One Small Step at a Time
My Son Is Teaching Me How to Take a Walk
The author’s son stands on the rock at Kent’s Ledge, which looks south down the White River Valley. It was the first hike the boy, then 5, made entirely on his own feet. (Alex Hanson photograph)
A sign along the trail to Kent's Ledge can be misread as an exhortation to hike. (Alex Hanson photograph)
Relaxing on Kent's Ledge before heading back down the hill. (Alex Hanson photograph)
Of all the uncomplicated things in the world, the chiefest must be walking.
It’s a milestone for babies, a gait universal to nearly all terrestrial creatures, the simplest form of locomotion aside from falling.
Yet somehow, I never learned. Oh, I can get from here to there, from the car to the desk, from the fridge to the dining room table, and so on. But the idea of going for a walk is another matter, one of perspective that’s deeply ingrained.
The most formative hours of my upbringing were spent with my feet off the ground, on horseback, and I think it ruined me for walking. A walk in the woods or down the road or with the dogs was undertaken on four legs, or not at all.
Even attending college in Vermont didn’t inspire me to hike. After nearly 26 years in the Green Mountain State, I’ve climbed only one of its taller peaks — Mount Abe, 4,006 feet — and that was two decades ago.
There’s a sense of occasion in jumping on a horse for a ride down the trail that I don’t feel when I lace up a pair of hiking books and strap on a backpack. On horseback, a rider’s head is nearly 10 feet off the ground, a commanding view without even setting foot on a hill. I quit riding in my 20s, but the feelings and point of view the old pastime instilled are strong.
Only lately has this attitude begun to change, thanks to the birth of my son. He is teaching me to walk.
Bennett was born in the winter, and when he was a baby, I would put him in one of those little baby carriers you wear on your front, zip us up in an old parka of my grandfather’s and walk to the store. Snug in the old tan coat, he would fall asleep straight away.
Once he was a little older, I could put him in one of those baby backpacks, where he was sitting behind my head, just close enough to grab my ears.
Then there’s the precarious age when a child can start out on a walk but not finish it. A pleasant outing turns into a slog with a tired little boy on your shoulders. Even the short walk to our town library or the diner was likely to end in a shoulder ride home. I had become the horse.
We started hiking last summer, when he was 5, or maybe it was the autumn before. We pick short trails that lead to nice views. Kent’s Ledge in South Royalton, or the Patriarch’s Trail at the Joseph Smith Memorial Site, or Mount Tom in Woodstock. We sit at the summit and eat lunch, or a snack, take a drink of water or apple juice and look around.
Our most ambitious hike so far was a climb up Cardigan Mountain on a brilliantly sunny, windy day last August. Most of the time, Bennett leads the way, and on Cardigan he scrambled over the stony ground like a goat. The top of Cardigan on a fine summer day is like a busy city park, and we watched groups of people come and go while we had our snack. My legs were tired.
We started hiking, the boy and I, because I decided it was important for him to use his little legs, to make them strong. We’re walking for his benefit, really, not mine.
I’m enjoying it, mainly because it’s a healthy activity for the whole family. I like how deliberate walking is, and at the same time how gratuitous it is. Walking is done for its own sake.
But there’s still a barrier I have to get past. When I was riding, that was my exercise; I didn’t have to think about it. After I stopped, and later started writing, exercise became a conscious decision I wasn’t prepared to make. I still dream about riding more often than I think, “It’s such a nice day, I should go for a walk.” Maybe the boy is old enough for a pony.
Or maybe it’s best that we keep our feet on the ground and learn to see the world from our own less lofty perspective. Maybe it would be simpler to look outside on a sunny day and have my first thought lead to putting one foot in front of the other.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3219.