A 14 year old backpacks alone.

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My Eritrean friend looked at me for a long time and then said, “Only white people do crazy things.” Well, that’s up for debate, but I had just told him that in addition to going backpacking the coming weekend with my 12 year old daughter, my 14 year old son would be backpacking by himself. To my friend who had grown up in war torn Eritrea, doing anything “dangerous” by choice was crazy. Rock climbing, backpacking, sky diving…these things that “white people” do for no reason and yet endanger us were beyond his understanding.

As a “white person,” or more accurately a westerner, I totally understand why we do “crazy” things. For the adventure, the challenge, the satisfaction that comes with accomplishment. To do something difficult, even impossible, and then achieve it. It’s exhilarating. And there is the indescribable beauty of this world, and the discovery that only comes when we get to the end of the sidewalk…and keep going.

My son has been backpacking since he was 7, and has done more than a dozen trips. So when he told me he wanted to backpack by himself I didn’t hesitate to say yes. At 14, he is experienced and responsible. I was surprised by how many people thought I was crazy, or at the very least said, “I’d be so scared.” What are they scared of? That might be an entirely different post…

It rained a lot the week leading up to our hike and there were thunderstorms in the forecast, so I had to change the hike itself. Originally we were going to hike along the Little Missouri in Arkansas. But with the river dangerously swollen, we headed up to the Ozark National Forest instead. The Butterfield Trail is a strenuous but beautiful 15 mile loop that I had hiked twice before. Since it was a loop, Hailey and I would hike clockwise and Nathan would hike counter clockwise. That would mean he would have to go up Hell’s Half Mile instead of down…better him than me.

We arrived at Devil’s Den State Park where the trail begins late afternoon with no rain in sight, so we dropped Nathan off at his trailhead and waved goodbye. He looked tall and confident, his face smiling.

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Hailey and I drove up to the other trailhead, a mile away and hundreds of feet higher in elevation. We parked and entered the Ozark National Forest. It was a beautiful evening and we ascended slowly up Mount Olive where we found a nice spot to camp for the night. A line of thunderstorms passed in the early morning hours, but we stayed dry. The predawn was unusually still and quiet after the rain. Finally a single bird broke the silence with his call, nature’s reveille, and instantly the forest came alive with a cacophony of birds singing. And night was over.

We hiked down to Quaill Valley. Long ago a huge section of the mountain broke and slid into the valley resulting in some amazing crevices, caves and waterfalls. With all the recent rains, even the terraced path had become a cascading waterfall. We spent an hour or so here, exploring and playing in the creeks and caves and canyons.

After our time in Quaill Valley, we hiked on. We came to Blackburn Creek which we were to follow for several miles before camping for the night. Because we were doing the same loop as Nathan, we anticipated passing him somewhere in these miles. Hailey and I stopped at a backcountry site for nearly an hour to eat lunch and rest our tired feet. I had hoped Nathan would pass by while we were here, but he didn’t. Instead we shared our time with half a dozen butterflies before continuing on. Not 10 minutes back on the trail and we met up with Nathan. Ironically, he had just returned to the trail as well after his own lengthy stop by the river. We found another spot by the river and sat down to share our tales of the last 24 hours.

He looked good, confident and peaceful. There was a gray bandana tied around his forehead, his sweaty, wavy hair all which way. He had camped about a mile in the night before, and had stayed dry (and free from falling branches). First off for the day for him had been to climb Hell’s Half Mile. This is a 400 foot rocky elevation gain over a mere half mile. I lost two toe nails going down it the first time I hiked the Butterfield…I’m glad I didn’t have to climb it. But youth has it’s advantages. Nathan claimed it had been no big deal.

Nathan says now that the best part of his 3 days backpacking alone had been freedom. Freedom to make decisions about where to camp, when to eat. He had stopped at the river for an hour, shoes off just sitting by the water…his favorite time of the weekend he told me later.

He had had to make one difficult decision during his solo trip, and it had been that morning. A few miles in he came to Butterfield Falls. The hike had taken him to a 30 foot bluff, and the way down was to climb down a gully of large boulders to the ground below. When it rained, this became a waterfall. And it had rained…a lot. Nathan had stood on the top of this bluff, looked below at the moss covered boulders with water pouring over them. From the top he couldn’t even see the bottom of the waterfall, so he couldn’t tell how slippery or difficult it was. So he made a decision…find another way down. Nathan then followed the bluff for a while until he found where it was only about 10 feet to the forest floor below.

He tossed his pack over…and jumped.

I don’t suppose I would have made the same decision. I am 42 and, well, heavier than a 14 year old boy. But I am not him. He’s jumped off the house roof before, a similar jump. To him, this was the safer option. He made the jump easily and continued on his way.

He had evaluated the situation and made the best decision he could. I’m proud of him for that, and glad he got some real life decision making experience. The kind of experience that you don’t get in suburbia, and that will build his self confidence and serve him well. After Nathan shared his story, and we told him about the Copperhead that had slithered inches from Hailey while eating a snack, we parted ways.

Hailey and I continued on for a few more miles until we made camp. We made camp by the trail rather than hiking down a steep hill to camp by the river. But since we were nearly out of water I left Hailey resting in the tent and hiked to the river to fill up, sore but grateful to be hiking that half mile without my pack. Strong storms blew through that night and we ended up with water in the tent. I hoped Nathan had stayed dry. I needn’t have worried. He had scored a premium site in Quaill Valley that night.

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Nathan’s campsite.

The next morning was cold and damp, but the sky clear. I knew soon we would have to climb up the falls that Nathan had avoided climbing down, so I proposed we head out and save our hot breakfast for after the falls. It wasn’t long until we reached them. It was a tricky climb with heavy packs on,  moss covered boulders and water everywhere…but Hailey and I helped each other until we reached the top. We decided that we had really enjoyed it. Challenging, a little adventurous. And boy was Hailey excited that she had climbed up the falls when her big brother had not.

At the top was the creek that fed the falls, and lots of rocky outcrops. I boiled water for oatmeal, hot chocolate, and coffee while Hailey played at the creek. We stayed there for a while, enjoying our breakfast and beautiful views from atop the bluff. The sun found its way above the trees  and began to warm us up. It was a perfect moment…my favorite time from the weekend.

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The perfect coffee spot…

We continued on. Eventually we got to Hell’s Half Mile. Hard on the knees for sure, but we were happy to be going down. The last mile or so is very pretty, high over the river. Finally we were approaching the trailhead that we had dropped Nathan off at two days before. Nathan was sitting there, whittling a stick. He had finished hours before, left his pack at the visitors center and walked over to wait for us.

What an amazing weekend we had had. Hailey and I had enjoyed all the creeks and waterfalls and rock hopping. Nathan had tasted freedom and independence. Backpacking perfection.

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