This article was written by Scott Finn, president of Vermont Public Radio, and previously appeared in the Summer 2019 Long Trail News.
One of the best parts of being a parent is sharing interests with your kid. For example, my “typical” 16-year-old daughter has introduced me to some gripping fiction podcasts, and I’ve shown her how to edit and mix audio files.
But it’s a lot harder to find common ground with my 13-year-old son, Max, who has autism and is non-verbal. His passions include watching the same scene from Frozen over and over again, and literally bouncing off the walls of our home.
Thank God for hiking. For me, Max is the perfect hiking companion. After a long week of dealing with people, it is so pleasant to walk with someone who doesn’t expect me to say a word.
Like me, Max loves the sense of accomplishment of reaching a summit and seeing the view. But unlike me, he is content to sit still, feet dangling in a stream, and listen to the wind and wildlife.
That doesn’t mean hiking with Max is easy, or that he’s always enthusiastic. Halfway through a mountain climb, he may decide he’s had enough, and sit down on the trail. Worse yet, he might try to make a break for it, and scramble down the mountain.
Over time, I’ve learned how to compromise and make hikes enjoyable for both of us. But it took a scary incident for me to learn.
We moved to Vermont a year ago from West Virginia, where our favorite hiking area was New River Gorge National Park. The river has carved a steep canyon 1,000 feet deep with world-class whitewater, rock climbing, and hiking. One New Year’s Day, Max and I got a late start and arrived at the parking area on top of the gorge a couple of hours before sunset. We planned to do the Kaymoor Trail, a series of switchbacks leading to 821 wooden steps to the bottom, where we would turn around and backtrack to the top.
I did some mental math and figured we had plenty of time. We bounced down the steps and spent a few minutes roaming around the abandoned coal mines and coke ovens at the base.
“Okay, time to go back up,” I told Max.
He sat down on the steps. He wouldn’t move. No matter how much I explained the need to get to the top, the increasing cold, the impending sunset — he refused to move. Thus began a truly epic battle, with me pulling him up those steps, and him doing everything he could to avoid it.
Our grunts echoed across the empty canyon. A young woman, a jogger, stopped as she passed us on the steps. She asked how she could help. I asked her to wait for us at the top. If we weren’t out by sundown, call 911. She agreed.
An hour later, as the last rays of the sun sunk below the horizon, Max and I finally reached the top. The jogger was there, waiting. I thanked her through my panting and thanked God we didn’t have to activate the rescue squad.
(A side note: if you ever come across a hiker acting like Max, do exactly what this woman did for me. Ask what you can do to help, and then be quiet and listen.)
The “Kaymoor Incident” taught me vital lessons about hiking with Max. Don’t push too hard. Always have an exit strategy. Make sure to end the hike with pizza and creemees.
Most importantly, I try to think of what motivates Max, not me. I like covering distance and bagging peaks; my favorite local hike is the Laura Cowles-Sunset Ridge loop up Mount Mansfield. Max likes shorter, technically challenging trails, like the Clara Bow Trail in Nebraska Notch, with creeks and ponds to explore.
This winter, Max and I went sledding on Casey’s Hill in Underhill. We were the first ones on the hill after a foot of fresh powder fell. Max sat down on his sled and didn’t go anywhere. He just stared down the Browns River Valley.
“C’mon, Max, let’s go!” I told him. “Let’s get sledding! Why did we come in the first place?”
Then I realized what I was saying, sat down next to him, and took in the view.