Paul Andersen: Fair Game
August 7, 2011
My son sits on a tall tree trunk in the wilderness. From where I approach on the wooded trail, he appears to be floating in space. The smooth, straight tree trunk was sawed off flat 10 feet from the ground, probably in winter, when the snowpack was deep. Tait perches on it as if he’s on a forest barstool in an “Avatar” sequel.
We’re hiking a trail near Aspen, a place where few hikers go because there’s no outstanding feature – no mountain lake, prominent peak or high pass. The overgrown trail contours through the most verdant riparian ecosystem in the Roaring Fork Valley, leading us through a jungle of fecundity where every turn reveals outstanding beauty.
This trail is wild. Deadfall timber is scattered like pickup sticks, often blocking our way. We shoulder through head-high hedges of larkspur, bluebells and cow parsnips. The creek rushes with crystal waters over smooth, multicolored river rock. This is the kind of place Thoreau celebrated with his famous dictum: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Living things thrive here, growing in a vitalizing fertilizer from the mold of ancient forests we tread underfoot.
I’ve been following Tait down this winding trail, recognizing his tracks in the mud because they have toes. He’s not walking barefoot; he’s wearing toe shoes, a style of footwear that fits his feet like a glove. Hiking in toe shoes, Tait moves sinuously, with the deceptive ease of animal vigor. His reversion to the deeper physical grace of a primate reveals something beautiful about human agility, a nimble, dexterous display of human motion.
Perched on a tree trunk 10 feet off the ground, Tait’s pedal extremities dangle like a monkey’s, his toes splayed out simian-like. He looks natural up there, the way an ape looks natural in a tree. In this pose and setting, Tait belongs with the Navi on Pandora or perhaps as an extra on “Planet of the Apes.”
“Wanna see how I got up here?” he asks.
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“Certainly,” I encourage.
With marsupial agility, his feet clutching like hands, Tait lowers his lithe body to the ground. He lands with a soft thud on a bed of thick forest mulch. To repeat his feat, he reaches up, grips the top of the trunk, pulls himself up, wraps his legs around the tree, pulls his torso over the top, presses up with his arms, and swivels himself smoothly into a sitting position. Ta-da!
“Think you could do that, Dad?” he asks. “No problem,” I swagger. Tait shimmies down the trunk and stands there, smiling. The woods smell of pine pitch and wildflowers. Sun glints through the evergreen boughs. Mosquitoes drone in clouds. “Go ahead,” he challenges.
“Not without toe shoes. With those things, it’s easy.”
“Use mine,” he says, bending down to unstrap them. “Nope,” I refuse. “That’d be like wearing your dirty socks, and I know how toxic your toejam is – some other time.” I turn and stride off down the trail. Tait flashes past me, jumping a fallen log like a deer. “Wimp,” he mutters, and he’s gone: a waif, a spirit floating silently down a meandering trail carpeted with pine needles and flakes of bark.
I plod after him, then pick up the pace, not running, but walking with purpose. Soon, I’m moving as in a dance, placing my feet carefully, quickly, rhythmically over smooth rocks, soft patches of earth, tiptoeing across creeks, dodging around stumps, leaping logs. I can see his toe prints in the mud, the wet marks of his feet on a flat rock after a creek crossing. These are the footfalls of my son, the quadrumana.
A mile farther, he waits. We walk the rest of the way together, talking about the wild places we’ve been in the mountains and deserts we so love. Walking brings up past walks: The Maze. The Grand Canyon. Druid Arch. West Maroon. East Maroon. Capitol Creek. The Four Pass Loop. We walk them again, in our minds.
Thoreau suggested that our external wanderings reflect our interior journeys, that the ideal world parallels the material world. Following Tait on the trail shows me that the seed has not fallen far from the tree. Father and son revel in a wild and beautiful path through life, toe prints and all.
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