On the verge of underestimating daughters

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WE are on the slope of a mountain. My friends and I rest in the grass and try to catch our breath. Above us, near the summit, we can discern three figures in the mist moving at a more steady pace than our own. Even at this rate we plan to reach the peak by noon, well before the afternoon thunderstorms shudder across this corner of New Mexico. As we continue the climb past granite and tundra we do not try to talk over the wind. Our faces are red, flushed by the exertion in the meager air of 13,000 feet.

Nearing the crest, we round a boulder field and encounter the three persons glimpsed from below. They have apparently already climbed the final ridge and descended to this protected hollow for lunch.

A man raises his hand in mountain camaraderie, and we forgo the summit for a moment, stopping to chat. He is in his 30s, and he introduces himself and his two climbing companions -- his daughters -- who are seated together on a stone. One is dressed in a yellow rain slicker, the other in a navy blue sweater with a pink bandanna around her neck. As the eddying wind brushes their blond hair into their eyes, they smile up at us and continue eating crackers and sausage.

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``How old are your daughters?'' I ask. The man looks at them with affection. ``This one,'' he says, indicating the daughter with the bandanna, ``is 4. Her sister there is 9.'' As the younger one stands to shake off some crumbs, the hem of her sweater unfurls the length of her body, leaving only the tips of her tennis shoes visible. ``Her mother's sweater,'' explains the man with a grin.

This is a wind-blasted summit, one of the highest peaks in the Southwest, but clearly we are the only ones to consider a four-year-old's presence here remarkable. She and her sister seem poised and self-assured as they carefully balance pieces of Cheddar cheese atop their crackers.

The father offers us some food packed by his wife for them, but we decline with thanks and bid them farewell. We move off in silence, absorbed less with the terrain than with the threesome we have left behind.

My wife's parents back in Kansas had a goal for child-rearing: You try to give your children both roots and wings. Roots to provide warmth, stability, and trust. Wings that allowed a child to venture out and stretch limits. I had tended to believe that experiences provided either roots or wings; evidently some could instill both at once.

As we reach the top, the clouds obligingly part and we peer into the Pecos Wilderness -- a luminous sea of green mesas and gray peaks. With our parkas flapping in the wind, we eat a hasty lunch. By the time the roiling mist encloses us again, it is time to leave. We pass the hollow on our descent, but the three have already departed. We see them ahead of us, the father in the middle, bracketed by his daughters.

I ask myself why the image seems so compelling, and the answer is not far distant: I have two daughters of my own at home -- one still in diapers, the other barely out. I had dismissed the prospect of such sojourns for the next decade or so. Perhaps when they were in college, I thought, we would have hills to climb and rivers to run. But the view from the New Mexico mountain has undone that chronology. I had been on the verge of underestimating daughters.

Far below us now the three of them are nearly hidden in mist. I watch as the father reaches out his arms, and from here on they descend the steeper slope hand in hand. They are framed that way in my memory: the daughters suspended between earth and sky, their roots and their wings in equipoise.

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