The Trail We Know By Heart

The Trail We Know By Heart

father and son travel hiking in mountains, family tourism

By B.J. Hollars

In the sixth month of my son’s life, I hike him up a mountain. Or at least the closest we have to a mountain here in Wisconsin, which, as it turns out, is the Potholes Trail in Devil’s Lake State Park.

“You sure you want to do this?” my wife asks, tracing a finger along the path on the map stretched before her.

“Why not?” I shrug.

In retrospect, there are plenty of reasons “why not,” chief among them the trail’s less-than-kid friendly terrain. Yet having seen nothing but diaper pails and talcum powder for the past half year, I’d likely be willing to hike an infant up Mount Everest—anything for a bit of fresh air.

My father joins us, and together, the three of us strap my snoozing son to my chest like a backpack packed in reverse. Then, to ward off the dirty looks from more seasoned parents, we make a show of applying a generous glob of sunscreen over every exposed inch of his frame. To complete the ensemble, we fit a fishing hat atop his head, then readjust his pudgy arms. He hangs from that harness like a ragdoll hugged too tight for too long. But as I march us forward, my love for my son is replaced with a terrible truth: a misstep by me is a misstep for us both.

You’ll be fine, I think as I work up the craggy rock. Just one foot in front of the other…


We are fine, mostly, if you don’t count my egregious underestimation of the trail; specifically, how our little trail connected with another little trail, and then another, making for one not-so-little trail.

“What now?” my wife asks as we squeeze ourselves through the red quartzite corridor midway up the bluffs.

“We keep going up,” I report back to my wife and dad. “There’s really no other choice.”

There had been a choice—once—and I had made the wrong one.

No one, I think, wiping the sweat from my brow, could’ve ever seen this coming.

Of course, plenty of others could have. The fact that I couldn’t, however, seemed to further confirm a trend I’d become all too familiar with throughout my brief stint as a father. Namely, that I am a bumbler at best, cocksure until humbled, brave until terribly scared.

Driven by stubbornness, I lead us forward, repeating my “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other” mantra under my breath while my son continues to snore.

“How we doing up there?” my dad huffs from his place in the rear.

Translation: Will somebody pass me the water?

I turn, take a sip, and then pass the water back. My wife takes a sip too before passing, and soon, all three of our mouths are full as we take a moment to peer down at the shimmering lake stretched below. At our current elevation it resembles a giant bean surrounded by sprouting pines. To the left, we see the beach, and atop it, miniature sunbathers crawling like specks in the sand.

“What’s your rush anyway?” my dad asks me. “You got a date or something? Too busy to take in the view?”

I’m not so much busy but terrified, and the only view I see reminds me just how far we have to go.

Besides, the job of “taking in views” had long fallen to my father—a pastime I once regarded as his cost-saving measure to avoid high-priced admission fees. But halfway up the bluff, I begin rethinking my take on taking in views. After all, this is a legitimate lookout point (or will be if we make it to the top), and a part of me knows he’s right. It’s best to slow down, to take a moment and a breath, at least if I want to give this sleeping son of mine a chance to take in the view himself.


We reach the top, and the view—as expected—is breathtaking. I give my son a little jostle, then clear my throat, but still, he refuses to wake.

And so, his mother, grandfather, and I do our best to preserve the moment for him.

From our left, a group of fathers and teenage sons have emerged from the trail and now gather around the lookout point. They push close together at the edge of the bluff after handing me their cameras.

“Smile!” I say fitting the group into frame. “Okay, a few more now just to be sure.”

Next, we trade places and cameras, my son and I posing in the center atop the bluff while my wife and dad hover on either side.

“Give me a smile, sleepy boy!” one of the father’s shouts.

That sleepy boy doesn’t.

The man snaps the photo anyway.

Our preservation now complete, I engage in small talk with the more experienced fathers.

“How old’s he?” one asks, and when I say six months, he recites the line young parents hear all the time, the one that seems to echo from the future.

“Well, keep him close while you can. He’ll be out of your arms in no time.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” my father cuts in, taking one last swig from the water bottle.

I am surrounded by fathers, I realize, all of whom know what I can’t know until it’s much too late.

“Ready to head down?” my fathers asks, snapping me back to reality.


“Are you ready to head down now?” he repeats.

Nah, I say. Not yet. I need a moment to take in the view.

Author’s Note: I first drafted this piece three and a half years ago, when my legs still ached from that hike. Since then, my wife and I have had a second child—a daughter, Eleanor—and upon returning to the Potholes Trail last summer, I considered strapping Eleanor in and hiking her up as well. “A right of passage,” I told my wife. I looked up at the bluff, then down at my daughter, and decided that this time I’d make the right choice.

B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. He serves as the reviews editor for Pleiades, a mentor for Creative Nonfiction, and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit: