an epic life

Reflections: My Mother-Son Rite of Passage Expedition with Son Hayden

August 7th, 2016

With my son, Hayden, at the trailhead.

With my son, Hayden, at the trailhead.

(Note: My son, Hayden, read this and approved of my sharing)

Hayden, 14, is our second of three sons. He gets his name from Ferdinand Hayden, the geologist that led the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, which explored and documented features in the region that would one year later become Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park. Since he was old enough to walk, Hayden has been drawn to rocks, and has always loved climbing and scrambling over rocks so perhaps it’s no wonder he gets his name from a geologist.

It was last year that I had this idea of leading my sons on a mother-son rite of passage expedition the summer before they start high school. A mother of three sons, I will get to have this meaningful experience three times. Last year, I took our first son, Wolf, on the adventure, and still consider the mother-son rite of passage idea one of my best ideas ever. (Our youngest son, Fin, is 9, so it will be 5 years before we get to do his.)

It was Hayden’s turn for the adventure this year, and after a lot of anticipation, we were excited to get the party started. First thing’s first, so we stopped at Lander Bake Shop at 6:30am and I bought Hayden a giant brownie plus a mocha, and we started our 2-hour drive to the trailhead.

On our way out of town, I played a Hidden Brain podcast called “Silver and Gold.” Hayden is super athletic and loves sports, so I figured this would be a good pick. I should mention that my son Hayden is funny, and really smart. He is way more intelligent than me, and in fact, one of the things we love about Hayden is the random bits of trivia he shares with us that are always fascinating tidbits that teach us things we did not previously know. The podcast started out with Shankar Vedantam explaining that David Matsumoto, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, and a former Olympic Judo coach, has analyzed the behavior of Olympic medal winners. Among other things, Matsumoto found that people who won bronze medals appeared happier than people who won silver medals. Before he could explain, Hayden quipped, “Duh. The bronze winner is just happy he made the podium. The silver medalist is not happy because he could have gotten a gold, but he did not, and that silver just drives that point home.”

LOL. I couldn’t argue with him, and in fact agreed, so we turned off the podcast, and instead agreed to listen to the start of an audiobook, Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat. As a family we all laughed out loud while watching Gaffigan’s stand-up show, Beyond The Pale, on Netflix, and so we had a feeling this book would be good for some laughs on this day’s early start. And boy were we right. It wasn’t long, and Hayden and I were both laughing out loud. We especially enjoyed the first chapter. We loved it so much that I predicted “Dinga Dinga Dong…” might become a useful tagline, at times, during our adventure.

Once we turned off the highway and onto the long dirt road, we switched to music. We listened to Jet Fly, Ride, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Bonfire Heart, Lose Yourself, Lost!, Let the Rhythm Just, Born in the U.S.A., I Took A Pill In Ibiza, All At Once, 7 Years, Called Out In The Dark, and many other songs, before arriving at the trailhead.

Can I have some Hayden with that backpack?

Can I have some Hayden with that backpack?

As per usual, ours would not be a lightweight adventure. As we parked at the trailhead and reached for our backpacks, we had to be intentional so as not to get injured. Good thing Hayden grew 5 inches in the last 12 months, I thought to myself. His pack was more than half his height! (By the way, I’m not necessarily proud to admit this, but these growing boys of ours are young and fit and strong, so they can carry more weight than they used to carry. Read: More weight than their mom carries. I train to be strong and fit and capable, but still, my 48-year-old joints are not of the same quality as those of my 14-year-old son. Even so, both of our backpacks were tall and unseemly – and seam-popping.

Did I mention Hayden is an Eater? Yes, the capital E is intentional. We packed an abundance of delicious foods – and also a football and a packraft and a kite. These things take up space. (This sort of reminds me of a time when Wolf was one-and-a-half years old and I was six months pregnant with Hayden. We rented llamas and camped at Stough Creek Basin. Because llamas carried our loads, we packed in an exersaucer, swing, and a huge condominium of a tent. Hayden’s and my backpacking adventure was sorta similar to this except for there were no llamas.)

We started hiking down the trail, and I instructed him to take small steps rather than large, bounding, lunging steps. I told him it would be better for us to try and stay under these monster packs rather than be stretched out from under them.

At first we didn’t say much. I listened as our trekking poles clicked on the rocky trail and I watched and followed in Hayden’s steps. This is common in all of the trips I lead and take. The first bit is all about getting into a groove and developing a sense of how it’s going to feel to move and travel in this way, loaded down with everything that will sustain us for 4 days. It’s also a time for re-orienting to a new – and wild – place.

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” These are the words of Henry David Thoreau, found near the end of his wonderful book, Walden. I reminded myself of this quote as Hayden and I started up the trail in the silence, and in our own thoughts. I had been on this very trail just days before leading my Epic Women expedition. I was home just long enough to get cleaned up, unpacked, and repacked, and my mind had been a little scattered in preparation for this adventure. I really wanted to be here with Hayden, 100%, and to savor our time together, and to not be too tired, or distracted by my unfinished, growing pile of work that was on my desk at home.

One of the reasons I love spending so much time in the wilderness is it’s the easiest place for me to be present, and to be in the moment. Otherwise, in all other places, I tend to be future-oriented, always preoccupied with future and upcoming events, and new ideas and possibilities. As we walked our first mile, I felt that familiar sense of belonging and presence – and a relief came over me that I would indeed have no problem being here with Hayden, and only here.

I love hiking with my sons. At least in my experience, if we’re wandering down some trail, I don’t have to work to prompt the boys into conversation. Walking somehow inspires them to talk, and to share openly about what’s on their mind.

Hayden started talking to me about basketball, and citing statistics about Michael Jordan. A few months back I had bought him Michael Jordan: The Life, by Roland Lazenby, and he recently finished reading it. He commented that the book is fantastic, and that he especially loved what was said on the book’s final page.

I listened as he talked excitedly about some of Jordan’s statistics, and several other NBA players. While I don’t want to compare, I must stay Hayden is very much like I was when I was his age. Basketball was my passion. I spent all of my free time developing my three point shot and other skills at elementary school playgrounds in the summer. I even received a Division I basketball scholarship to the University of Montana in 1986. And even though it didn’t work out as planned, and ended up being what I call one of my most spectacular failures, hearing Hayden talk about basketball, and watching him invest so much time shooting and doing drills at local playgrounds this summer is a little like flashing back to my own 14-year-old self.

After a while it started sprinkling so we took out our rain jackets and had a quick snack and some water. When we started hiking again, I asked him if he had any goals for our adventure. “I want to have fun with you and to do awesome.” I told him I had the same goals.


Hayden, hiking around Big Sandy Lake.

It wasn’t long, and we reached Big Sandy Lake, where we removed our packs and ate some lunch. I pointed out all of the mountains around us: Schiestler Peak, Temple Peak, East Temple and Steeple peaks, Haystack, and Big Sandy. Mitchell Peak, the mountain Hayden would climb on his own the next day, was just out of sight. As we ate our lunch, we listened as a marmot whistled/chirped from the pile of granite boulders above the lake. Hayden used to do a fantastic marmot call, and I tried to get him to do it now, but he refused. When did he grow up? I thought to myself. It seems like it was just yesterday that we were bribing the boys up the trail by planting “trail fairy” snacks for them. Now, we can hardly keep up with them. Hayden was loaded down, with a much-heavier pack than I, and still, it took effort to stay on his heels. I have created a monster, I thought to myself, as I tried to catch up with him after putting our packs back on.

Soon we started up the “grunt” part of the day – the beginning of Jackass Pass, so named because not even a mule (ie. jackass) can hike up it. As we moved slowly up the switchbacks, I remarked that we were moving like ants carrying great loads. “Actually, if we were ants, our loads would be much heavier because ants can carry 10 times their bodyweight on their backs.” We then discussed how grateful we were that our loads were not 1,150 pounds and 1,350 pounds respectively, and talking about this (almost) made our loads feel not as heavy. Hayden suggested how cool it would be if we had some ants around to carry our loads. We figured if we wanted a 70-pound load carried in for each of us, all it would require would be two 7-pound ants. We spent a couple of switchbacks distracting ourselves from exertion by imagining these giant ants, and what it would be like to hire ants to carry in our loads.

Soon, we arrived at what I consider to be a magical, best kept secret site for a camp.

We set up the tent and unloaded the foods and other kitchen stuff and moved them to the scenic kitchen area, where we were blessed by epic views. Across from us was Mitchell Peak, and in the distance was Haystack, Steeple, East Temple and Temple peaks. Hayden would climb Mitchell Peak early the next morning, and we’d day hike over to the Deep Lake area on Day 3. I love this camp because from it, you can see all of the country we’d be exploring.

Hayden then sprawled out on a granite slab and took a nap. While he was napping, I remembered him as an almost 2-year-old. One time we were camping in our camper at Flaming Gorge, and Hayden, then about 18 months old, was up all night screaming in pain from an ear infection. “Sing Amazing Grace!” he yelled at me as I tried to console him on my chest. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was so cute how demanding and specific his request was. As he lay there napping, I brainstormed words to describe my Hayden with using the letters of his name. H is for honorable (Hayden has always been principled, and inspired by men and women of honor), Amazing (he probably prefers the word awesome, but given the song, Amazing Grace, has such a place in his early life and our relationship, I am going with Amazing), Y for youthful (he’s great at getting down and playing with younger kids, including his 9-year-old brother, Fin, and Whacky Fish Campers last summer), D is for Determined (once Hayden sets his mind to something, he pursues it with a dogged determination), Eater (no explanation, but suffice it to say that he’s hungry pretty much ALL of the time), and finally, N is for Night owl (poor Hayden, he’s the only night owl in our family of early risers.)


Hayden, eating Epic Buttery, Cheesy Noodles.

Hayden, eating Epic Buttery, Cheesy Noodles.

After writing all of this down in my journal, I opened my copy of Kahlil Gibran’s prophet, and read my favorite essay in the entire book, “On Children.” Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts. For they have their own thoughts… I tell myself that I must remember all this, especially the last part.

One of the thing that inspires me about Hayden is how he marches to the beat of his own drum. Even at his relatively young age, he’s his own man. He may seek advice, and be inspired and influenced, but ultimately, he chooses what to believe, and how to be. I know it’s early on, he’s only 14, but it is something I’ve noticed about Hayden for some time now. I was probably 40 years old before I felt like I marched to the beat of my own drum.

This rite of passage trip is as much a rite of passage for mom as it is for son. I have a very clear idea about the kind of mother I want to be. Still, being that person is difficult. I struggle constantly with it. As my Hayden grows into a man, I want to do my best to be the mother I want to be. That mother is not a hovering mother, but rather a supportive mother who guides and loves and cares for her son, but also stays out of his way so that he can blossom and emerge and soar. By the time this expedition ends, my hope is that we make simple promises to one another that will help facilitate my being the way I want to be in order for him to be his best, and that we may love each other even more as a result.

Hayden wakes up as I make a bunch of racket getting pans, food and the stove out. I mention that nap will do him good since his mountain climb will come early tomorrow. We plan to wake at 4am, and for him to start up at around 5am. I show him Mitchell Peak, and most of what his route will be. I ask him if he’s nervous. “Not really,” he says. “I’m excited, though.” This is pure Hayden. If he gets nervous, he doesn’t show it. I, on the other hand, am feeling nervous. This is my idea – for him to climb Mitchell Peak by himself – and yet, as his mother, I wonder if I’m being reckless, and if he’ll get his leg pinned between two boulders tomorrow, or get too close to the edge when standing on the summit. I chase these thoughts away with conversation about food. Hayden decides we should save the most epic meal – cheesy quesadillas – for after the mountain climb, and so we settle on cheesy, buttery noodles for tonight. He eats almost three bowls.

Hayden, throwing the football.

Hayden, throwing the football.

Next, we play catch with the football he packed in. I used to beg him to throw the ball 50 times with me. Now, he begs me. I’m not a hard sell. I love playing catch (fetch) with Hayden. We both try to catch the football with just one hand. He’s better than me at it. Of course. But for a minute, I feel young, like a 14-year-old girl, and I’m having a lot of fun.

Then, we play some gin rummy with cards we bought in Switzerland. We wonder aloud, and laugh, at why we would have purchased the German version. Each card has a unique illustration and paragraph of information that we imagine is pretty interesting if only one of us knew German. We play three games; he wins two, and I win one. We’ll keep track and continue the contest over the next few days.

Playing gin rummy.

Playing gin rummy.

We decide to go to bed early since the alarm will sound in a matter of hours. We get into my 2-person tent, and he remarks, “this is very cocoon-like.” We say good night, but I can tell he’s not sleeping. He’s tossing and turning and his breathing isn’t restful. I ask him if he’s okay and he says he feels claustrophobic. I suggest we sleep outside under the stars so he doesn’t feel so closed in. He says he’ll be okay, and after a while more of tossing and turning, I can sense he’s fast asleep. For my part, I didn’t sleep. This isn’t unusual – I’m not a great wilderness sleeper. Mostly, I didn’t sleep due to nerves regarding Hayden’s mountain climb. I remind myself that last year I was the same way, and Wolf did just fine. This helps me a little.

The alarm goes off, and we’re up. I make coffee for me and hot chocolate for him. We have some chunky peanut butter and honey bagels, and we’re off with headlamps. We stop at the outlet of North Lake to refill our water bottles and treat the water. I lead him along the trail, and over the boulders along North Lake’s north shore before arriving to the start of the Mitchell Peak ascent. I start up with him for a bit to make sure he’s on the right course, and then agree where we’ll meet up to descend part of the mountain together, and we part ways. There is alpenglow on Warbonnet and I snap a photo of him with it in the background before hugging him and wishing him a great climb.

Hayden, ready to climb his mountain.

Hayden, ready to climb his mountain.

Hayden, about to start up Mitchell Peak, right before we part ways.

Hayden, about to start up Mitchell Peak, right before we part ways.

Alpenglow on Warbonnet.

Alpenglow on Warbonnet.

