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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Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

6 years, 3 months.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

Dear Jack,

No monster truck or motorcross shows for February, but with this winter being so mild, we definitely took advantage of being able to trek through the waterways of Spring Hill, Tennessee. That’s how we stayed in touch with our masculine side, despite living in a house with two girly girls.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c5

Our multiple trips over the month of February to McCutcheon Creek led to adventure, as expected.They also led to finding treasures, perhaps a little unexpected…

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) m6

Your Spiderman boots are must when we are sneaking through McCutcheon Creek, which snakes through the middle of Spring Hill; including Harvey Park, which also has a playground.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c3

At one point we had to construct a bridge from an abandoned piece of sheet metal we found nearby. It was the only practical way to us to cross the deeper part of water.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c8

Shortly afterwards, we found an old pair of wire cutters sticking out of the dirt. You swiftly adopted them as your own, as you joyfully began clipping the briers in our path.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) c9

I could tell you felt so proud to be entrusted with such a powerful (and potentially dangerous) tool. It was so the opposite of the caution you have to use back at the house with your baby sister.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) m3

The weekend before that, you had found a wooden stake, which you officially become your sword. I didn’t realize how useful a wooden sword can be while exploring the waterways of Spring Hill, Tennessee.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) t4

One of our favorite places to go is a tunnel underneath the road, which allows McCutcheon Creek to flow underneath. Maybe we could call it our man cave.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) t3

You continually demonstrate your bravery in our adventures.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

Perhaps the most impressive thing I saw you do was when you climbed up, and then back down, the 7th foot cliff; alongside the creek. It’s hard enough for me to do it, but you do it with ease.

Of course, in between your bouts with treachery and bravery, you would ask, “Hey Daddy, can we go back to the playground?

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) p2

On the surface, it might appear the playground served as a place for leisure.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek) p4

But I know better- you simply used the playground as your training facility to build your strength and endurance for our next expedition.

Dear Jack: Our Water Treks of Manliness in February 2017 (Harvey Park/McCutcheon Creek)

Good times.

Love,

Daddy

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h)

5 years, 8 months.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h)

Dear Jack,

After leaving Saturday morning at 5:30 AM from our home in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and having a few adventures in between, we finally made it to Fort Payne, Alabama, about 13 hours later; where Nonna and Papa live.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d3

The next afternoon, we loaded up for our final stop on our 1st father and son road trip. Nonna and Papa joined us in the Lexus ES; while Uncle Andrew and your cousin Calla followed us in their Toyota Highlander.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h)

On route to the hiking spot, I made a quick detour to show you the little brick house I grew up in, until I was a high school freshman in 1995 when the “new house” (which serves as your summer camp headquarters for the week) was built.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d13 d14 d15 d16

Just a few miles away was the DeSoto State Park, where we began our journey down the Azalea Cascade Trail.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h)

I chose for you to go on this trail as a way to keep you from having to take a nap: In the afternoons, you get way too much energy if you don’t sleep; so I catered to your needs by providing an agenda and landscape for you:

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h)

It was a long, strenuous trail for the likes of a 5 and a half year-old boy. I was very pleased with the results.

You encountered a wall of a hill…

d12 Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h)

A treacherous bridge…

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And a giant rock or two for us to climb together.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d27

Perhaps one of your favorite parts of the trail was when you amazingly found a baby slug that you took along for a leg of the hike.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d26

About 15 minutes later, you declared, “Daddy, it’s time for me to part ways with Sluggy.”

And so you did.

I helped you find a nice place in the grass for him to hang out.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d21 d22 d24

Hiking that trail with you showed me what you’re capable of for next time!

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d6 d7

I figured it would be a good idea for you and your cousin to cool down by playing at the playground across from where we parked the Lexus ES.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d30 d31

It just so happens, the playground equipment company Papa has worked for since 1979 made and installed the equipment the two of you played on.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h) d33

From there, we got cleaned up and got ready for your goodbye dinner at the Thai restaurant…

Love,

Daddy

P.S.

Here’s the collection of stories from our father and son road trip…

Ghostbusters and the BFG

Nick A Jack Road

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel

Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park

2016 Lexus ES 300h Father & Son Road Trip (Table of Contents)

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h)

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

5 years, 8 months.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

Dear Jack,

Throughout my entire childhood, as Papa drove our family to and from Chattanooga where his side of family lives, we would always pass this brown government sign, pointing towards Cloudland Canyon State Park; near Trenton, Georgia.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

I never stopped wondering what was there, just 4 miles off the main road. So I decided to make it an official stop on our 1st father and son road trip.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

Neither of our preconceived ideas of Cloudland Canyon State Park were accurate. I was expecting something much smaller and mediocre. And you later revealed to me you thought it was like a carnival with rides.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

However, we were both very pleased with what the park actually is. It was amazing!

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

There’s a walkway that goes along the side of Lookout Mountain, which allowed us to see down into the valley… way down there.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

And at one part of the trail, we were able to climb a staircase down to a really cool viewpoint.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

I think my favorite part of our visit to Cloudland Canyon was when you looked out and announced, “Oh, I see the 10 Commandments.”

(It was actually a set of rock posts that are part of another trail across the valley.)

