It’s become part of our culture to greet the arrival of a new year by reflecting on what’s going on in our lives. If we’re in the right frame of mind – highly questionable given the insanity of what passes for the year-end holiday season – it’s an opportunity to focus on positives, make some adjustments on the not-so-positive, and maybe jettison those things that just aren’t working.
Let’s call it our annual reboot.
One of my best was an all-night New Years’ hike with my 20-yr old son up and down Volcano Baru near Boquete, Panama, in Central America. It was an endurance test that symbolized a major shift in our father-son relationship and foreshadowed what was to become routine in the five years since.
Volcano Baru is a 3,474 -meter (11,400-ft) high dormant volcano, the highest point in Panama and one of the highest points in all of Central America. When skies are clear, both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are visible from the same vantage point on the peak of Baru. It’s not the most remote hike in Panama; an insanely rugged road, supposedly traversable by 4-wheel drive, leads to a radio tower on a high ridge, but it’s a challenging 16-km (9-mile) hike to the top.
The weather in the cloud forests of Panama is reliably consistent much of the year, and it seems especially so during late December. Days usually break with clear skies that progressively cloud up as the morning passes. By noon, rain is threatening, and by around 2 p.m., it rains. The showers end around sunset and by very late evening the skies clear to allow gazing upon razor-sharp star-filled skies.
This was my first New Years away from the U.S. so it called for something unusual – hanging out with Americans in some expat bar in Boquete doing what I’d be doing in the States just wasn’t going to cut it. Volcano Baru sits next to the property of a friend of mine, it’s presence looming like a basketball player in a hobbit house, and it was an obvious choice for an excursion. What could be more symbolic than welcoming the dawn of a new year over one shoulder and one ocean, while saying goodbye to the darkness and waning year over the other shoulder and another ocean?! Well, we couldn’t think of anything! That was more than enough motivation for us to take on the journey.
That journey was a long night-time hike through cloud forest up Baru to make it there in time for the sunrise of a new year. We didn’t have tents, so hiking up the day before and weathering a night on the top of Baru wasn’t an option, and no one seemed too sure if camping was even allowed on Baru anyway. We had good headlamps though, and how tough could it be, right? I had tons of nighttime hiking experience – why I had done two or three 30-minute walks in the dark looking for rainforest frogs, and that seemed perfect training for an all-night hike in temperatures close to freezing. Besides, friends in Boquete were sure the trail was clearly defined, the weather seemed to want to cooperate, and we were itching for an adventure so, from the first time the idea was suggested to us, our fate was sealed.
Like every good new year is welcomed, we started off this trek with high expectations, good spirits, and the best of intentions. My son Kevin, our friend Stefan, and I set out from Boquete around midnight, laden with water and what seemed like enough snack bars and fruit to feed us for a week. We were more than ready to shout our New Years’ wishes and resolutions from the ceiling of Central America.
For most people, the dedication to the spirit and resolutions made for a new year generally tends to stick around for at least a little while, even if it’s only half way through a New Years’ Eve party. That New Years’ day, we were on the trail at 1:30 am, and true to character the night was clear and sweet as an Asti champagne. There was a three-quarters moon, but even with that “street-light” in the sky, the number and brightness of stars was astounding. The warmth of the day was long gone, and the air was crisp with no lingering evidence of the daily rain from the afternoon before. The interior of the cloud forest, dim even on sunny days, was dark and foreboding on either side of the trail, and it added a few stomach-butterflies to the layers of feelings. Our confidence was high, though, and we congratulated ourselves on our “most-excellent” idea and fine planning.
When the New Years’ party is over, it isn’t long before life begins to test our commitment to our sworn and toasted resolutions. The temperature dropped steadily as we climbed, but as is typical when hiking, we heated up quickly and stopped every few hundred meters to remove layers of clothing and soon were down to zip-off pants and quick dry t-shirts. The trail started off fairly well packed and stable, and we flew over the first few kilometers. Soon afterward, though, the incline turned steep and the footing grew precarious among the loose cobble stones that composed the trail. It was obvious this was one of those trails that doubled as a stream come rainy season and there was very little soil to hold all the rocks.
New Years’ resolutions often are forgotten before the cold of winter has faded, and spring has a chance to lift our souls and renew our now-shaky best intentions. About 5 kilometers into the hike, and after a few jolting ankle-twists, severe sweating, and consumption of most of his trips’ worth of water, Stefan decided he’d had enough and turned back. He wished us well and headed down the rocky chute.
Just like that the trip unexpectedly was relabled under the category of “father-son.”
Now, everyone with kids understands that undertaking things that can officially be called “challenging” with your progeny at an age where they are exercising their flight feathers is bound to be ripe ground for what’s termed in therapy, breakthroughs and insights, which of course don’t come without triumphing over pain that rivals the passing of kidney stones.
