The Grand Canyon Guide To Parent-Child Relationships

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.


19 replies on “The Grand Canyon Guide To Parent-Child Relationships

  • timv

    great article, and very appropriate to me! My mom is 63, I’m 34. Last year I took my mom on her first ever backpacking overnighter. She had never seen a meteor shower before.

    I’m starting to see the ‘other side’ of the equation now too, with 2 little kids making their own mistakes!


  • Blair

    Cool. I’m from BC and spend a lot of time in the desert in the spring and fall. Took my Mom to Zion last spring. She’s in her 80’s and still very active.

  • Willis

    Bright Angel trail brings back memories of watching “Brighty of the Grand Canyon” as a kid – then my favorite movie. Watching it a few months ago was fantastic, and made me thankful my parents got me out into the outdoors, limited my indoor time, and let me watch movies that get me excited about the wild.

  • songsta

    great article. family time is one of the most precious things. by the way, you mom indeed is in fantastic shape given that her climb back up 4500 feet took the same time as going down.

  • maxwell

    I had the exact same trip with my mom a few years ago. She was 65 and it took us 8 hours down & 8 hours up. But she insisted on a cabin at Phantom Ranch & letting the mules haul our gear.

  • Shelby

    This is one of the sweetest things I’ve read. My parents were not outdoorsy so I discovered nature’s playground as an adult. As a mom of two I get excited to show my own kids the amazing places I run. Maybe one day they’ll bring me on one of their adventures and it will come full circle.

  • Kristopher

    I took my mum on a 4 day van trip, camping, hiking and visiting wineries through Tasmania; she did just fine. I’m not sure if many young blokes realise how good it make a mum feel, just to hang out with their son. And besides, you’d be amazed what your mum is up for if you just ask.

  • Jeremy

    Bright Angel trail is da bomb. Went to the GC in the beginning of June this past summer and then went on a long van backpacking trip and went to the badlands, wind river range, kananaskis and Mt Robson, and I felt guilty as hell the whole time while I was looking at awesome views and sampling some of the best hiking out there. I couldn’t stop thinking about the next time I would be able to get back to the Grand Canyon. really magical place, I just friggin love canyon country

  • Lynda

    Great story!

    I take my kids out in the back-country doing stuff. All the while I am scheming that they are learning skills and desires so they can take me to cool places when they are adults. Sounds like that scheme worked for your parents. Nice.

  • marshall moose

    Awesome Brendan!
    I got my mom into triathlon 3 years ago at the age of 55, and since then she has been getting ever more adventurous.

    She just agreed to go climbing with my bro and me on Christmas Eve this year – I’ll report on how it goes 🙂

  • Scott

    Great story, Brendan. I did a couple of backpacking trips with my dad. I could never imagine such a thing with my mother, which is too bad. Sixty-three is the new 43, of course, so you’re mom has a lot more trips in her! Enjoy those great parents while you can.


  • jim b

    I’m glad to hear about more adventures with you and your Mom & Dad. I was the guide for their weeklong Alaska Bike trip this summer and heard many stories as we pedaled along the road. It’s awesome you get to spend this kind of time with them. Enjoy


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