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Mountain Man

While I’m at the beach this week, my dear friend Alison has agreed to guest post for me on a subject she is well versed in: backpacking in the mountains. There are parts of Colorado where she can name every peak you pass, and tell you a story that happened there, too. You’ll want to go read her wonderful blog, Chino House, and check out the beautiful pictures from her latest mountain adventure on Instagram.

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Some folks go to the beach for vacation.

Some families got trips to Disneyworld.

I got mountains.

My daddy started taking me with him to the mountains before I was even old enough to appreciate them. Not just the hills we have here in Arkansas, though he took me to those too, but the big mountains.

The Colorado Rockies.

He and my mom took us skiing in the winter and camping in the summer.

My dad has been leading backpacking trips in the summertime in Colorado for many, many years, and I vividly remember the first time he took our whole family backpacking. I was about 9, which would have made my siblings 8 and 4. He and my mom invited another family with three kids similar in ages to us to come along.

My mom, my sister, brother and I drove out with the other family in a van. Let’s call them the Johnsons. We were to meet up with my dad in Aspen as he was already in the area and had just finished leading a trip for students in the mountains.

Where in Aspen is he going to meet us? Mr. Johnson wanted to know.

Oh, you don’t have to worry, Mr. Johnson, my sister replied, though he was not speaking to her, Daddy will find us.

From the outset, it was clear to me even at the age of 9 that our family was different from the Johnsons. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson were very organized, predictable people. For starters, when we stopped at McDonald’s on the way out, Mr. Johnson made us all tell him what we wanted to eat before we ever got out of the van. Then he proceeded to give the blessing for the meal, again, before we ever left the van.

How this poor man ever got hooked up with my father is baffling to me. Lord, help him, I thought as he penned my cheeseburger and fries on his pad of paper and my sister, Anna, demanded to actually VIEW THE MENU.

We made it to Aspen, and we had not been out of the van for long before I heard my daddy’s whistle. Anna and I both turned our heads to see our dad’s week-in-the-woods unshaven face coming toward us across a grassy park. We took off running.

How did you find us? Mr and Mrs. Johnson wanted to know.

Daddy smirked, You’re not exactly inconspicuous. A group with a mess of kids this loud is hard to miss!

We jumped back into the van, this time with Daddy at the wheel, and he drove us to base camp.

Now Anna and I had both been on shorter backpacking trips with Daddy, but this was to be our first real Colorado Rocky Mountain Trip. We were going to carry stuff on our backs for a week, even our food! And we were going to climb a for real mountain, a fourteener!

We went through the agonizing process of loading our packs, determining who was going to carry what. And what was being left behind. Each of the kids had a pack full of our clothes, a sleeping bag and a sleeping pad, so the adults had to carry everything else.

My dad looked like a pack animal. It was insane. It was gear piled on top of gear, layers and layers of junk roped together. On the very back of the huge pile of stuff was a large cooking pot he called the Mega Pot. You had to be careful on the trail next to Daddy because his pack was so deep that he could easily whack you unknowingly with the Mega Pot when he turned sideways.

The first day on the trail is always a rough one. A combination of the long drive to Colorado and the adjustment to the altitude generally equals a lot of whining. We all began to complain about the hike and our heavy packs.

What! What is that whining? You have to hike an hour with a good attitude to get the surprise! came Daddy’s voice from the back of the group. (Daddy almost always puts the slowest person in the front and brings up the rear when hiking.)

What surprise!?! six voices yelled.

Well, if I told ya, it wouldn’t be a surprise now, would it?

Everything is a game to Daddy. I remember when Anna and one of the Johnson boys both got down on their knees to drink from a creek, he said, There’s a legend in Colorado that if a boy and a girl drink from this creek at the same time, they will fall in love and get married one day.

Of course, I teased Anna mercilessly about that drink all week. Hey Anna! Your boyfriend is kinda lagging behind! Maybe you should offer to carry some of his stuff.

Even with treats and games and promises up his sleeves, Daddy had trouble coaxing us all up the mountain. We finally stopped and set up camp and all the Johnsons fell into their tent and went to sleep in broad daylight.

Daddy made dinner and woke Mr. and Mrs. Johnson up to eat. He told them they had to get their kids up to eat or they were going to get altitude sickness, but they refused. I can hardly blame them. No one wants to wake up sleeping children. But then, dear goodness, they were up later in the night, throwing up from altitude sickness.

