Notes from today’s HIKE…
We’d been hiking for 90 minutes when the counting started.
“One, two, three, four…”
My five year-old son began verbally marking each of the steps required to get home. He was tired. I didn’t blame him. The HIKE (as the WALK is known when kids are involved) can be stretched to several miles. There’s a lot of up and down, especially when your legs are the length of a stick of salami, and not quite as muscular.
As kids go, mine hike better than most, particularly if they don’t realize they’re hiking. I tend to say things like Let’s go look for banana slugs in the woods or Want to go find a good tree to climb? I don’t think of this as lying. It’s more like clever packaging. By the time they realize they’re exhausted, we’re an hour away from home and they’ve got no choice but to hike back. I am either building their stamina or teaching them not to be so trusting. Either way, a win-win in my book.
Unlike her brother, the eight year-old fancies herself an outdoors-person. And she is one, to some extent. Though I suspect this identity was fashioned largely as a way to distinguish herself from her brother, who shuns all physical activity that doesn’t include a ball. In fact, she will do almost anything to subtly let her brother know that she is either:
A. Not interested in what he’s interested in,
A. Not interested in what he’s interested in,
B. If she is interested, she knows more about it and is better at it than he is.
Though in her defense, she communicates both messages very lovingly.
“Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven…” the boy continues, step by arduous step.
“One, two, three, four…” the girl begins.
“Stop it! You’re messing me up,” he yells at her.
“What? I’m just counting,” she says with feigned innocence.
As I walk ahead of them, I immediately begin to consider when I will need to get involved. I’ve learned that inserting myself into their disputes rarely helps and almost always makes things much worse much faster. I am the Hell’s Angels to their Altamont. But I can’t help myself. Growing up, I did not have a relationship like theirs. My brothers were half and step and neither lived with me. And while I understand intellectually that sibling rivalries are natural, the blundering parent in me feels the need to get involved.
“But when you count it messes me up!” he says, on the verge of tears. He’s been walking through the Easter mist for nearly two hours. Counting the remaining steps on this death march is the only thing keeping him going. And like his father, he cannot keep count when someone else is counting.
“Well it’s not fair that you get to count and I don’t,” she comes back.
It is taking all my strength not to say something. Her point is a valid one, if you ignore the fact that the only reason she started counting in the first place was to fuck with him. Although there’s no way to prove that. And the very fact that I am silently adjudicating this issue means that I am probably smaller and pettier than either one of them.
“But I was counting first and I need to count because I can’t make it home if I don’t count.” He is crying now, his words mooshing into one giant, cotton-mouthed mess.
“Okay. You don’t have to be so dramatic. Jeez.”
I wheel on them, ready to scold her for being cruel and admonish him to toughen up. They look up at me, more confused than afraid. As I’m about to raise my voice, I am blindsided by the sudden awareness they will have forgotten their spat by the time we get home, but if I start yelling, our entire hike will be ruined. They fight all the time. This is a drop in their sibling bucket.
In the past hour and a half, we’ve stood atop Homestead Hill and laughed at the wind whipping her rain slicker. We’ve snapped pictures of a wild purple iris that caught his eye. We’ve pondered whether that giant bird we saw was an eagle or a really big hawk. We’ve touch banana slugs and studied trail signs. We’ve leaped over creeks and dodged poison oak. And if I lose my temper, it will all be undone.
I turn around and quicken my pace. My best bet is to walk away from them. As I round a bend in the trail, their bickering has resumed, though the sound of it mercifully fades behind a wall of bay trees and ferns.
For the next ten minutes, I keep a safe distance between us; close enough to know they’re back there but far enough to spare us all from my botched attempts at mediation. I come to the fork in the trail. I have no choice but to wait. While both paths lead home eventually, I can’t stomach the idea that they might follow a different one than I. Letting them fall behind me is one thing. Letting them get lost is another.
A minute passes. I hear their voices as they come over a rise.
“You can do it, H. We’re almost there,” she tells him.
“How far do you think we hiked?” he asked her. “I think this is the farthest I’ve ever hiked.”
“Oh, hey, Dad,” she says, catching sight of me. “H is doing really great. He started to get tired, so we made up this game—“
“And, and, and I said we should count how many bridges we walked across and E said that was a good idea so we counted the bridges on the path.”
“Sounds like a good game,” I offer. “So, how many was it?”
“You can tell him, H. It was your idea,” she says.
“Five. We walked over five bridges.”
“Hey, that’s great, buddy. And guess what, you guys?”
“What?” they ask in stereo.
“We’re almost home.”
“Let’s run,” she says.
“Yeah, let’s run!”
They are off.
I am left behind. Hopefully, not for the last time.