My family has always enjoyed hiking. We began when our children were very small, taking them on various trails in the deserts and mountains around our hometown of Tucson, Arizona. If you love the outdoors, it’s hard to beat this area. The desert, particularly in the late fall and early spring, is lush and beautiful, and wildlife is abundant; we almost always see something of interest, from larger animals like deer, javelina and bobcats to the smaller and creepier inhabitants, such as tarantulas, scorpions and snakes. This is why I like to go: for the chance to see something wild and really cool, hopefully from a safe and uncompromising distance.
Hiking was, for me, most enjoyable when my children were small. The pace was more to my liking, and we had to stop often so that they could keep up. We could only go on a trail for a half hour or so before turning around; often it seemed like we should have gone farther, but we wanted the experience to be enjoyable for them. This was, I felt, a very sweet and considerate thing we did as parents. Soon, however, I found we were going further and further in each time on the various trails we frequented, and I found myself silently grateful for the opportunity to turn around. Worse still, we weren’t waiting for our children to keep up anymore; now they took the lead and I was constantly calling ahead to remind them to stay in view. I did this under the guise of good parenting and concern for their safety, but in fact I wanted them close enough to call 911 lest I be mauled and partially eaten by a lazy, I’ll-eat-anything black bear, or more likely suffer a heart attack from over-exertion.
I first noticed this new phenomenon when we took a vacation to Germany in 2001. My cousin and her husband, a man of sixty-four, took us on a hike in the German Alps. It began innocently enough, with a pleasant walk through fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed, but then the path turned suddenly demonic and schizophrenic and began a steady, meandering incline. After an hour, we stopped at a pasture gate for a snack of apples; my head filled with silent cheers and imaginary confetti and streamers for having reached the halfway point. Soon, though, we were off again (with the promise of a happy surprise mere miles up the mountain), and the mental confetti and streamers were replaced by an endless internal tirade of obscenity directed at this old, seemingly tireless German man. My youngest child was only seven, and so I feigned concern for her well-being. Sadly, she was fine and even cheery; I was the one whose knees bleated in pain like a prodded sheep with every step and whose lungs were set to explode and splatter inside my rib cage. Soon I could be found at the back of the pack, arms folded across my chest, lower lip jutting from the bottom of a perpetual scowl, kicking rocks and generally acting like a snotty little brat. After seven miles and the German equivalent of the Bataan death march, we came upon a charming little Chalet in the middle of nowhere that offered ice cream to the yodeling mountaineers who ventured by. As I consoled myself with an oversized bowl of sugary decadence, I couldn’t help but notice more than a few natives of advanced age who had walked even further from the other direction and were now set to complete the trail in the way from which we had come. Though I should have been humbled at the sight, instead I chose to be offended by their freakish conditioning and silently cursed their obvious penchant for clean living.
Things have only gotten worse for me since. My children have all grown (my youngest is now eighteen) and are very athletic; when we begin a hike together, they are off like roaches when the light is turned on. Even my wife can out-walk me. To her credit, I can tell she slows a bit for my benefit; I presume this is because I have the car keys and she knows I might bolt for home at any time.
My wife’s birthday was last week and she asked that we go to the mountains for dinner and a hike. The town of Summerhaven, only a forty-five minute drive from the city and nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, sits at a shade above 9,000 feet and offers a cool, refreshing alternative to the often oppressive Tucson summer heat. We left town and its 105F temperature and climbed the mountain by car; by the time we arrived at our destination things had cooled to a perfect 67F. We were all hungry and decided to eat first. We sat on an outdoor patio and our food was brought to us in relatively short order. I immediately descended upon a fat bacon cheeseburger and a healthy (visually, anyway) pile of french fries. When I’d finished, my plate was clean, save for a couple of chip marks on its surface and some bent tines from jabbing my fork wishfully at an apparent mirage of scattered fries. I leaned back with a complimentary burp and contented toot, put my hands behind my head, closed my eyes and settled blissfully into the digestive process. So sated was I that I began to reach for the top button of my pants, before it shot off on its own and concussed a passing waitress.
Dang it. Clearly I was the only one who had tested the limits of gluttony; a hike was the last thing I wanted now and I’d hoped the others had felt likewise. It wasn’t my birthday, however, and so I teetered off after them, pausing to grab a toothpick and thereby completing the living depiction of the typically disgusting, overindulgent American male.
My family chose the Mint Spring Trail, which climbs and then straddles a ridge overlooking the small mountain village. It began most unfairly with a climb whose verticality was interrupted only by a series of maddening switchbacks. I felt like a zoo-born tiger, reduced to walking mindlessly and tediously back and forth in front of a fence – only this fence line went upwards in both directions . I looked down and saw that if I merely allowed myself to fall, I would be back to my car in a matter of seconds; after teetering on the edge of some incredibly bad personal choices for some time, I cleverly opted to follow the others at whatever pace I could manage. My son and daughter soon became fleet, occasional and distant images; my wife, bless her heart, came in and out of view more frequently (I had the car keys).
After what seemed like days (it was probably five minutes) the trail began to even out, but my relief was short-lived. I felt a sudden and instantly compelling intestinal shift, accompanied by a sound like that of a jacuzzi starting up; my situation, already testing the limits of my physical endurance, had become dire. Soon I found myself examining the various plants along the forest floor, choosing which might have the broadest and softest leaves should use of rudimentary tools become necessary. Fortunately, things gradually improved. I spent the rest of the hike walking like Charlie Chaplin, but without going into further detail I can say that I survived the ordeal with innards and dignity intact.
Despite my trials, the hike was by all accounts a success. My children enjoyed their time together and were too far ahead to hear my constant, plaintive whining. My wife either didn’t hear or more likely chose to ignore me, having endured it now for literally half of her life; and I was able to temper the furious beating of my heart, the tribal drum beat in my temples and the stabbing pain in both lungs by stopping to take pictures along the trail.
I’ll continue to hike with my family; despite the agony, some of my favorite memories have come from them. I guess I just need to do it more often, build some endurance and realize I’m an old fart and it’s okay to fall behind and enjoy the hike at my own pace. And if I’m eaten by a not- terribly-picky bear, hopefully I’ll get some good pictures first.