Manhood in the Making: Hiking with My Son and My Dad, On His 61st Birthday (at DeSoto State Park in Fort Payne, Alabama)

I could think of no better way to spend the morning of my dad’s 61st birthday than to go on a hike with him and my son, near the woods I grew up in.

Growing up just 5 miles miles from DeSoto State Park (connected to Fort Payne, Alabama), I joined the Cub Scouts when I was in 1st grade, which helped me realize back then in 1987 it wasn’t sports that got me excited; but instead, the great wooded outdoors.

Hiking and exploring nature became my sport. It became a crucial part of my masculine identity; not baseball or basketball, though I did end up (unsuccessfully) playing both.

My dad served as the Scout Leader for our Cub Scout troop, which only reinforced what it meant to be a “Shell man” in our family. (Our last name is Shell.)

So it’s no surprise that, 30 years later, with my own son being in 1st grade himself now, this hike symbolized as a right of passage. Granted, I’ve been taking my son on hikes where we live in Tennessee for years.

But this hike was special: It connected us together as the three Shell men of our family.

And we just couldn’t have planned for it to be as perfect and adventurous and it ended up.

It was just chilly enough for my son and I to get to wear our slightly silly hats, but the sun shone on us the whole time.

All I had really remembered about the trail from when I was my son’s age was at the end, there was a dam. But there was much more than that.

Much of the trail made its way along the side of cliff, with the river down below. It was like every step of the way was a picture worth taking and putting on Instagram.

We encountered some man-made structures along the way that were apparently built around a hundred years ago. They only added the mystery aspect of our adventure.

Because that’s an important part of going out for a hike in the woods: Secretly hoping to make some kind of cool discovery.

My son made a few discoveries of his own, with no help thanks to me.

He was truly fascinated by all the moss growing along the side of the mountain…

But he surprised me when he showed me the baby snake he found as well. We’re still at least pretty sure that snake wasn’t actually poisonous.

As we made our way closer to the dam, which served as our arbitrary motive along the way, we accidentally found a cave in the rocks.

My son showed zero ounces of fear as we entered it; only eagerness to explore!

We imagined how, surely, Native Americans must have slept there; and how even now, it was likely a retreat for forest animals as well.

As we exited the cavern, alongside the waterfall from the river, I showed my dad and my son a shortcut to the dam, so we wouldn’t have to backtrack because of our cave detour.

It involved us having to hold on the side of the rock cave while walking across a narrow ledge with the river below. Was it dangerous? Well, that’s sort of the whole point.

I see so much value in a young boy receiving guidance and confirmation from the older men in his life. He learns firsthand how we can tackle a challenge like this, with our help, and overcome it.

That’s got to be good not only for his growing self-esteem, but also his identity as a confident 1st grader.

To me, this is what being a dad is all about. This is the most important stuff; everything else is just details.

So truly, there was no better way to spend last Saturday morning, on my dad’s 61st birthday, than to hike an old trail across the side of a mountain and a river in Alabama.

Fathers pass on certain values and less to their sons that no one else can, in the same way. That’s something I am very aware of.

This was no leisurely hike. No, this was manhood in the making, for my son.

And I would like to believe that 30 years from now, he’ll look back on our hike and realize how it served as an expression of his dad for his son.

Sometimes as a father, it takes a hike in the woods to supplement “I love you” and “I’m so proud of you”.

Looking back, I can see that with my own dad when he took me on those hikes. And now I continue that cycle for my own son.

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