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Summit Not Required: Reconsidering the Race to the Top

By: Heather Fitzgerald / Seven Days'

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. For many of us, hiking a mountain is a refreshing and energizing rite of summer, but it was hard to get outside this year with all the heat and water, not to mention the Canadian wildfire haze. Heading into fall, I feel wrung out. These days, I often have energy for just a short, modest excursion.

So this fall, here’s a reminder you might need, too: You have permission not to summit. Getting to the top, admiring the view and taking photos can be satisfying, but it’s not always necessary. I’m not going to let myself feel guilty about missing out, and you shouldn’t either.

In my ecological planning graduate program, we joked about taking “field trips to the foothills of fabulous places” because we often didn’t make it to the main attraction. For example, in one of the first outings for my botany course, our instructors brought us to Rock Point in Burlington. I’m sure they’d planned to show us the spectacular cliffs overlooking Lake Champlain and the famous thrust fault that draws geologists from all over the world, but we barely made it out of the parking lot. We had so many questions!

Our teachers graciously answered them, allowing our curiosity to guide the discussion. That day we learned that the pigments that give flowers their hues are pH-dependent anthocyanins. Whether they’re red, blue or purple will depend on the acidity of the soil. We found out that beets are colored by different pigments, called betalains — and so much more.

Since then, I’ve been back to visit the dramatic cliffs and beautiful bays many times. I even got married there. Our slow pace that day had no lasting repercussions.

Getting to the top, admiring the view and taking photos can be satisfying, but it’s not always necessary.

Years ago I read an essay that stuck with me: “A Child’s Sense of Wildness” by author and ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan. In it, he recalls a time he brought his children camping in Arizona. The adults spent a lot of time looking for photo opportunities.

Once they found one, Nabhan’s children would dutifully approach it with him. But upon arriving, the kids would immediately drop to the ground, distracted by pine cones, sparkly rocks and other interesting treasures.

He writes: “In retrospect, it is amusing to me that when I wished my children to have contact with wildness, I sent them ‘out,’ to climb high upon ridges and to absorb the grand vistas. Yet when they wished to gain a sense of wildness, of animal comfort, they chose not the large, but the small. In doing so, they may have been selecting a primordial connection with the earth and its verdant cover.”

This rings true for me. When I think about my own childhood, what I remember most is the hideout I made next to my back porch; climbing on rocks in a stream that ran next to the road in front of my aunt’s house; walking on my local bike path and stopping when I reached the grove of what were, to me at the time, giant trees.

It’s hard to get back to that childhood mindset, even when you have young children. I still remember a time when my then-toddler son stopped me while walking along the sidewalk, saying, reverently, “Wook, Mom, a swug!” I tried to be excited, oohing and aahing over it for a few moments. But we were running late, and it was hot, and I know I hurried him along to our destination.

It can be hard to override the desire to push to the summit. Just this summer, an old friend visited with her kids, ages 14 and 10. I thought they’d enjoy climbing a mountain and seeing the beautiful view from the top. The kids were accommodating of my ambitious schedule, but it was a humid day, and the 10-year-old did ask a few times how much farther we were going as we dragged along.

I remember asking such questions myself as a kid. It was my polite way of saying, “I’m not having much fun right now.”

I knew this, in some part of my brain, but another part insisted, “You have to learn that you can do this and how great it is!”

But did he? Honestly, if he were to look back on that day, he would probably think of it more fondly if we’d chosen a less ambitious destination. What if I had just taken them to a place where he could build a fort?

Here, then, is my countercultural advice: If you go to the Forest City trailhead in Huntington on a hot day and play around in Brush Brook to cool off but barely make it to the first bridge before turning around, it’s OK! If you set out to climb Snake Mountain but get distracted by the mysterious rusting farm machinery just a few short minutes up the trail, it’s OK! If you start climbing Mount Philo and your toddler fixates on a stick by the side of the road halfway up the trail and you take a seat while she pokes around with it until you’re both cranky and decide to head back, it’s OK!

It feels good to get to the top. But sometimes giving ourselves permission to stop is just as gratifying. 


This article was originally published in Seven Days’ monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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