Big Mountains and Dreams that were too Small

The other week I was thinking about the way life unfolds along all kinds of unpredictable lines. I was reminded of an unfinished essay I’ve had sitting on my laptop for some time. Here it is . . .

The hike was not more than four or five kilometers long. We had just started when two fat-tire bikers zipped by. As I watched them drift up the banked turns and grab as much of the up-and-down as they could, it was hard not to be a little envious. They were alone. They could travel at speed if they wanted. I on the other-hand, was trying to convince a four-year-old that it makes more sense to let the legs of his rain pants hang over his boots than to tuck them inside. Not yet out of sight behind us was the place where we stopped to deal with an issue of bunchy socks. It was chilly, the rain morphed into snow and then back to rain.

When I was in my early twenties traveling with friends to the mountains, I remember saying that there were three things I wanted to accomplish before I was 30. One was to go to Alaska and climb Denali. I imagined we would do it without a guide. It wasn’t an absurd dream. My buddies and I had climbed peaks in Montana’s Mission Range and done a few ascents near the Alberta/B.C. border. None of our climbs were particularly epic, but they were a solid start. We were learning to navigate glaciers and learning the alchemy of setting anchors in snow and ice.

However, one of the things we learn as we get older is that no one life can contain everything. “Having it all” is an illusion, a mark of an inability to set priorities and leave something for others. If we don’t learn this fact second-hand, life will teach it to us directly. My other goals have come off splendidly, better than I could have hoped, but the Denali dream and the high-travel outdoors lifestyle tied to it has not.

My family and I now live on the southern edge of the nation’s capital. On occasion we make it down to New York to hike in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. I led wilderness trips in those mountains as a college student and I love the opportunity to take my kids there. The streams are clear, some of the summits are even tall enough to embrace the badass glory of baldness. Embroidered patches representing the peaks we’ve hiked adorn each of my son’s backpacks. Once a year we spend a week canoe camping in a nearby provincial park. We’re getting the hang of packing for that length of time and we add a few things to our gear collection every Christmas.

If I sound like a guy trying to comes to terms with one of life’s ‘what-ifs’, I suppose that’s true. And yet, what I’m learning is that when it comes to a lot of our dreams we don’t have to trade something for nothing. I have not, and I assume will not, climb the highest peak in North America. But I haven’t traded that for nothing. My family and I lived for several years on the Canadian prairies. My wife and I would make it to Kananaskis, the eastern edge of the Rockies, on occasion. The hiking there was as good as the grizzlies were scary. However, we didn’t often have enough time to drive that far. When we only had an afternoon to spare we’d drive a few minutes to the Red Deer River and a place called Dry Island Buffalo Jump.

The beauty of that river valley was that you couldn’t see it at all until you pulled up to the edge of the canyon. You’d be driving across the level prairies and all of a sudden the ground would drop away in a sweep of sandstone and shale, the escarpment cut by winding gullies and dotted with hoodoos. The Plains Cree once hunted there: then the paleontologists. There are still sections of ancient prairie grass in that place that have never felt the cut of a plow–that’s the “dry island.” We hiked there in the full glare the summer, dodging prickly pear cactus while watching for fossils. We hiked there in the winter with blowing snow and temperatures at -30, surprising deer and shaggy cattle. And best of all, we hiked there in the spring when the residual snow melt pumped wildflowers into bloom.

I’m not a monk, but I know that many-a-monk’s vows include a commitment to permanence. I used to think that was a straightforward ascetic vow, another way to get control of the flesh. Increasingly, though, I think it might be an aesthetic vow. When you see a place time-and-again your vision gains subtlety. You see more by seeing less. Your eyes acquire a learned gentleness, your other senses do too. You notice the way a change of seasons can make one place many places.

The place we hike most often now is a community forest owned by our local township. It covers something like 11,000 hectares and claims the title of second-largest community forest in Ontario. One of the things that is fascinating about the place is that the 60+ kilometers of trail wind their way through a working forest. The place is quiet even though it hosts trail rides, groups of mountain bikers, hunters and, periodically, an active logging operation. It’s far from a pristine wilderness, but the trees are big and the wet rain here is as cold as anywhere. More inspiring is the fact that the whole forest exists on what was once poorly-managed farmland.

My four-year old lasts about four kilometers on the wet day and then his brothers and grandparents outpace him. I hoist him onto my shoulders. For a moment, I imagine how his weight approximates an alpinist’s pack. Then he does what a bag of rope and cams never would: he talks. He tells me what he sees in the forest around him. He tells me what he likes and what he wonders about. He reminds me of other hikes we’ve done and camping we still hope to do. I have nothing against those who have chosen other paths, even those lucky enough to be on paths with more direct access to big mountains. But we’ll be back in this forest in a month or so. We’ll have our snowshoes on and we’ll bomb off slopes and shake the snow out of the pines. And we’ll be back some months after that, swatting black flies and watching the fiddleheads unfurl. The fragmentary nature of dreams doesn’t require us to trade something for nothing. Goodness indeed comes in many forms.

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