The Very Top of the World

My daughter climbed her first real mountain yesterday. Five years old and all by herself she hiked to the top of the tallest peak in Vermont. That’s 4,393 feet, and we even took the “D” trail, for difficult.

The hike began along a gravel service road, and she kicked her way along, asking, “Where’s the top? Where’s the top?” every 10 or 15 feet. When we reached the trail head and signed in, “the Levines, from Jeffersonville, party of three,” she thought we must be pretty close. But when we started up the trail, beginning the real hike, she forgot to ask where the top was and started looking up from the ground.

She kept her eyes on the different trees around her, the birds hopping and skipping off at our approach, and the blue blazes that kept us from losing our way.

The trail was narrow and rocky, with lots of twigs and tree roots to jump over. Butterflies flew alongside us, and toads leapt into tiny streams that came off from the mountain. The climb grew steadily and steeply, leading us past young birch and beech trees, up into stands of firs stunted by the alpine climate. By lunch time, we reached the summit. We discussed what kind of birds those were that swooped so close we could hear the swoosh-swoosh of their wings. They were large and black, looking too large to be crows, too black to be falcons. While we sat and snacked on peanut butter and crackers, fruit bars and sandwiches, those big black birds perched atop cairns and spoke to one another.

My daughter looked around her across several states, to the East, to the South, to the West, and to the North, to Canada. She had been on mountains before, but carried in a child carrier. She knows it’s been a long time since she was a toddler, dependent on backpacks and strollers. So now she looked about her as if for the first time, for it was the first time she had done this herself. Very proud, very impressed, that she had come up this whole mountain, she announced, “Now we are at the very top of the world.”

As parents, we often question how good something is that we do for our children. We reflect upon how important, essential or critical an activity is not only to their development or well-being, but to their pure enjoyment of childhood.

We provide all that we feel they need, to encourage their curiosity, to nourish their understanding of the world, and to broaden their awareness of themselves. We seek to give them experiences that they may possibly not remember, but that will hopefully leave them with a lasting impression of something fascinating or beautiful.

This hike was meant to bring us all together into nature, to share our enjoyment of the beautiful country surrounding us, and to encourage our daughter’s love of nature to flourish. It is the very same mountain she sees outside our front window on every sunny day, and now when she looks, she can see herself there.

This hike became one of the essential moments in her childhood, and my memories of it. Not only did she enjoy it and become excited about hiking, this hike gave her a solid sense of accomplishment. This very strengthening awareness of herself and her capabilities gave me a vision of how she sees and experiences the world.

When I planned this hike, I thought she would be proud to make it to the top without being carried. I thought she would find it all pretty cool, to see miles and miles around.

What I hadn’t expected was that by hiking up a mountain, my daughter would discover such strength in herself. Her accomplishment was one of the greatest things she had ever done, and she was quite amazed. So when she said, “Now we are at the very top of the world,” I could only look out across the landscape through her eyes, and agree.

Originally published in Vermont Parent & Child Magazine, 1997
© Nellie Levine