Whenever I go hiking, I see the world through my father’s eyes.
Do you have a precious possession that links you to a parent or ancestor? For me it’s this pair of modest, slightly worn binoculars that I think of as “Dad’s binoculars.” They were a holiday gift for the man who taught me about getting outdoors and away from it all, but they came a little too late for him to make use of them, even for the backyard birdwatching that had gradually replaced his beloved day treks up and down mountains.
That Christmas was the start of a final decline that lasted about a month, until Dad died at 86 in January 2016. So my final gift to my father came right back to me, and it’s become standard equipment when I’m feeling the urge to withdraw from civilization and reach for a grander view of this beautiful, troubled planet.
Dad did most of his hiking on the East Coast, where mountains and forests don’t tower quite the way they do here in the Pacific Northwest. What the mid-Atlantic states lack in gigantic scale, though, they make up in historic-site density. George Washington apparently slept here, there and everywhere in New York, where I was born, and in New Jersey, where I grew up, and also in car-trip destinations from New England to Virginia. All over the Eastern Seaboard, plaques that claim our national father’s slumber are affixed to cobblestone buildings, colonial town squares and evocative battlefield parks.
Many of those boasts are dubious at best, Dad liked to point out. He was a high school history teacher and voracious reader. Legends are nice, he suggested, but the truth is always complicated.
Fair enough, but that reality check never prevented my imagination from cooking up grand cinematic adventures as my brother and I accompanied Dad and Mom, both public schoolteachers, to legendary spots like Valley Forge, Gettysburg and Jamestown, the “lost colony” where hundreds of settlers vanished, proving just how complicated and mysterious the truth really could be.
History was everywhere in my upbringing, but it was never dry devotion to dead facts. Dad was fascinated and passionate about the fateful, messy experiment of American democracy itself. How to keep it healthy and functioning. How to make it fairer to all. How to find its blind spots and fix its flaws. Typical dinner table talk in our family was public affairs and how responsible citizens like us should take on a dizzyingly difficult world.
Lest it sound like my upbringing was one long public-affairs seminar, I’ll add that Dad was creative, playful and sensitive — a source of hilarious cartoons, epic bedtime tales and an education-by-example in the great value of getting quietly out into greenery for a fresher view of life.
Alone but not alone
I hiked plenty with my dad when I was a child, but now I find myself hungry for better, clearer memories or wishing we’d hiked together more — or that I’d paid closer attention.
My own children tolerated hiking well enough when my wife and I brought them along for occasional, easy outdoor treks in our new environs, the Pacific Northwest. But it didn’t develop into a great passion for them and that was OK with me. Hiking was just one activity in a typically busy family life. I was plenty occupied writing for the newspaper and playing in a band.
Nowadays my adult son lives right back where I came from — Brooklyn, N.Y., where all the cool kids seem to migrate lately — where he makes time almost daily to stroll the spacious greenery and winding pathways of Prospect Park. That’s as close as you can come to hiking in New York City.
Meanwhile, my own delight in the transcendent joys of cool forests and heavenly mountains suddenly, unexpectedly rebounded in recent years. One of my bandmate buddies, another New Jersey transplant, and I realized the glories of Western landscapes when we started road-tripping together through Washington and Oregon, stumbling across otherworldly sites like Dry Falls, Steens Mountain and the John Day Fossil Beds.
The coronavirus pandemic only accelerated this passion. When routinely getting away from it all started seeming like a smart and healthful move, the Columbia River Gorge beckoned to me. Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed a hiking addiction that needs a fix every week or two, at least.
Sometimes I go with my wife or friends. Just last week I was treated to a precious early Father’s Day outing in the Gorge with my other grown-up kid.
Often I go alone. Except that I’m never quite alone. Whenever I peer out at the wild, jagged landscape through those binoculars — communing with unsuspecting birds, monitoring river traffic, extending my awareness for miles and miles around — I’m seeing the world through my father’s wise and penetrating eyes.
I ponder how much more I wish I could ask him and tell him. I realize how much I owe him. And I realize, gazing through Dad’s binoculars at this gorgeous, complicated, threatened planet, how much I’ve grown to be like him.