Our ride through the everyday life of a typical year is about as smooth as a potholed main street after a hellish winter, and if we somehow manage to keep the faith and even remember our New Years’ intentions, we have to cut ourselves some slack if we backpedal every once in a while. My biggest setback on the Baru hike came around 8 kilometers into the hike. Long stretches of extremely steep climbing had taken their toll, and I was shivering cold, exhausted, and beginning to get cramps in my legs. I was ready to join Stefan. Kevin, of course, was fine and wanted to keep going. A solid break, a new shirt, several energy bars, and healthy doses of alternating encouragement and derision from Kevin turned everything around, so we pressed on with a renewed “firm” commitment to…well, “we’ll see how it goes” was the best I could muster. Besides, I couldn’t let him win that easily, and the hike took on the feel of one of our countless father-son competitions over the years – catching the bigger fish, skating fastest around the pond, finding the coolest music groups, and so on. I didn’t want to tank without a battle.
Our spirits were buoyed by colorful night-time blooming flowers along the trail that would glow in the light of our headlamps. The numerous stops to take pictures probably helped us to pace ourselves more than we realized. There also were, during this stretch, wonderful occasional views over our shoulders of the nighttime lights of the small villages scattered around the valleys that surrounded Baru – more excuses to stop to catch my breath, so I made sure we appreciated every one.
If New Years’ resolutions and intentions are still remembered by fall, it’s reasonable to begin to hope they have staying power, and they may become part of the new and improved “You.” The kilometers of the middle part of the journey seemed to melt away, my son making an effort to keep the mood upbeat and the pace steady. Keeping an eye on the time, we began to think we might be on schedule for our sunrise rendezvous with the peak after all. Of course, the final 4 kilometers or so seemed to drag on forever, but as the first hints of dawn started teasing in the eastern sky, we were above the tree line and on the final set of ridges. We picked up the pace, excited at nearing our goal.
Life, though, never seems to deliver lessons that come without a price, and sometimes we have to work hard to understand what those lessons even are.
So it was on Baru that morning.
As dawn set in, it revealed heavy fog moving up from the valleys, and clouds setting in much earlier than usual. There’d be no New Years’ sunrise to reward us for the journey that had turned out much more difficult than we had imagined – way harder than those just-after dinner-but-before-dessert rainforest frog walks.
We helped each other up the last rock ledge to the very top, snapped a couple pictures, saying very little. We caught a very short glimpse of the sun when it was still low over the Atlantic when clouds parted for a brief moment. Otherwise we settled for intermittent views over the valleys and never saw the Pacific at all.
There was no need to hang out on the windy, cold, and desolate peak. We had the place to ourself – in fact we saw no other people on the entire hike – but we were exhausted after more than 6 hours of climbing and exposure to the very raw night, and our much hyped goal of experiencing a New Years’ double ocean view wasn’t going to happen. We knew the early clouds meant earlier than usual rain, so we started back down with heavy moods.
The hike down wasn’t any easier, mostly because of the loose rocks and tough footholds of the trail. We vented a bit, no doubt working through whatever residual issue from our relationship during his teenage years we needed to tackle.
As we descended through the clouds, the sun did its’ job to warm the day, and the warmth thawed and gave energy to our chilled joints and muscles. Gradually the disappointment we felt at the top of Baru was replaced by the realization that the volcano was giving us a far more valuable gift. We were enduring together on a difficult journey, and experiencing countless small treasures and memorable moments along the way. We were helping each other out when we needed it, laughing together, cursing together, and being amazed by nature together.
I began to understand and appreciate how special this journey with my son was. He had a year of college behind him, and was on his own now. I mostly lagged behind him on the hike, and in his shadow I couldn’t help but picture a young boy through our years of playing hockey in the driveway, rollerblading around the block, fishing for striped bass, and all the good memories that now were just stuffing for photo albums. In that long trek up and down Baru, the little boys’ shadow grew tall, and the “here and now” of our relationship was richly textured and adding wonderful new layers.
It hasn’t always been in one direction, but I look back on that night as the beginning of truly appreciating my son in a new light as an adult and the point our relationship started down a new path. Panama was the first stop of a journey in Latin America that hasn’t stopped for Kevin. It’s become his home, and through the many adventures I’ve happily shared with him since on his adopted home turf, he’s been the host and trip leader, and I’ve sometimes become the child needing direction, interpretation, and encouragement.
We were talked out for most of the downhill slog – you can only say “I think we’re almost back” so many times – but I distracted myself with thoughts of how sure I was that I would look back on this trip fondly. The hours and distance peeled away, our mood fairly upbeat even as our feet grew numb. Stefan met us at the end of the trail, all smiles and full of energy after having enjoyed a good nights’ sleep after all.
More than 12 hours and 18-miles (33-kms) after we set out, we gingerly climbed into the car for the ride home. A few minutes later, rain, which had threatened the whole way down but held off, began to fall – the daily recharge in the world of the cloud forest. Perfectly-timed poignancy.
It’s particularly satisfying when you’re able to welcome a new year having grown over the course of the previous year, whether it was carrying through on resolutions or making the best of whatever came along.
The “year-long” hike up and down Baru truly was remarkable for me, especially framed as it was on New Years.
We’d set out to see the light of “the sun” rise over a New Year and reveal its promise and hope. It seemed at first that Baru had been stingy with that goal. The prize it ultimately delivered was far better, to allow me to see a new light of “my son” rise, adding to the promise I already knew was there.