Andersen: A man in the world
Snow was blowing sideways over Hagerman Pass last Sunday, making it hard to see from one marker post to the next. Our hoods were up in full storm mode as we skied above treeline to the Skinner Hut.
My son, Tait, broke trail, though most of the fresh snow was scoured away, leaving ripples of sastrugi that stood out like frozen Styrofoam. We skittered over the corrugations amid an ice cloud swirling over the high ridge at 12,000 feet.
An hour later at the hut, a fire crackled to life in the big Defiant stove. Gusts sent showers of snow over the roof, where a wavelike cornice drooped low over the eaves. Tait and I had the Skinner Hut to ourselves. We sipped tea and talked in our last father-son debriefing for who knows how long.
Tait would leave several days later on a solo, four-month journey through Chile, Argentina and points beyond. He would be equipped with a well-provisioned backpack, an unrelenting sense of inquiry, youthful belief in the good of humanity and the allure of global adventure.
A Spanish-language immersion — living two weeks with a Chilean family — begins his sojourn in the Pacific surf town of Pichilemu. From there, he’s on his own, a man in the world with South America beckoning, from the Andean peaks to the polar reaches of Patagonia.
College graduation last month was the real kickoff, a rite that eager parents push with good intentions. I’m not sure that Tait would have chosen that route had it not been for our assumption that college was simply part of the plan. A degree is a defining achievement, but it’s no promise for fulfillment and happiness.
Tait will explore those values on his own through his adult life, starting in Chile. Our job is to blithely send him off into the unknown and then do what most parents do: worry. With a gradual emotional release, that worry will shift to acceptance.
For me, acceptance began strangely at the Skinner Hut. Perched on a narrow ridge that drops off a thousand feet on both sides, Skinner is one of our favorite huts – an aerie-like perch from which to witness nature’s blast and bluster.
As the storm blew, Tait and I talked about everything from relationships to religion, from friendships to philosophy. We sat across the room from each other and let our words flow from infinite associations.
As daylight faded into dusk, shadows crept into the hut. Gradually, Tait’s features blurred into an almost unrecognizable, abstract visage — a shock of dark hair, a beard and mustache, the flash of white teeth.
From the dissembling of Tait’s features emerged a new person. For 21 years, I have known and loved Tait, the boy. Now I was seeing Tait, the man, who would soon be setting off to define himself upon the vast, spinning Earth.
I could have turned on lights to dispel this strange unfamiliarity. Instead, I felt myself relax in the presence of the young man before me who has the most precious of all gifts — a healthy mind and body and an amazing world to explore.
Communing in that lofty, windswept hut, Tait and I reflected on the friends and family we have lost in the past few years, agreeing that the vital spirit of living is to be celebrated. Tait fully intends to nurture that life force — his heart filled with trust, his mind alive with ideas, his soul emboldened with possibilities.
At the airport with me and his mom, Tait was quiet. There were long gaps of silence. We had said everything except goodbye.
“I love you,” he said when his flight was called, and we watched Tait pass through security. A smile and wave from beyond the scanners, and he was gone.
Not long afterward, a jet soared over our home up the Fryingpan Valley. I could imagine Tait looking out the window at our home, a tiny roofline at the edge of the forest, knowing he will see it next with different eyes, the eyes of a man in the world whose heart will always be warmed here.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.