Blue blazes

Some naps conclude as gently as they begin, a soft transition of consciousness, a welcome ascent into the rest of the welcoming afternoon.

Other naps end with a thud. Suddenly, here’s reality, harsh sunlight and two fawning and impatient adults coaxing you into activity while your neck sweats into the car seat.

Come on, Paul, wake up! We’re going to hike up a mountain. It’s going to be fun…

Okay, I can understand why our 2 ¾ year old did not want to wakey wakey on command or consider this still-unfamiliar thing, “hike.” But I was also desperate to get out and enjoy Maine’s Acadia National Park. Bill shared my opinion (and was perhaps even a little more desperate), so poor Paul was outnumbered. We were going to hike to the top of Acadia Mountain.   

Lots of screaming ensued.

Anyone who’s wrangled a toddler knows you can’t simply pick him up and stuff him into the hiking pack. Even when he doesn’t have boots on the ground, he’s got to be on board with the whole operation. And monsieur was not on board, waving his arms and screaming at me to “go away!” Bill went to work calming Paul down and I tried to calm myself, with the help of my Apple watch.

First, I set a timer for five minutes and walked in one direction until the buzzer went off. Then I walked back. Sobs still reverberated through the woods from the trail head, so I sat on a log and opened a breathing app on the watch. It asked me to “Be still and bring your attention to your breath…Now, inhale…” while a pleasant vibration on my wrist prompted slow inhales. It succeeded in shifting my attention away from the miserable cries 20 yards away–toward the noise of the nearby highway.

Still breathing deeply (see, I was trying) I felt caught between family obligations and civilization, two things people go to the woods and mountains to escape.

I trooped back, ready to admit defeat and suggest a Bluey marathon back in the hotel room. But the tears had dried and the emotional clouds were clearing. Paul, a little bewildered, let us help him into the hiking backpack and we started up the trail.

“The blazes are blue, Paul.”

I realized I was thinking out loud. Because my son is very inquisitive and because I often struggle to find enough to say to fill his insatiable need for explanations, I often switch into “momcyclopedia” mode, narrating the current activity in the style of kids’ science museum signage.

“What’s a blaze, you ask? Well, at the beginning of any new hike, one of the first things I do is (oh, this seems so basic, but it’s important) identify the color of blazes you need to follow to your destination. For us today, that’s destination: top of Acadia Mountain. Elevation: a little over 200 meters. Distance: a little under a mile. Blaze color: bright blue. And the paint looks fresh!”

It worked. From his perch atop Dad, Paul looked at the closest blaze. He reached out to touch a few on tree trunks and rocks. Soon, he was calling out, “there’s one!”

I zone out on hikes and trail runs – one of life’s absolute pleasures to not only be out in a remote(ish) place but to have one’s mind consumed with a simple but necessary task: find the next marker. Don’t fall, Don’t lose the trail. Stay alive and moving forward. It’s like aligning your brain with your breath.

My yoga teacher often says, during class, “The present moment is all we have.” This usually sends my brain into a metaphysical paroxysm (If the present moment is all we have, why can I remember you saying that?) while I balance on one foot in tree pose.

Despite the conundrum it poses, the present moment isn’t a bad place to dwell, especially when things are looking up.  

We left the unhappiness and frustration at the bottom of the mountain and focused solely on the next blue blaze and the next and the next.

We reached the top. The view was astonishing. Paul did not want to get out of his backpack. A stranger took a family picture.

Feeling optimistic after a snack and some scenic lingering, Bill and I decided to follow the blue blazes forward off the peak instead of back the way we’d come. Make it a loop. How hard can it be?

View from the top of a (modest) mountain, showing a large body of water surrounded by green, forested hills. The ocean appears in the far distance and everything is under a blue sky laced with white and grey clouds. Afternoon light.
View of Somes Sound from the top of Acadia Mountain, Mount Desert Island, Maine.

