Nature heals. Many have discovered this before me, but better late than never. Though I’ve always appreciated the beauty of nature, my admiration had been abstract, limited to infrequent and brief sojourns from various cities.
My conversion from distant admirer to true believer took place recently, as I looked for healthy things to do with my 2½-year-old son, Bates, amidst Denver’s increasingly restrictive shelter-in-place protocols.
Aside from 63 hellish days of Army Ranger School, I’ve never gone camping. I’m a decent athlete, regular CrossFitter and skier, but by no means an outdoorsman. Simply putting up a Marmot tent recently had me studying YouTube instructional videos. And so the recent epiphany I experienced hiking South Table Mountain outside Golden, Colorado, came as a surprise.
After a few days holed up in our small house in Denver, my wife juggling countless conference calls, the floor no longer visible under piles of toy fire trucks and construction vehicles, my son and I needed some air, and my wife some quiet for work.
I typed “Golden, Colorado” into my AllTrails app in the hopes it could help identify a good hike for us. South Table Mountain appeared perfect, an easy mile up and mile down, apparently offering a panoramic view of Golden and the surrounding Rocky Mountain foothills as a reward for making it to the top. And so I loaded Bates into the car and headed there.
I was relieved to discover that the trailhead parking area was almost empty. One of the many benefits of living in Denver is that there are so many amazing nearby hikes that many of them remain relatively uncrowded. As I loaded Bates into his child-carrier backpack, I was reminded of how heavy he is. Those 99th percentile height/weight rankings his pediatrician provided took on a new significance as I gazed upwards toward the top of the mountain.
Thankfully, I gradually loosened up as I strode down the winding path. As I scanned the landscape, more New Mexico than Colorado, with sand-colored rock and scrub brush, I felt the stress of the last week begin to wash away.
I had escaped the claustrophobia of home, with Bates bouncing off the walls, and CNN piping in the latest terrifying news from 1,800 miles away with the hysterical tone that would suggest the dead, virus-ridden bodies of one’s neighbors were being carted off. I felt liberated from the city, people, and worry.
I found myself talking to Bates more like a friend than a son, reveling in the human interaction, even if many of the conversations went like this:
“Look Bates, there’s a cactus?”
“A plant with spiky thorns that stick out?”
“So animals won’t eat him.”
And so on…
I was developing a good sweat, and slowing a bit, when a pair of CU undergrads zipped passed us up the trail. Bates, with trademark bluntness, asked, “Why they passing us, Dadda?” I laughed, and answered, “Because they aren’t carrying Bateses.”
To which, naturally, he replied, “Why?”
I decided to steer the conversation to a subject where perhaps we could get past asking why, and so we began to compare notes on our favorite “Daniel Tiger” and “Paw Patrol” episodes.
Meanwhile, his sense of wonder at our surroundings was contagious. I found myself beginning to see the world through his curious eyes, more aware than usual of my surroundings. A bluejay hopped down the path ahead of us, and Bates urged me to “catch him.” I took a few quick steps pretending to chase the bird. When it took off into the valley below, and I feigned frustration at my failure, Bates burst into laughter.
He went on to wonder what other animals we might see – bears, moose, wolves, snuffleupaguses – and I played along gamely, though a few leashed retrievers were the most exotic members of the animal kingdom we would encounter.
As we neared the top, there was one rocky pitch that required a bit of scrambling. I could tell Bates was a bit nervous as I lowered myself onto my hands and knees and crawled upward, as he grew quiet except for a few anxious “Daddas.”
He must have sensed my brief uncertainty as well, saying, “I want to go home.” There was a moment where the enormity of parenthood struck me – the fact that this young creature had total faith in me and my ability to get him up and down this mountain safely. It was the same sensation I had when my wife and I drove him home from the hospital for the first time.
Being reminded of that awesome responsibility — more than the actual difficulty of the small collection of rocks we were climbing – was frightening, humbling, and exhilarating. After crawling forward on all-fours for a few more feet, we got back on the gently contoured trail, and both let out a sigh of relief. As soon as I caught my breath – that little scramble at 6,000 feet had left me a bit winded — we resumed our conversation about how much Peppa Pig and Daddy Pig enjoy rolling around in mud puddles.
We finally climbed about 20 concrete steps to get to the top, and Bates said, “That was the steepest hill I’ve ever seen!” You would have thought we had just summited Everest. His enthusiasm was such a welcome antidote to the cynical world of adulthood, not to mention the paralysis of coronavirus worry that can set in if you don’t combat it.
A few white clouds drifted by lazily, a light breeze caressing our skin. There was nobody in any direction, the only sound was some nearby chirping birds and a jet heading west overhead. It was intoxicating to breathe in the fresh mountain air, unconcerned with inhaling the virus from a passerby. I sat down to give my back a break and let Bates scamper around.
He immediately picked up a few rocks. Like most toddlers, nothing delights Bates quite like scooping up anything in sight, usually delivering it straight to his mouth with hardly a pause. This time, though, he simply asked me if he could keep the rocks and I said OK.
I loaded him back into the pack, and we began to make our way back down the mountain. Suddenly Bates exclaimed, “Dadda, I really love this rock. I really do!” Such innocence. Such happiness. His spirit embodied everything that had been missing from my grown-up life of worry over elderly relatives, jobs, finances, childcare, the stock market.
At that moment, it occurred to me that something I hadn’t anticipated was going on. I was not helping Bates negotiate these challenging times; he was helping me.
When I got down the mountain with Bates, my legs were quivering, and I was covered in sweat, which Bates was quick to call “yucky.” He is quite judgmental in this regard, though never similarly troubled by his own dirty diapers.
More than anything, though, I felt alive.
I’m not a mental health expert. All I can say is that the last few weeks have been tough for us, and most Americans. But Bates and I have carved out a reassuring routine. I find myself looking forward to waking up each morning, searching for easy hikes in the area, loading him into the car, stopping at our local coffee shop, and heading to the foothills.
So, if you are fortunate enough to have access to nature, and time to take advantage of it, get out there and take a hike. I don’t think you’ll regret it. And if you have yet to experience the sort of awakening I did on what we now call “Bates Mountain,” I hope you are lucky enough to have it now.
And, like immunity, to keep it forever.
Will Bardenwerper is the author of “The Prisoner in His Palace: Saddam Hussein, His American Guards, and What History Leaves Unsaid” and a former infantry officer in the Army. He lives in Denver. Follow him on Twitter @wbardenwerper.