With folks not feeling great, it took us a while to get moving the next morning, but Daddy was still pressing us forward, If you start hiking, you’ll warm up and feel better.

We didn’t hike up as far as he had hoped on Day 1, which would set us back significantly, especially since on Day 2, it began to rain.

Now it’s not unusual for a mountain storm to blow up out of nowhere in Colorado, especially in the afternoon. These days my husband is quick to get us off of peaks and passes by noon because of the dangers of storms rolling in while you are up high and exposed. But those storms usually pass by fairly quickly. They are wild and crazy, but over in a flash. But this rain we had on our hike was no fast and furious mountain storm.

This rain was settled in, mud making, skin drenching rain. We hiked for a while in it before everyone’s misery won out and Daddy covered us like a pile of shivering, wet puppies with a tarp while he set up the tents. In the rain.

Then we all piled into our tents and he made us sweet skillet biscuits and hot chocolate. In the rain.

We gobbled it all down while Daddy cleaned everything up. In the rain.

It tasted like heaven.

The next day we woke up to more rain, and while the Johnsons were saying that perhaps we had hiked quite enough, Daddy started moving parts of camp further up the trail on his own. Quietly making several trips back and forth, he would slowly move us along. He didn’t really communicate his intentions. We would emerge from our tent to see that the rest of camp had moved and so we would have to move with it.

I really have no idea how many days this went on before he announced to us that tomorrow was the big day.

The Peak Climb.

It was the day we would climb to the top of the mountain. We could leave our packs at camp. All we would have to do is get up and hike. He would carry lunch and all the water we would need.

He was going to have to wake us up fairly early though, because it was going to be a long hike.

Now, years later, I wish I could have overheard the conversation that was happening in the Johnsons’ tent that night. I remember thinking of them as sort of lightweights, but honestly, the fact that Mr. Johnson had not taken a tent stake to my father’s head at this point shows an amazing amount of restraint.

Every morning before we hiked we would pray for the day and Mr. Johnson try hard to smile and he would say, Let’s pray that it won’t rain today, ok kids?

And then Daddy, God bless him, he would say,

Instead, why don’t we pray that the good Lord will help us to have a good attitude no matter what the weather is today.

On the day of our Peak Climb, we got up while it was still dark and started hiking to get warm. Daddy fed us bites of breakfast and gave treats from his bottomless pockets.

And we tried. We really did. But it began to rain more and we were so tired, so when Daddy saw some really great rocks, he had us all come over and sit down on the rocks. He made a speech about how we had made it all the way to THIS ROCK! I’m so proud of you all! Here are your prizes.

More treats from his pockets.

And I’m especially proud of what great attitudes you’ve all had today!

You know what, he said, I think we can probably get all the way back to the van today if I make a couple of trips with all the stuff. Let’s go home!

Relief like you’ve never seen in your life washed over the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. My mother smiled.

On the way home, when we stopped at McDonald’s for dinner, we all just went in willy nilly and ordered our happy meals.

We never did go anywhere again with the Johnsons. Several years later though, I heard that Mrs. Johnson had a baby unexpectedly when she thought she was going through menopause. I like to think that maybe hanging out with our crazy family in the mountains for a week prepared the Johnsons to embrace a few of life’s surprises.

I also heard the next year they went to Disney World for their family vacation.

7 Comments

  1. Robin

    Great read, thanks for sharing. I loved it.

  2. Awesome! I love this post.

    It’s been nearly 12 years since I was privileged to be on one of those mountain-climbing adventures with your folks, and your dad took very good care of us. Yes, we whined. Yes, I experienced altitude sickness (I wasn’t drinking enough water because I didn’t want to have to squat in the woods!). But Craig made sure we were all OK, and we had a great climb up Uncompahgre. It was a trip I’ll never forget, and your dad worked hard to make it memorable and meaningful for all of us.

    Thank you so much for sharing this piece of your family history.

  3. Thanks Robin! I love writing down these old memories!

    Suzy, I’ve had so many people share similar stories with me over the last few days. They are DEFINITELY trips of a lifetime! There’s something very special about them, no matter how many disasters you encounter along the way!

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  1. By In The Pipeline Chino House 12 Sep '13 at 7:36 am

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