“I think we should go for it, Mom.”
My fourteen-year-old son, Brett, stopped to survey the rugged mountain terrain around him, looked up at the golden sun drenched sky, then back at me. Less than an hour till dark.
“Yeah. It can’t be too far…” I offered in return, carefully finding my footing in old UGG boots and overalls.
We weren’t planning on being here, but if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that the very best things are rarely planned…
It was November.
The day had begun with our family waking early to make a 3.5 hour drive to “a charming and eclectic tree farm” in North Carolina to hunt for the perfect Fraser Fir for Christmas. With much anticipation, we made our way to Rob’s Tree Farm, only to find that 5 star Google reviews can’t always be trusted… Ole Robbie was actually a very disgruntled tree salesman, with roughly 3 trees he was willing to part with so early in the season. And at a cool inflated price of 500 bucks a tree, we decided Rob could keep his “Christmas magic”, and we’d go elsewhere. We drove around for awhile, but none of the other tree farms nearby were open that day. Instead of heading home empty handed, we finally stumbled into a tree lot at a gas station on the way out of town, begrudgingly picked a tree, laughed, and called it good. The entire day was comically awful, but I’ll save those details for another story.
Wanting to salvage the road trip, I thought it might be fun to detour and drive up to a lookout on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I knew of a stop called Waterrock Knob that was especially scenic, and convinced Dan it was worth the trip over. We pulled into the parking lot, and spotted a trail to the summit. I can’t NOT climb summit trails.
“Guys. Let’s do a quick hike. It looks really easy.”
Decked out in our “farm wear”[read Old Navy clothes] that I had forced everyone to wear for our basic white family Christmas pictures, we were definitely not prepared for any actual hiking or adventuring. But there was a mountain, and I love mountains, so I wasn’t going to let minor details deter us. Everyone agreed to a short hike.
Not long after we began our first climb, Brooklyn started to get tired. Dan offered to take her back to the car while Brett and I continued exploring a bit. In that moment, I suddenly remembered reading about an old 1980’s plane crash site near this trail. At one point I had intended to hike it with the kids, but never got around to it. Trail info sticks to my brain though, so I remembered reading all the details. I knew roughly where the trail to the crash veered off of the main trail, and had an idea of how far it was from Waterrock Knob’s parking lot. I thought it was about a mile and a half, maybe a little more. It was doable.
“Hey…Brett… wanna go check out an old plane crash site?”
“Right now? Here?”
“Yeah. I think I know where it is, and it’s not too far…”
“Let’s do it!”
I shouted down to Dan, who had only descended a short distance, that we were going to go hunting for a plane crash nearby, and that we would be back to the car in a little while. Familiar with my adventure antics, he just shook his head and shouted, “Be careful!”
Brett and I took a turnoff on a pretty obvious side trail just before we reached the end of the marked trail. I remembered reading that this was the route to take. The trail quickly turned into more of a goat trail, with sharp descents, technical terrain, and unsteady footing.
“You down to keep going?” I asked Brett, who was leading the way in dress boots. He turned around, and I instantly saw that familiar sparkle of wanderlust shining bright in his eyes.
“I’m game if you are!”
“I am always game, son.”
Brett has accompanied me on several very challenging mountain outings. Even in cheap dress boots, I knew the kid was more than capable to tackle the terrain. We trudged through the mud, down steep sections, and then back up. We hugged the mountainside, carefully maneuvering over fallen trees and big boulders speckled with remnants of early ice and snow. Undaunted, we pressed forward.
I love trails for many reasons, but the thing I love most about them is their innate ability to connect the people moving on them. Distractions are gone, and simplicity is born. Just two humans working towards a shared goal. The result of a full day on trails is almost always a lasting bond between two adventurers. This day was no different.
As we moved, my typically stoic son began to open up. We talked about school, and sports, and mused about his future. He told me all about the girl he was head over heels for, and the crushing fear that she didn’t feel the same. As the trail continued, the conversations deepened. He shared some of his thoughts on life, relationships, and God. Every now and then I would ask another question, but mostly I just listened. My little boy wasn’t little anymore. My heart was both breaking and soaring.
