both.” I muttered in response. “You’ll kill each other.”
“I’m not going either!” grunted Cam, now pinned beneath Simon’s knees.
“Stop! People are watching. This is embarrassing!” I had finally put enough strength in my voice to evoke a response.
Cam let go of Simon’s hair.
Simon released Cam.
“It’s going to rain!” Simon turned to me with a black look on his face. “Why do I have to go! This is ridiculous. I already did my hike. This is just another forest.”
I was about to argue that north-westerners don’t care about a little rain, and that he had never seen trees like these, but then I hesitated. He was 13 now. He could stay at the car with Trevor, who was not allowed on the national park trails.
Then I asked myself if I was backing down.
I didn’t feel like I was. Parenting rule 5.33 says that occasionally, it is okay to change your mind, especially if there is a good reason.
Our negotiation had not been elegant, true, and I would have to deal with the wrath of Cameron, but Simon was getting older and he needed to encounter the woods on his own terms. He might enjoy some quiet reading time. He would certainly appreciate being master of his own afternoon. Yes, it was time to give him some leash.
I stepped back, “You really don’t want to go?” I asked.
“I really don’t want to go,” Simon said, looking me in the eye with great sincerity, "I want to read my book."
"Okay, you can stay here.”
His jaw dropped. He blinked. Then he grinned.
I turned to Cameron, “Come on, Cam.”
Cam stood there, halfway into his little hooded army jacket. “Why does Simon get to stay in the car, and I don’t?”
I did not feel like engaging in that particular argument. Though there were still several hours of daylight left, the clouds were heavy and low, and it was hard to know what the weather would do.
Thunder rolled from somewhere up on the mountain.
Instead of answering Cam, I headed for the solace of the woods. Cam followed as I hoped he would. My father gave Simon the keys, and we moved into the dark tunnel formed by ancient Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, and Western Red Cedar.
Cam screwed up his face as tears started to fall. “Why do I always have to come! I had to go to Whole Foods three times, and all he had to do was go to Costco once!” he complained, digging out a three-month old grudge as he scurried to keep up on his shorter legs.
Grandpa fell behind, taking advantage of the opportunity to commune with nature after the heat of battle.
“I know.” I said out loud, but thinking, Ten minutes. I just need to keep him in the forest for ten minutes, and he’ll be fine.”
Cam persisted, “And I have to walk Trevor, and all Simon does is sleep!”
I considered parenting rule 8.62, which says I must listen actively to my children and to show them that I understand how they are feeling.
“You have a point,” I said, “Sometimes you do more chores than he does. And Simon does sleep a lot. I think it may be a growth spurt. Should we think of something extra for him to do?”
We were now on a wide level path of red dirt and pine needles. Next to us, a narrow river flowed like liquid glass over green-grey rocks. Beyond, the trees beckoned in the eerie light, and for a moment we walked in silence.
One hundred yards later, Cam spoke again, “I can’t stay mad at Simon.”
“Is that a problem?”
“He’s always mad at me, but I can’t stay mad at him.”
“You’re a jolly type,” I offered, “You smile a lot, and you forgive easily. Am I right?”
Cam paused. “I can’t help it.”
“But isn’t that why so many people like you?”
Cam shrugged, but there was a little bounce in his step.
Two hundred yards later, Cam came across an uprooted tree. The root mass was about 15 feet in diameter, and the interior of the fallen tree was hollow. Eagerly he climbed into the center and peered into the darkness. Then returning to the trail, he trotted ahead to where he found a bouncy suspension bridge. I dropped back and watched as he stepped off the bridge and onto a mysterious island covered with massive trees, their trunks rising hundreds of feet before the branches even began.
It had never been about the car.
Around a corner, Cam stopped at an immense fallen log, surely one of the patriarchs for whom the grove was named. A new family of trees had taken root in the rotting wood and moss; they were lined up along the log like a family posing for a photo.
He moved on, unable to resist climbing up onto the next log, which was fresh and bare. Then he scampered down its length like a woodland sprite before returning to the trail. He knew he shouldn’t be disturbing the forest, but he couldn’t help it, just this once.
This post originally appeared on Wolfparents.com