The mosquitoes attacked the moment we started up the trail, an army lying in wait to ambush and destroy us. I was glad I had heeded Kathy’s warning to take plenty of bug dope, which I sprayed generously all over us. Sam, my 12-year-old son, made an “I’m being tortured, leave me alone face” and kept turning away as I sprayed his cheeks and forehead. “This smells terrible,” he complained.
“That’s what we hope the mosquitoes are saying to themselves,” Kathy said, punching the air like a shadow boxer. “‘I can’t stand the smell—I give up. I’ll leave these poor people alone and bother somebody else.’”
Of the three of us, the least prepared was Kathy, the Alaskan, who went on this hike with leaky boots. While Sam and I stomped through the snow in our waterproof, insulated Gore-Tex hikers, Kathy sloshed through puddles, swearing at her boots and vowing to destroy them the moment she returned home. Exit Glacier, in the Kenai Mountains, was named because it served as the “exit” for the first recorded crossing of the Harding Ice Fields, which was where we were headed, at the summit.
The terrain leveled off as we climbed, but the snow got deeper, burying our boots, At first, we were able to follow a trail of tiny orange flags marked by a Park Service ranger, but the flags soon disappeared, and we had to bushwhack our own way, our general direction guided by the far-off distant summit, a sparkling mass of glittering white, caked with ice blue. There were many trails—just lines of footprints, really—but none that seemed most suitable to follow. After slipping, sliding, and falling in and out of other hikers’ mistakes, we realized that braving our way through new snow would work best. But it was slow going. Three steps forward meant two steps sliding backward. The trick was to keep your legs moving, continue to scramble upward, often on all fours, in order to maintain a slow and steady forward progress.
Something happens to me when I get into situations like this, a combination of panic and sheer persistence, jelling, building, converging, and exploding. A time to be tested: against the elements, against other people, and against myself. My heart beats faster and I click into a special awareness and focus on the task ahead, an intense tunnel vision that allows me to block out any extraneous details and hone in on my overall objective, as in the case of the rising plain of snow confronting us.
“Fall down nine times and get up ten,” is the phrase I continue to press upon Sam.
“Never give up,” I say, pushing the concept further by paraphrasing Winston Churchill, “Never give in, never give up. Never. Never. Never. Ever.” This is something that I, an old-new dad, in my early sixties, read in elementary school and never forgot.
As I move forward in this manner, I become increasingly crazed. I am not self-destructive. I don’t jump out of airplanes or windsurf, but I hunger for situations offering an edge, and then I try to see what it takes—what inner resources I will have to muster forth—to meet the challenge and beat it. I knew that Kathy was minding Sam for the moment, so I could permit this explosion of expression.
Then I began running. In my hiking boots, my daypack bouncing on my back, it was like plunging through the obstacle course at U. S. Coast Guard boot camp all over again, forty years later.
Suddenly, I was young, strong, driven. The distance between Sam and Kathy and I began to lengthen. After a while, I lost sight of them. I knew that Kathy was slowing down and tiring and I realized that my responsibility, Sam, was behind me. But I couldn’t help myself. I felt jet-propelled.
Finally, I forced myself to slow down. I was feeling guilty for leaving behind my friend and host, not to mention my son, but I was also glowing inside with an aura of triumph. I could still beat most people, I thought. I could still marshal my amazing ability to concentrate with all of my physical resources and demonstrate my superiority and my grit over anybody, almost. But then came the sound and movement, which I first sensed and then heard: distinct footsteps behind me. I turned. Sam.
The realization that Sam had caught up with me—me at my strongest, my most powerful and supercharged best—was startling. For years I had been the person pushing Sam and setting the pace for him—but I could see now that he really didn’t need me as much anymore and would soon not need me at all. Like any son, he was catching up with his father. Bypassing me was inevitable.
This is what we work to achieve as fathers—and in certain ways dread, when we are so incredibly successful.