Memories of my Father - George Willard Gibson, 11/18/1918 - 9/3/2012

Entry 7: Lessons on the Trail

My family loved to camp and hike in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We have been all over the trail system in the park and even done some overnight backpacking in some of the wilderness sites. I'm not sure when I first started hiking on the trails with my mom and dad, but it had to have been pre-school age. I haven't been out there hiking now since 2010. Time to plan another trip.

The trail network has a number of branches that follow the various canyons and gorges up toward the line of peaks that define the Continental Divide. Along these trails one finds lakes and waterfalls which are the most common landmarks. These lakes and waterfalls are your destinations when you set out from the trailhead, lunch and water supply secured in a daypack, camera in hand, and start hiking.

We learned this ritual as toddlers in our family and it is being carried on by a third generation, these days. I suspect it will soon be passed on to a fourth.

Dad wasn't the kind of guy to spend a lot of time lecturing us. When he spoke, it was probably important so it was wise to listen. We didn't always pay close attention, but we probably should have. He could be garrulous and friendly diving into conversation with strangers out on the trail, though. When Dad got involved in a conversation with a new friend, it could take some time to pry him away.

One of my earliest memories of hiking these trails with Dad probably took place when I was in grade school. My memory at that age has to be considered suspect and odds are Dad or my brother, Roger, would remember this differently. But I recall a hike which I think was headed up Glacier Gorge toward Loch Vale.

Loch Vale is about 2.5 miles and one of the loveliest destinations in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I'm pretty sure I was around six or seven years of age. Roger would have been in high school, roughly sixteen or seventeen. My brother is a natural explorer. He loves to see the world and break new ground and has a passion for maps and geography. I wonder sometimes if he isn't the reincarnation of Meriwether Lewis or something.

Not my brother - but eerily similar in habits ...

When hiking back then, Rog would wander a bit. He would leave the trail and seek shortcuts or alternate routes. Dad wasn't real keen on that. I seem to recall some mild, low-key conflict regarding this habit on the way up to Loch Vale that day. My dad wasn't the kind to get overly stern with us boys on subjects like that and Rog didn't react that well to stern-ness in those high school years, either.

On the way down, we tended to travel a lot faster and with fewer interruptions than we did on the way up. Gravity can make a mighty difference when hiking. During our descent that day, we caught up with a team of park rangers. They were carrying a litter on which was the body of a hiker who had gone off trail and fallen.

The rangers were not chatty. They were in a very serious and somber mood. They were also moving a bit slower than we were so we were kind of stuck behind them. They were not in the mood to be pulling over to let faster tourists go by on the trail. They just wanted to get down to the trailhead. I don't remember Dad saying anything to us. He really didn't need to. Even if I was only six or seven, it was a mighty sobering thing.

In time, my Dad would retire and my parents would choose to spend their entire summer in Estes Park on the edge of the national park. They had a mobile home in an RV park there and we would all use that as a base camp in the 80s and early 90s while they were still maintaining that custom. In my visits out there, Dad and I would still do some hiking. Mom had stopped taking any serious walks by then but Dad, even in his sixties, was a pretty active walker. If we planned a hike, he would be up early and make pancakes for us, then we would pack a lunch and something to drink and head out.

I distinctly remember us trying out the Fern Lake trail for the first time. It was a four mile hike up to Fern Lake and the elevation change was around 1500 feet. The park service guides today regard it a "fairly hard" hike. So Dad and I set out to conquer it.

It was pretty normal in those days for me to walk a lot faster than Dad. After all, I was probably around thirty right then and he was pushing 70. So I wasn't all that comfortable trudging along at Dad's "old man" steady uphill pace. He was using a lower gear than I was. I probably said something about it and Dad made the suggestion that since were using the same trail and would end up in the same place, there was no reason we had to walk together. So with his blessing, I headed on up the trail at a faster pace.

Before long, being in the 11,000 elevation range, I began to get a little short of breath so I stopped to let my heart rate and respiration return to normal. About the time I felt comfortable heading on up the trail, here came Dad, slowly and methodically plodding along, smiling to himself and enjoying the day.

This pattern continued more or less the entire way to Fern Lake. Yes, I understand the basic math. Walk slower - rest less; and at the end of the day we both got there at about the same time. I suppose I should have spent more time with my dad, sharing the walk with him. In any case, we ended up at Fern Lake together, wolfing down sandwiches and granola bars and washing them down with water or a soda cooled in the nearest stream. It was extremely pleasant.

And I never appreciated it enough.

Fern Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

For years, I really felt Dad's pace was all about comfort. I felt it was a case of his way of applying walking speed plus rate of exhaustion and so on. I thought his pace was part of a formula. In time my view has changed. I've gradually come to realize (and the simplicity of this is embarrassing to admit) that when you move slower, you appreciate the journey more.

I think for us as kids assimilating this family custom of hiking, it was all about the destination. We hit the trail so that we could reach the waterfall or the lake or the mountain at the end of the trail. For Dad, I think it was always about the journey itself. He enjoyed the entire trail - not just the thing at the end.

In the summer of 2012, I went on vacation with my sister and her two daughters. We traveled southwest Colorado and a lot of Utah visiting archeological sites and a few natural wonders. We did a bit of hiking, too. We crossed some desolate and picturesque scenery straight out of western movies. It was a pretty wonderful trip.

When we got back to Janet's home in Oklahoma City, I went to see Dad at the nursing home. Lily, my niece, went with me. I sat there facing my dad in his wheelchair and held his hand while I told him all the places we'd visited. He remembered all of them. Almost every place Janet and I went that summer, Dad had visited either with us as children or with Mom after retirement and we talked about these locations and places for quite a while. At some point I made the comment that there were some days when it was really hot and the heat made the hiking a bit of a challenge.

Dad looked me in the eye, smiled, and said, "One minute out there beats a year back here."

And I started to realize that I had been blessed with so many of those minutes and had taken most of them for granted. For the rest of my life, whenever I hike, I will have Dad with me on the trail. I want to keep learning these things he seemed to know so well. I never want it to stop.