Trail Less Traveled


My son’s tears flowed like a river. He sobbed as if he had just seen our beloved dog get hit by a car. What was I thinking? How could I have done this to my children? What kind of father was I?

I never feel more at home than I do when surrounded by nature. Whether it’s on a trail, the peak of a mountain, in a kayak navigating our Lowcountry black waters, or on the ocean without land in sight the more remote and removed from civilization the better. These places are where I meet my true self, where my heart feels most whole, where everything else slips away and I feel alive, as I am meant to live. In those moments the clarity seems unending. This is what I wanted my children to experience, even if it was for just a few seconds.

My wife and I take a few camping trips with the kids every year, but this was the first time that I really felt my two older kids, Noah (my daughter, age 12) and Jude (my son, age 10) were old enough and capable of handling an overnight backpacking trip. I had been looking forward to this moment since the kids toddled their first steps. So, I hatched a plan.

I’d never backpacked with kids before, so after calling the Ranger station, checking maps, and brushing up on trail safety and backpacking tips through online articles and Youtube videos, I finally decided on a route that started at the top of Mount Mitchell in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. We would hike down about two miles the first day to a place that we could camp called Commissary Hill. The next day, we would hike the remaining approximately three miles to the base of the trail at Black Mountain campground and spend the night there. The final morning, we would hike the Green Knob trail back to the Blue Ridge Parkway where my wife would pick us up. All in all, it was about eight miles, and didn’t look to be too extreme for the kids’ first backpacking adventure.

We drove from our home in Summerville directly to the top of Mount Mitchell. The family had a quick PB&J lunch, we walked around the park a bit with my wife and youngest daughter, who would be staying nearby during our hike, and then it was time. We strapped on our backpacks, said our goodbyes, and headed off into the unknown.

Our journey began on a paved, fairly steep incline, which led to the start of the actual trail. About a hundred feet up the paved trail, we came across our first bench. Both Noah and Jude immediately expressed their need to make use of the bench.

“It’s so steep!”

“Will it be this steep the whole way?”

It was at this point that I patted myself on the back for planning a mostly downhill trip. I knew that we only had a few hundred yards to reach where the trail went off road and downhill. So I let them take a break, and managed to work a pep talk in there at the same time. I acknowledged that they had never carried 15-20 pounds on their backs while walking up a steep incline, and encouraged them that they’d get used it, and end up feeling stronger as a result. After we rested for a minute, we headed back up the trail and both Noah and Jude rejoiced once the trail turned downward.

About a mile down the trail, I spotted a small sign nailed to a tree that read “North Carolina Wildlife Bear Sanctuary.” My first thought was to keep my observation quiet so as not to bring up any unsettling feelings or cause them undue fear. But as it is my hope that one day they too will want to venture into the woods on their own, I also wanted to take advantage of all teaching opportunities. So, I pointed out the sign, reminded them to always be on the lookout for signs along the trail, and reviewed some bear safety information with them. And as a reward for my due diligence as a father and mentor, I spent the next hour listening to them frightfully question if every snap of a twig and rustle of brush was, in fact, a bear.

On the subject of bears – does a bear poop in the woods? Yes, he does, and so did we. I have to admit, this was one of the things I thought that I would get some complaints about. After all, squatting over a small hole that you have dug with a trowel, out of sight of the rest of your party, alone in an unfamiliar forest, shortly after discussing the proliferation of bears in the area is a far cry from the safe and sanitary comforts of home. Instead of complaints though, if you asked Noah and Jude what one of their favorite things about hiking was, pooping in the woods would be pretty high up on the list. They loved it. It seems kind of strange, but I can only guess that this act made them feel like legitimate adventurers.

After about two (bear-free) hours that first day, we made it to Commissary Hill, our camping spot for the night. Noah and Jude set up the tent and sleeping bags while I prepared dinner. As we ate, a few more hikers meandered in to pitch camp and they seemed to bring rainclouds with them. Just as we decided to get in the tent, the rain began, the sound on the rain cover was both beautiful and entrancing. The symphony of rain all but drowned out any conversation we tried to have and it wasn’t long before we had all drifted off to sleep.

I awoke just before sunrise, happy to discover that we and our provisions remained dry all night. After a quick pancake breakfast, we set off again down the trail. Less than a quarter mile into the day’s hike, we came to a breathtaking view: standing above a lush valley, we took in the surrounding mountain vistas and sunlit clouds in between. It was a scene from a postcard, or screen saver, or maybe one of those motivational posters you see hanging on office walls, except we were living it. We all stood there in awe, soaking in the moment. This was why we were there. Both of the kids talked about how they had never seen anything like that. That is a moment that will stick with me, and I hope with the two of them. But like they say, there are highs and there are lows in any journey, and the lows were still ahead.