I climb in a different direction toward Dog Tooth, and find a rock on which to sit. And wait. And worry. While sitting here, butterflies were everywhere. This reminded me of when Hayden was a toddler and I’d carry him in a backpack. I loved those times. I have such fond memories. He’d be mostly in my right ear, over my right shoulder and he’d exclaim, “Buttflies! Buttflies!” whenever he spied a butterfly, which was often. I don’t remember Wolf or Fin ever getting excited over butterflies. Now, I see butterflies everywhere, especially on the yellow flowers that nature arranges like bouquets up high in this alpine tundra. It’s hard to not feel God’s presence and my blessings, as I recall Hayden’s love of butterflies and now see them all around me. I get a little teared up and emotional. I wait and every now and again, spy through my binoculars. Hayden is wearing a red shirt, which is helpful. I spot him making his way toward the peak. I figure it will be another one-and-a-half or two hours so before he sits on the summit. One-and-a-half or two hours of me worrying, and feeling what I can only describe as “tender.”

I pull out my journal and look for the wise words of Seneca that I printed out before leaving: It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

As a person, I can be very hard on myself. As a mother, I’m even harder on myself. It’s the most important responsibility I have, and I constantly doubt my abilities. I read Seneca’s words three times, as if to rehearse their truth. This right here, being with my Hayden – just he and I for 4 days – is using my time. For a minute, I allow myself to be proud of myself. I would not want to be anywhere with anyone else right now. I snap some photos of the butterfly that is on the yellow flower in front of me.

A butterfly on a flower as I wait for Hayden to summit Mitchell Peak.

A butterfly on a flower as I wait for Hayden to summit Mitchell Peak.

Last year for about three months, Hayden, a straight A student, went through a period where he was not turning in assignments. He was doing the work but forgetting to turn it in. It was challenging, and I was freaking out about it. It was so out of character and I didn’t handle it well. I was not the mother I want to be. The principles I was arguing for wasn’t a problem, rather the way I was doing it. I remember being at wit’s end and yelling at Hayden at the top of my lungs before storming upstairs to sink and cry. After a while I came down, with puffy eyes, and sat down with Jerry and the boys for dinner. I looked at Hayden, in front of Jerry and Wolf and Fin, and I said, “I’m sorry. I do not want to be this way with you. While you have to turn things around and start turning your work in, this isn’t how I want to be. I’m sorry. And I hope you can forgive me.” Surprised to see his strong mother so broken down, he thanked me. I am so fallible…

I remember that Hayden’s climbing a mountain, and get my binoculars out. It’s not long and I spy him gaining the ridge to the summit. I have climbed Mitchell Peak 10 times, and every time I gain the ridge, I’m blown away by what I see. It’s as if seeing it for the first time – the Cirque of the Towers, and many granite peaks along the Continental Divide for as far as eye can see – take your breath away. I wonder if Hayden is having this same experience… I hear him on the Talkabout: “I’m over the ridge. It’s awesome,” he says. I tell him great job, and congratulate him. “That means a lot, Mom,” he says. This chokes me up, and I’m sorta a blubbering mess right now. Hayden isn’t very emotional, so this, to use the words of Hayden, “hits me where I live.”

I’m relieved that he’s almost to the top, where he’ll likely sit and enjoy the view and solitary experience for a while, which means I feel like I have at least a little time to relax and stop worrying.

I think of Hayden some more. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love ice cream. It’s right up there with bacon. For years, we’ve had a tradition of eating ice cream after school on Fridays. Since the two older boys are now much busier with sports, etc. after school, we still eat ice cream together at least once a week, just not at the same scheduled time and place. I think of this now because it was during my pregnancy with Hayden that I fell in love with ice cream. I craved it all of the time.

As I’m making this realization, I remember the time I just had to have some ice cream, and so I put Wolf in the carseat, and loaded my pregnant-with-Hayden self into my Subaru Outback and headed to Dairyland to get a large hot fudge and banana malt. During the 10 minutes I was out satisfying this ice cream craving, we had a hail storm. $3,000 worth of damage to my car because I had to have ice cream. Oops! I am laughing out loud right now as I realize all of this, and that my love of ice cream can be blamed on Hayden.

I think now of Hayden’s birth. Wolf was an early, emergency C-section. I wanted to try for a VBAC with Hayden, if I could. I was in labor, feeling the intense pains of labor, when all of a sudden, Hayden’s heart rate was erratic and in distress. The doctor announced we needed to have an emergency C-section. The nurse, Karen – who I will never forget – pushed me as Jerry held my hand and ran alongside me down the hallways of the hospital to get to the surgical unit. Karen asked if we could pray together. We all prayed, and tried not to imagine the worst… it was too unbearable to do so. We got into the surgical room and there was panic in the air. Nurses and the doctor rushed around. Jerry and I cried, and prayed, in desperation. Suddenly, Hayden’s heart rate returned to normal. He was my only baby that was of average size, and didn’t require extended hospitalization or care. He was beautiful, what with his bright blue eyes and his head of thick, white hair. I will never forget meeting him for the first time.

I’m crying again when I hear his voice on the radio. “I’m at the top,” he announces. He says it’s awesome and that he’ll enjoy the view and eat something and drink some water. He says it’s not windy there, and he’s doing great.

I hear a hummingbird zoom by me. This the second I’ve noticed this morning. I think of my mom. My wonderful mom. She LOVES hummingbirds so I always think of her when I hear or see one. This one lingers a little for me, just long enough for it to feel like a specific gift sent to me.

I remember I have a Snickers bar. I packed one for Hayden for his summiting, and one for me. Sometime I’ll try just eating a Snickers but today isn’t that day, so I snarf it, and it hits the spot.

I think because Hayden’s a second child, and I’m a second child, I relate to him in a special way. I worry that because he’s second in the order, that he might not get as much attention as the first or the last of our sons. I remember when I was a young girl and sitting on the sidewalk step with my Dad watching as my older sister, and all of her friends, raced bikes up and down the street. I asked my Dad if I could get a bike, and he said something to the effect of, when you’re your sister’s age. Nothing against my Dad — he has turned out to be one of my biggest champions! – but I remember thinking how much sense that response did not make. I think Hayden is similar in that he doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for arbitrary things.

Hayden's selfie on the summit of Mitchell Peak.

Hayden’s selfie on the summit of Mitchell Peak.

Some more time passes, and I’m enjoying myself, and the view, and the warmth of the sun that is now over the mountain on my face. I think I’m going to be okay, I say to myself. Hayden’s voice comes on the radio announcing he’s going to start down. I tell him to be careful and remind him to look around and get everything he had with him up there. “And remember, the summit’s only the halfway point,” I say. “Yeah, I know, Mom,” he says. I love it when he says this. It’s reassuring, and I just like the way it sounds when he says it, and I make a mental note that I will tell him as much later.

Hayden, headed down and in my direction.

Hayden, headed down and in my direction.

I head toward a spot high on the mountain that connects Big Sandy Mountain with Mitchell, where we agreed to meet so we could descend together. I zoom my camera all the way in and snap a photo of Hayden, in his red shirt, descending Mitchell, with the Cirque of the Towers’ massive mountains looming behind him. He arrives, and we embrace. He tells me how awesome it was up there, and then we start down. I tell him about the butterflies I saw, and of my memories of him in a backpack and exclaiming over my shoulder and into my ear every time he’d see a butterfly (buttfly!)

I tell him that I saw some hummingbirds while he was on the mountain top. “Did you know that an NBA point guard, when dribbling the ball with both hands as low to the ground as possible, can dribble faster than the wingbeat of a hummingbird?” I tell him, no, I did not know that. This is Hayden. He’s always pulling out random bits of interesting information for us. I love it about him, and I tell him I hope he never quits doing that, and I encourage him to keep reading and being interested in a variety of things. I tell him they are great conversation pieces, and that they are wonderful contributions to the people he shares them with.



We find a huge, flat slab of granite and decide to chill out and “sun like marmots on the rock” for a while. It is nothing short of blissful. I love hanging out with Hayden. He’s fun, and he’s funny.

Sunning like marmots.

Sunning like marmots.

We return to camp and decide that a very early dinner of Epic quesadillas is in order. (But for accuracy’s sake, insert “Dang Quesadillas!” in the voice of Napoleon Dynamite’s Grandma in the movie, Napoleon Dynamite) While I make dinner, I tell him again how proud I am of his climbing Mitchell Peak today. I share this René Daumal quote with him: “You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.” He likes it.

Then, I ask if he remembered to choose a poem that resonates with him to bring on the adventure. He did. It’s called The Great Competitor, by Grantland Rice, and he read it to me, captured in the video clip below, with Mitchell Peak in the background. He said he likes it because it’s about how you play the game – “a ballgame, and also how you live your life.”

Hayden eats three Epic quesadillas before acknowledging there is no more available space for food in his tummy. He heads to the tent and takes a two hour nap. For a bit, I read Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, a favorite of mine that I’m reading for the third time. I underline the following text: The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. Then I fetch and treat some water, make some strong coffee, and journal a bit. Life is good. So good.

Epic s'mores.

Epic s’mores.

Hayden wakes up (finally), and we make epic s’mores. We’re lazy and concerned about fire danger so we cheat by using the camp stove. We eat s’mores, listen to some music and play some gin rummy. The score is now 8 games to 3, Hayden in favor. I ask Hayden, “What are five ways you want to be if you’re going to be your best self?”

He says he’ll think about it, and for a while he does. He offers, “KACAB: Knowledgeable, Adventurous, Comedic, Athletic and Brave.” I tell him those are perfect, and thank him for doing this exercise for me. I add, “You know to be brave, you have to do things that are daring and courageous.” He responds, “Yeah, I know, Mom.” “You need to take epic chances every now and then. Not be reckless, but rather courageous,” I add. “Yeah, I know, Mom,” he says. Again. And this reminds me that I was going to tell him how much I like the sound of it when he says “Yeah, I know, Mom.” He seems glad that I like it when he says that.

We head to the tent early and I tell him it will be a “leisure start”the next day, that there will be no alarm that goes off. A night owl, and epic sleeper-in’er if given the chance, Hayden cheers at this news. We snuggle into our tent, and listen to some of the Gaffigan audiobook before quickly falling to sleep. We both sleep better than we did the first night.

The next day after coffee, cocoa and oatmeal, we load the “toys” (football, packraft, fishing rod, and kite), into our packs and add some food and water, and head to Big Sandy Lake, then Clear Lake and eventually, Deep Lake.

Crossing a log.

Crossing a log.

Hayden, following the cairns and leading us toward Clear Lake.

Hayden, following the cairns and leading us toward Clear Lake.

We found this heart rock.

We found this heart rock.


At Deep Lake, Hayden inflates the raft and goes for a float on Deep Lake. Deep Lake is my favorite place in the Wind Rivers right now. It’s nestled under the dramatic granite peaks of Haystack, Steeple and East Temple Peak.

Deep Lake.

Deep Lake.

Deep Lake is like glass and these peaks are perfectly reflected in its waters as Hayden takes turns rowing and going places, and lounging. I can’t wait for my turn, and eventually it comes. There’s a group of women fishing on the shore of the lake under Haystack. Their entire conversation can be heard as a result of the echoing. Based on their conversation, they are a group of women I’d probably love to hang out with. This reminds me of my recent Epic Women expedition, and the fond memories I have of that time. I think of Nicole, Cindy, Laura, Monica, Cristy and Cheri, and smile. Again – and I’ve been doing this again and again and again all year long this year it seems – I realize the many blessings in my life. I watch as Hayden skips rocks from the slab on the shore where all of our toys are spread out.

Hayden, inflating our pack raft.

Hayden, inflating our pack raft.

I paddle in, and Hayden and I play catch with the football for some time, before we eat lunch. And here is my opportunity to have the “deep talk” at Deep Lake with Hayden – to talk about one of the things I’ve come for, a promise that we each make to each other. I explain to Hayden that this mother-son rite of passage expedition is not only an opportunity to share an inspiring and challenging adventure together, but to mark the mother-son rite of passage with a shared promise. I told him the promises we make can be simple – that for best results they should be simple – and I offer what I’m willing to promise him. “I promise I’ll trust you more, and give you more freedom if… and then you add what you’re willing to promise in return.” He thinks about this for some time, but not before quipping, “Dinga, Dinga Dong…”  I love this kid.

Hayden, floating on Deep Lake.

Hayden, floating on Deep Lake.

He mentions principles. I ask him, “What are your principles?” He thinks about this and then responds, “Family, Love, God, Faithfulness to others, Honesty, Humility, and Excellence.” We relate these principles to cairns – things that mark our trail so that we don’t get lost or wander aimlessly. We decide on this: Hayden promises to not stray from his principles if I promise to give him more freedom. It’s a wonderful moment, he and I, just sitting there after making this promise to one another. I add, “We’ll make mistakes. I won’t always be as trusting as I should be. I’m not perfect. And you’re not perfect. You’ll make mistakes and you’ll stray. But we’re promising to do our best with this promise to each other.” After that, we share a little more about things that are more personal.


Hayden, leading us to Paradise.


Trying to fly my kite, but the Wind Rivers were not windy.

Trying to fly my kite, but the Wind Rivers were not windy.

At about 1:30pm, we pack up and wander in our Crocs down about a quarter-mile to the big slabs of granite that feature water running from Deep Lake up above to Clear Lake down below. We can see Mitchell Peak and the Cirque of the Towers and Clear Lake in one direction, and Deep Lake, and Haystack, Steeple, East Temple and Temple peaks in another. So much rock everywhere. This place astounds me, and I’m thrilled that Hayden is loving it.

We stop at a fresh pool of water between springs and watch as a large school of small trout swim, and rise to snatch insects. Hayden wades in the pool before sitting and whittling with the knife Jerry got for him for this trip. I try to fly the kite, but there’s not adequate wind. These are the Wind Rivers, I say to Hayden. Where is the wind? He’s not hiding that he’s a little thrilled there’s no wind for me to fly a kite. He is embarrassed at the prospects of his mom flying a kite out here. After not having any luck, I decide to lay down on my stomach and get some sun on the backs of my legs and arms, since sunning like a marmot the day before resulted in quite a lot of color on my face and the fronts of my arms and legs.

