When I tell you I like to take my children hiking you will have this picture of me in your head. When I say I grew up in a hiking family and that I have been hiking all over the world there will be this image forming. The children and I will be in the picture, in hiking boots and soaking in serenity. There we will be, the good family, all wilderness-driven creativity and aerobic activity.
You won't think there's a lot of whining, but there is, there really is. When you are hiking with children there's always this patch where everyone starts complaining about everything. Every. Thing. Here it comes, ride it out, I whispered to my boyfriend the other day when we had taken his kids and mine for a little hike in what turned out to be steady rain. My boyfriend is new to hiking.
The beginning of a hike moves between doubt and curiosity for kids. This is stupid, why are we doing it. Look, here's a creek we are crossing. Then you all reach a kind of pleasant plateau. Your body begins to loosen up and the air is clear, the conversation becomes playful and light.
This is lovely until you get to the point where hiking is hard work. Your feet slip against the rocks, the incline is steep, your breath is tight and you become acutely aware of each step. The material of your clothing, the inside of your shoes, your joints, your heel striking the ground, your calf muscles aching, the temperature of the day.
If you are hiking with adults the conversation tends to peter out at this stage and some of your friends may drop back or pull ahead. You are soon walking alone, figuratively or otherwise. Your walking pace settles into a rhythm, it's not unlike the rhythm of drudgery, to be honest. You feel a little bored, a little irritated; but the constant beat of walking eventually mutes the swirling emotions until you find yourself passive in response. A kind of emptiness fills you. And what do you know, this type of detached, mindless marching is actually walking meditation. It feels great.
But that's not always what happens when you are hiking with children.
In January, I took my children to Tasmania. We did some beautiful hikes that transitioned relatively calmly from the whining, trudging stage to the amazing beach or lake stage, but then we did one big hike that did not.
My brother thinks the hikes around Cradle Mountain are some of the most spectacular in the world, and let me tell you, he's a hiking zealot so he ought to know. The mountain is a strenuous climb, particularly with kids. Given we started the walk after first completing a half day hike in the morning, the going was slow for us. We scrambled our way over boulders and past clear blue pools, and through the alpine vegetation until the climb became steep.
Usually the beauty of a hike like that gives you a boost of energy for climbing. In fact, a cognitive neuroscience study found that people taking a 90-minute nature walk show a marked decrease in patterns of negative, inward-directed thinking. But my 10-year-old daughter was having none of that.
She had a little, shall we say, crisis on the slope of the mountain. No judgement here. I, myself, have had one of these breakdowns while trekking in the Patagonian Andes. My daughter's took the direction of 'this is too hard' whereas mine, years before motherhood, had taken the order of 'there must be some way out of here'. There had been a lot of despair and desperate plans for escape that day for me.
Mountain hiking is but an encounter with yourself in (semi-manageable) adversity. It is very often a window into just how badly you can behave in times of strain. In hindsight, my meltdown in the Patagonian Andes was, in fact, a rather good predictor of how I would behave during drug-free labour. There must be some way out of here.
Generally, when my children get reluctant hiking I encourage them through it with dogged jolliness that if I am forced to sustain, becomes passive aggression and eventually, deep-breathing silence. This is a moment for practicing acceptance, I tell them.
However, this time it didn't work and my daughter's footsteps slowed down until she was resting every few steps. The problem with this approach is you never reach the rhythm of drudgery I was referring to earlier. Time passes very slowly and your focus rests on the next footstep and how difficult it will be. Everyone else in our group - my sister, brother, their partners and my nephew - left and went on ahead. My six-year-old son, gambling like a goat, departed with them.
It grew very quiet for a time, high up there in the stillness of the bush with its greys and blues and greens and my daughter glowering at me. Her 'this is too hard' had morphed into 'you are too hard'. I told her about how magical it would be at the summit, I told her we had come this far and we had to keep going, I told her that she could do it.
After a time, I urged my boyfriend to go on without us. My daughter was wailing and cursing by then, like someone strung out. She was digging in hard, all resistance and hopelessness, snot and tears. My boyfriend walked off up the trail and disappeared around the bend. I imagined all the second thoughts he must be having about us, about binding himself to this crazy, broken thing.
I tried a little more sweetness with my daughter but she only grew more stubborn. I looked at her then and was suddenly done. I sank beside her and stared into the middle distance. To the onlooker it would have seemed angelic and patient, but it wasn't. I was thinking about how I was going to throw my daughter off the side of the mountain. And how good it was going to feel.
I thought a lot of angry things until eventually, I realised something. Staring out at the distance I saw how beautiful and expansive the view was. If I was to be forced to sit and think somewhere this wasn't so bad. Maybe some of the inflexibility here was mine, not hers.
So, I decided something new. I was finishing the hike to the summit because I couldn't come this far and not. But I now understood that my child didn't have to finish it. She could wait on the path and I would be able to see her as I ascended and know that she was safe. I would collect her on the return.
When I reached the peak and stared into the abyss of the crater lake I knew I could only stay a short time. I had passed my boyfriend on his way back down and he was going to wait with my daughter for me. I told myself I would just lay my head down for a moment and breath in the solitude you find at the top of a mountain.
Then I heard them, their footsteps in the grass approaching. My boyfriend and my daughter. They stopped silently beside me, lowering themselves either side of me to lay there wordlessly, staring at the sky with me. The things you see when you climb a mountain.