I hopped over a stream crossing the Bright Angel Trail, taking a big step from one rock to the next, then turned around to wait for my mom to cross. She carefully stepped next to the stream, not exactly sure what to do. I told her to stick both the trekking poles I’d lent her into the water all the way to the bottom and use them for balance. She struggled a little trying to figure it out, at first watching the swift-moving water sweep the poles away from where she pointed them.
My mom is 63. I’m 34. She’d always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, so we went this year for her birthday. She’s fit, but not so used to descending rocky trails. At the stream crossing, I turned around to watch her and make sure she got across all right, and wondered how I could help. In about five seconds, a variety of scenarios played out in my head: If she falls, she won’t drown, but she’ll probably get hurt, bruised, or break a bone in one of her arms. OK, so maybe I can reach a hand across and help her? You know what, I could drop this pack and just have her jump on my back—I’m steady on my feet and she only weighs about a hundred pounds anyway. I wanted to help her so she didn’t get hurt, but then I didn’t, because I knew she would want to do it by herself.
“Can I help?” a guy behind her asked.
“No no, we’re fine,” my mom and I both said. A second later, she hopped across, safe.
I imagine my parents had a thousand of these same moments while my brother and I were growing up, doing all kinds of things to get ourselves hurt—falling out of trees, crashing bicycles, punching each other, and then later driving cars, dating, and binge drinking. My mom is the worrier, my dad is The Most Patient Man In The Universe, and I’m sure despite their differing parenting styles, neither of them ever wanted their kids to get hurt. But of course we did, and have a few scars both physical and emotional to prove it—and that’s a part of life: learning the hard way. Or as my dad told my Uncle Danny a couple years ago, “Sometimes you just gotta let ‘em make their own mistakes,” which I think is the most brilliant parenting philosophies ever and makes my dad an Anti-Helicopter Parent.
Your young children are going to fall and get banged up and scraped up, whether you watch them every waking moment or not. They’ll heal and learn, for the most part. It’s a little different when you’re responsible for your 63-year-old mom, who’s in a very strange and challenging environment, and has developed a tendency to bruise quite easily.
For five days before we went to the Grand Canyon, my parents and I drove around the Southwest so they could see some of the desert I love so much. My dad said he was glad he hadn’t taken my brother and I to the desert as teenagers, because we wouldn’t have appreciated it. I told him he was right, and I was happy I discovered it on my own. And then got to take them there as an adult and show them around—when no one was too young to understand or appreciate it, or too old to walk to the good stuff.
Halfway down the Bright Angel Trail, my mom pulled out a point-and-shoot camera to capture some of what she was seeing—maybe the first time she’s been in charge of vacation photography, since my dad usually takes care of it for the both of them when they’re together. She said she wanted to take plenty of photos, because she’d never be down there again.
We crossed the Colorado River on the Silver Bridge, got to the campground and soaked our feet in a freezing Bright Angel Creek. I set up the tent, blew up an extra-thick sleeping pad I’d bought for Mom’s first-ever backpacking trip, pulled out a small pillow for her, and cooked dinner. When the full moon came around the corner, we clicked our headlamps on and walked down to the Black Bridge over the Colorado and looked up at the moonlit canyon walls.
I joked about carrying all her stuff down to the bottom, and she joked about carrying me for nine months back in 1978. She said it was great, that it was nice of me to take my mom on a backpacking trip. It’s funny, your parents help you cross the street when you’re little and teach you how to ride a bike, and then you grow up and move away, and one day, maybe you get to help them do something they want to do.
Mom was slow going down the Bright Angel Trail, which drops 4500 vertical feet over nine miles. Going back up the next day, she was fast—it took us the exact same time to hike up and out as it did going down: six and a half hours. Every half-hour or so, Mom talked about coming back to the canyon, and maybe we could take my dad down here next time.