This lockdown has been taking its toll. It is challenge for my kindergartner to stay engaged in online school, and a challenge for me to keep his active mind occupied in creative ways.. He has reached that state of perpetual boredom that washes everything in a dull gray and leaves you restless and paralyzed simultaneously.
I felt like I had to change things up; try something fun and adventurous. So the other day I told my son we could take the day off “school” and go hike to a hidden archeological site called Indiana’s Stonehenge.
I was excited to search this place out and see for myself. Plus, I would get to spend the day in the forest with my boy, who usually loves hikes and outdoor adventures. I hoped he would find some respite from the monotony of home and the pressure of eLearning.
But the universe doesn’t always give you what you want; it gives you what you need.
Indiana’s Stonehenge is a place of magic and mystery found at the top of Browning Mountain. The barely-marked trail head is located deep in the Hoosier National Forest, and once there you must hike uphill several miles to the site. At the top of the mountain are a couple dozen huge sandstone rocks loosely arranged in formation. It is unknown how or why these boulders got to the top of the mountain. Some say the site is an energy vortex, and local legend tells of an entity known as The Watcher residing in these woods.
We drove for 50 minutes, and the country roads got narrower and wigglier and gravellier. (“This is taking FOR-EVVVVVER,” I heard many times from my companion in the back seat.) Finally, we reached the quiet creek that crossed the road and marked the hidden trailhead. Slowing down the car, I peered into the spindly spring growth. The leaf-covered path was barely visible nestled in the woods next to a silent farm house. It went straight up the side of the hill.
“Yay, we found it!” I exclaimed triumphantly, looking back at my son’s emotionless face. I pulled over on the side of the road, shouldered my backpack, and we started up the steep trail.
He began complaining almost immediately. “How far is it? When are we going to get there? My legs are tired.”
“Let’s stop for a snack to give you some energy,” I suggested with forced cheer. We had been walking for a full 30 seconds. I could still see our car through the newly budding trees.
After a granola bar and fruit snacks we started back on our adventure with renewed energy. But four steps in, the whining started up again. “This is taking us 6 hours…. uhhh…this hill is too steep.”
I let him moan and groan, trying to give him some space while staying in my zone of positivity – gazing extra hard at the spring flowers and cocking my head delightfully at the bird songs. I would enjoy this enough for the both of us, dammit.
Finally I lost it: “If you don’t want to hike, then sit here and wait for me!” I snapped. “I’m going up to the top of this mountain with or without out you.” And I then stomped off. This was not going as I had planned.
(Of course I wasn’t really going to leave my 6-year-old son alone in the woods. It was just an empty threat of an exasperated mom!)
He paused and weighed his options, then begrudgingly followed me. The whining slowed to a trickle of complaint here and there, but mostly he was quiet.
We found a toad, leaped over downed logs, and made decisions about diverging paths. He seemed to have resigned himself to participate in this journey.
Once we reached the summit, he bounded down the trail shouting back to me, “Finally! We made it!”
We climbed over huge sandstone boulders, and he tossed softball-size rocks over the steep edge to watch them tumble down at the mercy of gravity. We scraped our names in the sides of the stones, adding to the roster started by the hikers who came before us. After eating our lunches, he asked me if it was okay to lay down on these rocks.
“Of course,” I said, and offered him my backpack for a pillow.
He curled up on a lichen-covered boulder and stared into the trees. “I’m so tired. It’s so hot. It’s just going to take SO LONG to walk back down,” he groaned.
Oh no, the complaining was back.
I felt my irritation rise up: Why was he ruining this experience for me? I selfishly thought. Weren’t we supposed to come up to this magical peak and be renewed and overjoyed? He was supposed to find relief from the pressures of virtual school and the boredom of sheltering-in-place. He was supposed to grateful for this excursion and enlivened by the beauty of nature. Not be exhausted, drained, tired and sad.
I gave him his space. I stared up at the clouds and let him rest his body on the sturdiness of the earth.
After a few minutes, he asked to go back to the car, and we slowly began our descent. His head was hanging and he dragged his feet through the leaves.
He looked back at me with tears glistening in his eyes. “Why does everyone want me to go places and do things? I just want to be home. I just don’t want to do all these things. I hate the sun. It’s too hot. I hate this mountain.” He grabbed a stick and whacked the nearest tree.
“That was fun,” I mumbled, my frustration and sarcasm seeping out.
Why did his reaction matter so much to me?
As he shuffled along in front of me I could hear the sniffles as he swung his stick, knocking into low-hanging branches. I kept a few paces back to avoid the flying debris. Eventually the stick broke, and with a roar he flung it into the woods. His eyes blazed and his cheeks were shiny with tears.
And that’s when I realized what my son was really feeling.
During all these weeks of social distancing, with nowhere to go except the sidewalk and the woods, no one to play with but mom and dad and little sister, he has remained quietly accepting. He has been separated from his neighbor buddy, whom he could see and hear five house down, but not play with. He has ridden his bike countless times past the playground wrapped in caution tape, but has been unable to stop and swing or shoot hoops on the court.
Yet he hasn’t asked too many questions or pushed too many boundaries. He hasn’t cried about his friends or pouted over the canceled baseball season. He has just let it roll off his back. Or so I thought.
Who could he blame for the upending of his social life? Who was there to be mad at for the closures and the distancing?
Why not blame the sun for being too hot and resent the mountain for being too tall?
“Let’s sit on this stump for a minute,” I suggested, and I pulled him in close. His breathing was ragged and his eyes betrayed the grief and anger he felt inside.
I can’t fix this for him. I can’t give him his kindergarten year back. I can’t take away this virus and ease the restrictions on society. As a mom, I want to make it all ok. I want to soften his suffering and give him all the good things in life.
But this; I am helpless against it.
All I could do is offer a “mysterious hiking adventure” in hopes that it would churn up the boredom a bit. I expected the mountain to bring us joy and positivity. I expected him to feel carefree and released from his worries.
But the mountain didn’t give me what I wanted. Rather it gave my son what he needed: a space to release the emotions that were pressurizing inside of him.
It’s not my job as a parent to shield my child from pain. It’s my job to hold him through his pain and help him find his way to the other side.
We hugged tight on that tree stump.
“This sucks,” I told him. “It sucks that this virus has come along and that school is cancelled and we can’t see our friends. It makes me sad and angry too. It’s okay to be mad about it. Go ahead and throw as many sticks as you want.”
And so he did, roaring and flinging until he was done.
And then we walked down the rest of the mountain. By the time we reached the car, he was skipping and smiling. He took his shoes off and waded through the quiet creek, bending down to examine the tiny swimming bugs and pick up cool rocks. We spent another hour there, letting the cool clear water flow over our toes and skipping stones.
Thank you, Browning Mountain, for showing me how to love my child through these tough times and allowing him the space to let his difficult emotions find their way out.
©Skye Nicholson 2020