Lake Norman & Mooresville

The challenges of hiking (and parenthood)

Several weeks ago, Phil and I watched a National Geographic documentary about the Appalachian Trail.

It was one of those evenings in which we stole a scant 50 minutes from our own sleep in order to watch a television program without someone proclaiming the need to be fed, burped, wiped, bathed or otherwise cared for.

The documentary was just the sort of escapism needed when life is occupied primarily with the care and feeding of the aforementioned little ones (there are three of them). I imagined ourselves in our slightly younger days, jauntily cresting one of the AT's peaks, the sun in our faces, a satisfying muscular weariness overtaking us as we set up evening camp.

We had never done this, of course. Before we had children, we completely squandered our free time with useless activities like going to dinner and hanging out with friends. We watched TV with the careless abandon of the childless, taking for granted the opportunity to view an entire program without interruption.

The documentary piqued our interest in hiking. I've always loved the mountains - the endless succession of ridge upon ridge, each a microcosm teeming with life, with near-instant weather changes and country folk set in their ways.

I'm not like most urbanites; the word "hillbilly" doesn't strike fear in my heart. My grandparents were first cousins. These are my people.

To tell the truth, I already own some equipment, and I have some experience backpacking. It was years ago, before babies and even before the sedentary days of early marriage. My mom and I joined a church group for a weeklong trek in the Rockies. She was in her 50s, in good shape.

Still, the first day in thin air, carrying 35-pound packs, proved a particular challenge. We ascended via switchbacks in single file. About halfway up, Mom completely lost her breath, and there were several frightening moments when I thought she would have a heart attack. But there was no turning back.

Thankfully, Mom was OK. The subsequent days brought easier hiking, even as we were increasingly dirty, starved for a meal that hadn't been reconstituted and ready for a toilet experience that didn't involve a shovel.

The fourth day was the absolute best. We took a day hike to the highest point on our route, climbing a hill so steep that we dared not look back. It was a good thing, too. At the top, when we were finally able to turn around, Mom lost her breath again, only for an instant, and tears welled in her eyes. The view in front of us was spectacular: ridge upon snowcapped ridge, as far as we could see.

The thing I remember most about the trip, though, was the shower. After a week on the trail, we longed to luxuriate in the steam of a long, hot shower and watch the grime slowly wash away. Unfortunately, that was also the chief ambition of the hikers who came off the trail before we did.

Mom and I were the last ones to the bath house, and when we stepped under the showerhead, it rained down water that must have trickled straight from the snow-covered peaks. For the third time that week, Mom lost her breath.

You just can't duplicate that with a documentary.

What Mom didn't tell me was that our week of adventure was nothing compared to the challenge of having kids.

If she had said that, then maybe I wouldn't have been willing to endure the sleepless nights, the lugging of heavy equipment, the strange-looking food and the full-on intimacy with bodily functions. Maybe I wouldn't have become a parent, either.

Someday soon, after the baby monitor is packed away for good, I hope to get back to the trail, and maybe even take Mom - now "Nana" - and the kids.

That's the thing about parenthood. Once you've begun, there's no turning back. But it's worth it.