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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Leaving The Trail: Hiking With My 14-Year-Old Daughter

By Kristy McCaffrey

[Author’s Note: This essay originally appeared on the Women’s Adventure magazine website last year. I thought I’d share it here as we kick off a new year. While the well-trodden path can be considered a starting point, we should all have the courage of a teenager to forge our own journey.]

On a Sunday morning I invite my youngest child, Hannah, on a hike. The McDowell Mountain Preserve, near our house, has many trails to meander on, but a favorite of many is a giant granite monolith called Tom’s Thumb. It can be accessed from two different sides, but the fastest, albeit more strenuous route, is a two-mile uphill switchback. This will be our outing for the day. I anticipate fresh air, great weather (it’s January in the Phoenix area and in the high 70’s), and a nice workout, all while hanging out with my daughter. She’s never been to Tom Thumb’s, and is eager to see what others have said about it. I’ve done this trek twice before. The second time, with my husband and good friend Lisa, we all decided to take a bypass path, one that cuts directly down the hillside to a boulder-filled valley, then up the opposite slope. The trail was sparse and easily lost, we became hopelessly confused as to the best way, and ended up clambering up and down ten-foot-high rocks with no special gear. We desperately scrambled out of the valley in the wrong direction in an effort to reconnect with the main trail.

I make the mistake of sharing this story with my daughter.

After an uneventful, but very pleasant, hike up, followed by a quiet lunch with views of the Valley of the Sun to the south, and Scottsdale and Rio Verde to the north, Hannah announces that she’s bored. She wants to take the side trail I’d spoken of, and takes off on what looks like a pathway, down a steep incline and in the wrong direction. Hannah is athletic, curious, and daring—traits I admire. Of all my four children, she’s the one most tied to the land and sky, to the pull of nature. It tugs at her very soul. But at times, it blinds her to her own good judgment.

As her mother, it’s my job to keep her safe. I tell her no, that we’ll take the main path back. She stands her ground, and in true teenager form, immediately hits below the belt.

“You claim to be so adventurous, but you’re not. You’re just afraid.”

Hannah and I have one of those mother-daughter tight-lipped control fights at the base of Tom’s Thumb. Having endured her three older siblings, I’m hardly shocked by the swift turn of events—adolescents thrive on sudden mood swings and aimless discord with their parents—but I’m annoyed that she’s ruining a perfectly nice day for me.

Hannah sulks as I strive to find the well-trodden path back. I sense that this is a teaching moment, and if I can keep my own frustration in check I might be able to instill something lasting into her mind. Because I feel, deep in my bones, that she will embark on many more intrepid pursuits in her future, bolder than the one at hand.

“Adventure should be pursued with a clear mind,” I say, “not recklessness. That endangers not only yourself, but those with you. Be smarter than that.”

The lesson isn’t taking hold. She is still brooding. So I acquiesce, and tell her we can take the shortcut if we can find a clear starting point. Off we go.

For a while, all is good. There is a trail, of sorts. Then it’s gone, and we’re halfway down the hillside, too far to return to our starting point. I already know how this will go, having done it previously with my husband and Lisa. But then something happens that I don’t expect. Hannah takes charge, path-finding most of the way, scrambling over boulders, not complaining over the endless scrapes and scratches from the thorny bushes. She’s only wearing running shorts and a t-shirt. I have long pants and a fleece pullover. I cease worrying about her as I must concentrate fully on getting myself out of this predicament. We hit numerous dead-ends—slabs too steep and chasms too wide. To cross requires jumping, and I cannot jump. I’m too afraid. My daughter had been right about that.


Hannah finally realizes, as we’re sliding off a steep, gravelly slope, grabbing at sharp branches and trying to avoid prickly pear and barrel cactus, that this route was a bad idea.

At last, the lesson takes hold. But we’re still in trouble, still searching for the path, still spending too much time in the wrong direction and then having to backtrack. It’s late afternoon. I know we won’t perish, but should one of us get hurt—a twisted ankle, or worse, a broken appendage—it would be difficult to rescue us. There are many people on the main trail, but it’s several hundred feet above us. No one would ever hear us yelling for help. Our cell phones work and have signals, but it would likely be well into the night before someone could reach us. So, our goal is to keep moving horizontal to the slope, scooting on our butt if need be, but to keep progressing toward the main trail and the parking lot.

The dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship changes. Hannah and I lean on each other equally. Sometimes she leads, other times I do, the boundary of adult and child becoming blurred. I need her as much as she needs me.


Finally, we find the ridiculous, hardly-there path known as the shortcut and make it back to the car. Surprisingly, our mishap has only taken us an hour past our end time. Both Hannah and I shake our heads. It felt like five hours, trapped in the ravine, fighting the desert with nothing but our hands, feet, and mounting distress.

Hannah admits she was wrong. We never should have ventured from the main path. She takes my hand and says she’s sorry.


But my desire to impart the lesson fades as I realize a deeper truth. There is the main path, and then there is your path. My daughter, with her budding independence, instinctively knows this—to seek out her path, not the one we’re all told to take, not the one I told her to take. Our side-trek imparted wisdom—resilience, problem-solving, focus in the face of anxiety—not found on the main path.


So, in the end, Hannah and I teach each other. When leaving the trail, make good choices. But, by all means, don’t fear leaving the trail.



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