Years ago, my friend Jesse told me about a humbling experience she’d had while climbing Kilimanjaro in eastern Africa. Now, while Kilimanjaro is considered to be quite a challenging trek–difficult, but doable–it wasn’t the hike itself that she found humbling: it was the guide. It seems that somewhere around the third or fourth day, Jesse came to the ego-shattering realization that her middle-aged climbing guide intended not only to do the entire hike wearing the same ratty old bathrobe and bedroom slippers, but also while chain-smoking cheap unfiltered cigarettes along the way.
This meant that, for Jesse at least, the usual feelings of pride and accomplishment experienced after a successful summit bid were instead replaced for her by a sort of nonspecific disgruntled chagrin; after all, it’s hard to really appreciate a major life victory when you’ve only gotten there by following in the footsteps of a man who could easily have been Archie Bunker’s Tanzanian twin.
Now, while I can’t quite match that story, I do think I can finally appreciate what Jesse must have been feeling on that trek; even though I don’t have a bathrobe-wearing mountain guide, I do have something equally obnoxious: my son, Clyde.
It all started on our last trip down to the Valley, when, perhaps due to an excess of oxygen in my blood, I decided that the time was right to take the entire family on a little hike. After consulting several maps and guidebooks I decided that, because of its unique geographical profile (in other words, it was closest to our hotel), Camelback Mountain would be the hike for us. Besides, our guidebook (printed, I later noticed, in Great Britain) described this particular hike as “easy.”
Now, I don’t know if “easy” is British slang for “almost completely vertical,” or if they’re still upset about the War of 1812, but what I do know is that, had I been given proper advance warning as to how difficult this hike would actually turn out to be, I would have never started my five-year old up the trail. And, on another note, had I known what a vastly superior climber he was to me, I certainly would have never let him finish it.
As I huffed and puffed my way straight up the side of the mountain, I didn’t really mind the Camelback regulars who sprinted past me with a cheery “lovely day, isn’t it?”; after all, these were people who looked like they could crack open Brazil nuts with their butt cheeks. And I also didn’t mind being passed up by grey-haired firemen; they hiked this mountain all the time for rescue training, and besides, at least they were sweating. What I did mind, though, was being handily passed by a five-year-old who spent the whole trip heartily singing.
It wasn’t fair: even though his legs are half as long as mine, and even though his lungs and heart are half as big, Clyde casually strolled up the near vertical face, all the while singing a little ditty he made up about how “some people go up, some people do down, and that’s how you share the moun-tain.” There wasn’t a drop of sweat on his dusky cheeks, or a single little blond hair out of place. If he had known how, I’m sure he would have been whistling.
Watching him gambol merrily up the mountainside, it was then that I remembered my friend Jesse’s trip, and suddenly I understood the disgruntled chagrin she had felt all those years before on Kilimanjaro. The only solace I could take was that, at least in my case, it was all to be expected–it is the natural order, after all, for the old to be succeeded by the young. Still, it is awfully galling to be shown up by a five-year-old–especially one who is singing. Oh well–at least he wasn’t smoking.