Hayden, tossing a football, while wading in the spring.

Hayden, tossing a football, while wading in the spring.

An hour of this perfect lazing passes before we pack up and start our 3-mile hike back to camp.

We return to camp with full bottles of water so we don’t have to do unnecessary work. Just cook Epic chicken fried rice, play some gin rummy, start a fire and roast marshmallows so we can have Epic bacon s’mores before closing in for our last night in the wilderness. During gin rummy, I ask Hayden if he can pick 4 things he wants in his life in order for it to be Epic. The words must start with E, P, I, and C. He needs time to ponder this and promises me he will. I share mine: Experience, Play, Inspiration and Curiosity.

Epic Bacon s'mores.

Epic Bacon s’mores.

After stuffing ourselves with our last dinner, we clean up the kitchen and move to the “lawn” portion of the best kept secret Epic campsite. There’s an established fire ring at the end of the lawn, sheltered nicely up against a gigantic boulder. Hayden starts a small fire and we make bacon s’mores. Epic yum, we both agree.

Hayden approves.

Hayden approves.

Then, for a couple hours we have a great conversation. We take turns asking each other questions. Some of the questions we asked, and each responded to include: Describe a perfect day. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to go through – one thing that was by choice, and another that was out of necessity. If you’re stranded on an island and you can have one single food item for the rest of your life there, what would it be? If you could have only one outfit, what would be the one outfit you would choose to wear? Who inspires you? Who do you trust the most? Who are your closest friends, and why? What do you get from your Mom, and what do you get from your Dad? What do you think people say behind your back? What do you wish they’d say? It was a fantastic conversation where we both shared a lot, while making a lot of discoveries about each other.

Enjoying a fire on our last night in the wilderness.

Enjoying a fire on our last night in the wilderness.

We ended the night finishing our gin rummy tournament. We agreed to stop when we got to 10 wins. After I won two in a row, Hayden won two games to be victorious, 10 games to 7. He was a gracious winner. He was The Great Competitor.

During our last night in the tent, we again returned to listening to Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat audiobook. It is so funny, and we laughed out loud a lot before Hayden dozed off and I turned it off so I could listen to him sleep and hopefully find sleep myself. I didn’t sleep well. I was buzzing from the new memories Hayden and I had made together, and enjoying some star gazing by looking out of our tent’s door.

I forgot to mention in this blog post that Hayden is a sleep talker. At home, almost nightly he sits straight up and exclaims something that is loud enough for at least some of us to hear. He seldom remembers doing this. Right when I was about to fall asleep, he jutted up in the tent, looked at me and exclaimed, “Congratulations on your child!” And then collapsed back down. It was hilarious – and so Hayden. Of course when I told him about this as we were hiking out the next day, he couldn’t remember it.

Heading home.

Heading home.

We laughed, though, and wondered if his comment was the result of listening to Gaffigan’s audio book, which is all about having children, or if Hayden was congratulating me on having him as a child. Either way, it was a fitting end to our expedition, and for what it’s worth, I do feel as if I should be congratulated for this son of mine.

Big Sandy Lake reflections.

Big Sandy Lake reflections.

As we got to the car, Hayden announced he figured out his E, P, I and C: “Excitement, Principles, Intuition and Courage.”

The End.

At The Finish of our mother-son Rite of Passage expedition. It was epic, and I’ll never forget it.

The Time I Took My 18-year-old Goddaughter Backpacking

July 17th, 2016

Daylia and I, ready to go.

Daylia and I, ready to go.

I just returned from one of my most memorable and meaningful experiences in my backyard, Wind River Country. As I write this, I am basking in the memories of an overnight backpacking trip with my 18-year-old niece and Goddaughter from the Dallas, TX region. (Daylia is the oldest child of my younger sister, Amber.)

The adventure started early on July 14 when I fetched my Daylia from my parents’ house at 5:30am. Our destination: Island Lake in Upper Silas Canyon.

This would be a trip of so many firsts for Daylia. It would be her first time backpacking. It would be her first time to sleep in a tent. It would be her first time to start a campfire. It would be her first time to climb a mountain. And as for me, it would be my first time to take my Goddaughter on an epic adventure. This was a big deal that we had talked about a lot in the past, and finally the dream was coming true.

Daylia, who is very fit, had mentioned a few days before the trip that she expected to carry her share of our load, and for her backpack to feel legit. It did. It weighed about 32 pounds.

As someone who hikes about 1,000 miles a year in Wind River Country, and who leads a number and variety of epic adventures, I did not take lightly this opportunity to provide my Goddaughter with her first wilderness experience. I hoped to provide an unforgettable experience for my Goddaughter, and maybe – just maybe – this experience would convert this city girl into someone who might want to do more of this in the future. (Maybe the title of this blog post could be The Making of a Backpacker.)

After listening to part of a Ted Radio Hour podcast episode called, Champions, featuring the story of Amy Purdy, and her triumphant comeback from the brink of death to making history as a Paralympic snowboarder, we jammed out to Let the Rhythm Just, by The Polish Ambassador, and arrived at the trailhead pumped and ready to go.

It was a beautiful morning with the sun just up. The trees reflected perfectly in Fiddlers Lake as we started down the trail and into our adventure.

Fiddlers Lake reflections.

Fiddlers Lake reflections.

Daylia is extra special to me because she is my Goddaughter. I remember flying to Texas when she was about 6-8 months old, and snuggling and playing with her almost constantly. From the beginning, she had a charming personality and an inquisitive way about her. I have this vivid memory of her being contained in the middle of the queen sized bed in the guest room I was staying in, and her being propped up against a big pillow and using her hands as she talked (cooed) to me in an adorable language I couldn’t understand. The one thing that I did understand during that moment was that time with her inspired me to really want to be a mother.

Now look at her. 18 and all grown up. She starts college at the end of August, and will begin her studies and work to become a Physician’s Assistant.

As we headed down the trail, at first we were quiet. I didn’t start in with the conversation right away. I like to provide space and a bit of solitude for whomever I’m leading as they settle into the cadence of moving through the forest and over the rocky trails with everything they need to sustain them on their backs and under their own power. The birds chirped and sang, and the day’s new sun lit our way. Just another blissful morning in Wind River Country, I thought to myself.

At the signed junction with the Christina Lake Trail, we removed our packs, and drank some water before continuing toward Upper Silas Lake. As we hiked through the woods, and up and down hills, I asked Daylia how the making of a backpacker was going. “I can feel it in my butt,” she said. “But at least after this, I will have Buns of Steel.” We both laughed, and I agreed. Then, Daylia asked me how I first got into hiking. I waited until I wasn’t on an uphill, and then shared the story about losing my Division I basketball scholarship in Year 3 of college, explaining how I found myself “without a map” after that happened. I started spending time alone, healing, reading books – and very importantly, hiking. I appreciated her asking the question because it allowed me to share a point that I have come to feel so strongly about, and around which so much of my leadership work, coaching and guiding is centered.

I explained how losing my scholarship turned out to be one of my most important and spectacular failures. I shared that I don’t think life would be what it is – as wonderful as it is – and certainly we wouldn’t be here sharing this adventure right now, if not for that “failure.” As we hiked, I asked her about some of her failures. She shared about a failure involving running the 800 meters in track a few years back, and about another involving a violin solo that didn’t go as planned. I encouraged her to look at the positives that came out of those, and to consider those events not as failures, but as events that will somehow inform her life going forward. I added, however, that it took me almost 20 years to look back at my aforementioned “failure,” and to realize that it wasn’t a failure after all but rather one of my greatest gifts.

Daylia, at Upper Silas Lake.

Daylia, at Upper Silas Lake.

At Upper Silas Lake, we took our packs off and enjoyed a 15-minute snack break on the shore. Daylia ate a healthy, yummy-looking BLT, and I ate my first Snickers bar of the trip. It was a beautiful morning. Upper Silas Lake has a big granite mountain at its upper end, and its water was as smooth and as clear as glass. Every now and then a fish jumped through its surface, and I did as I always do when this happens, briefly regretted that I didn’t pack my fly rod.

Refueled, we continued up the trail to Island Lake, which we reached in good time. We found a wonderful campsite, the same one Jerry and I and our sons have camped at before. Perfect, I thought to myself. I taught her how to set up our tent and we worked together to get our accommodations in place. I also shared with Daylia that we’d Leave No Trace, and explained what that important ethic means.

After establishing our camp, we ate some lunch, drank more water, and then set out, with our lighter packs, for Thumb Lake. As far as Daylia knew, we were going to establish camp at Island Lake, and then take a quick day hike to Thumb Lake, and that would be our itinerary for the first of our two days in the wilderness.That was correct, except I also had in store some additional options…

The night before our adventure, I became curious if there’d be a mountain we could climb on our route. (I love to have people climb mountains because climbing mountains is such a great metaphor for personal development, and for being in pursuit of something in life or work.) Jerry looked at a topo map, and suggested we might be able to get up Roaring Fork Mountain from the area above Thumb Lake. We studied the maps and could see there were possibilities.

Thumb Lake.

Thumb Lake.

When Daylia and I reached Thumb Lake, we removed our packs and hunkered down to enjoy the views, and drink some more water and eat some dried mangoes. Daylia enjoyed her Snickers bar here, too. Wildflowers of every color were everywhere, and we both remarked at the beauty of Thumb Lake and the surrounding granite mountains with snowfields.

“I have a couple of things I’d like to propose if you’re interested,” I offered. Daylia, being the trooper that she is, asked me what those things were. Pointing up beyond Thumb Lake, I said we could either “go explore that lake that you can tell exists up there in that cirque, and-or we could try getting up that mountain. I pointed to the notch (what some people call Devil’s Bite, or the Cookie Bite) on Roaring Fork Mountain’s high ridge. Daylia has seen this bite from Roaring Fork Lake, and from our cabin, and she was impressed that it was just right there, so close to where we were. And yet not very close. In fact, from where we sat, I couldn’t see a route to the notch that I would be comfortable leading my Goddaughter on, especially on her very first wilderness trip. Briefly, as I sized up our options, I was a little disappointed, but then I discovered some possible routes we could take from a second cirque up higher that, if we were lucky, might allow us to gain the ridgeline, and ultimately, the top of Roaring Fork Mountain.

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Heading up.

Heading up.

This is the lake at the head of the canyon. It was a sight to see, and the flowers were pretty awesome, too...

This is the lake at the head of the canyon. It was a sight to see, and the flowers were pretty awesome, too…

“Let’s first go see the upper lakes,” I suggested, and we returned to our feet and headed up. We skirted the first upper lake (which is situated in the cirque below the notch of Roaring Fork) and then crossed a huge boulder field to a spring where we refilled our water bottles, before continuing up over some snow and more boulders to the most beautiful cirque and lake we’d see up close on this adventure. There was still a huge slab of ice. The shades of green and blue around the ice were breathtakingly beautiful. Some really thin sheets of ice were sloughing off at the head of the steep cirque, which included tall and massive granite mountains that were dressed with snowfields. (Earlier in the day, I had shared with Daylia how I like to look for heart rocks and other hearts. I noticed that one of the snowfields directly above the lake’s surface resembled a heart. “I spy a heart,” I said. “Do you see it?” And she did.)

I shared some skills about mountain climbing and hiking up steep, often loose, terrain with Daylia, and we started venturing up a route I predicted would get us to the top of the mountain top’s ridge.

Daylia, climbing her first mountain.

Daylia, climbing her first mountain.

Daylia was a champion! We moved together, deliberately, as I was more motherly than I probably needed to be. But she was “precious cargo!” I suddenly felt the enormous responsibility of keeping this beautiful young woman who is so special to me, and to so many, safe and in good health and spirits. We developed a system where we’d take about 20 steep uphill lunges, and then lean into the mountain, rocks and tundra to take mini breaks. During these mini breaks, I encouraged Daylia to look up, catch our breath, get our bearings and to take in the views below.

Altitude often causes people to get light-headed, and the experience of climbing a mountain can be dizzying and disorienting. Climbing a steep mountain, on a route that featured huge dropoffs into a still-ice-covered mountain lake in a steep cirque with no shore, or chance of rescue, was high stakes. I had explained to Daylia at the start of our adventure about the high stakes out here. I said what I often say to people I’m leading up the trail. “I don’t mean to be dramatic, and yet I do. The stakes are high out here. If you turn an ankle or hurt yourself out here, we’re hours, if not days, from help. As a result, it’s critical that we are more deliberate about where we place our feet, and what we choose to do or not do.” This right here is a case in point, I thought to myself as we climbed up this steep mountain, little section by little section, and with such focused attention and great care.

I think we're going to make it!

I think we’re going to make it!

“Look how far we’ve come already,” remarked Daylia, as we were about halfway up the mountain. I acknowledged that fact. In fact, in my humble opinion, that is one of the greatest values of climbing a mountain – taking time to look back and down and acknowledging your progress so far. It can be inspiring, and provide inspiration for continuing.

Soon, we saw the end of our climb. “It’s right there,” said Daylia. “We have to make it now.” And make it we did. As we gained the ridge, we were speechless. Before us was a panoramic view filled with a range of tall granite mountains, including Wind River Peak, and Lizard Head in the distance. Below us were the main lakes of the Stough Creek Basin. While accessing the mountaintop this way was a first not only for Daylia, but also for me, the top of the mountain was as I remembered it from the time Jerry and I had accessed it from Roaring Fork saddle a few years ago – rolling, littered with a googolplex of rocks.  

Once on top of the mountain, we were rewarded with panoramic views.

Once on top of the mountain, we were rewarded with panoramic views.

Selfie of us, invigorated from our mountain climb.

Selfie of us, invigorated from our mountain climb.

We quickly bundled up with our warmest layers and puffy coats, hats and mittens. We hugged and gave each other high 5’s and each snapped photos from different vantages, as well as some selfies of the two of us, “victorious” on top of Daylia’s first mountain, and on top of our first mountain climbed together. I watched as Daylia soon hunkered down behind a boulder that was the size of an SUV’s bucket seat to get out of the chill of the high winds.

