LA JUNTA, COLO. — 'I'm proud of you, Mom," my son said, as we descended the dusty mountain road. Amid switchbacks and curves, opening to vistas of southern Colorado, I replied, "Why, honey?"
"Because you didn't let me quit," he said.
Smiling and touching the sweaty blond cowlick on his forehead, I knew I had done something right along the often frustrating and mapless road of parenthood.
It had been our first mother-son weekend in the mountains since our move to Colorado last winter. We spent the spring perusing catalogs and visiting camping stores to accumulate the equipment we would need.
Harrison was finally at an age where I could justify the expense and felt he could develop an identity of himself as the "hiker" I have been. I didn't realize how large the footsteps of my hiking boots seemed to my seven-year-old that day.
Having heard me tell stories about nearly reaching the ice-covered summit of 14,000-foot Long's Peak in the Rockies, or lugging 40 pounds of gear in and out of the canyons at Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico with no water in sight, the thought of another one of mom's "adventures" left his knees knocking.
An adventure it was. We drove into Cuchara Valley with no maps and no plans except to sleep under the stars. We soon found friendly guides who pointed us to Bear Lake, and were able to get the last tent permit for the night.
We found a quiet spot beside a brook that suited us. The brook carried icy snowmelt to Bear Lake, named for a large grizzly who died after being caught in a trap and dragging himself into the water. I was sure to hang our food high in a tree that night.
We set up our tent, and Harrison pulled out his toy cars to play, hiding safely under the blue ventilated dome.
"No! No! Let's go!" I said, readying the day pack for a hike.
"Do we have to, Mom, I'm tired."
"Yes, we have to," I said firmly.
And for the next hour and a half, I dragged him step by step up the trail, stopping every three minutes for water, or a snack, or a rest.
Slowly, he began to notice the things around him - red, powdery soil, tracks from dirt bikes heading off the trail, tall spiky blue spruce with soft new needles at their tips. He counted the wildflowers and stopped to take pictures of them with his disposable camera: Indian paintbrush, giant lavender columbine, Queen Anne's lace, yellow daisies, and 20 or 30 others we couldn't name. Questions emerged such as "What does 'treeline' mean?" and "Should we clap to let the bears know we're here?"
My need to encourage him lessened as he began to own the experience for himself, as he realized that the ominous phrase "climbing a mountain" was as simple as walking up a road, one step at a time. He still complained about what might be around the next curve.
We stopped 2-1/2 miles up for a dinner of gorp and juice. When we finished, I said, "OK, honey, we can go back now," and relief swept over his face. He realized in that moment that he had done it, he had gone the distance with his mom.
All the way down the trail he retold each marker - each waterfall, rock, and flower - as if he knew them intimately. Grinning, he knelt down on a bridge to dip his hand into the frigid stream and wash away dusty red stains. With a new bounce in his step, we passed other hikers and soon found ourselves at the beginning of the trail, measuring on the topographical sign just how far we'd gone. Harrison beamed when he said, "five miles round-trip!" We nestled in our tent, telling Indian legends of the Cuchara Valley and discussing the sites we would visit the next day.
His "I'm proud of you, Mom" was more of a thanks than I expected, but exactly what I needed to hear.
We'll return to Cuchara Valley, and retell its legends to remind a little boy that he can do it, and remind his mother that mountains are climbed - and children can learn to believe in themselves - one step at a time.