Home & Away series

Pillar Mountain looked as smooth as a meadow, but the climber soon found himself knee deep in ferns, grasses, and a score of flowering plants, and now and then pushing through a patch of alders as high as his head, wrote John Burroughs on the 1899 Harriman Expedition. I think of this as I swim through brush on the trail up Barometer. I remember covertly crying the first and only time I ever hiked this mountain, two decades ago, swearing I would never do it again, cursing one false summit after another. But here I am, climbing Barometer because our son, about to start 7th grade, is attempting to hike seven mountains in seven days for the local challenge that’s been wildly popular in Kodiak this summer. His little brother is climbing today too, although he’s afraid of heights. A rational fear, I think, since he only panics when it’s so steep that he determines he might die from a fall. Today he called it quits about two-thirds of the way up, and I wasn’t that sad to settle down with him and look for cranberries while the rest of the group hiked on. This morning’s orange sunrise was the ghost of forests burning on the mainland. The burning in my legs reminding me why I rarely climb mountains—because it’s hard. And why I should—because it fills you with gratitude. I signed on for today’s climb mainly because the whole endeavor is such a cool start to middle school. I get choked up when I pick four boys up for a hike and they’re waiting in a tree like a Kodiak version of Sandlot. Probably it’s my own nostalgia making it meaningful. But later, on the trail, there’s the secret pleasure of eavesdropping on your teenager’s conversations.

I wish this was Star Trek and I could just beam myself down.

My brother shouted I hate peanut butter and he threw it at the TV and the hole is still there.

Wouldn’t that be cool if it was half caterpillar and half butterfly? They’ve found a chrysalis on the trail, solid as a brown cigar, and debate opening it versus leaving it be.

Here’s a sharp object.

I’m throwing this sharp object.

No! It’s our only sharp object and we can use it to dissect it.

We’re definitely going to dissect it.

Over and over this summer, the kids hiked the ridge above our cabin and slid down the landslide, thundering dust. I grew up climbing the mountain behind Old Harbor and remember leaning backwards during a fall storm into gusts of wind strong enough to hold us, feeling we were part of the mountain and it was a part of us. We descended in almost intoxicated recklessness. We slid down on the seat of our pants choosing portions of the mountain where our braking powers were only just enough to keep from catapulting straight into the moonstreaked bay, Carolyn Erskine wrote of a childhood trip up Pillar in the early 1900s, a memory she carried all her life. Which is to say, if you can give your kids a mountain, one that fills them with pride in the rising and joy in rushing down again, well, that is something.