We stayed about 20 minutes before deciding we wanted to start down if for no other reason to get out of the cold and the wind. We took about 20 steps below the summit on our descent, and it was suddenly hot and still again. We de-layered and returned to our summer attire, and talked excitedly about what we had just accomplished and seen. We were both giddy about – and proud of – our accomplishment. “I don’t want to steal our thunder, but, as a world-class climber (Phil Powers, Wyoming’s only man to climb K2 without oxygen) once told me, the summit is only the halfway point. Most injuries happen while descending, so even though we’re excited and we summited, we need to pay even more attention going down.” Daylia, now a backpacker, and ‘Epic certified,’ understood and agreed.

Descending, and heading back to camp.

Descending, and heading back to camp.

Before we knew it, we were back at the spring from which we had refilled our water bottles at hours before, and walking across van-sized boulders toward Thumb Lake. It was a glorious day. Until now the sky had been cloudless and certain, and as blue as my Goddaughter’s eyes. Now, there were some clouds forming in the sky, but they were of the harmless variety – not tall, pure white, spread out, and shaped like misshaped cotton balls. We both agreed that the clouds made the view more interesting.

We were back at camp by 4pm. Daylia wanted to learn how to start a fire, so with a little instruction from me, she did, and it was a good one! Especially because its smoke helped clear our camp of some of the hordes of mosquitos. I made us coffee. By the way, how is it that my Goddaughter is old enough to want to drink coffee with me? Once again, I’m reminded of how fast the time flies, and how, in a seeming blink-of-an-eye a child is a young adult in the prime of her life. This reminds me that I have brought in a couple of gifts for Daylia. I give her a book that is a new favorite of mine, called The Gutsy Girl: Escapades for Your Life of Epic Adventure, by Caroline Paul, and also an Epic journal, with a few suggested prompts to help her reflect on her Epic life.

Our home for the night.

Our home for the night.

Next, I teach Daylia how to set up and start the camp stove, and she helps me make what we decide to call “Epic Island Lake Quesadillas,” which were tortillas fried in lots of butter, and filled with pepper jack cheese, spicy green chiles and Ro*tel tomatoes. Daylia loves them and makes me feel like a world-class chef. I don’t mean to brag, but they were quite delicious, in part because they were so hard-earned.

Daylia, enjoying an Epic quesadilla.

Daylia, enjoying an Epic quesadilla.

We enjoyed a lot of meaningful conversation, made s’mores that were also – you guessed it – Epic. We each roasted double marshmallows and added them to dark chocolate with almonds and graham crackers. We snarfed two Epic s’mores each, and then spied the Big Dipper and the North Star, before heading into the tent. My Fitbit indicated we had logged 14 miles and almost 400 flights of stairs. I told Daylia how epic she is, and told her the day was epic by anyone’s standards, but especially mine. It would be a day I would never forget.

Epic s'mores.

Epic s’mores.

Reflections of alpenglow in Island Lake.

Reflections of alpenglow in Island Lake.

When we got nestled into the compact, 2-person tent, Daylia remarked, “This is a little cozy compared to what I’m used to.” I had her right where I wanted her…very near to me. When I shared this tent with my oldest son, Wolf, last year on our mother-son rite of passage trip, he had said the same thing, as I made him snuggle into my right arm the way he had so many times over the years beginning when he was an infant. I didn’t make Daylia cuddle with me, but it sure felt wonderful to have my Goddaughter so near to me.

We said good night, and I told my Daylia that I loved her, and that I was so proud of her, and that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere with anyone else right now.

As we turned off our headlamps, I listened, and there was not a single sound. I think it was the most quiet night I’ve ever spent in a tent in the often-windy Wind Rivers.

I rose the next day at around 6am, started a fire to keep the mosquitos at bay. I made coffee for myself while looking at perfect morning reflections of Island Lake. Daylia slept soundly in the tent. For two hours, I sat and reflected on how blessed I am, and thanked God for all of the blessings in my life, while hearing only the songs of birds. I thought of Jerry and the boys, and of my parents, who first inspired me to get outside in Wind River Country. I thought of Wolf, who was in the same wilderness somewhere on Day 4 of his 30-day NOLS course, and wondered if he was up early too.

Morning reflections in Island Lake.

Morning reflections in Island Lake.

Daylia and I had a great hike out later in the morning, and right as we thought the adventure could not get any better, we spied a bullwinkle moose in the meadow after Upper Silas Lake, browsing on willows. It looked at us to make sure we weren’t a threat, and for some moments, we watched the moose, and he watched us.

A bullwinkle moose we spied on our hike out.

A bullwinkle moose we spied on our hike out.

Yeehaw! Daylia is certified Epic. :)

Yeehaw! Daylia is certified Epic. 🙂

Here’s a video I captured after descending our mountain:


On our drive back to Lander after our epic adventure, Daylia suggested we make our Epic Island Lake Quesadillas and show our families a slideshow of our photos and share about our adventure, which we will do tonight. I can’t wait. I will let her tell the story.

Speaking of her version of the story, my helpful, wonderful, beautiful, adventurous, smart, interesting, courageous – and Epic – Goddaughter agreed to answer some questions for me. Those questions, and her responses, follow:

What all “firsts” did this trip include? 

It was my first time backpacking, hiking by, and seeing seven lakes that were new for me, climbing a mountain, starting a campfire, setting up and sleeping in a tent, seeing a moose while on foot, and eating epic rotel and green chile quesadillas.

What was the hardest part about this epic adventure?

The motivation to keep going was definitely the most difficult part. Doing all of those steep uphill and deep lunges was hard!

What were some other challenging aspects of this epic adventure for you?

Some really challenging aspects of the trip included the fear that I would disappoint myself and Shelli, or that I wasn’t strong enough physically and mentally to make the further venture of climbing up a mountain. Some other mundane and obvious challenging aspects were sleeping in a forest, going bathroom in the woods, and the shooting pain in my butt (now buns of steel!) and ankles all the way up.

What was the most fun part of the adventure?

Our conversations, and I also gloried in the sights, and in eating the best quesadillas I’ve ever had (thank you again.)

What was the biggest surprise for you of this adventure?

I climbed a mountain!!!

What was your favorite part of the whole experience?

The best part was realizing that I’m so much stronger than I had thought. By (hesitatingly) saying Yes to the Island Lake adventure, the additional venture to Thumb Lake, and then up the mountain. I feel so self-fulfilled and happy to have accomplished something so much greater than what I thought possible. And I got to do so for my first time with Shelli, whose mountain climb to that particular peak was her first, too!

What was your favorite part about the mountain climb?

Seeing the view from above—all the lakes and mountains—was my favorite, but I also really loved coming down from the peak because it was so cold and windy up there!

Of all the nature and beauty you saw, what was the most beautiful sight you saw?

I actually really liked the Island Lake’s view from our campsite. The glass lake with the tree and

mountain reflections was breathtaking. I also loved seeing all the lakes we’d backpacked past on top of the peak.

What was your favorite part about “camping?”

The campfire was so much fun! It was great roasting marshmallows for s’mores. I felt serene hearing the fire crackle, and watching the flame’s glow.

What insight, or insights will you take from this adventure and epic experience?

If there’s something you so badly want to accomplish or experience but fear begins to overtake you, just say Yes and go for that adventure. You’ll live a much more fulfilling and exciting life, truly living the phrase, “carpe diem” – to seize the day.

Do you think you will be changed in some way as a result of this backpacking experience in the Wind Rivers? If so, how?

I feel stronger physically and emotionally. I never thought I’d be able to carry poles and a 32lb

backpack up a rocky mountain for 1.5-2 hours straight, nor did I emotionally feel up to it, with

exhaustion and the pressure to quit creeping over me.

Any advice for others who have never done anything like this?

Just go with it! You’re definitely stronger than you think you are.

Anything else you’d like to add?

You can do anything through the motivation of a friend and mentor. Without the positive and

encouraging influence of a teacher, I never would have accomplished what I had that day.


I can provide unforgettable and meaningful custom adventures such as mother-son rite or passage trips, and other special occasion adventures similar to the one I provide my Goddaughter with. Email me if you’d like to discuss a wide range of possibilities.

If you’d like to read more about adventures and hikes in my beloved Wind River Mountains, you can check out a list of several headlines and articles HERE.

Greetings from our 29-Day “Epic Europe Family Adventure”

June 10th, 2016

Hi there! My family and I are on Day 19 of our 29-day “Epic Europe Family Adventure.” I am writing this from a small airport in Rome, where we’re waiting to board our flight to Portugal. It will be our seventh country to meet and explore!

Hi there!

Hi there!

This is a dream-come-true trip that was hard-earned. For at least three years we have dreamed about doing this, and we have made many sacrifices to make it happen. I’m reporting it has all been worth it!

So far, we’ve been to six countries and we have been surprised, inspired, humbled, and blown away by all that we have seen and experienced. Behind only Jerry’s and my decision to get married almost 24 years ago, and deciding to start our family, this is one of our greatest decisions and achievements.

This is all to say that if you have a dream, don’t wait. Start saving the money, and making whatever plans and changes you need to pursue your dreams. The size of your house doesn’t matter, and the stuff you buy doesn’t matter as much as having new experiences. Even if we have to eat bread and water for six months after our return to pay for our extra gelatos and other goodies, it will all be worth it.

When I started Epic Life in 2010, it was because I was inspired to live more on purpose and with more purpose, and to help others do the same. To not only imagine that each day might be our last, but to really believe and embody that. I think living like I believe this could be true has caused me to place a higher value on the people I love, my time, who I work with, and choosing what work to do. Living like I believe that today might be my last has made all the difference in my life.

Finally, for years, before starting Epic Life, I was in the tourism business, and was a travel writer. I have become reacquainted with that version of myself, and have written 12 blog posts about our adventures so far while reviving my old travel blog. If you’re interested in reading about any of our adventures, you can see them at

Family selfie while hiking in the Cinque Terre, Italy, area, on Day 13.

Family selfie while hiking in the Cinque Terre, Italy, area, on Day 13.

To Discover and Know Yourself, Go Hiking

May 17th, 2016

Hi there!

Hi there!

This blog post is extra special for me, and I hope you’ll find it to be worth your time, and hopefully, inspiring.

I live in Lander, Wyoming, which is in the heart of Wind River Country, my favorite area in the world. I was raised here, left for some years, and then chose to return here in 1995 to live and eventually raise our family. One of my biggest passions is hiking. I hike with my family, I hike with friends, I lead hiking and backpacking expeditions for women, leadership teams, and all kinds of groups for all kinds of occasions. I also frequently hike alone. Recently, I had a conversation with my friend, Casey Adams, who is writer at Wind River Country. Casey asked me some good questions, which are in bold, for me to reflect on and answer. I’m sharing the conversation here.

Did you have fears of hiking solo when you first started, and what were they? 

I started hiking seriously when I was 20 years old – some 27 years ago – and yes, I was afraid of hiking alone. I was frightened by all that could go wrong in the wilderness. The stakes in the wilderness are so much higher than they are in civilization, especially when out there all alone.

But I think this question is interesting because when I first started hiking, I had another fear. I was probably more afraid of being alone than I was of hiking alone, if that makes sense.

Alone on the trail, approaching Temple Peak. (Photo by Joel Krieger)

Alone on the trail, approaching Temple Peak. (Photo by Joel Krieger)

What did you find was the reality surrounding those fears? 

I’ve come to believe that fear is not bad, just something to take seriously and to not ignore. Fear narrows our focus, and in the wilderness, this can literally save a life. So my fears about the wilderness and all that could go wrong haven’t vanished. I did get myself some skills, though, which means I’m better prepared than I used to be. I took a NOLS course and became a Certified Wilderness First Responder, and I now have years of experiences that continue to inform my safety. I always let my husband (or someone) know where I’m going, and when I expect to return. I carry bear spray, and I pay attention. I use an InReach personal locator beacon so my husband can track my whereabouts on my longer treks, and I can send a text letting him know where I am at, what time I expect to return, etc.

The other fear – of being alone – is gone. Over time, the more I hiked alone, the more comfortable I became. I have fallen in love with solitude, even if it was not on purpose. I lost my Division I basketball scholarship in year 3. At 20 years old and a long way from home, I was devastated. I found myself without a map, so to speak. And even though the basketball players remained my friends, I was on a different course, and so I started spending more time alone.

At first it was hard, and uncomfortable. I was afraid people would think I was a loner, or lonely. I find this is the case for many who are not accustomed to spending time alone. It can be uncomfortable at first. Now, I yearn for solitude. When I don’t have regular times of solitude, I feel off center. I hike about 1,000 miles a year, and 500 of those are alone. It’s not because I can’t find anyone to hike with.

When we’re in solitude, we can hear our thoughts, including the good, the bad and the ugly. It can be a sort of reckoning, which is hard, but it is also one of the reasons I argue for its importance. When we’re alone, and our mind is set free to wander, we have new insights, and inspirations that we might not have had. One of my favorite books is Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In it, she says, “Certain springs are tapped only when we are alone.” I have found this to be the case.

Socrates said, “Know thyself.” One of the best ways I’ve come to know myself, and to discover new things about myself, is by being alone hiking up or down some trail, lost in my thoughts, and available only to me.

Leading some friends on a training hike over Jackass Pass, with Cirque of the Towers in the background.

Leading some friends on a training hike over Jackass Pass, with Cirque of the Towers in the background.

What did you learn/gain personally by hiking?

That I am more capable than I thought I was. At everything. I’ve learned that I can go farther than I think I can, and this of course has translated to all areas of my life, and my work. I’ve learned how to be self sufficient, and how to survive in the wilderness. These are powerful abilities, not only in the wilderness, but in life.



I’ve learned that it’s okay to be vulnerable, that vulnerability is not weakness but courage. I know myself. I know who and what are most important in my life, and much of the credit for this clarity goes to my time spent alone, examining my life while wandering through the woods.

What is special about hiking with only women in the Winds, specifically?
There is so much that is special about sharing the trail or an epic adventure with other women.

Women tend to want to support each other. They seldom compete with one another. Women tend to put others first. They have such empathy for one another. In my experience, women want to help each other succeed.

