On a cool morning in June, my six-year-old son, Chase, our two geriatric dogs, Louie and Cyrus, and I ventured off on a three-day hike along the Long Trail to the highest peak in Vermont.
At the outset, Chase was in great spirits. He stumbled along, pointing out every oddly curved tree or funny-looking rock. Our progress was slow and, because I was a bit skeptical of our speed, I tried to balance encouragement of outdoor exploration with an urging to move along.
Finally, after close to an hour, I told Chase that we must be at least half way as we reached a trailhead. It became clear that we’d walked only 0.3 miles in 60 minutes. Tears pricked my eyes and self-doubt crept into my head: What was I thinking? We cannot possibly do what we set out to do. I feared that I was putting my child in danger.
Since our ride had left and there was no cell service on the trail, I told Chase that we’d made ample progress and to keep hiking, just a little bit faster now.
As we trudged along, fellow hikers passed at regular intervals. There was a flash of unmasked judgement in their eyes when they first focused on our sorry group. Some stopped and asked Chase his age and commended him on his tenacity. They smiled at me and murmured praise. They told us about landmarks to look for, and how much farther we had to go to find them.
Other hikers looked from Chase to me to our old dogs with blatant disapproval. I wanted to explain, “Believe me, this wasn’t my idea!”
A few months ago, I put out a proposal to my sons: they could each pick one overnight trip to go on with just me. The other brother would stay home to have special alone-time with their dad. My five-year-old picked a trip to Maine to see the ocean. My six-year-old picked a stint on the Long Trail.
The Vermont Long Trail runs 270 miles from Massachusetts to Journey’s End in Canada. It was built by the Conservation Corps between 1910 and 1930. Before my kids were born, I had hiked a few northern portions of the trail, traveling for five or six nights during two consecutive summers.
I met exceptional people on the trail who call themselves “end-to-enders.” These thru-hikers deserve admiration and attention. Starting off at the Vermont-Massachusetts border, they take on a challenge that will push them physically and mentally. Carrying 40- to 50-pound packs and visions of Canada, thru-hikers give each other trail names and alter-egos and get to reinvent themselves for a month on the trail.
To prepare for our trip, I tried to do some research about backpacking with kids. Unfortunately there’s not much information out there. I read about a kindergartener, trail name “Buddy,” who hikes 20+ miles a day on the Appalachian Trail with his mother and her boyfriend. I read about a family who bonds over backpacking and decided to take on the Long Trail together. We were not these people.
I try to balance the creature comforts of good food and wine with just enough exercise to take away any guilt. My kid is a not-too-athletic, but pretty outdoors-y type, who had no idea what he was getting into. Our dogs are both in the second decade of life and slowing down considerably. I chose a section of the trail where the shelters are abundant so that I didn’t need to carry a tent, and each day we would only hike between three and five miles. This section happened to lead to the ever-popular Mount Mansfield.
Before we left, I focused on what gear to bring. Wanting to set my son up for success but not wanting to overspend, I had to decide what to buy and what to leave behind. In the end, I bought Chase a small 30-liter backpacking pack and the most lightweight sleeping pad. He wore his trusty Saucony sneakers and used his Walmart special sleeping bag, which took up most of the space in his pack.
I picked a whisper light cooking stove, a pot, two bowls, food for nine meals plus snacks, and a SteriPEN to treat our water. We both carried a Camelbak bladder for hydration. Our oldest dog, Cyrus, carried the dog food and leashes for himself and Louie.
Stumbling upon Butler Lodge that first afternoon felt like the greatest success. We quickly made ourselves at home, spreading out sleeping bags on lofts and Nutella on tortillas. We welcomed a thru-hiker, “Bookworm,” who was a recent college grad looking for his place in life.
Chase explored the site and begged me to play the card game “War” over and over again. He seemed to take on a new identity on the trail. My normally reserved child became giddy and chatty. Bookworm, impressed by this six-year-old’s boundless energy and never-ending questions, dubbed him “Lightning Chase.”
