Hiking With Grandad

This essay was written in the early 2000s and published on bHs.

When I was very young, my Grandad was both fascinating and miraculous. I remember getting up with him before the sun rose, putting on layers of wool clothing, and falling back to sleep in his mossy Ford Valiant. I always woke as we began zipping up the foothills of the Olympic Mountains in Washington State. I’d press against the door, peering nervously down the edges of the increasingly steep hills and gawking up at the mountains. Often a few aunts, uncles, parents, or other older men would be crammed into the car or following in other vehicles. We would breathlessly arrive at a trailhead, usually the first car by a clear margin.

My favorite hikes, probably all before I was ten years old, didn’t include any aunts, parents, or other relatives besides Grandad. He had the coolest mental tins for carrying our peanut butter or cheese sandwiches, and some collection of carrot sticks, celery, and nuts. We packed water in one liter used saline bottles, and I always selected a special sweet treat beforehand. A Butterfinger was my usual — a completely unknown snack in my normal life. Those special mornings, we quietly said goodbye to my younger brother and Grandma, who had started baking chocolate chip cookies to soothe Cameron for being left behind, and slipped out into the foggy dawn light.

Sometimes a few men met us at the house, or we would go to Frank’s home to car pool. Five or eight or ten of us would head for the mountains. I think they were already a trail crew, designing and maintaining various trails to the top of Mt. Elinor and Mt. Rose. But on my favorite days, we weren’t working on the trails.
Grandad always drove, accelerating ahead of any slow pokes and making the most fantastic racket as the trailbuilding tools slid around in the trunk. It was only when I was in my teens that I realized I should be terrified when he navigated his way up and down the roads he knew too well. Cars were still safe, warm cocoons. I enjoyed his admonition to “Sassen my feetbelt” and relished the specialness of being the only child in the midst of men.

When we reached the trailhead, there was much fussing with boots and clothing and bantering about having the “ten essentials.” They all carried large faded backpacks that smelled oddly musty and were full of tools and equipment that could easily keep us safe and warm for a day or two. We were only going on a day hike and probably wouldn’t need an emergency tent or ice pick, but the important thing was that we were prepared. I didn’t care — all of the extra equipment promised excitement and I had my own, much smaller pack, with water and a sweater. Everyone, even me, contributed to having a safe and well supplied hike. My family still argues about what is included in the ten essentials, but thanks to Grandad we all think about being prepared and many of us have an unusual fondness for carrying a compass at all times.

There was rain, and trees, and surprising views across valleys and down rocky slopes. When the adults got nervous, I was hooked into ropes, but set free to hop down scree covered hillsides. To my delight, there were sometimes mountain goats, which had yet to become pests demanding their due on the top of every mountain in the form of trail mix or a sweaty arm to lick. On the lower slopes, heavy lichen draped the trees, and a moistness filled the air. As we climbed, my cheeks reddened and I could feel my breath deep in my chest. Whenever I wanted to stop, I was told our destination was “just around the next switchback.” I had to be careful not to walk to closely behind my grandfather, for he liked to flick sticks and rocks off the trail to keep things tidy.

We looked for the most beautiful places with views of the Olympic mountains and lurking Mt. Rainier in the distance to have lunch or a snack. Although we could have enjoyed our food in the more subtle beauty of meadows and forests, we sought the more dramatic glimpses of the mountains. Sometimes we pushed on to a favorite spot before eating, often a rocky outcrop we could all perch on with views spreading out in all directions.

When we did find a resting point, everyone had some food to share, passing it around or offering it directly to the others. We all chose our seats carefully, looking for raised rocks or logs, or at least a less lumpy patch of ground. We naturally fell into a semicircle, inclusive of each other. Conversation might bounce around, but everyone took time to gaze out at the world in silence. Food breaks were a common time to pull out cameras and document the occasion, and binoculars were sometimes used to admire the view or inspect the trail far below us. None of these activities, however, were allowed to interfere with the importance of exchanging food. They all were taking care of each other and especially me. I knew I was loved.

They talked about the most fascinating things, and gently ribbed each other about past events I didn’t understand. When I was older, I was surprised by their obvious delight in giving each other a hard time about trail building techniques, politics, driving skills, and whatever other subject was handy. As a young child, I mostly remember gentle courtesy and teasing. I caught glimmers of various familial conflicts, upcoming plans, and ideas about their trails. I was asked serious questions about myself, and told interesting things about wildflowers, plants, and forests. We had conversations about climax forests and hemlocks, and sometimes I think they lapsed into conservative political arguments that I disagreed with even then.

I was not the first child Grandad had shepherded into the mountains. Grandad taught all three of his daughters to love and care for the mountains and woods, and eagerly began inducting a second generation of Maranvilles into the beauty of the wilderness. As the oldest of the grandchildren, I was also able to grow up in the mountains under his watchful eye. There was less time for the grandchildren following me, but because of him, we all try not to cut the corners of the switchbacks, keep trails neat, and bring plenty of food to share with our hiking companions of all ages.