An unexpected part of my journey: Helping my 70 year old father complete a 42 year journey

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Over the last 42 years my dad has hiked the 2168 miles of the Appalachian Trail, slowly but steadily moving from Georgia northward towards Maine.

His goal was to complete the final 366 miles this summer.  He got 1 1/2 miles from the top of Mt Katahdin but was forced to turn back when the weather turned somber, and darkness was upon him.  He ran out of time.  His energy was also on empty.  But my dad doesn’t break commitments easily. He’s head strong, and often bitterly stubborn.  The words “Cut your losses” are not in his vocabulary. 

And you can’t simply hike the last 1 1/2 miles the next day.  You have to do the full 10.  And 5 of that ten is essentially rock climbing up the face of New England’s second biggest mountain.  His bullheaded mind said he could do it, should do it. And I imagine his heart broke a little to come up just short of the finale.  His body told him another story.  He’d lost 30 pounds, when he lifted up his shirt, was all ribs.  He looked like Jesus on the cross, for christ’s sake.  He was also bruised and scraped up pretty good.  And he’s 70 years old!  After listening to solid reasoning provided by my mom, and other family members, he decided not to go back up the next day, but rather return to California and wait for another time to finish it.  Again, I know this broke his heart in the tiniest way.

I called him and asked if he’d come back later in the Fall before the weather got too cold, and let me accompany him to the top of Mt Katahdin.  I admit, part of the suggestion was motivated by wanting him to NOT go right back up.  He seemed quite fragile – physically and emotionally. 

But the other reason was to help him celebrate this incredible accomplishment that few can call theirs.  Hiking the entire Appalachian Trail takes a special type of person. 

Did i mention he’s bullheaded?  My dad is the person who showed me how gratifying it is to try new things and what adventures can ensue if you screw fear, and go for it.  He wasn’t comfortable (or happy for that matter) unless he was uncomfortable.  Pushing into unknown territories, never content with the status quo.  It could be maddening for my mom, I imagine.  But it’s his essence, and I’m blessed to have gotten some of that.

We agree to meet in Maine in one month’s time. 

I’m not much of a planner, and have an eternally optimistic (naive?) assumption that things will work out.  They generally do, but my boyfriend is usually trailing behind me with a scarf or hat, since I forgot to check the weather in Montana in December, for example. 🙂

So I didn’t do any research on the hike.  Dad’s been doing this for 42 years, and he did the same portion only 1 month earlier.  I’ll let him do the planning, I thought.  I brought my new backpack, some warm clothes, a sleeping bag, and a virtually airless bed roll (which did me no good). 

Did I have a fork for the hot meals my dad brought for us? Did i have gas for the tiny stove he carried for us to cook with?  Did I have a headlamp with new batteries?  Did I have a water bladder in my backpack or a water purifier?  Nope.  Not a one.  But my dad did.  He had all of that for himself.  And for me.

I also didn’t look at the terrain or weather on the mountain other than a google picture of Mt Katahdin (it looked pretty big).

My mom stressed the need to take warm clothes, and since my boyfriend has been great at continuously reminding me about East Coast winter needs, I heeded her advice.  This was good news since the top of the mountain was above the tree line and felt and looked like a tundra.

And to get to that tundra, I would soon realize… was a mix of rock hopping and rock climbing.

But I didn’t know that yet. The hike was 5 up and 5 down. No biggie.

Except when you are carrying 40 pounds in your pack.  You feel that.  You really feel that.  When you lift your leg to step up on a rock above you, and you literally cannot pull yourself up…yeah, your ego REALLY feels that.

Or when you take a misstep, and your pack falls to one side, and you fall over with it.  Every part of you feels that.  Especially your ego.

There is a part of the ascent that is giant boulders, and you need both feet and both hands and all your faculties. 

And it’s getting colder by degrees with every step.

I go first because i am faster than my dad.  And younger by 31 years.  So I am more nimble, and more agile, and also probably more restless and definitely more reckless.  But I feel confident because I am fairly fit (I practice yoga, go running and play soccer).  I find myself getting impatient with my dad’s methodical, plodding pace. Especially because we are against the clock.  if it gets near dark, we have to turn back.  There is no sleeping out on the mountain – not with what we have in our packs.  The park rangers also come search for you – it’s no joke, Mt. Katahdin.

If you hike, then you know this, but I started to realize the little things really become something to look forward to.  Like lunch at the top of the first crest.

As I wait for the crest, and my lunch spot, I keep looking back at my dad and thinking frustratedly, He should really be careful.  His fragility scared me. His careful placement of the hiking poles, which sometimes slipped, had me worried.  Especially when I’d hear a crash, or rocks slipping away.  I’d look back, and there would be my dad – quietly and calmly, without complaint, righting himself from a small spill.  He should really be more careful,  I thought again.

This thought was causing me quite a bit of pain and anxiety, as we trekked onwards and upwards.  I felt tingly and even my breath was more labored for it.

Then it hit me – duh.  All the work I’ve been doing – training to be a life coach – I should coach myself out of this mental merry-go-round I’d was taking myself on.

So I let my dad go in front of me – which really forced a slow down – and as I watched him carefully place each one of his poles – I began to turn over this thought.

He should really be careful

How does this thought make me feel? 

Stressed out, anxious, resentful, pained, mad, sad. 

How am I treating myself and others when I have this thought? 

I’m definitely pushing not only my dad away from me, but ruining a really cool shared experience for us and for myself. 

Okay – how do I dissolve this limiting belief that my dad should be more careful?

First I turned the phrase to the opposite.

He really shouldn’t be careful.  Why could this be true?

–b/c he’s already hiked 2166 miles of this trail over 42 years

–he knows better than I do with his experience

–this is joy to him. not about taking care. it’s about the adventure, the what if, the anything can happen, the challenge

Next I turn the judgment on myself.

I should be careful. Why could this be true?

–I’m overstepping my bounds/getting into his business

–with my limited experience hiking, do I even know what I’m talking about?

–b/c I am inexperienced as a hiker, I need to watch my own steps more carefully

–i should be careful not to tell others what to do/make assumptions

Then I turn it to an “other” possible truth.  This one resonated for me the most.

I should be careful with him. Why could this be true?

–b/c my dad is 70 years old, and there is limited time left with him, and he’s getting more fragile as he gets older and our adult relationship is developing.  So I need to take care with him.  Be more patient. More loving. More present.

After realizing this, I felt so much more openness and love in my heart for my dad, for the journey we were currently on, and everything was okay.  Everything was just as it should have been.

Oh – and that crest I’d been anxiously waiting for ? Well, it was so windy and frigid cold, we couldn’t possibly stop and eat our lunch there.  It looked like Siberia.  We had to keep moving.  Another damn lesson 🙂  Don’t put an expectation on the future, beacuse in all likelihood it will not  bear out the way you anticipate.

We did reach the top, after only a couple of small tumbles, many careful steps, and stunning changes of scenery.  And some hearty congratulations from strangers.  Kinda like life.

PS: my dad asked me if we could take a “selfie”… maybe he isn’t as old as I thought!???

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