…”And the Colorado Rocky Mountain high, I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky…”
I gaze over my shoulder to see a dozen tired, chaffed skinned, mosquito bitten, chapped lipped kids singing out the words to “Rocky Mountain High,” all to the ire of the bus driver. I smile. They have just completed their first backpacking trip through Yosemite’s high country. They are relishing the memories of their accomplishments. They have found a new home.
Ten days ago, these kids showed up with brand new boots, backpacks, sleeping bags, and Nalgene bottles- all expensive, all new- fresh and eager to board the bus. For some, this was the first time away from home. For most, this will be the first time that they care for themselves. A very wise math teacher who loves children, teaching, and a good joke, wrote the travel brochure. Perhaps purposely, he left out some minor trip details. My job is to fill in those details.
The mountains take shape, slowly, waiting to be discovered. Hiking from pass to pass, each step further from civilization, the air grows cleaner, the vistas wider. As the cool air caresses my tired body, a little sigh of contentment escapes my half parted lips. While I contemplate the high country’s majestic beauty, a whining twelve-year-old breaks my solitude.
“How many more miles? I hate hiking,” he shouts and throws himself down. I take several steps and turn around. Splayed on the trail like a capsized turtle, Sam is kicking and screaming. “Come on, we camp just over this next ridge and down the trail. You can do it.” I plead all the while holding back my laughter. “The water slides and rock jumping are lots of fun.” Sam has “hit the wall.” So, I continue to camp knowing he will eventually follow.
Winding my way down the switchbacks, I stop to catch my breath and gaze upon a granite ridge. Suddenly, I am pelted by a cold icy snow ball. Scanning the terrain, I glimpse a little head wearing an impish grin poking over a rock. Before a warning shout can be issued, another snowball lands squarely in my face. Dropping my pack, I break into a sprint. My burning blisters and aching body became a distant memory. I rush to join in a vigorous “leaders vs. backpackers” snowball fight. After a lively skirmish, when sides become blurred, we collapse onto the cool boulders, exhausted. We munch on the best tasting dried magi strip snacks followed by Crystal Light snow cones. While relishing in the splendor, I spy Sam dragging his pack to camp, sulking. Another day of hiking has passed.
Soaking my blistered feet in the cool pristine water, I gaze across the lake to watch my kids plummet from enormous cliffs into the water below. Peals of laughter ring out. These are the same kids who had to be cajoled, begged and down right dragged up the last hill while screaming of their exhaustion. My group beckons me to join in. They have saved the highest jump for me. Another test. Diving into the icy water, I am momentarily breathless – gasping for air. My kids laugh heartily as I brave the frigid water. The water soothes my tired body and I am instantly rejuvenated as the gritty grim and sweat is washed away, taking with it the hardships and challenges of the day.
Leading twelve middle-school students, while working with two co-leaders, coordinating food and supplies is a daunting task. Though not always fun, I discovered much about myself. I discovered the art of compromise when confronted with a difficult co-leader. For many of the kids, I was their new best friend, their mother, and their punching bag, all wrapped into one. I taught them to cook, clean, pack, hike, and to ward off larcenous bears. Unfortunately, I also discovered how to assist in a high country emergency airlift.
Seven summers have passed since I sang my first John Denver song and learned just what the details that crafty math teacher omitted. The trip carries lessons often not of backpacking, but ones of self-discovery, ones you will carry with you through life. From snowball fights, to cliff jumping and rockslides, pleasure abounds where you seek it. Some hardships quickly fade from memory while singing a John Denver song. And each time I look at the mountains, I can’t help but smile – there is a little secret that we share, and a knowledge that I will be back next year.
Written by Jamie Stafford Hill, circa 2007-2008