All the Way Up, and All the Way Under

I was excited about the opportunity to celebrate my son’s transition from boyhood to manhood. We planned two days in the High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. After that, our itinerary called for two days in Springfield, Massachusetts, to visit the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Along the way, we hoped to enjoy some delicious food and deep conversation.

Still, it felt like it could all get blown up by COVID-19 at any moment. Mask mandates and travel advisories seemed to be updated by the hour, in the lead-up to our planned departure.

Fortunately, the only real consequence to the pandemic pandemonium was fifteen miles of extra hiking.

We drove nine and a half easy hours from Kent to the High Peaks area of the Adirondack Mountains. And the two of us enjoyed some great conversation along the way. We hit a snag, however, when we tried to check out a bear canister from the lodge at the trailhead. I knew from my advance internet research that black bears are active in the High Peaks area. So I’d called ahead to verify that I’d be able to rent the recommended canister that would keep bears out of our food, away from our camp. It should have been quick, cheap, and easy. But after the desk worker learned that we were from Ohio, she consulted a list and said that they wouldn’t be able to rent us a canister because of COVID-19 precautions. It felt ironic, given the fact that we’d chosen such a “socially-distanced” activity. Still, our state had apparently gotten too sick over the week since I called.

So we needed to improvise.

I thought about trying to go without food, though I didn’t want to make things miserable for us. We considered trying to rent or buy a canister from somewhere else, though we were in a pretty remote location. I even wondered if we might be better off scrapping the wilderness portion of the trip. In the end, though, we decided to use the trunk of our car as our bear canister — even though it was 2.5 miles from our campsite.

It actually ended up feeling like an experiential metaphor. Manhood doesn’t follow a predictable script. It can be a hardship. It requires improvisation. Strength and courage. And companionship.

We did those extra miles together. Five after dinner on our first day (after hiking 2.5 miles in with our heavy packs), five before breakfast on our second day (before a 10.5 mile hike to the top of a mountain), and five after dinner on our second day (after a 10.5 miles hike to the top of a mountain). We got tired from all those extra miles, but we also got to be together.

In between all those extra miles to and from our “Parking Lot Bear Canister,” we also climbed to the top of the highest peak in the High Peaks area of the Adirondacks (also the tallest mountain in the state of New York).

Mount Marcy was a lot more challenging than I thought it was going to be. It was long and steep. It tested our strength and resolve. Still we did it. And when we got down off the mountain, within striking distance of our campsite, I initiated Cor into the All-Under Club.

When we marked Elliot’s thirteenth birthday, it was a snowy March morning in Lake Michigan and the act of entering the water felt more perilous. In Cor’s case, however, the plunge into the icy water felt like more of a reward — at the end of our perilous journey — instead of the peril itself. Either way, our ritual combines a mix of biblical wisdom, family traditions, the experiences of other parents, and personal intuition. It represents plunging together with Cor into the chaotic, confusing waters of manhood. It was a way to enact our extra trailside exhortations to reject passivity, accept responsibility, lead courageously, and live in expectation of a greater reward from God.

“I love you, Cor,” I said, as I sat on a sunny rock with my sore feet soaking in the icy waters of Phelps Brook. “You’ve got what it takes to be a man. Not just for joining the All-Under Club. I’m proud of the way you’re growing up.” I’d told him earlier that ‘becoming a man’ was a process, not a moment. “You’ve got what it takes to rise to the challenge, and I’m excited to see the way that God works in you.

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