After a day spent hiking three miles, the murmur of the South Toe River was a welcome sound as we approached the Black Mountain campground at the bottom of the Mount Mitchell trail. The river was pretty shallow, so I let Noah and Jude wade while I went and arranged a campsite for the night and spoke to the campground host about our plans to hike the Green Knob Trail the next day.

“Oh, you’re pretty brave, aren’t ya?” she quipped.

I hesitated, not expecting this response. “Why do say that?”

“Well,” she smiled, “I have been host at this campground for 15 years and never hiked that trail. Everyone that comes through here who has been on that trail says that it’s a tough one. They say it’s all uphill, and in some places you have to climb hand over hand up some rock faces.”
I thanked the woman, bought some ice cream for the kids, and strolled across the street to check out the Green Knob trail head. It was then that I saw a sign I hadn’t seen before. On my National Geographic trail map, this trail was marked as “difficult.” The sign here was just slightly different, it read “Green Knob Trail – MOST DIFFICULT”.

I pondered the implications of this sign and what the campground host had said to me as I walked back to where I could see Noah and Jude playing in the river. Did I make a mistake concocting this perhaps slightly ill-conceived plan? Should I call my wife to come pick us up?

I decided to press on, and the next morning, we headed up the Green Knob trail. Now, when I say up, I mean up. The trail was as steep as a “MOST DIFFICULT” trail rating would have you expect. I knew that this would be difficult for the kids, so I prepared myself to stop for frequent breaks. It wasn’t long before we were stopping every ten minutes, then every five, then three, two, one, and then every hundred feet or so. The complaining was intermittent but intense. I tried to encourage the kids by telling them about the cool fire tower that we could climb at the top of trail, but that didn’t seem to be much of a motivator. I debated turning around, but we had plans to meet my wife at the top of the trail later, and there was no cell signal in the area to get ahold of her. We had to keep moving.

Jude finally snapped. “I want to go home. I don’t want to be here. I want someone to come get us,” he cried as tears rolled down his face. Noah was keeping it together, but had similar feelings about the matter. We took off our packs and sat down.

It was at this moment that it occurred to me that this hike was quite literally the most difficult thing the kids had ever done. In fact, the physical effort that they were putting forth was probably more than they could have ever imagined would be asked from them.

I went over to Jude and wrapped my arms around him. “I love you buddy, and I’m so sorry that this is so difficult for you,” I said as his sobs softened. “I didn’t mean to pick a route that would be so difficult, but I know that you can do this. It’s just putting one foot in front of the other until we get to the end of the trail.”
“I don’t think I can do it.” Jude replied, doing his best to hold back his tears.

“We can take as many breaks as you need,” I promised. “We can stop every twenty feet if we need to. But I promise you that you can do this, and when we get to the end of the trail, you are going to feel something that you probably haven’t felt before; you will know that what may seem impossible is possible.”

Jude wiped his tears and we soldiered on. Every twenty feet or so, we stopped: sometimes for seconds, sometimes for minutes. Sometimes we had to hang on to a tree or tree branch to help steady ourselves against the incline of the trail. Noah chimed in every so often with encouraging comments like, “You can do it Jude” and “We’re getting closer with every step.” Jude needed a few more pep talks from me, and I used every analogy I could think of to help him. Eventually, it happened. The sobbing subsided, his breathing calmed, and his mindset changed. Jude had broken through the wall, and I couldn’t have been more proud of him.

And then, it was Noah’s turn. Only about a half mile from the end of the trail, Noah became upset at the strenuousness of it all. So my pep talks turned to Noah, and Jude began to encourage her like she had done for him.

Cheering erupted from both kids as we reached the top of the trail. We spotted the fire tower a little way off and we raced to get there. The kids ran up the steps off the fire tower only to find that it was locked and we couldn’t go out on to the decking surrounding the small enclosure atop the tower. I expected to hear remarks of disappointment, but Noah and Jude just sat at the top of the steps and smiled as they remarked about how great the view was from there.

Had I known how difficult the trail would be for the kids when planning the trip, I probably would have chosen a different route. In hindsight, I’m glad I made that mistake. Even months later, if either of them start talking about how difficult something is, all I have to do is mention that hike, and they push through. I think I speak for the three of us when I say it was worth taking the trail less traveled.

By Dan Riley