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How Hiking Made Me Find Meaning As A Father

It’s commonly called the “Iron Gates,” the narrow passage at the narrative climax of the Samaria Gorge in the Grecian island of Crete, where the two opposing 300-meter walls of rock you’ve been following for miles close in to within four meters of each other. The only thing keeping you from being crushed by these walls is the fact that a stream runs through this passage, so you step lightly on a rickety bridge, over the stream, to get through.

Hundreds attempt to hike the 10 miles of the Samaria Gorge each acceptable day (warm season and no rain within the last 48 hours); most people hike 12 miles from the gorge entrance to Agia Roumeli, the Libyan Seaport where a ferry transports folks back to highway transportation. It’s one of the very few ways to actually do this hike, which is very unique, and because of that, very precious for any and all who do it.

On May 19, 2015, my wife Sarah and I hiked the 12 miles from the Samaria Gorge entrance to Agia Roumeli. While not very arduous, the hike was cathartic. Surrounded by booming, jagged mountains and following only a sliver of a stream, we stepped on well-placed rocks and navigated minimally changing terrain while basking in the untouched beauty. The gorge is tucked so tight that a powerful storm can put every hiker’s life in grave danger, so we’d keep one eye on the fast-moving clouds, but we seemed to forget the weather much of the time — instead, we found ourselves awestruck by bright red rock face, purple and gold wildflowers, and the occasional opening that found us smack in the middle of a boulder graveyard. The wonder of nature around us seemed to clean our souls.

Courtesy of Timothy Malcolm

Sarah saw it in me. “I’ve never seen you so carefree,” she told me during the hike, and she’d repeat that frequently in the months following. Often I’d just stand there and look around, then smile, leap up and down and shriek. The Samaria Gorge opened up the child in me, a child I desperately kept so locked away for so long.

I never was comfortable with me. I grew up a display for others’ enjoyment, the genius boy who could recite state capitals, read encyclopedias, and work out complex math problems. I was the teacher’s pet, once called a “brown noser” (by an adult, no less), conversed with middle-aged folks in my spare time and watched game shows instead of children’s television. So my world was different. I was different. And at some point, when the me that had developed had to meet others who developed in other ways, my differences became a problem.

I was bullied. I was abused verbally and physically by my peers. I would cry about it, then get abused worse, so in time I chose to stop crying and internalize everything. I’d lock away in my bedroom and create other worlds. Once our family bought a computer, I’d spend hours on it creating more worlds (Myst, Sim City, fake baseball leagues in which I’d spend hours creating schedules on Lotus 1-2-3).

I still had some friends, still had a childhood, but I was never comfortable with being me around everyone. I would soon tailor my behavior to fit the crowds and people I was with, so instead of being me, I was a version of me that reflected my perception of what others wanted me to be. And that continued for years.

Somewhere along the line I lost most of that pure joy that I’d exhibit as a toddler and early grade schooler. I disengaged from others. I could easily turn off emotions. Life wasn’t joyous but a chore.

I had stepped out of those layers of skin enough by the time I reached the Iron Gates of the Samaria Gorge. Sarah and I stopped and watched others walk the bridge, just about able to feel the rock walls on either side. We exhaled, then, one at a time, we stepped through.

As my feet met the bridge, my eyes remained low to the stream. I took two steps, then glanced up at the blue sky dotted by clouds. The sun poured in from high. And suddenly I felt this uncontrollable deluge of tears running from my eyes. I sniffed. I giggled. I nearly wailed.

Sarah and I married nine months before. Not long after that, I decided it was time to start thinking about my welfare and visit the internalized emotions that needed to be exposed in daylight. The process was slow but necessary, and by the time I reached the bridge of the Iron Gates, I realized that I was worth the process.

I’ll be honest — I wasn’t happy with how my life had progressed. I wasn’t happy that I was always scared of putting myself in public for the world to see, that the bullying and abuse — and my internalization as a reaction to that activity — built an enormous wall that stopped me cold. But I was happy about Sarah, the one person who wanted to see all of me — all the good, all the bad, everything hidden, everything internalized. To pass the Iron Gates, to feel that symbolism of stepping through the walls closing in, meant that I was worth the effort, that life shouldn’t be wasted because of our pasts.

Two years later, after a year of therapy and further self discovery, and after making choices to put myself first, I found myself hiking a trail that I had hiked so many times before. At the foot of the Bear Mountain Bridge, my personal gateway to the Hudson Valley and the icon that makes me feel more home than anything else I’ve ever known, we started the Appalachian Trail hike toward Anthony’s Nose, a pointy lookout over the bridge and the Hudson River some 800 feet high. But this time it was me, Sarah, and on my back, all 16 lbs. of my daughter Genevieve.

This hike was our second formal hike with Genevieve strapped into the Kelty backpack carrier given to us by our gracious friend Brian. She’s getting used to being Cleopatra, cooing and only lightly fidgeting on two- and three-mile hikes. And I’m getting used to carrying 16 (and increasing) pounds on my back for these excursions. The worst part is ascending, though it only means stopping more often for water and moderate breathing. Once I reach level ground or I descent, carrying Genevieve is a breeze.

So because I’m getting used to it, the Appalachian Trail hike toward Anthony’s Nose — a steep and quick ascent up mostly rock steps — was challenging. But it was ultimately fine. Once we reached the nose itself, an open lookout that offers a 180-degree view of the Hudson River area around Bear Mountain, all physical tension lessened and, most important, all wonder and beauty returned.

I held Genevieve and walked down to a flat spot to look out over the river. The sky was a perfect blue. The hills beyond shimmered a brilliant green. The bridge stood strong beneath us. I was well past shrieking. I was happy. I was comfortable with me.

As we descended, I thought about some future in which a wholly independent Genevieve — orange hair tied up with a tail, freckles piercing her farmer’s tan, ocean blue eyes cast off into some imposing mountain pass — sat beside a much older version of me atop some other mountain. Her mountain. The place that gave her the catharsis necessary to break through some life obstacle.

I thought about her reaching into her backpack and offering a couple beers, the way Mom and Dad always did it during picnics. I’d tell her all about carrying her along the Appalachian Trail, the Rocky Mountains and all the other milestones we’d reach in our time together on the trail. She’d roll her eyes. She’d smile. I’d probably cry.

I wonder if others had the experience I had that day at Samaria Gorge. I wonder if there are people who’ve felt that very same catharsis at the Iron Gates, who’ve realized at that moment that they’re worth the process of shedding layers of skin, of investigating the past and planning the future through our better understandings. I’m sure there are others. There has to be.

Still, I consider myself a unique kind of lucky. I found the perfect person with whom to share my life. I had the experiences that allowed me perspective. And the result? I have the proof that my life isn’t just worth it, but it’s essential, and so I need to do the best I can. Because there’s a hike we have to take in a few years.

This article was syndicated from Medium.