A common mistake in mountaineering, even at the baby beginner level like Acadia Mountain, is thinking you’re basically done once you get to the peak. I’ve done this several times, hitting the euphoria of that tree-free view only to run out of energy, water, concentration or daylight on the way back down.

In fact, this happened to us when Paul was 10 months old on an earlier visit to Acadia National Park. On one of his first ventures in the hiking pack, baby Paul was happy and engaged all the way up Cadillac Mountain, the park’s highest peak. We got to the top, a stranger took a picture…and then all hell broke loose in the backpack on the way down. Paul wailed like he was about to expire. Cold? Fatigued? Scared? Likely all three, but there was no way to reason him out of it and there was absolutely nothing to do but keep going.

Our hike down Acadia mountain was, in fact, much longer than the way up. And it was more technical—the euphemism for giant boulders as four-foot stepping stones laced with roots, requiring a full-body workout just to ease down the trail.

On the descent, the blue blazes worked for ALL of us, not just Paul. We needed step by step concentration. Complete dwelling in the moment. I was carrying Paul, who’s approaching 40 pounds, and I knew that one false move could lead to severe injury or death.

Knowing was power – so I simply didn’t allow any false steps. I thought every single move through. We moved at a snails’ pace, but unlike so many things in my life, I was absolutely confident. If I considered every hand old and foot placement and asked Bill for help at the right times, we could all get down the mountain.

Lately I’ve been thinking about that present moment thing. Even if the present moment is not all we have (any wise mountaineer can tell you the importance of both planning and memory), there is a value in learning to be here and now.

Two recent newsletters resonate with this:

•The Dishwasher Café on selective attention and our astonishing capacity to TOTALLY MISS what’s right in front of our faces – to our detriment.

•Writing is Joy on all the things we writers do during an hour of writing instead of writing (coffee, edit, start over, consider a new career…)

I recognize this form of avoiding the task at hand, of blinding myself to the obvious. When I have a golden hour to write in, I do everything but for a while before I get down to the business of creation. And I spend a good number of the other 23 hours in a day fretting that I’m not writing.

As my kid would say: Momo, why?

Maybe the stakes aren’t high enough to force concentration. If I had to finish my novel by July 1 or my computer would be taken away, perhaps I would laser focus those writing blocks. Or just freak out.

But there’s nothing like gravity, tree roots and the hardness of granite to squeeze mind and body into a narrow channel of thought and action. One job: move forward. One requirement: don’t fall.

The descent from Acadia Mountain renewed in me the joy of engaging fully with the task at hand when there’s no other option.

Paul seemed to pick up my confidence. Think of riding a horse: That must have been scary to be up so high and jolting here and there with my steps, having no power to control the movement. He laughed nervously at a few particularly steep points but never cried or struggled. A very good thing, I see now: a struggling kid would have made the descent much harder and more dangerous.

Paul did as we adults, first by being an active load in the pack, and then, when we let him out to scramble what we thought would be easy terrain from there on out (it wasn’t), by hopping down rocks and following instructions while clutching a stuffed eagle.

We made it down as a team. At one point, I hallucinated a road, but I think that was the only weird moment. Overall, the experience was a brain reset for me, not only emotional clouds clearing but physical and mental, too.

True in-the-moment dwelling, the kind very young children and animals are blessed/cursed with, come with the belief that this is all there is forever, because this moment contains eternity.

Ten month old Paul wailing all the way down Cadillac Mountain could not access the memory of the pleasant journey up the mountain an hour before. Nor could he anticipate the warm, comfy car waiting for him in a sunny parking lot at the end of the hike.

But Paul at almost 3 grasped that a string of present moments, like a trail of blue blazes, will lead you where you need to go, one patient segment at a time. So did I.

Over burritos that evening, we agreed that if this hike was a movie, it would be “Acadia Mountain: The Redemption.”


  1. Raymond Shuster on June 30, 2024 at 6:53 am

    This is great! I won’t go on about metaphors, etc. You are the writer. I was pretty much with you all the way along this journey.

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