Big(ish) adventure travel means big father-son bonding

By Peter Ehrlich

“Noah, I’m going to put my foot on that rock and push myself up over the ledge. The rock is directly in front of you, so if it gave way, it would roll right into you. Can you please move over to the right?”

I looked directly into my son’s eyes and saw that he understood the clarity and importance of my message, our souls locked together in a tight, spiritual embrace. The message said “I love you”, it said “I see everything, every rock, every danger in front of you”. It said, “I am your father.”

My seventeen year old did as I asked, and when I saw he was out of harm’s way, I planted my right foot, took a breath and dug in, lifting myself over the final crop of rock before the reaching the top of the mountain.

This father-son scene recently took place on a mountain in the stunningly magnificent Emigrant Wilderness, just north of Yosemite Park, California on Highway 4, a couple of miles just west of the Sonora Pass.

My son and I were not on a dangerous climb per se, just a challenging and exhausting one where the natural elevation is approximately 11,000 feet. Though the mountain was only approximately 3,000 (fairly steep) feet high, we were 14,000 up in the air and I can tell you, each step was an effort.

But with each step taken, without anything being said, the bond between us deepened in a requited way. It wasn’t just dad choking and welling up inside again while my child wondered why.

Here, on this mountain, I sensed that he too was reveling in the sanctity, spirituality and pureness of the challenge; Father and son, stripped.

This wasn’t just another stroll outside of yet another Holiday Inn, rather, we were taking the “road seldom traveled”. We chose to test ourselves physically as father and son, as family.

Family means trust, and here we were, miles away from anyone who could help us, up in the clouds, in an environment that is better suited to creatures with four legs, not two.

(When we reached the summit, I acted like one of those gazelles you see in a National Geographic special while sharing a watering hole with the lions. In this case, it was dad’s noggin, nervously glancing around, making sure that a bear wasn’t interested in joining our expedition.)

Since we only had each other to depend on, our climb gave vital life and meaning to the word “trust.” We felt alive.

Experiencing family trust around the kitchen table is one thing, on the side of a big mountain, up in the sky, another.

The climb also defined, in a real and beautiful way, the passing of the torch and the further realization of my own mortality. It was a paradigm shift.

Until recently, the domain of “who took care of who” on a family outing was crystal clear. My job until our day on our mountain was for me to take care of my child.

Now it was my son who waited for me to catch up, lent his bigger paw to pull me up, who shouted encouraging words to a struggling and out of breath father.

Taking your child on an adventure that challenges is a delicate balance.

As a parent it is our sworn duty never to put our children in harm’s way. And the desire to protect is so powerful that it’s almost as though becoming a parent means giving up the right to die.

But there is something to be said for taking the sort of adventurous journey that tests the family physically and mentally in some way. The shared challenge with your child deepens your relationship, gives added meaning and weight to it.

In the desert of Nevada, we took a walk in 110 degree temperature, just so we could know what its like to feel a searing heat together.

In 2000, when I snorkeled with my son off the waters of Cat Island in the Bahamas, we developed a few simple hand signals so if one of us had to leave the water, or was in danger, the other would know immediately.

And when under water, again exploring a territory that wasn’t natural for us – because our feet aren’t webbed – nor do we have gills, the simple and silent hand signals entrenched a family love and affection more than words ever could.

My dream is to climb Mount Kilimanjaro with Noah, the last big adventure we take together, the ultimate symbol of father releasing child into the world. The climb is fairly safe, but it’s extremely difficult and often a painful journey.

But the reward of experiencing a family adventure “without logos,” is something all parents and their children should experience at least once in a lifetime.

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