I saw through the pines that the sun had begun to set. I glanced my phone for the time. We had been moving for about 30 minutes. We went back and forth on if it was smart to press on to the crash site or turn around…
“I think we should go for it, Mom.”
“Yeah. It can’t be too far…”
I smiled at my son’s persistent spirit, knowing good and well where he got it from. We hiked in silence for a bit. We had roughly 45 minutes till the sun was gone. We were slow moving, but it didn’t matter. Because as I walked that trail behind my son, time itself stood still.
I had Brett when I was just 18,
but it felt like yesterday. I certainly had never planned on being pregnant in high school, but God had better ideas. The world had chewed me up and spat me out, but the moment my little man came into my life, it suddenly felt like I had meaning. I had purpose. I was enough. I was Brett’s mama, and he was my tiny best friend. Together we could take on the world. Yet, I knew deep down that he was never mine to keep. As the years progressed, he grew and changed like all kids do, more independent by the day. Needing me less and less. Raising a little boy and watching him grow into a man is both beautiful and absolutely heartbreaking, and nobody really prepares you for it. It just happens. Somewhere around Brett’s thirteenth birthday, I began to feel the cold season of “letting go” beginning, and I’d been grasping for more time ever since.
We finally crested a short climb,
and came to a magnificent clearing, Browning Rock Knob. A sea of blue mountains surrounded us, bathed and illuminated by golden twilight. Brett silently stood in front of me, pausing to take it all in. The sight took my breath away. Mountains have a funny way of grabbing your soul and squeezing the very meaning of life into it. I closed my eyes and let it happen.
A phone ping snapped me back to reality. I finally had service. I texted Dan that we were okay, and he replied that he and Brooky were fine and just watching a movie in the car and eating snacks. I knew at this point that the crash site was nearby. I typed out that we would be back in about half an hour.
“Hey bud, I think the crash is just over here.” I said, pointing in the opposite direction from the views.
We walked a short way beyond the clearing, and descended a steep ridge. Finally, we saw the wreckage, and carefully made our way down, staying conscious and respectful of the place where two people had lost their lives. Brett was completely entranced with the scene before him. He began rattling off various parts of the old Cesna he could identify. I, too, was entranced, watching the way his eyes lit up with each new discovery.
“Mom! This is seriously the coolest thing I have ever done. It’s like all of my favorite things –adventure, mountains, planes –all built into one.”
“Right? This is seriously one epic adventure!”
I let my boy get lost in the moment for a bit.
I stood back and watched, silently begging God to stop the clock. Finally, I said it was time to head back to the car, and we took off in the direction we came.
With the confidence of already having traveled the trail, the return trip wasn’t nearly as difficult. I lead the way, and pushed the pace. Brett stayed in stride right behind me. We were giddy with adventure and joked with each other the majority of the way back.
Just before we made it to the parking lot, the sun gave its final farewell, and sent a vibrant glow of red, orange, and yellow dancing across the mountains. Brett paused again to appreciate the views. He reached up to capture the sun with his hands, and I fumbled for my camera, trying in vain to make the moment last forever.
I gazed at my son, teetering on the edge of boy and manhood, and I exhaled slowly. The day was such a sweet gift. But like the sun slipping behind the mountain, I could feel this special time of life running out, and fading into the next one. I felt a bittersweet tear slip from my eye. I don’t know what Brett’s future holds, but I know if I do my job right, there likely won’t be a ton of me in it. That reality is painful, but the journey… this grand unplanned adventure… it is always beautiful. And just like the sun will rise again on a new and different day, I will be there. Ready and waiting for whatever comes next, however he needs me.
We finished our walk back to the car side by side, and I threw my arm around my boy’s shoulder.
“Hey. I love you…and I love being your mom.” I said, squeezing him closer to me.
“I love you too, Mum.”
I laughed, knowing “Mum” is reserved exclusively for when my son is feeling most affectionate.
With that, he suddenly pulled away from my arms and took off in a sprint to the car, challenging me to beat him and giving everything he had.
“Not a freaking chance, kid!” I laughed, gaining on him quickly.
I tapped the car a fraction of a second before he did. Grinning ear to ear at my victory.
“Ughh….whateverr!!” Brett groaned in mock defeat.
Tomorrow may be different, but for now, he still can’t quite out kick his Mum ……for now.