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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

For the first time, my 16-year-old son humbled me on the trail. We hiked out of the Maze a few days ago on a seven-hour trudge, and it was all I could do to keep up with his long-legged pace.

I thought I would cheer this day, but realize now that it comes with mixed feelings. My son is young and strong, while I’m moving in the opposite direction. It takes me back to the early years of parenthood and to a far different experience.

As a new father, I had big adjustments to make. I had been a free spirit until 42, and to be painfully honest, having a baby crushed my sense of personal freedom. There ought to be a standard birth manual preparing guys like me for the psychic dependency between father and son, because I was totally unprepared.

I had naively assumed that, as a father, I could still go off on months-long bicycle tours, for which I was always yearning. Touring through Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Portugal, Spain, etc., had given me a rare world view and an inspired sense of freedom.

After my son was born, unfettered travel was impossible. My life was mastered by a baby boy – my ball and chain – through a deep, mutual dependency. I endured, and not always gracefully, the demanding role of fatherhood. Today, I’m discovering that my son’s needs and mine are unified, liberating and rewarding.

Tait is 16. He has a driver’s license and a car and the urge to go. He is exhibiting all the tendencies I had to quash during his childhood: an insatiable eagerness for mobility and independence.

Last week, after finishing his sophomore year in high school, Tait announced, “I’m going to Canyonlands for a week.” My wife and I hemmed and hawed, but his arguments were pat. “I’ve been in school a full year. I’ve gotten good grades. I’m a responsible driver. I know how to hike and camp. I’m going! Alone, if necessary.”

Certain things are undeniable in a young man, like the full flush of hormonal energy that prompts first flights from the family nest. What could be more natural to a child and more unsettling to his parents than to watch youthful wings unfurl in first flight?

Not wishing to thwart his natural growth, being mindful of my responsibilities as a parent, and seeing a golden opportunity, I addressed the situation the only way I could. “Mind if I go along?” I asked. Tait looked me over the way you would a used car. “You can come if you want,” he shrugged. The next day we packed the car and headed west.

That evening, we shouldered backpacks and walked into the Maze, a serpentine array of canyons that resembles the coils of the small intestine. The hike was over 15 miles, first dropping a thousand feet into North Trail Canyon, then crossing a huge desert basin, then descending a black diamond series of slickrock ledges into the Maze proper.

Tait is taller than me by a couple of inches, and his stride is longer, so over time he outdistanced me. Rather than leading him, he was leading me. Tait has been doing a lot of rock climbing, so as we descended the canyons, he helped me with my pack. I felt grateful for his help, but also slightly doddering.

On this trip, Tait felt much more like a peer, which is how we talked and acted toward one another. And here was the biggest shift: the blurring of paternal authority with the assertion of a son’s maturation.

Hiking back to the car was another marathon. I paced along with Tait for the first 7 miles, but once we started up the thousand-foot climb of North Trail Canyon, he had to wait for doddering, old dad. Now I was the ball and chain.

As I look to the future, my hope is that Tait will help carry this old ball and chain by lugging some of my gear, helping me on the climbs, and acting like a peer. As our roles reverse completely, we will have gone full circle on a marathon journey through a maze of our own.


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