A leader learns to follow

When I used to tell my grandson that I was going to put on my "boogie boots," he knew that I was not talking about dancing or surfing. My boogie boots were brown high-topped work boots with steel toes. They gave me a sense of confidence. I was in control and ready for anything from working in my pottery studio to trekking in the woods.

My grandson would follow me from the studio to the kiln shed and back again, up and down the little hill that separated the two buildings.

He also loved hiking. When the trail was narrow, he'd say, "You go first, Har, Little Jim's gonna follow your boots."

He was my "Little Jim" and I was his "Har," a name that resulted from his initial inability to pronounce "Grandma."

He was also my traveling companion on trips to get supplies and to visit friends and relatives in other parts of Ohio. Once, when he was 4, I somewhat jokingly asked him if he wanted "to go with Har on the airplane" (to visit my daughter in San Diego). He eagerly accepted.

Our lives changed when he entered school and I began to teach. When he was 12 years old, I moved from Ohio to New Jersey, but we remained close. I made frequent trips back to Ohio and we wrote letters. He visited me in New Jersey. He loved exploring Manhattan as much as he had loved our hikes in the woods.

In the meantime, my boogie boots became forgotten in the mudroom of my son's farm. I did not seem to have much need for them in New Jersey.

After graduating from high school, Jim joined the Navy. He was not ready for college and wanted to get out of rural southeastern Ohio. He was eventually assigned to the USS Russell, a destroyer based in Pearl Harbor. E-mail made it easy to stay in touch.

Then, in the winter of 2000, he announced that there were plans for a "family cruise" to the Big Island. For one weekend, the Russell would become a cruise vessel for the families of sailors assigned to her. The ship would depart from Pearl Harbor.

The inability of my son and daughter-in-law to go on the voyage made it even more important that I go, and I began to make plans with Jim. This would be the first time that he would play the role of host, and he was looking forward to it.

I was surprised at how meticulously he had planned everything. A rental car awaited us when we arrived in Kona, and after a two-hour drive, we arrived at the military campground near Volcanoes National Park.

Early the next morning, we set out to explore our surroundings. We had walked only a short distance along one of the main roads when we were drawn to a trail by a sign pointing to some steam vents. That was the beginning of an 11-mile hike that looped around Kilauea's summit caldera.

We did not plan to hike the entire Crater Rim Trail when we set out, but we were enticed by signs telling us that it was only one mile, or two, until we would be at the Kilauea Iki Overlook or the Thurston Lava Tube - so we continued.

When we reached a point in the trail where we were about to enter a very desolate, arid area, we calculated the distance we had already traversed. If we were not halfway around the loop, we were close to it. The trail ahead of us (if you could call it that) looked rough.

Should we continue on or turn back? We looked at each other and, without exchanging a word, forged ahead.

I later learned the Crater Rim Trail is considered "challenging," but it was nothing compared to the hike that Jim proposed for that evening - a trek across lava fields to where an active volcano spewed molten rock and lava into the sea.

It was late afternoon when we set out. Though we had encountered some lava flows on our earlier hike, I was in no way prepared for what confronted us now.

Devastated land stretched before us. The lava flows were all different: black on black, glossy and matte, smooth and spiny. Sometimes they formed sinewy ropes or had solidified into undulating, hummocky surfaces that resembled shiny, black taffy. In other instances, they were made of rough, jagged fragments and the landscape resembled a treacherous war zone of bombed-out buildings.

For the first time in many years, I longed for my boogie boots.

Jim could see that he was not dealing with his usually intrepid Har. He smiled at me and said: "Follow me and step exactly where I step."

I looked across the hardened sea of lava to where the steam was rising in the distance. That was our destination, but my eyes were not on that goal. They were glued to my grandson's black combat boots, similar in so many ways to my boogie boots, which had always given me a sense of control.

Step by step, I followed his boots. I realized that our roles had reversed. I was depending on him in much the same way he had depended on me when he was "Little Jim" and followed in my footsteps.

I knew there would still be many times when I would be in control but, on that hike with my grandson, during that wonderful summer, I learned the joy of relying on someone else.

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