This is a tale of the power of life out of doors. One summer afternoon in 2008, I marched a child up a mountain and saw her character develop right in front of my eyes.
Camp Strawderman was the summer home of my youth, and I have the immense privilege to watch my daughter love it as much as I did. Her first summer, I thought I would initiate her into camp life with a idyllic (in my mind) mother-daughter hike to the famous “rocks.” This outcropping hovers over camp to the east, square in the middle of Three Mile Mountain, part of the Blue Ridge in Virginia. Legend states that the hike to the rocks is “two hours up and two minutes down,” and I do not exaggerate when I say the path goes straight up. Eight year old campers do not hike to the rocks. But it was just the two of us. I figured I could help her through the rough patches. Plus, she would earn some bragging rights.
Obstacle #1: The Creek
Stony Creek winds its way through the valley, at times curling around sheer rises of the mountain’s side, at others, meandering among meadows. It happened to lie between us and the mountain we aimed to climb. Off go the shoes, across the rocks go the hikers. In goes the eight-year old. Attitude check: all smiles, secure in her ability to laugh at herself. Wet shorts never hurt anyone.
Obstacle #2: The Fire Road
After a short walk through sparsely planted woods and up a little ridge, we reach the fire road. This abandoned access road sees neither vehicle traffic nor lawn mowers. As it lies in full sun between the uphill forest to its right and the downhill forest to its left, it has transformed itself into a lovely little prairie. Queen Anne’s Lace, wild daisies, and purple coneflowers attract a host of butterflies and beg to be picked for a bouquet. Nice to look at, annoying to hike through. Above my knees, they reached my eight-year-old’s waist at least. Attitude check: serious deterioration to the sunny disposition. Large amounts of whining. Repeated entreaties to turn around and go home. Open derision to my suggestion that we sing song to distract ourselves.
Obstacle # 3: The Bees
As soon as you pass the stand of cattails (which, I just learned, were prized by Native Americans for their food value and are apparently great in stir-fry), turn right. Beware the first 10 feet of the path up the hill, however. This short stretch of the hike is infamous for housing nasty nests of vicious bees. Here’s how it works: the first few hikers along this section of path stir up the bees, the second wave of hikers experiences the consequences. So, being the selfless mom that I am, I sent my eight-year-old first. Told her to run. She takes a few steps and stops, gripping her right shin. Coming up behind her, imagining a mob of very angry bees, I pick her up, hollering “Keep going! Keep going!” and stopping only when brambles make way for towering trees and sparse understory plants. We assess the damage. ‘Twas not a bee-sting. ‘Twas a nasty branch that jumped up and scraped the stew out of her shin. Not a deep cut, but long and irritating. Guess who brought no band-aids? Attitude check: complete commitment to quitting immediately, retracing our steps and conceding failure.
Obstacle # 4: The Hard Part of the Hike
Here’s where it gets steep. Really steep. I’m talking reaching up with your hand to grab roots in front of you to haul yourself up each three foot section. I’m talking trees growing at seriously acute angles to the lie of the land. It’s a hard hike. Remember, we’ve got an eight-year-old on our hands with wet shorts, itchy legs, and a pretty impressive scrape. Attitude check: completely defeated. No belief that she will ever make it to the top and less belief that it will be worth it. Incessant whining. Occasional crying. Increasingly desperate pleas to turn back.
Obstacle #5: The Last Little Bit
We reach the end of the truly steep climb. Here lies a devious little outcropping of rocks that to the uninitiated looks suspiciously like “the” rocks. It even offers a bit of a view. But alas, we are not finished. There is just a bit more hiking to do. This information causes outright rebellion. “I won’t go further.” “No way.” “I am going back RIGHT NOW!” I dutifully ignore every plea and set of for our true goal. I am followed by an angry, weepy, mother-hating eight-year girl.
Finally, we set foot on the real deal. Out of the forest and into the sunlight. Mountain breezes blow. Hawks soar BELOW us. The view is stunning: miles of blue ridge mountains, pockets of cultivated farmland carved out of the woods, puffy white clouds that dot the sky. Camp lies below us as if painted on a map. We trace the road that leads from the dining hall to the rec hall to the pool. We see girls on horseback. We name all the cabins and I tell a memory from each one I stayed in two decades back. We eat our apples and granola bars, call her dad to report our accomplishment, take pictures.
I must admit that I lead the way back down hill with some trepidation. As hard as the uphill hike is, the downhill version can be more difficult. Navigating down a steep incline is much scarier than scrambling up it. Plus, the fire road prairie will certainly be less than comfortable on the scraped up leg. But, to my astonishment, there is not one complaint. Not one. Not even a little one. The intrepid eight-year old slides down the path on her backside, moving deftly from tree to tree, politely declining any help I might offer. “I think I got it, Mom.” We pass through the bee section unscathed. On the fire road, she is chatty and bubbly and delightful. “I thought this might hurt my scrape, but it’s not so bad.” She tells me stories about friends and we make guesses about what her two weeks at camp will bring. We arrive back at the creek, cross about half way, then sit down and enjoy the silence for a few minutes. With our feet in the cool water, we watch the creek dance around rocks, the sun shimmer on the water, the mountain rise up to our right. It is a perfect moment. Even when the camp nurse scrubs her scrape down to put antibiotic cream on it, the eight-year-old smiles.
I took a little kid up the mountain. I brought home a confident, proud, accomplished individual. The power of life out of doors.