Yesterday, Monday, was my final day of summer vacation. True to form, I was a bit anxious about school starting. Not because of my students. Not because of the content. I was just nervous because, after twenty-two years of first day jitters, it’s become a bit of a habit.
When in doubt, feel nervous.
But I didn’t want to feel nervous. Anxiety wasn’t going to make the day pass any easier. And it certainly wasn’t going to make sleeping possible. Therefore, I decided that on my last day of summer vacation I was going to take one last hike, make one last summit.
I packed the Girl into my car, we filled up my gas tank at WaWa, the Girl made herself some crazy hot chocolate (her concoctions are rather terrifyingly sweet), and we headed off for the mountains.
As the suburbial landscape became microscopic in my rear view mirror, the anxiety fell away as well. I had no need to indulge in pre-first-day jitters. I had already met many of my students and their parents. I knew that this year was going to be fine. I knew my material. I knew my colleagues. I couldn’t be more ready if I tried.
Well, actually I could have. I didn’t do nearly as much planning this summer as I intended and I regret nothing.
After a couple of hours, the Girl and I were at an entrance to Shenandoah National Park. We rolled down the windows, stretched our arms out into the cool morning air, and drove into a world populated by birdsong and sunlight.
I was home.
Yesterday’s adventure was simple. We hit Blackrock Summit. Last year, with the scouts, we hit this mountain from the southern face, a steep, exhausting climb that brought us out onto the precipice of the Earth’s primal beauty and we all stopped and stared in wonder.
This year, the Girl and I hit the path from the northern side, a coast of a hike that was nothing more than a half mile and we emerged from the forest and out to the rocks.
The Girl was thrilled. She nearly galloped up the hill, it was that easy. And when she stood beneath the talus field, she paused in exultation. A rocky summit, beckoning her to scramble forth.
We circled around the peak, found an easy point of ascension, and, together, we climbed the rocks to one of the highest points, a conveniently flat boulder on which we sat and stared at the valley.
Above us, swallows caught the swells of air and rode the invisible balloons of rising air. Small clouds scuttled across the sky, and the Girl and I sat next to one another, unpacked our lunch from the backpack, and started to break bread and eat.
Smushed up peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches. Wal Mart “Italian” bread with Laughing Cow garlic and herb Swiss cheese. Green apples. Half of a Hershey bar.
I usually shovel in my food, a sad side-effect of being a teacher with twenty-two minutes of time to eat my lunch. But, yesterday, when I sat with my daughter on top of the world, I slowed down, savored each bite. We talked about my wedding, about how beautiful the world was. I promised her that we would return soon so that she could see the Milky Way. We talked about school, her anxiety over her new teachers. We talked about….various and sundry things, most of which were just the flotsam and jetsam of an average, ordinary life.
Eventually, we ran out of food, we ran out of conversation. The rock’s hard surface finally became too uncomfortable in spite of the sunshine and wind, and so the Girl and I scrambled over the rocks to other points, exploring the summit of the mountain we had conquered. As neither of us have much balance, we slowly inched across the rock field, ensuring each step was perfect before moving forward.
But we moved together. One encouraging the other. When fear threatened to over-ride good, common sense, we stopped, looked one another in the eye, and reminded the other that we just needed to go slow. And that we could, indeed, succeed in this adventure.
We left the summit, hiked down a spur trail. I nearly stopped on a snake that I never saw but the Girl did and when I stopped to look for the snake (thinking it was further down the trail), she shoved me, forcing me to run.
We hiked around the edge of the mountain, came to the fire road, and hiked up a bloody steep incline that left us breathless, reminded us of our humanity.
And when we came out, once more, to the summit, we retraced our steps to the original path. Along the way, we found a small set of wind chimes, a memorial left in honor of a man who died way too young. As the Girl and I read the man’s name, read his birth and death dates, we soberly looked at one another, thought about the sadness that must have been evoked as the surviving loved one hooked the wind chimes into the tree, left them there to play a melody to other hikers.
Today, the Girl started seventh grade. The Boy is in tenth. I started another year of teaching. And as I stood in front of my students and felt the powerful surge of love and appreciation for my profession and what I do, I could still hear the quiet echoes of the wind chimes.
Still see the swift, darting motions of the swallows catching the wind rising from the valley.
Hear the whisper of the wind as it sieves through the pine trees.
A year ago, I looked at my daughter’s reflection in my rear view mirror as I drove her to school. I noticed how mine was superimposed over hers and I wondered about her growing up. Growing away. Going away.
And now, a year later, she has grown up…somewhat.
And grown away…a bit.
And grown closer as well. She doesn’t always like hiking. But she loves beating every obstacle that has stood in her way.