I lead women’s groups on wilderness expeditions, and I see this over and over and over again. It is inspiring to witness, and it makes me proud to be a woman.

I’ve also learned, and experienced, that as women, we are often self critical. We can be so hard on ourselves. We are usually juggling many demands in our life and our work, and even if we’re keeping all of the balls in the air, we think we ought to be doing better, or more. What I’ve learned is that self criticism is not helpful, and that it crashes the party, usually during times when we could really use support. I speak from experience here… I have struggled with self criticism my whole life. So one of the things that I hope women who hike together, and with me, gain is a better understanding of themselves, which can have the wonderful effect of helping them to be more compassionate to themselves.

When a friend or a colleague is struggling up a mountain in his or her life, we are likely to be compassionate and supportive. But when we’re doing it ourselves, we’re often our worst critic. It’s so much more powerful to love ourselves rather than beat ourselves up. There’s that wonderful saying, “Treat others like you’d like to be treated.” I would like to add, “And treat yourself the way you’d like to treat others.” When we are as kind to ourselves as we are to others, amazing things happen. We experience joy again. We stop comparing ourselves, or our lives, to others.

Leading last year's Epic Women Expedition up East Temple Peak, in the Wind River Range, during morning alpenglow.

Leading last year’s Epic Women Expedition up East Temple Peak, in the Wind River Range, during morning alpenglow.

What lessons do you most enjoy seeing the women you coach discover when they’re in the mountains, specifically when they’re on their own?

That they can climb mountains. Literally, but also in their life. That just because terrain may be loose, they can find stability in it if they pay attention and are deliberate in taking their steps.

Tina Postel, from Charlotte, NC, one of my 2015 Epic Women, said, “trekking in the wilderness showed me that I could lead without having all of the answers. Leadership is sometimes acknowledging what you don’t know and letting others show you the way. Prior to my wilderness experience, I was too proud to be seen as vulnerable.  As women leaders we sometimes want to appear stronger or more confident than we feel internally so as not to be viewed as weak by others. But displaying my vulnerabilities ironically has helped me be a stronger leader.” I could not say it better.

My Epic Women group, atop Mitchell Peak, in 2014.

My Epic Women group, atop Mitchell Peak, in 2014.

What tips would you give someone who is considering heading out on a hike on his or her own?

First of all, I dare you to do it! You will be so glad you did.

Start small. Pick a well-known trail, and make the decision that you are going to go on a solo hike. Find out the specifics, such as trailhead location, distance, etc. Check the weather forecast. Be sure to tell someone about your plans, including your estimated time of departure, where you’re hiking, and your estimated return.

I recommend leaving at sunrise. The light in the morning is a bonus, and it will be more of a solo hike if you beat the crowds and have some of the country and views to yourself. Leave your headphones, music and/or podcasts in the car. You’ll be more open and alert to your surroundings. Listen to nature’s sounds. Smell the trees, sagebrush and flowers. Look up and around. Let your mind wander. Listen to your thoughts. Imagine. Every now and then, stop and take a breather. Just be where you’re at. We hear a lot about the value of being present, of being in the present moment. In my experience, nothing helps us be present like being alone in the wilderness.

Hiking alone near Saddlebag Lake, in Wind River Country. (Photo by Scott Copeland)

Hiking alone near Saddlebag Lake, in Wind River Country. (Photo by Scott Copeland)

Have a great time! And, great job getting out to hike alone. I promise this will be the start of a great journey with yourself.

Some of my most popular blog posts:

My most spectacular failure was a gift

Daring to climb mountains

My “mother-son rite of passage” expedition was one of my best ideas, ever

My life wasn’t always Epic; my people made it so

In the wilderness, we discover our Best Self

A leader and parent reflect on her Brooks Range Alaska NOLS course

Shelli Johnson, owner of Epic Life,  is an entrepreneur, life and leadership coach, leadership development facilitator, keynote presenter, writer, adventurer and guide. She is married to Jerry, and is the mother of three sons, Wolf, 16, Hayden, 14, and Fin, 9. She lives in Lander, WY, where she frequently hikes in the foothills and mountains of the Wind River Range. #WindRiverCountry

Not Too Long Ago, My Life Was Not Epic; The People In My Life Helped Me Make It So

April 20th, 2016

[WOMEN: I’m recruiting for Epic Women program. This is a life-changing program that bundles life coaching and a 5-day guided Epic backpacking adventure in my backyard, Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Adventure arrives/departs Jackson Hole, July 24-30. Email me if you’re interested. Time’s running out!]

Lately I’ve been traveling a fair amount to deliver my keynote presentation, “Epic Lessons Learned in the Field.” Most recently, I presented to leaders in the SapientNitro offices in Atlanta and Miami and to tourism leaders in Colorado’s Park County. Next week I’ll present in Casper, WY, before traveling to Denver, and then to Charlottesville, VA.



I love presenting because I get to share some of the most important things I’ve learned. I have coached 115 individual leaders from throughout the U.S. during the last 5 years. I’ve learned so much from these amazing people, and my work with them, and my presentation is an effort to share some of what I’ve learned.

From this work and these amazing leaders, I’ve gleaned 20+ lessons. In a 1-hour keynote, I have enough time to cover only 5-7 of the lessons. Once hired to be a keynote presenter, I talk with promoters of the event, or leaders in the organization, to learn more about what their current challenges are, and from there, I select which lessons to include in the presentation.

One that makes the cut, no matter what, is “Our People Make Us Better.”

Hopefully all of us know that the people in our life, and the quality of our relationships, impact our health and well being. It is worthwhile, then, for us to make sure we have great people, and meaningful relationships, in our life.

What I’ve learned in addition, though, is that when we do something Epic – something that isn’t easy, and that at times is so challenging the outcome is uncertain – the experience causes us to become more than we were before. But as importantly, perhaps more importantly, the people we share that experience with cause us to become better. I know this is the truth! I have experienced this personally, and I have witnessed it with others countless times.

Jim Rohn used to say we are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with. This is also true. Because the 5 people or groups of people we spend the most time with influence us and our life so much, we ought to pay a lot of attention to who these people are. I encourage leaders all of the time to take stock of their 5, and to consider “breaking up” with any whose values are not in alignment with their own, or with those who are sucking the energy and life out of them. These 5 can help make our life wonderful or terrible.

With a lot of support and help from my husband, and my parents, I started my first company, Yellowstone Journal and in 1994. Over the course of 15 years, our fantastic team and I grew the business, and in 2008, we sold it to Active Interest Media (the owner of Backpacker, Yoga Journal, Climbing, etc.). When we sold the company, by all indications, things for me were great. After all, I had a loving husband, three healthy and wonderful sons, and we had just sold the business we started and built to a company I respected.

But things weren’t all great. Not with me, anyway. I was about 30 pounds overweight, and quite sedentary. I could go on a hike but I was out of shape and paid a big price for it when I did. I was addicted to my gadgets and “always on.” I wasn’t present… I know that sounds cliché, but the truth is I wasn’t present. I was preoccupied and distracted. I was drinking wine on too many week nights. This wasn’t a problem, but I knew it could become one if it continued. And, I was depressed. I actually went to the doctor for depression.

After no fewer than two years of some serious self loathing (usually late at night after Jerry and the boys were fast asleep), and most notably, feeling regret for letting yet another day pass without my taking a step to improve my health, I burned the ships. In early 2009, I hired a personal trainer, and soon after, I gave up all complex carbohydrates (before it was called “paleo”). I made other important changes to my life too. I restricted some of my use of technology (didn’t “let” my phone into the kitchen, dining room or bedroom, etc.) It took a while, but soon, everything got better. I lost 30 pounds in a year, and had more energy and vigor than I had ever had in my life, and That was six years ago when I was a 41-year-old! Everything – and I do mean everything – was better. Is better.

I share this story not to brag, but to illustrate the fact that there is NO WAY I would have been able to transform my life in the way that I did without having the right 5 people in my life.

These people we surround ourself with are that critical. I will always be grateful to my family and my friends, and to the mentors/coaches I had in place at the time.

So, who are your 5? And do you need to make some changes? I challenge you to do this work. It’s for your life, after all.

My #1 – my husband and sons – with me on top of a mountain we climbed SW Utah recently.

My #1 – my husband and sons – with me on top of a mountain we climbed in SW Utah recently.

The people I coach/guide are also in my 5. Here's a photo from a mountain climb during the Epic Women expedition I lead every July.

The people I coach, guide and work with are also in my 5. Here’s a photo from a mountain climb during my Epic Women expedition last July.


WOMEN: I’m recruiting for Epic Women program. This is a life-changing program that bundles life coaching, wellness and a 5-day guided Epic backpacking adventure in my backyard, Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Adventure arrives/departs Jackson Hole, July 24-30. Email me if you’re interested. Time’s running out to be a part of this program!

Ask & Answer These 3 Questions

February 26th, 2016

Did you know that the biggest regrets people have when they are approaching the end of their life are not related to things they’ve done, but rather things they didn’t do? It’s true. They are more disappointed, and regretful, about the things they didn’t do, that they wished they would have done, that they can no longer do.



When it comes to regrets, I think there is no better teacher than someone who is approaching the end of his/her life because they literally and truly view each day of their remaining life as a gift, and they are more reflective than most of us.

But it’s not only the dying who feel this way about regrets. I read a lot of books, and one of the books I’m currently reading is Originals, by Adam Grant (also the author of one of my favorite leadership books, Give and Take). Grant is awesome. He’s the youngest tenured, and highest rated professor of psychology at the Wharton School, and what he has to share, which is always backed by research, is compelling. Recently, in a LinkedIn post, he wrote: Most people predict that it’s the actions they’ll regret more. We cringe at the anguish of declaring bankruptcy or getting rejected by the love of our lives. But we are dead wrong.

When people reflect on their biggest regrets, they wish they could redo the inactions, not the actions. “In the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did,” psychologists Tom Gilovich and Vicky Medvec summarize, “which is why the most popular regrets include not going to college, not grasping profitable business opportunities, and not spending enough time with family and friends.”

So I challenge you to ask yourself these questions, reflect on them, and then answer them (for yourself, or in the comments section if you’d like to share – and feel held accountable as a result).

1. What is something I am wanting or needing to do, but I’m not doing?
2. Why I am not doing it?
3. What am I waiting for?

I would never ask you to do something I’m not willing to do, so I’m also doing the work. I’m getting ready to go on a walk in the woods, and I am going to turn it into a productive meditation focusing on these three important questions.

Have a great day, and thank you for stopping by and reading my blog.
If you could use a coach to help you change your life, accomplish a goal or two, make or break a habit, or to dare you to crank it up a notch, please keep me in mind. I’ve coached 115 individual leaders from throughout the U.S. during the last 5 years, and I’ve learned a lot. I also do keynote presenting and leadership development facilitation. Here’s my Brochure. Or, if you’re a woman and you’re interested in making some changes to your life, getting in the best shape and health of your life and want to go on an unforgettable, 5-day guided Epic Adventure, please consider my Epic Women program. I’m recruiting right now and have 4 spots remaining on the roster.

Want To Make A Change? Try WOOPing!

February 4th, 2016

First of all, I apologize this isn’t a shorter post. But as the saying goes, I would have written less but I didn’t have time.

Do you want to make a change? Then you’ve come to the right place. I have a new system to share that is easy – and proven – for making a dream come true, or a change for the better.

Hi there.

Hi there.

I’ve made significant changes to my life during the last 5 years, and all of them stuck, and so far have lasted.

There is a book that is most responsible for helping me to master change-making, and it is Switch, by Dan and Chip Heath. I can’t recommend it enough. I read it when it came out in 2010, and it has had a huge impact on my life. So much so that I use many of the principles discussed in the book when I coach, and facilitate development for leaders from throughout the U.S.

Now there’s a new book in my toolkit and, if you are wishing for a dream to come true, or to make a change in your life, then I suggest you get your hands on it. It’s Rethinking Positive Thinking, Inside the New Science of Motivation, by Gabriele Oettingen, a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. The book is based on 20 years of research and large-scale studies.

I should come clean here and say I’m an optimist to a fault. I not only think the glass is half full, I think the glass itself is amazing. Among other things, I am an emotional intelligence consultant, and optimism is one of the most valuable traits a person could wish to have. We have the power to choose to be positive, even when things are not awesome. The late, great Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, and author of the influential Man’s Search for Meaning (another book I so highly recommend!), said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In addition, having positive fantasies is pleasureful, and optimism helps us alleviate our present suffering, while also helping us persevere through adversity. At the bottom of a mountain, it is absolutely more helpful to thinking positively than it is to think negatively.

However, as Oettingen points out, positive thinking is mostly helpful only in the short-term. Positive thinking, and positive fantasies, while they offer value, do not help us achieve our long-terms goals, and in fact, may help ensure that we don’t.

It isn’t enough to sit and dream; we have to take action and make sacrifices… Our dreams may be realizable, but they come down to challenges that require engagement and action. The good news… is that it’s possible to move energetically toward many of our wishes, and to do a much better job deciding which wishes are worth our effort and which aren’t, writes Oettingen.


Research over the past 20 years finds that dreaming about a desired future leads to low investment and little success, regardless of life domains, such as health, work, and interpersonal relationships. In order to benefit from positive thinking about the future, people need to incorporate in that positive thinking a clear sense of reality.

Most of us do not live our Epic Life, or have our greatest impact, or pursue our dreams because of fear. We fear failure, we fear disappointing others, we fear disappointing ourself, and we fear making a fool out of ourselves. These are fears most of us share, and at least one of them is usually the reason we play it safe instead of daring to do what we want or need to do.

One way to overcome these fears, or to proceed despite them, is to confront them at the outset. As an entrepreneur, goal-oriented person, coach and leadership development facilitator, I often use what Tim Ferriss calls “negative visualization” to help myself, or others, identify and articulate risks. By assessing the fears/risks in advance, often we realize the fears aren’t as bad as we make them out to be, which can have the powerful and beneficial effect of nudging us forward, not to mention keep us from being reckless in our pursuits. This process is also called conducting a premortem – imagining in advance all that could go wrong so that we can persevere if and when things go wrong.