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

When you are older, I will take you back because there’s another trail that is 2 hours long that goes all the way down to where there’s a waterfall! Maybe in a year or two you’ll be ready for that. I am really looking forward to that…

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

So it turns out that my whole life, there really was something pretty awesome, had we just turned 4 miles down that road where the brown government sign was.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

Cloudland Canyon State Park is a wondrous place to visit. After we left there, we opened the sun roof in the Lexus ES, per your request, and enjoyed the breeze as we made our way closer to Fort Payne, Alabama.

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Ghostbusters and The BFG (in the 2016 Lexus ES Hybrid)

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

But first, I had a surprise stop planned: an old chapel built into a giant rock…

Love,

Daddy

P.S.

Here’s the collection of stories from our father and son road trip…

Ghostbusters and the BFG

Nick A Jack Road

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Sallie Howard Memorial Chapel

Azalea Cascade Trail at DeSoto State Park

2016 Lexus ES 300h Father & Son Road Trip (Table of Contents)

Dear Jack: Our 1st Father and Son Road Trip- Cloudland Canyon State Park (in the 2016 Lexus ES 300h Hybrid)

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

5 years, 5 months.

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

Dear Jack,

This past weekend was likely your final weekend as an only child. I recognize the significance of that and so I wanted to make sure we got out and made it exciting.

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

On Saturday, our family met up with your friends Madison and Avery (and their families) at the park. You have known them both since you were around 1 year old.

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

We didn’t realize it, but there were some vendors there including K-Love radio station. They had a man in a bucket in a crane truck who threw a foam ball to all the kids below. You loved it!

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

That afternoon, we dropped Mommy off at the house to do some further “nesting,” while we went back to explore some more of McCutcheon Creek, where we left off from the week before.

In order to cross the water, we had to “build a bridge.” I found an old piece on sheet metal nearby, so I tossed it across the water and it landed on a rock; giving just enough length for you to get to the shore.

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

Whereas the theme of our McCutcheon Creek expedition the week before was mud, this time it was trees. We were trekking through an area of the creek where the trees served as a canopy over us. Some of the branches were so low that we had to cross over and under them.

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

At one point I abruptly announced to you, “Stop! Do you hear that?” We immediately heard a swarm of bees, but didn’t see them. I wanted to make sure we weren’t standing on some kind of underground bee colony.

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

Fortunately, we weren’t. However, we were standing right underneath them: The tree we were standing next to was rotted out, with the bees having their home at the top of the tree!

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

We turned around and escaped without any bee stings. It’s always an adventure when you and I go exploring the creek!

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

And once Papa gets here when your sister is born, I have a feeling we will go explore more of McCutcheon Creek with him too. Even more fun!

Love,

Daddy

Dear Jack: Your Last Weekend as an Only Child?

Dear Jack: Our New Canon PowerShot G7 X Camera

5 years, 4 months.

Dear Jack: Our New Canon PowerShot G7 X Camera

Dear Jack,

Last weekend you and I got to test out our brand-new camera: a Canon PowerShot G7 X.

We picked up right where we left off from the weekend before, when we followed that creek to the treehouse.

Whereas my new toy was the camera, your new toy was a gift card holder, which is a functioning toy tractor from Tractor Supply Company.

j1

You made it your mission to run that red tractor through the water and soot in the creek. I served as your camera man.

I love our new camera. The camera I’ve been using for the past 4 and a half years up until this point was the 2011 version of the Canon PowerShot, which was only 12 megapixels.

Dear Jack: Our New Canon PowerShot G7 X Camera

Apparently that’s my favorite brand. I find it very user friendly and absolutely durable. Mommy and I dropped the last one several times and it never damaged the camera at all.

With the upgraded version, we now have 20 megapixels, plus a 1 inch sensor which causes the background to blur; giving the images a more professional look.

Dear Jack: Our New Canon PowerShot G7 X Camera

(Thanks to Best Buy for their educated staff, who were able to enlighten me!)

With your sister Holly scheduled to be born in less than a month, and with you starting Kindergarten this fall, Mommy and I figured it was the right time for a new camera.

j4

As for our journey in the neighborhood walking park a few neighborhoods away from us, we trekked on far enough to discover a really cool school playground.

Dear Jack: Our New Canon PowerShot G7 X Camera

Now that we’ve been exploring the surrounding neighborhoods for the past couple of weekends, I have a feeling this will be the norm for us; that we will try to squeeze in an exploring journey whenever we can.

While Mommy’s taking care of the baby this summer, I’ll be there to guide you to excitement in the great outdoors.

Love,

Daddy

Dear Jack: Our New Canon PowerShot G7 X Camera

dad from day one: Baby Jack the Boy Scout at DeSoto State Park (Nature Vs. Nurture)

Week 15.

Now that the weather is getting nicer, we the parents are very excited about taking advantage of the dozens of trails near us at DeSoto State Park.  That means Baby Jack gets to go hiking with us.  Fortunately, he actually enjoys hiking, even if he’s asleep for most of the time.

I should point out these aren’t simply 20 minutes walks I’m referring to.  I’m talking 3 and a half mile hikes- not just easy, flat trails.  When he is awake during his hikes, he loves to look up at the blue sky, which matches his eyes. Conveniently, we haven’t had to change his diapers during these journeys.  But of course, we feed and change him right before we embark into the forest, to make things easier for Jack and for us.

I don’t know if it’s normal for a 3 month old to enjoy hiking.  But I guess now it’s normal to him.  I help create his reality like that.  It’s a classic case of “nature vs. nurture”.  I am nurturing him to appreciate nature.  And he’s buying it.