The Story of How a Foster Dad and Daughter Hiked 52 Peaks Together
- Category: Dad's Dirt Roads: A Blog
- on Wed Nov 6, 2013
- by Mark Stephens on Wed Nov 6, 2013 - (2) Comments
"You bribe a kid to do what she does not want to to. You give her incentive to do something she does want to do."
— Dan Szczesny
Most of us, I suspect, made a choice to raise children. Even if you were, you know, surprised with the news of your pregnancy, you still brought your own flesh and blood into this world and discovered the joys and tribulations of raising a baby into a bright young child and beyond.
But that's not the case for everybody. It certainly wasn't for Dan Szczesny who suddenly and without much warning became the caretaker for a pair of twin 9-year-olds. Talk about alarming. Like we'd all do, he tried to figure out how he'd tackle the job of giving kids a solid home life, food to eat, an education, and the balance of experiences and freedom to help shape them into adults that they'd one day become.
One day he took a small army of kids, among them the twins, on a short hike in Franconia Notch State Park and discovered the same thing we'll all discover: some kids love it, others don't. Something tickled 9-year-old Janelle, one of the twins, about the experience and she asked Dan to take her again. When he mentioned that would be fine he implied that working it out with the other kids might take some work. "That's OK," she clarified, "you can just take me."
For the idiosyncratic reasons that tickle folks like you and me, the joy of hiking a trail up a mountain did not get lost on Janelle. And soon they had polished off three hikes together that happen to be on a list called 52 With a View. All in New Hampshire, each peak is under 4,000 feet but offers a divine vista. The rest was her idea: "Why don't we just finish the list?"
They pulled it off and Szczesny scribed an enjoyable narrative of their adventure hoofing it 225 miles to the top of 52 gorgeous mountains and titled it The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie. The result is an adventure memoir/guidebook that also surprisingly—refreshingly—explores what it means to be family.
The book is fast-paced, each short chapter covers the story of one hike. But not to a fault. Szcsesny manages to draw us into the tale with plenty of dialog and details. It allowed me some mental breathing room to consider how fatherhood and wandering around mountains work together. Several things things occur to me throughout. Here goes:
. . . she mentions that sitting on a summit drinking raspberry tea has become her favorite part of our hikes 1. When it comes to teaching kids to appreciate the outdoors, the consensus is to start 'em early. But it's not the only way. As a first time hiker at 9 years old, Janelle is one enthusiastic trail partner. When the duo hiked Mt. Webster, a trail that shares dirt with the Appalachian Trail, they chatted about the work involved, the effort of getting up early and heading out. She's cool with it. "I could hike every day," she assures him.
2. Hiking with a little person isn't just hiking. There are mountains of education going on, too. Such as how to deal with failure, how to persevere under pressure, like sore feet or crummy weather, when you have a goal in mind. Stuck in mud up to her calves on one particular hike, Janelle wonders, "What do we do now?" She's clearly unhappy with soaked feet and filled shoes. Szczesny gives her the bail out option. "We can turn around or we can kick off the mud and keep going." He later reflects on how the hikes have honed her determination and discipline, "One day she may need to rely on those traits."
3. I know the feeling of being in charge of a youngster who is not my own blood. We hosted a foreign exchange student one year, and the act of raising someone else's kid seemed so much scarier — screwing up your own offspring is okay (or inevitable...), but for some reason with someone else's child, you want to be able to go, "Here, she's wonderful and I took good care of her for you." Szczesny had a tall job and he was fortunate to find this one thing, peakbagging, that they could share together and was something that the girl loved. Finding the one thing and forming a bond, even with your own kids, is harder to do than it sounds. That's the most moving part of this narrative.
4. You never know what's going to happen. Part of the reason Janelle is in Szczesny's care is that her grandfather died—she and her twin brother used to live with him. While relaxing at the summit of Mount Isreal, Szczesny sees Janelle scramble over some rocks to the cairn and toss some trail mix in the air. "It's for Grandpa," she tells him. She'd been doing that on every hike.
You'll have to read it for yourself to get the sensation, and revel in the joy of a parent and a child doing something fun together outside. It sounds simple. But it is, in fact, complex and mysterious and beautiful and priceless.