After a delicious dinner of mac-and-cheese with tuna fish, and an uneventful first night of sleep, we awoke to several unwelcome realizations. First, I learned that our headlamp had run out of batteries. Then, I discovered that I forgot contacts for my left eye and would be relying solely on my right eye for navigation. Next, we found that a mouse gnawed on the bite valve of one of our Camelbaks. Chase immediately insisted that the mouse-bitten one was mine, though there were no discernible differences between the two. And, in a sudden burst of cell phone reception, we got a menacing weather report: Rain and thunderstorms were expected for much of the day.
Feigning cheer and optimism, I hurried Chase through a breakfast of granola bars and fruit rope and started out for our second day of hiking, keeping time with the distant rumbling of thunder.
The trip to Taylor Lodge was arduous. The trail steepened considerably and Chase often stopped to rest on any rock large enough to seat him. The fact that a tenting site was mislabeled on our Green Mountain Club map made gauging time and distance tough. Probably the highlight of the hike was stopping for candy bars – a Milky Way for Chase and a Snickers for me – though Chase ate them both.
We averaged about one mile an hour and, after a full morning of a forced march, we arrived at the turn-off for Taylor. Because of the foreboding weather, the shelter filled up with thru-hikers waiting for clearer skies to summit Mansfield. Our bunkmates included a 65-year-old man who was the self-described slowest hiker on the Trail; an attorney/father from North Carolina who saved vacation time for five years to be able to complete the 279 miles in one shot; two high school sophomores who dubbed themselves “The Two Jews”; several male 20-somethings; and our old friend Bookworm.
Lightning Chase seemed to gain energy as I lost it. He skipped from rock to rock and explored all around the site. He charmed everyone. Children are not common on the Trail and the hikers had gone weeks without spending time with a little kid. They took turns playing cards with Chase, sharing coveted pieces of chocolate and hyperbole-laced stories of sunrises and storms.
At one point, Chase looked up at me and announced that he loved backpacking, but much preferred hanging out at the campsite to the hiking. In his actions and his smiles, I saw a side to my child that I never observed at home. His introverted tendencies were replaced with confidence, laughter, and outward joy.
Our second night was restless. Our new sleeping pads seemed excessively squeaky and creaked every time we moved. Around 4 a.m., Louie and Cyrus broke into a brotherly dog fight that woke all the weary hikers. Embarrassed for disrupting sleep for these thru-hikers hoping to cover 15-20 miles the next day, I woke early and motivated Chase to get moving.
Despite our speedy start, each of the men we met the night before passed us on their ascent up the mountain. Feeling tired and depleted, we negotiated the pros and cons of veering off the Long Trail and going instead on a flatter, smoother bypass trail. Mustering strength and not wanting to feel future regret, Chase finally decided to make the push to the summit: the chin of Mansfield.
When we arrived at the summit, we found ourselves thrust into throngs of day-hikers and people who had driven cars on an access road to the top of Vermont. After three days of hiking, we felt dirty and sticky. We ate lunch on the flat, rocky tops, looking out on beautiful vistas and basking in the feeling of accomplishment.
As we rested, the caretaker from the Green Mountain Club sauntered up to us. She looked at my son and said, “By any chance, are you Lightning Chase?” She explained that several of the thru-hikers who had summited throughout the morning told her of the six-year-old on the trail, providing accounts of his energy and enthusiasm. They told her that he inspired them to make the steep climb and complete the journey. She gave Chase the broadest smile and confided, “I’ve been waiting to meet you!”
Now as summer is almost at an end, I keep thinking back to the gifts we received on the Long Trail. We had a final adventure with a faithful friend (sadly, Cyrus died in August from a bleeding tumor on his spleen) and I gained the aura of a superhero in the eyes of my child. Most importantly, my small six-year-old learned that he can accomplish big dreams. He is capable of overcoming challenges and persevering despite discomfort. For those three days, he left behind the self-consciousness that came with navigating the social world of elementary school. He became: Lightning Chase!