Climbing fatherhood mountain

Black Elk Peak (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

I’m not much of a camper. 

In the winter I like warm beds; in the summer, cool air. I want all the kitchen stuff to be in the kitchen, not stacked like some Russian nesting doll and then wrapped in a mesh bag with a drawstring. Furthermore, I want to enter and exit my sleeping quarters without having to unzip the door and trip over the threshold like a zoo bear.

As a result, I’ve lived a life dedicated almost exclusively to acquiring and keeping a house. I spend a lot of money on our house. Not because I have to, but because living in a house with electricity is my favorite. Sure, I love nature, which is why I have many windows and also a deck. Camping isn’t bad, per se. It’s just something I’d normally reserve for fleeing the country under duress.

So when my oldest son Henry’s Scout troop announced a camping trip to western South Dakota, I surprised many — including my wife and especially myself — when I volunteered to go as one of the adult leaders.

I had one big reason. My son is almost done with his Eagle Scout project. He’s starting college during his senior year of high school. Soon enough, Henry will be busy with a life that does not always include his old man. I went with him on his first Scout camping trip years ago; this would be our last.

In addition, I like walking. I walk five miles every day. We’ve been out to that part of the country before, but I could never interest my wife in hiking because she gets heat sick too easily. (Indeed, we are soulmates). This time, accompanied only by my strapping young son, I could hike as much as I wanted. I might even hike Black Elk Peak.

Black Elk Peak stands sentry over the Black Hills of western South Dakota, an ancient protrusion of granite surrounded by endless prairie. Formerly named Harney Peak, the name was switched from that of a genocidal general to a Lakota elder back in 2016.

Hiking up the side of Black Elk Peak was my highest priority when we planned this trip. The mountain represents the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pyrenees range in Europe. That all seems less intimidating in a brochure than it does when you get there.

To me, this climb would be a symbol of my relationship with my oldest son on the cusp of manhood. What transpired, however, was easily the most physically strenuous day of my life, second only to the August day in 1993 when I was a fat kid who wandered onto my school’s football team. 

The first indication of trouble occurred at a stop-off point shortly after the start of the path. From a rock that feels plenty high you can look up the face of Black Elk Peak to see the stone fire tower that was built at the top during the 1930s. From this early vantage point, the tower appears a tiny dot on the distant mountain. One glance destroys the notion of this being a simple walk. I was already exhausted and yet we had only just begun.

Black Elk Peak features at least three and a half miles of sustained incline. What that looks like is a hill, followed by a set of stairs, followed by stairs that are very long, short stairs, another hill, inclined rocks and then more stairs. Really, all methods of moving upward without aid of machine or pneumatic tube would be deployed. The most difficult climbing would come at the end, as though a fire-breathing dragon was protecting the castle at the top, only in this case all the fire was in my lungs. 

Henry, of course, methodically climbed the trail with apparently ease, often well ahead of me. I am always reminded of how, when he was diagnosed with scoliosis years ago, Henry began consciously holding his shoulders back to keep his back erect. He’s now adopted a remarkable habit of sitting, standing and walking with excellent posture. He wakes early, works hard, and it does not occur to him to take the sort of moral shortcuts that most of us find at that age. 

Seeing him up ahead of me while I contemplated my heart exploding reminded me that there are many ways for your heart to explode.

Like most suffering, the experience eventually ended. We arrived at the top. After catching my breath, a process that took about half an hour, we enjoyed the panoramic view and I partook in the best internet reception I’d found on the entire trip. 

They say you can see four states from the top. Though, to be fair, they are all very flat states and hard to tell apart at that elevation. There could have been six or seven and I wouldn’t know the difference.

I sat with my son for a bit contemplating how it was more likely I’d need his help getting down the mountain than he would need mine. There will be more of this as the years go by, all part of the process of raising your eventual replacement on this planet.

As it turned out, I wouldn’t need any help getting down. When fat guys and gravity work together they can do amazing things. I reached that same point at the base of the peak where you can see the stone fire tower. I looked up to contemplate how high and how far we had gone. By then my son was already walking on ahead of me, off to set up camp. 

That night I slept as comfortably in a camp cot as I would have in my bed back home. Not because it was comfortable, but because I was completely at peace with my place in this world. Feelings like this don’t last for long, but they are worth climbing mountains, no matter how high.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Aug. 28, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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