Oettingen isn’t suggesting we do away with positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way, she writes.

Oettingen calls this process mental contrasting. And her system for helping us achieve our goals and realize our dreams is calling WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. (In scientific literature it’s called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, or MCII)


Here’s how it works:

1. Determine a WISH that you have. It can be a short-term goal or a long-term dream. (For example, I tried this out by having a wish, Write a Blog Post Today.)

2. Consider the best OUTCOME. (Given my aforementioned experiment, my outcome was to publish the blog post)

3. Consider the main OBSTACLE that could likely stand in the way of your wish coming true. (I am leaving town at noon, and I also had to write some emails to clients and I also wanted to get a 1-hour skate ski session in. These things could prevent me from having enough time to write and publish a blog post.)

4. Make an If-Then PLAN, such as If (enter obstacle), then (enter desired action). (If I don’t have enough time, then I will skip skiing so I can write and publish the blog post.)
Remember, this system is based on 20 years of research and many large-scale studies. It works. (This blog post is proof, right?! I used the app to create a 24-hour WOOP to accomplish this goal of writing and publishing a blog post before leaving town today at noon. Check!)

A bigger wish I have is related to a family trip we’re planning to Europe. We’re making our first international trip in late May and it will be for 4 weeks. My wish is to really experience and grow with my husband and our three sons while seeing a new part of the world. The ideal outcome for me is for us to further enrich our relationships with one another. A potential obstacle that could prevent the desired outcome is that I’ll be so busy capturing it in photos and sharing them with my networks that I will miss being as present as I’d like to be with my family during the experience. I know with all my being that this is a real threat to realizing my desired outcome. So a plan I will implement is to post only one photo per day from my phone, and then use my camera for the rest of the memory captures.

On that subject of wanting to be present, for yet another book I highly recommend, see Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle is a social scientist at MIT, and has done extensive research on our increasing tethered-ness to our cell phones. As a result of this tethered-ness, we are often “alone together” – together, but not really. The book, and Turkle’s work are a real cautionary tale. I have been working on strictly limiting my technology use, and our family tried one week without it. It was hard AND amazing. I blogged about it here if you’re interested.

In conclusion, I don’t know about you, but for me, the higher the stakes, the more critical it is that I not only imagine my dream, but that I do the work required to make it come true.

P.S. Here is an exceptional podcast interview with Oettingen by the great Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman. Also, check out to see many testimonials from people in the health, interpersonal and academic domains who have tried, and had success, using the WOOP system. And/or download the app for free on your cell phone.

Thanks for reading, and best wishes at making your wishes come true using the WOOP technique.







Our Family’s “3 Words” for 2016

January 4th, 2016

My friend Chris Brogan has been doing this wonderful exercise for the last 10 years where he chooses 3 words to guide him through the new year.



What a great idea. These words serve as markers – cairns – to keep one from wandering aimlessly away from their intentions during the year. I love to explore and go off-trail, but I also want to not wander too far from my path, or get lost.

I don’t have my personal 3 words yet, but I’m almost there and I will write about these in a separate post. But for now, even more exciting for me is the fact my family came up with 3 words. My family consists of my husband, Jerry, our three sons, Wolf, 15, Hayden, 13 and Fin, 8, and myself.

First off, just having the “What should our 3 words for 2016 be?” conversation was fascinating and fun. During dinner last night, we debated on words, and about their meanings. I suggested Fun be one of our words, while another family member suggested Adventure. I wondered if those were the same thing, when Hayden, our 13-year-old, argued effectively that fun and adventure aren’t necessarily the same thing. “If you go out sailing in stormy seas, that’s an adventure, not fun,” he said.  Jerry suggested Learning, which we all liked, but then one of our sons he wanted New, as in seeing and experiencing new things. We all agreed that Discovery would include learning and new things, so we went with that word. There was some debate about if Discovery and Adventure were too much alike, but then we all agreed they were similar but not the same. “If I discover I don’t like eating peas, that’s not an adventure,” one of them explained. Although I said I thought that was debatable, we settled on DISCOVERY, ADVENTURE & SERVICE. The conversation alone was fun and was different conversation from ones we usually have.


What I love about our family’s brainstorm and three words is that we have these three important intentions on record that will help to remind and guide us in our actions throughout the year. Our 3 words will be a topic we can revisit on a regular basis as we sit around the table for dinner. We can collectively ask, What have we done that was adventurous? What have we discovered? And, what have we done for others? If we realize that a week or two has passed and we haven’t done anything service-related for our community, friends or neighbors, or that we haven’t discovered anything new lately, or that we haven’t had an adventure, then our three words will remind and inspire us into action.

What will your 3 words be? Please reflect on this, and if you want to participate, please share your words below. I’d really appreciate that, and your words may inspire others.

Thank you for stopping by. Fondly, Shelli


How I Want To Be In 2016

January 1st, 2016

Happy new year! I love this time of year. In fact, I love the last week of every year. Not only because I’m with family and friends, and we’re celebrating the holidays, but because it’s the last week of the year. I love this time of reflecting back on this year, while imagining what’s possible in the next.



I am a goal-oriented person, and what Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project, and most recently, Better Than Before, would call an Upholder. I am self-motivated and am always setting goals and working hard to achieve them. And most of the time, I do achieve them. But not always. For example, one of my goals for 2015 was to become limber and flexible enough that I would be able to touch my nose to my knee in a hurdler stretch. I didn’t achieve this goal. I worked pretty hard at it for 5 months before falling of the stretching wagon, and try as a I might, it’s not going to happen in these remaining 70 minutes of 2015. Darn it anyway.

As is tradition, my husband and I and our three sons sat around the table at dinner tonight, on New Year’s Eve, and reflected on the year before brainstorming our family goals for 2016. (We went around the table and each of us offered up some highlights from the year. One of our sons, and not our oldest, said, “I became a man this year.” He laughed when he said it, and we didn’t ask for specifics! Another son said he was glad he had so many days where he didn’t wear socks or underwear. Another reflected on a year that was the first for him to drive, and to work a paying job. We were grateful we spent some of our spring break with Jerry’s dad, since he fell sick unexpectedly shortly after that and passed away a month later. And there were others, but that’s a sampling. Then, each of us offered up family resolutions for 2016. These include eating more exotic foods, offering to do more service work for our community, going to Europe, and others.

Our family game of Tripoley, which we played while reflecting on 2015 as a family, and looking ahead to the new year.

Our family game of Tripoley, which we played while reflecting on 2015 as a family, and looking ahead to the new year.

But I digress. I think the most important question any of us can aim to answer is, “Who do I want to be?”

I feel strongly about this. When we know who it is we want to be – when we can imagine and visualize our Best Self –- then we can orient our whole life, including all of the things we do and all of the ways that we behave, accordingly. Our Best Self is our True North. It’s not a destination. It’s not a place we hope to arrive at. We can be our best version at any moment. Our vision of who we want to be is an orientation, and having this vision of our Best Self keeps us on track to being the person we want to be.

As a coach, I invest a certain amount of time with my clients encouraging them to imagine and articulate who they want to be. I hadn’t done the work myself in a few years, and so earlier today, with the new year dawning, I thought I’d revisit the exercise. What I found is that it is easier for me to imagine who I want to be if I first imagine, and list, HOW I want to be. (I love Annie Dillard’s quote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Amen to the emphasis on HOW we live our lives.)

So I wrote down the following roles I play in my life, starting with my Best Self, and then for wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, coach, community member, and so on, and next to each, described how I want to be in each role. Words describing how I want to be included patient, loving, compassionate, generous, kind, open, etc.

Thinking about and writing down how you want to be in 2016 is an exercise I recommend doing.

Not too long ago, one of our sons was having a problem related to forgetfulness. He was doing his homework but often forgetting to turn it in. After a few occasions of forgetting to turn his work in, he did it again, and at wit’s end, I lost my temper with him. I can tell you, I was not the mother I want to be, and it not only hurt him, it hurt me. While I didn’t regret the value I was taking a stand for (forgetfulness is not a positive habit to develop), I did very much regret the way I was handling it. What I’m grateful for, though, is that I’ve thought a lot about how I want to be as a mother so that when I am about to go off course – or as was the case in the above example, right after I’ve gone off course – I notice and am aware of it. I was able to make it right with my son, and find a different strategy for how to handle this if it were to happen again.

This is just one example of why reflecting on how we want to be in the world is valuable and important.

One of the realizations of 2015 for me is that I’m pretty much a practicer of stoicism. This wasn’t intentional… it’s just that almost everything I’ve learned about Stoicism mostly lines up with how I live my life. Four of the best books I read this year were Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, The Guide to the Good Life, by William Irvine, The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday, and Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. I am also a fan of Tim Ferriss, and he talks a lot about stoicism in his podcasts.

Seneca, a Stoic, was a proponent of meditating at the end of the day that took on a form of evaluating the day’s events and how he handled each of them, against how he wanted to be, and how he wished he would have behaved. I see tremendous value in this exercise, especially since I’ve done the exercise I mentioned above, where I have thought about and listed HOW I WANT TO BE in each of the roles in my life.

By the way, I did also come up with many new year’s resolutions, which I may write about from time to time in the coming weeks and months. But for now, I guess I’m sharing what I think is a valuable insight, and that is, taking the time to consider how we want to be in our life is probably more important than the goals we set for ourselves.

Happy New Year, and thank you for reading. I really appreciate your stopping by.


P.S. How do you want to be in 2016? I have room for a few more clients if you, or someone you know, would benefit from having a coach to dare, encourage, support, and hold you accountable.

Mother-Son Rite of Passage Expedition – One of My Best Ideas, Ever

August 20th, 2015

I’ve had many ideas in my 47 years, but my idea to lead my oldest son, Wolf, on a “Mother-Son Rite of Passage” wilderness expedition is one of my best, ever.

I am married to Jerry (going on 23 years this Saturday!), and we have three sons: Wolf, 15, Hayden, 13, and Finis (“Fin”), 8. For a while now, I have been brainstorming ways to create a “mother-son rite of passage” experience that I could do for each of our three sons.



I settled on leading each of my sons on a wilderness expedition the summer before each started high school. Of course I wanted this to be an adventure that not only Mom thought was a good idea, but also son, so some months ago, I began discussing this with our oldest son, Wolf, who started high school today. Being the first son, Wolf would be the guinea pig for this idea. 🙂

Here’s what Wolf and I came up with: We’d spend 4 days in our “backyard,” Wyoming’s Wind River Range. We’d backpack in about 8 miles the first day. On Day 2, he’d climb a mountain all by himself. Day 3 would be all about fun – we’d take our packrafts, and day hike to a high mountain lake, and also do some fishing. Day 4, we’d return home.

What follows is a pretty long-form travelogue of our experience. It may take you 20 minutes to read. I hope you’ll hang in there and read it, as I share some pretty personal entries from my journal, and I also hope this might inspire you to do something special with your children. The seed for this mother-son rite of passage idea was randomly planted by someone (Eddie Boyer) I met on a Mt. Whitney expedition 4 years ago. I am grateful for the conversation that planted this seed. After that I read a book recommended by my friend, Sharon Terhune, called Let Them Paddle: Coming of Age on the Water, by Alan Kesselheim. And, I also had conversations about rites of passages for my sons with friend Wendy Gebhart. All of these planted seeds that led to this recent adventure. Perhaps reading this blog post will plant a seed for you that will, like it did for me, blossom into something unforgettable. (NOTE: Wolf read and supported, and approved, of my sharing here.)

First thing’s first, so on Thursday, Aug. 13, as we headed out of town, we stopped at Lander Bake Shop to get breakfast. Wolf picked out a chocolate chip muffin and a huge (“epic”) brownie. About 18 miles out of town, near Red Canyon, Wolf snarfed his brownie, raving about its deliciousness, and saying, “Mom you get brownie points for this breakfast.” Wolf is famous for his puns…

Upon my request, we listened to an OnBeing podcast for the first 45 miles of our 2-hour drive to the trailhead. I picked Krista Tippett’s interview with Pico Iyer about “inner life” and stillness. It was a good pick! We were both inspired especially by these things Pico Iyer said:

I got out of my car at this monastery, and the air was pulsing. And it was very silent, but really the silence wasn’t the absence of noise, it was almost the presence of these transparent walls that I think the monks had worked very, very hard to make available to us in the world. And somehow, almost immediately, it was as if a huge heaviness fell away from me, and the lens cap came off my eyes. Really almost instantaneously I felt I’ve stepped into a richer, deeper life, a real life that I’d half forgotten had existed.
The point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.
When I travel, I travel not so much to move, as to be moved.

By the time we reached the rest area, we decided it was time to rock out to some tunes. Wolf managed the Spotify and we listened to a playlist that included Great Summer, One Day, I Can’t Feel My Face, Afraid of the Dark, Dirty Work, Wagon Wheel, Lean on Me, Rocket Man, Ghost Town, Sail Away, Summer Breeze, Wiseman, In My Mind, and about 10 more songs I can’t right now recall.

The trailhead was more packed than I have ever seen it. Cars were parked alongside the road from the trailhead for probably an ⅛ of a mile. Luckily, we found a spot that was a little closer in than that.

We started down the trail with our 60-pound-plus backpacks on at 9:30am, and we arrived at our special best-kept-secret of a campsite by 1:15pm. I’m a NOLS graduate, and I’m ashamed to say it but NOLS would not have wanted to claim me as one of their graduates! Our packs were too heavy; we packed far too many luxuries, and the packs weren’t packed very pretty, either. At one point, Wolf quipped, “I’m a Wolf, not a pack mule. Why I am a pack mule today?” Wolf’s pack had as much dangling from the outside as it had inside. Oops. But at least we wouldn’t go hungry, and we could offer to feed everyone in the wilderness if we decided to.

Wolf said, "I'm Wolf. So why am I a pack mule today?"

Wolf said, “I’m Wolf. So why am I a pack mule today?”

Except for a bunch of ravens, magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers, chipmunks and squirrels, it appeared we had this paradise to ourselves. It was miraculous to me that the parking lot could be so full and yet we’d have this secret spot all to ourselves. We are lucky.

