College-Bound Children and Hiking

By Kristy McCaffrey

When my two boys were young, they frequently used the word “pathway” to describe a direction they wanted to go. It was an unusual description for them to utter since my husband and I never used it. You’ll note that my blog is called Pathways, which is a direct reference to my children. Pathways lead to all sorts of places: a sidewalk in front of a house, a stream in the woods, a new direction in life.


Sam and I at
UC Boulder
I recently dropped my oldest at college. Samuel is 19 years old and beyond ready to begin his life. That readiness took some of the sting from watching him exit our world. When he was a toddler, I’d delayed his start to kindergarten, something I realized a few years later was unnecessary. First child, many mistakes. However, I had one extra year of him chomping at the bit to gain his independence. We parents will take whatever we can get. 


Sam’s destination was the University of Colorado at Boulder, a really lovely campus in a really beautiful location. My husband and I met his roommate, we bought him a bike, I organized his clothes because like most moms I worry he won’t do it correctly. Mostly, I just worry he won’t do it all. As I’ve said many times to my children, life is much easier if you’re organized. But when a mom speaks, kid’s ears automatically close. Really, it’s a thing.


The Columbine Trail in
North Cheyenne Canyon,
Colorado Springs
The following day my husband had a business meeting in Colorado Springs, so I accompanied him to Colorado Springs. With an afternoon to myself I spent 6 hours hiking my sadness away. I found an easy-to-follow yet rigorous trail in North Cheyenne Canyon. The Columbine Trail was eight miles roundtrip. Just what I needed. And being alone was welcome. When Sam was born, he was 8 weeks premature. I remember then that I didn’t want to make idle chitchat with others—I simply didn’t have the energy, anxiously visiting him every day at the neonatal intensive care unit at Magee Women’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. And now, I didn’t want to talk either. It was as if conversing would spill too much from me. I wanted to keep it all close—my memories of him, my joy from having him in my life, my happiness as he embarks on a wonderful new phase, my heartache from simply missing him.


View from the Columbine Trail ~ Colorado
Springs is in the distance
Samuel at Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh
Three days later I hiked again, this time an attempt at the summit of Mt. Humphrey in Flagstaff, the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. The 4-mile trail, beginning at the Snow Bowl Ski Resort, is strenuous and hard-to-follow in places, with a 3200 foot elevation gain. I attempted it earlier in the summer with my husband but heavy cloud cover had left us confused and we lost the trail, so we never made it to the top. This time I went with my dad, who knew the area. When I told him our stories of Sam and college and concerns and woes, he just laughed. I finally knew exactly how he and my mom had felt when I left for college all those years ago, me being his eldest. I could now appreciate not only their restraint in showing their grief, but also the financial support without probing my every monetary move. (I think of my year in the sorority that cost my dad a fortune—he never berated me when I decided to quit.) I can only hope to be as supportive with my own children. My husband and I still have three more to go.


But back to my attempt for the Humphrey summit—I didn’t make it again. At around 12,000 feet I knew I needed to turn back. After 4 hours of hiking in the rain, I was drenched and in the early stages of hypothermia. It’s a really strange phenomena when your fingers stop functioning and it’s not from frostbite. I made several mistakes with my clothing (I should have donned a rain poncho from the start and not worn layers of cotton clothing, which don’t dry quickly), but I also learned two things: push your boundaries but know when to heed that inner voice. My dad never tried to sway me either way. Perhaps that is the best parenting of all—buoy your children to step outside their comfort zone but at the same time let them think for themselves. Entering young adulthood isn’t unlike a long hike: there will be ups and downs, there will be good stretches along with exhausting slogs through the mud, and there will always be the unknowable aspect of the journey.


You can choose to stay where you are, or instead follow the pathway.


Sam—your father and I are here for you, but I promise to keep my weeping to myself.


Leave a Comment:

Lynn Lovegreen says September 11, 2013

Beautiful post, and good parenting too! Enjoy the next chapter in your family's lives.

Kristy McCaffrey says September 11, 2013

Thanks Lynn. I appreciate you stopping by.