After pitching our tent, I gave Wolf a tour of our site, including views from our “kitchen” area. Looking east, we look directly at Mitchell Peak. It’s right there in front of us. We can see, entirely, the two main routes to the summit. I suggested he would probably ascend the mountain from the end of North Lake, via the most direct route, which follows a steep ravine/spring to a bench before heading up to the summit. (I smile as I explain this, recalling fondly climbing Mitchell Peak recently with some of my Epic Women expedition who expected to find a wooden bench on which to rest once we reached “the bench.”)

Wolf, pointing to the mountain he'd climb on Day 2.

Wolf, pointing to the mountain he’d climb on Day 2.

To the southeast of our camp are Haystack Mountain, Steeple and East Temple peaks. It’s a glorious view in all directions.

From my Journal, Aug. 13, 2015:
Right now, Wolf is in the tent napping. He worked so hard to get here! My 5-pound preemie, who’s now 5’8”, 130 pounds, carried that wobbly, overstuffed, 5-story-high backpack without complaint. Not only without complaint, but with cheer, often complimenting me: “Good job, Mom.” and “ I’m proud of you Mom.”

How did we get so lucky? How did I get so lucky?

I am so blessed to be a mother to three beautiful and amazing sons.

I’m getting choked up as I write this. I am overcome with feelings of blessings and gratitude. Wolf came 5 weeks early. He had to be delivered by C-section when it was discovered my amniotic fluid was decreasing at a rapid rate, and he was breech. At birth, he weighed only 5 pounds, and had to remain in critical care in the hospital for 13 days. The doctor kept reassuring us that he would be fine – “his lungs just need time.”

But it was so hard to not be able to hold him against my breast, and my heart.

We would hold onto his little fingers, and he would squeeze our fingers. I would nuzzle his cheek and face and press myself against him as he laid there all hooked up to monitors. We read Robert Service poems to him. Even then, his disposition was upbeat and cheerful, and he was a determined leader. What a blessing! Our first son. Our Wolf Henry Johnson.

Wow. I am overcome with emotions right now… I am sure these happy tears also have much to do with the fact that I’m out here, in my mountains, the Wind River Range, where I am more in touch with myself, and where I love to be.

But make no mistake, it’s not easy out here, and I’m scared of much: Wolf’s mountain climb tomorrow, and his safety. If he’ll get altitude sickness or suffer from dehydration. The clouds, that are developing and dark, and it’s only 3pm. How high the stakes are out here. What I may or may not learn about myself. Anytime I am raw and exposed and trusting – oh, the list goes on and on and on!

And yet, I like myself out here. I am who I am. I’m reminded of a favorite quote from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: “Being in the wild gathers me. It astonishes me. It quiets the negative voices inside of me and allows the more constructive ones to talk. It humbles me. It reminds me of how small I am, which has the reverse effect of making me feel gigantic inside.”

Like most people, I have an inner critic. And mine needs no support. I can beat the crap out of myself internally. This makes me sad, that I can be so self critical, and it sometimes makes my life harder than it should be. Being out here in the wilderness opens me up in a way that I am very aware of my inner critic, and yet, as Strayed wrote, being out here quiets the negative voices. It quiets my inner critic. As a result, I like myself a little more than I normally do.

Of course the most important aspect of right now is that I’m here with Wolf. This is our first son, and my first Mother-Son Rite of Passage expedition. What a gift!

When we started down the trail today, I asked Wolf what his goals for our adventure were. He said, “I want to grow, and to return changed in some way. And I want to have fun with you, Mom.”

I shared that I also wanted for him to get the chance to grow, for our relationship to grow, for me to grow as a mom, and that I also wanted us to have a lot of fun.” (And we both added something about having s’mores every night since we brought a full box of graham crackers, a package of chocolate bars and an entire bag of marshmallows – exactly enough for only the two of us!)

As we hiked in earlier today, I kept recalling Wolf’s entry into this world. How he struggled. Sorta similar to how his legs and back were struggling under his terribly-packed, too-big backpack. Yet all the same, his attitude was amazing. He was telling everyone we passed to have a great day, and he was cheering me. Already Wolf is a great leader… In some ways he’s a stronger leader than I am, despite the fact he’s only 15, and I’m 47, and have been working at leadership for some time now.

I am feeling so much right now. Thank you God! Thank you Jerry! I am so grateful to Jerry, and for Hayden and Fin, who are so supportive of Wolf’s and my adventure. (It will be Hayden’s turn next year, and Fin’s in 6 years.) Thank you to my parents, who moved us from Iowa to Wyoming when I was 3. What a gift that has been.

If I do nothing else, God, please help me to BE MY BEST for my boys and for Jerry, and TO BE HERE with them. I mean this literally, of course, but as importantly, I mean this from a mental standpoint. I have a habit of thinking and dreaming about the future. It’s hard for me to stay in the present, as much as I try. Being out in the wilderness for some reason is a help for me. Nowhere is it easier for me to be in the present. At all other times and places, it’s a constant challenge for me to be right here right now. And I’ve read enough to know that the key to making the most of our time is to be in the present, and not thinking about the past or worrying or dreaming about the future. Perhaps I spend so much time in the wilderness because it is a fast-track for helping me to stay in the present.

Seneca said “Life is long enough if you know how to use it.”

I think I know how to use it. If only I can be deliberate and conscious.

I am thinking now of a favorite poem by Jack London, which I know by heart:
I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

So I will use my time.

This mother-son rite of passage trip with Wolf is about using my time.
There is nobody I’d rather be with, and nowhere else I’d rather be than with Wolf, right here and right now!

God, please keep us safe. Please keep Jerry, Hayden and Fin (and Buddy) safe. Please keep my parents and sisters and brother and their families safe. Please keep Jerry’s family safe. Keep all of our friends safe.

A short video about the mountain climb:

Our shadows in camp on Day 1.

Our shadows in camp on Day 1.

I love this kid!

I love this kid!

From my Journal – Fri., Aug. 14, 2015:
2:30am came early – and yet, heck, if I wasn’t going to sleep, why not get up in the middle of the night??!

Of course I got almost no sleep, despite the fact I took 2 Advil PM, and despite that we went to bed at 6:30pm. (This was Wolf’s idea since we would have an alpine start for his mountain climb. A very wise young man, to be sure.)

I was glad to hear him sleeping well, though. For today is mostly his day, and it’s a big one. He will climb Mitchell Peak! As I tossed and turned at night, I was filled with anxiety. “Am I being reckless encouraging my son to climb a mountain all by himself? What if the clouds develop into a storm and he’s on the summit, or near the summit – how will he know if and when to turn back? Am I crazy to have had this idea?”

With the light of our headlamps, and under a black sky that was brimming with a bazillion stars, I made him some hot chocolate and poptarts, and me, oatmeal and strong coffee. 2 cups. We left camp at 4am. The plan was for me to get him started up the route a bit before we’d part ways and meet up after his mountain climb.

Right after leaving camp, we stopped at the outlet to North Lake to fill and treat some water. To our surprise, two other headlamped hikers passed us and started up the trail a little bit ahead of us. We hit the trail and moved slowly. We had some time to kill because I didn’t want Wolf starting up route-finding in the dark – what with with all of the bears lurking in the brush and all.

So I suggested we stop in the trail, about halfway around the lake and turn our headlamps off. We watched the dark sky that was filled with a bazillion stars. We could see the black ridgelines and peaks around us silhouetted…including Mitchell Peak. As we stood in silence admiring the sky and the stars, we spied four shooting stars. We each made silent wishes for the ones we saw, and then we saw a fifth together and made a wish that Wolf’s mountain climb would go well, and that Mom would survive as well. 🙂 It was a really sweet and unforgettable moment watching the stars and seeing shooting stars with my Wolf on a such a glorious and quiet morning. It felt like we were the only ones in the Universe at that moment, and I won’t ever forget it.

We reached the end of North Lake, and still, it was quite dark. So we sat on a rock, and I encouraged us to finish off the bottle of water we had started drinking earlier. We sat there for a half hour, sometimes talking, sometimes in silence. I have really grown to love silence. It is not empty, but full. Until a few years ago I was always filling the quiet that sometimes popped up in conversation. Now, I long for a certain amount of silence, even amidst groups of people, and in conversation. I recall something acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says. That silence is an endangered species. Hempton defines real quiet as presence – not an absence of sound but an absence of noise. He said in an interview I heard a while back: “Quiet is the think tank of the soul.”

As we sat in silence under the stars, which were starting to disappear with the first light of the day, I wondered what Wolf was thinking about.

We sat for another few minutes and then went to a nearby spring to top off his water bottles for the day.

He asked if I could capture a short video before we parted ways so we took a minute to do that, and then we started up the very bottom of the mountain from the northeast end of North Lake.

Wolf, about to start up the mountain.

Wolf, about to start up the mountain.

After a little bit of navigating and getting him on track up the ravine, we looked back to see a spectacular alpenglow on Warbonnet Peak. The tip of it was on fire with the rising sun. We stopped to admire and photograph the moment before continuing on. This is why I start so early – to witness sights like this one of a peak totally lit up and on fire by the first rays of the sun. With its wonder, came a feeling of reassurance.

Alpenglow on Warbonnet Peak.

Alpenglow on Warbonnet Peak.

We agreed we’d meet to descend the lower half of the mountain together… probably somewhere right below the ridgeline between Mitchell Peak and Big Sandy Mountain.

We hugged, and I looked him in the eyes and told him to have fun, to remember to drink some water and to occasionally take a break to look around at the scenery and to catch his breath and get his bearings. I added, “The views from the top are amazing in all directions and you don’t have to stand on the end of an overhanging rock to reap the rewards. Please don’t get too close to the edge.” “Okay, Mom,” he said.

Wolf and I hugged and I told him, “I love you more than life itself and everything in the world.”

“I love you too Mooma J. You’re the best mom in the Universe,” he said. And with that, he was off.

The sky was shaping up to be clear and blue, and this made me happy. The fewer uncertainties for this occasion, the better!

I headed in the opposite direction and soon found a boulder to sit on, where I proceeded to cry. I spied Wolf marching enthusiastically toward Mitchell, vigorously using his trekking poles, very much on a mission. For a while I spied him through the binoculars, “mountain goating” his way up and through the boulders and tundra, ascending the mountain.

Where was my 5-pound little baby? Or my 3-year-old Wolfie? Or my 6-year-old Wolfie, or my 10 or 11- or 12- or 13- or 14-year-old Wolf for that matter? Who was this 5’8”, energetic, strong, determined young man who was marching up through boulders to a summit all on his own?

“Where has the time gone?” I asked, out loud, to myself, as I sat alone amidst a landscape littered with granite.

Don’t we all always ask this question?

I sat on my rock with the sun warming my back as it rose behind me and the ridge that connects Mitchell Peak and Big Sandy Mountain, and for 10 minutes I meditated on the last 15 years, and then I knew where the 15 years had gone, and what an amazing 15 years it has been!

After my meditation, I spied Wolf again through the binoculars. Once I spotted him crouched down, I think taking photos of flowers. Another time he was sitting on a rock drinking water. (“Good boy!”)

Did I mention that this sitting here while my first son climbs a mountain on his own, is a rite of passage not only for Wolf, but also for his Mom? Perhaps as much a rite of passage for me as it is for Wolf. As I sit here, it is so exciting. AND so very difficult. I worry about Wolf. I worry that I’m being reckless. That he’ll get his leg pinned between two boulders. That he’ll tumble and hit his head on a rock. That once he’s on the summit he’ll get too close to the edge. After all, I won’t be there to remind him not to get too close to the edge, and to be careful, which are things I nag the boys about, probably too often, whenever we’re in the wilderness.

I know these feelings I’m having right now are important. It’s important for me to have this discomfort and to let go and to trust. It’s important for Wolf to climb a mountain all by himself. And yet, every now and again, I ask myself, “Whose idea was this?!”

One of the biggest fears I have is living a conventional life. And along with that, not providing meaningful or unique experiences for my sons. One of my most important goals is to create, and have, meaningful connections with all, but also each, of my sons (and Jerry, too). This Rite of Passage expedition was part of this effort to create meaningful and unforgettable experiences.

This is not to say this is easy. Today is not easy! For example, it would be much easier for me if Wolf was not climbing a mountain by himself right now! I didn’t sleep last night mainly because I was a nervous wreck, and also questioning whether this whole idea of his solo mountain climb was reckless. Of course I knew this was an intentional trip, and I knew it was a great idea, and yet something about night time and not sleeping caused me tremendous anxiety about this idea.

So I had asked Wolf, again, while sitting at the end of North Lake waiting for enough light to start up, “Do you want to do this? Because I want you to want to do this, and to climb the mountain for you, not for me.”

“Yes, I definitely want to climb the mountain,” he said.

I recalled his eloquent feelings about the mountain climb that he shared last night in camp as we looked and plotted possible routes up the mountain. He had said, “I am excited to the climb the mountain, but my biggest fear is about being alone in a place I don’t yet know or understand. But I think I’ll grow from facing my fear.”

Oh, how I love this kid!

The radio came on and it was Wolf, exclaiming that he was over the summit ridge. “I am over the ridge and I can see the Cirque of the Towers, and it’s amazing!” I told him congrats, and that the sky was clear, so he should take some time up there.

Wolf's self portrait on the top of Mitchell Peak.

Wolf’s self portrait on the top of Mitchell Peak.

Summit cairn with Wolf's backpack.

Summit cairn with Wolf’s backpack. (Photo by Wolf).

I hiked up a little higher, to the ridge, and for 20-30 minutes I sat on another big rock and meditated. I thought of Wolf, and when he was conceived (in these mountains!), and snapshots went through my mind of our life with him up to the present moment. My mind wandered at least 100 times to the summit and thoughts and concerns about Wolf on the summit, but each time I brought my attention back to my breath – and to MY HEART – and to my thoughts of our Wolf.
W. Wise
O. Original
L. Leader
F. Fun/Funny

A while later, Wolf radioed and asked me to get a photo of the summit because he was standing there with his arms in the air. I couldn’t see him with my naked eyes, but I zoomed in on the summit and snapped a photo.

After an hour or so, he started descending and after a while, we met up. We embraced for an extended time. He was excited and rambling about the sights from the top, and his experience of climbing to the summit, and of being up there all by himself for so long. There were feelings of gratitude, and realizations he had “up there” that he wants do something about upon his return.

My son, Wolf, and I.

My son, Wolf, and I.

The scene as I waited for Wolf to return from his mountain climb. Indian paintbrush, asters and the Cirque of the Towers.

The scene as I waited for Wolf to return from his mountain climb. Indian paintbrush, asters and the Cirque of the Towers.

After stopping to share 2 chocolate bars, we continued down the mountain and were back at camp by 1 o’clock.

Tired, we retreated to the the tent for a nap. Wolf laid “in my right wing,” like he used to do. As he slept in my arm, I reflected on the young man that Wolf has become. I couldn’t sleep, but I was content just being horizontal and listening to Wolf’s breathing, up close and near to him, similar to how I did when he was in critical care during his first hours and days in the world.

It was peaceful. And perfect.

BTW, I can also hear more than Wolf’s breathing. In fact, there is so much raucous activity around us it’s a wonder that Wolf is sleeping. I don’t know if the birds that are so unwelcoming in this site are Clark’s nutcrackers or Gray Jays – or both! These birds are perched mostly at the tops of pine trees that are towering over our tent and throughout our camp. They fly from one perch to another, and they make a very loud and raucous call to one another. It is rather unwelcoming, and at least for me, unsettling. When they fly over, the ruffling of their feathers is loud and notable. Yet, Wolf sleeps on like a baby.

When these birds swoop over us from tree to tree, making their loud calls, I feel sorry – at least for a moment – to have intruded. It is so obvious by their behavior and calls that we’re not welcome, and that in fact, we’re intruding. Please forgive our trespassing, I say in a whisper, but I’m also sorry to say that we will not moving our camp, so please, deal with us. I try to tune out their great noise to return my attention to listening to Wolf’s breathing. The camp is so alive and loud it is probably not dissimilar to being under the bridge of a freeway, complete with honking horns and sirens all about. But I’m glad we’re in a lively wilderness and not near a freeway.

At 3pm, we get out of the tent and I set up the stove to make my famous epic buttery-fried, cheesy quesadillas. Wolf eats 4 of them, exclaiming often how yummy they are. For my part, I eat 2. We were both hungry, and these sure hit the spot. (And besides, we need to be lightening our loads!)

We sit there, with Mitchell Peak looming, and expansive views, not saying much. Wolf plays some tunes for us on my phone, and individually we write in our journals. I notice Wolf at turns, staring off into the space, deep in thought, and at turns writing fast and furiously in his journal. At turns, I wonder what he’s writing, and at turns, I’m filling the pages of my journal with reflections of the day.

One time, as we both paused from journaling, I said, “If it’s not too much to handle, I should tell you that you were conceived out here in the wilderness.”

“Really?” he asked. Then he was quiet, as if processing what that meant.

“That’s probably why you’re such a natural in the outdoors,” I added.

“That’s cool,” he said, smiling broadly.

We walked down to the outlet of North Lake, to do dishes and refill our water bottles.
On the back to camp, Wolf offered to carry the huge, 2-gallon water jug up the steep hill.
I told him there’s a Zen saying, Chop Wood, Carry Water that means getting back to the basics. I explained it means doing the work, and doing it well. Being mindful even of the simple and sometimes-mundane tasks we must do, that are important even if mundane and routine. He liked that, and asked me to snap a photo of him “carrying water.”

Chop wood. Carry water.

Chop wood. Carry water.

We’re back at camp and chilling in the kitchen area again. This area of our camp is an overlook – a perch for us. It is pure joy for me right now to be hanging out with my oldest son, Wolf, who is a wonderful human being. It is not work to be with him. We sit here, with his mountain, Mitchell Peak, as a backdrop.

Wolf, reading a pocket book called Zen from our "kitchen" area of camp. That's Haystack, Steeple and East Temple peaks in the background.

Wolf, reading a pocket book called Zen from our “kitchen” area of camp. That’s Haystack, Steeple and East Temple peaks in the background.

I am here right now, and nowhere else. And this place I’m in is JOY. Pure joy.
Thank you to all who are responsible for this epic life of mine. There are many of you responsible, and I am grateful!

As if things can’t get any better, they do. We eat s’mores. Lots of s’mores.
Then, I move over to sit next to Wolf. It’s the perfect set of rocks because it’s like a recliner and we both fit in it. I ask him if I can share some of what I’ve written in my journal, and he says yes. I read from the pages of my journal, and I lose it. I’m overcome with emotion, and once again, I’m in tears. I’m happy crying again as I read the words and reflections of our time so far. He holds my hand, and we squeeze each other, as I stumble through my tears to get the words out that are in my journal. Wolf holds me and makes sure I’m okay. He’s moved too. He also has tears. We hold each other, much like we did when he was a small boy, only this time son is taking care of mom more than mom is taking care of son…

Then, he turns his head to behind us, to the southeast, and he exclaims, “Mom, there’s a rainbow!” And there, over Haystack, Steeple and East Temple peaks is a rainbow. Unbelievable! Both of us reach for our cameras to try and capture the moment forever. Shooting stars in the morning, young boy climbs a mountain all by himself. Mommy survives the “ordeal” and enjoys a meditation that is like turning through the pages and reliving the last 15 years as a mother to young boy. Mother and son cuddle while son naps in tent amidst a camp that is alive with wild critters. Mom and son share intimate details about their individual experiences and journal reflections. We eat s’mores! Then a perfect rainbow appears. Then a double rainbow.
A perfect ending to a perfect day. At some point words just fall short. Like right now.

Another blessing on Day 2. The day started with shooting stars. Then Wolf climbed a mountain by himself. Then this rainbow happened.

Another blessing on Day 2. The day started with shooting stars. Then Wolf climbed a mountain by himself. Then this rainbow happened.

The next day we sleep until we woke up naturally. No 2:30am alarm. Yeehaw to that! Today is all about leisure and fun.

As the sun rose behind Big Sandy Mountain, it backlit Wolf as he talked to me about girls, starting high school, running, playing piano, his friends, his brothers, and a bunch of things. I relished as my oldest son talked so freely, and I was able to learn more about him and his world.

Wolf, backlit by the rising sun on Day 3.

Wolf, backlit by the rising sun on Day 3.

Around 10am, we left camp to hike with our packrafts and fishing rods to the Clear Lake area. But halfway to Clear Lake, we met three women from Seattle who reported Clear Lake being crowded with some large groups. I suggested to Wolf that we hike instead to Deep Lake, one of the most beautiful places I know of. As usual, Wolf was a trooper.

Wolf, on his way up to Deep Lake.

Wolf, on his way up to Deep Lake.

Once at Deep Lake, we inflated our packrafts and set sail on Deep Lake. We floated under massive granite mountains called Haystack, Steeple and East Temple peaks. And, we could see Mitchell Peak and the Cirque of the Towers over yonder.

Wolf, taking the Denali Lllama packraft on its maiden voyage.

Wolf, taking the Denali Lllama packraft on its maiden voyage.

Yeehaw! Wolf and I on the water at Deep Lake.

Yeehaw! Wolf and I on the water at Deep Lake.

After floating for over an hour, we docked our rafts on a slab of granite on the shore, and got out our journals. (Wolf and I are a lot alike. We both love to read, journal and capture photos, and we both seek out, and enjoy, pockets of solitude)

From my Journal – Sat., Aug. 15, 2015:
While sitting here on the shore of Deep Lake, we had what Wolf fondly referred to as some “Deep Talks.”

Deep Talk #1:
Wolf asked me, “When I was conceived here, how did you get me to the hospital?” At this, I laughed out loud. I told him he wasn’t delivered in the wilderness. We conceived him in the wilderness. “You know – you were “made” here. You were formed and created out here.” To this, he gasped, and then laughed. He had misunderstood me the day before when I mentioned he was conceived out here. He thought I meant he was born out here. “Big difference!” I said. “We wouldn’t be so irresponsible as to require a search and rescue helicopter to deliver you. We laughed. The more he processed what conceived meant, the less he wanted to know… 😉

Deep Talk #2: After a little bit of fishing, with no luck, we both returned to our journaling. As he sat there writing, I looked off to Mitchell Peak, and wondered to myself about the coming months and years, and how as Wolf gets older and more independent, I’ll be less able to keep him safe. This gave me an idea for what this rite of passage was really about for me, and if agreed, for us.

I asked Wolf if there were promises we could make to each other as a result of this mother-son rite of passage experience. I suggested that I would like to promise him that “I will trust you more, from this day forward, as you get older and I’m less able to keep you safe. But this will be hard for me,” I said. “It would be easier for me to trust you if you could make me a promise that you won’t be reckless – and that you won’t get too close to the edge.” I told him, using yesterday’s mountain climb as a metaphor, what I mean is that I want to trust and support him to climb tall mountains in his life — to be daring and to do things that are hard but that will generate more aliveness for him, and cause him to become more and better than he was before… but that I need to know that in the process, he won’t be reckless about it, and that he won’t get too close to the edge.

I shared examples of what I would see as examples in real life of being reckless and getting too close to the edge.

So I said, “Wolf, I promise I will trust you more and begin to let go more, from this day forward.” And he responded, “And I promise I will not be reckless or get too close to the edge.”

These promises to each other, as mother and son, mark the “rite of passage” part of our adventure.

I let this sink in for both of us.

As I did, I recalled in my mind, Kahlil Gibran’s “On Children” from The Prophet:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Then, Wolf laughed, again remarking at how great it was to have these “deep talks” at Deep Lake. We both agreed we would not forget this conversation.

On our way down from Deep Lake on Day 3.

On our way down from Deep Lake on Day 3.

We noticed big clouds developing above us behind Temple Peak. So we quickly deflated and packed our rafts and our bags and starting descending toward Clear Lake. It thundered behind us and we moved quickly to get lower and into the forest. We had wanted to cast a line in Clear Lake – to catch that fish for Pa-Grandpa – but with the thunder and wind, we hiked briskly past the lake and started descending toward Big Sandy Lake.

Once at Big Sandy Lake, the clouds gave way to blue sky, but only above Big Sandy. We could see dark developing clouds over our camp above, so Wolf suggested we try fishing at Big Sandy Lake. “It’s blue sky over us now. It’s a sign. We should at least try,” he said.

We fished for 10 minutes, to no avail. We didn’t spot a single fish and the water was a little rough. Still, it was a nice, sunny break, and if nothing else, we had tried.

We loaded our packs on again and started the 500-foot-vertical-feet-grunt back to our camp.
Once at camp, I made “Mommy’s famous Epic pancakes” for dinner. Tons of them. Wolf snarfed several of them enthusiastically, and I was right there with him, snarfing epic pancakes.

Making "Mommy's Famous Epic Pancakes" for dinner on Day 3.

Making “Mommy’s Famous Epic Pancakes” for dinner on Day 3.

Then, we walked down to the watering hole to do dishes and refill our water bottles. We were spying small brook trout every time we refilled, so Wolf asked to bring his rod and try one more time to catch a fish in honor of Pa-Grandpa’s birthday. Lo and behold, after about 10 minutes of teasing the fish with a fly, he caught one! We snapped a quick photo, sent out a salute to Pa-Grandpa, and then let it loose.

Wolf caught a fish on Day 3, in honor of his late Pa-Grandpa's birthday.

Wolf caught a fish on Day 3, in honor of his late Pa-Grandpa’s birthday.

Back at camp, I shared the poem, IF, by Rudyard Kipling. As I hoped would happen, Wolf loved it. It really resonated for him. So much so that he asked me to video capture him reading it with Mitchell Peak in the background. I video’d him reading IF, and listening to him recite the poem, in our camp, was dream-like. (If you’re interested, the video is at the end of this post)

Then, we each did some writing in our journals. A few minutes into it, Wolf started crying. I asked him if he was okay, and he walked over to me and embraced me, and said, “Thanks Mom. I am just so happy. Thank you for everything.”

I told him it is an honor and a privilege to be his mother, and I thanked him for being him. I remarked at how I can still remember, so vividly, the first time I met him, “and now look at you. And look at us!”

We made a small fire and finished off our s’mores. How else can we wrap up our last night of the expedition?!

Timer shot by our fire.

Timer shot by our fire.

I think to myself: It doesn’t get any better than this.

Throughout this adventure, whenever I have complimented Wolf on his hiking, or what a great young man or leader he is, he has often responded by saying, “Thank you. I get it from my great parents.” Or, “I get it from my epic mom.”

Here’s what I know right now: The part of me that is the best version of me as a Mother… I get that from Wolf, (and also from Hayden and Fin.)

So at the end of today’s hike, when I complimented him on another great day, and he responded by saying, “Thanks, I get it from my great parents,” I responded by saying, “Wolf, I get a lot from you, too.”

I thought back to the goals we shared as we started down the trail, and felt good, like we got what we came for. Wolf grew. I grew. We grew. And we had a lot of fun, too. I will never forget our adventure.

When we entered the tent for our last night at camp, Wolf fell asleep almost immediately. I, on the other hand, had a mind that wouldn’t turn off.

One of the biggest struggles I have, on an almost daily basis, is wondering if I’m a good mom, and worrying about whether I’m a good enough mom. This isn’t unique to me. I know from all of the women in my life, personal and professional, that we struggle with whether we’re good enough. Men, also, have these struggles. I know because I work with men and women who struggle often with their inner critic(s), often times in the context of their role as a parent.
As I lay there with Wolf sleeping in my right wing, in our tight quarters of a tent, I feel something I don’t often feel – proud of myself. Not only proud of myself, but proud of myself as a mom.

I have had lots of ideas in my life, and many of them have been good ones. But this mother-son Rite of Passage expedition was one of my best ideas, ever.

Thank you so much for reading and sharing in this particular journey with me.

Here’s the video of Wolf reading the poem, IF:

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