On trail and on the town


This summer my oldest son turned 13 — a momentous occasion for all of us. He is officially a teenager. I am officially a parent of a teenager. They weren’t kidding about that “the days are long but the years are fast” thing. It was truly a blink of an eye.

But he underwent a bigger transformation that has nothing to do with chronology. The young man now in my house has a deeper voice, a mouth full of metal, and for the first time, his own laptop. He still doesn’t shower as often as he should and yes, belts his brother occasionally, but he has a quiet self-assurance and a sense of personal responsibility that repeatedly surprises me — it just wasn’t there a few months ago. Where did this boy come from?

I’m pretty sure I know: he was born on trail and on the town.

This summer Owen had two big adventures — a week on the Superior Hiking Trail with 50 pounds on his back, and two weeks of living in a college dorm room, taking classes, touring engineering labs, and enjoying a radius of freedom that included a few blocks “downtown.”

The college camp came first. He was the youngest kid staying on campus and he went there alone; no buddy request for him. We dropped him off in his room and he wanted us to leave first so he could go downstairs and join the group without his mom hanging around.

He loved it. Loved the dining hall, the classes, the lab tours, his room. He texted a few times and called me once. He didn’t miss us, though he did invite us once to meet him for ice cream a couple blocks from his dorm. He paid for himself, told us about some of his experiences, and then stood up and announced it was “time to get back” and walked home, alone, to his room.

His father and I just looked at each other. What just happened?

The week on trail was a month later. Old enough for the “Voyageurs” group at his annual summer camp, he started the two weeks with a 6 a.m. bus ride to Camp Menogyn on the Gunflint Trail, where he learned how to pack a hiking pack, passed a swimming test, and loaded up for five days and six nights on trail. (I was corrected once; it is definitely not “on the trail.”) He carried his own stuff and some of the group’s gear on his back for up to 15 miles a day. When they returned to camp, they were “more like junior counselors,” he explained, “because we’re Voyageurs.”

He didn’t have his phone those two weeks, we didn’t get a letter, and there isn’t a single photo. We know only what he’s told us: He described the landscape and its beauty repeatedly and with some detail (again, his dad and I just look at each other, dumbfounded), told us how they dumped some of their packs to escape an especially buggy campsite so then he had to sleep for a night in a trash bag, and how on trail cinnamon rolls are the best food you could ever, ever, ever hope to eat.

He also told Scott this story:

“Dad, once when I was on trail I was thinking about you and how nice you are. Not just to me and Noah. You are nice to everyone.”

Aww. Sniff.

This kid matured what seems like years in these two summer months, and we’re not the only ones to notice — friends and grandparents have commented too. He’s nicer. More helpful. Talks to adults more, engages. Is serious about taking care of his new braces. Calmer. More confident.

I think he met himself this summer — on his own on the town, with money and a schedule to keep, and on trail, where no one else was going to carry that burden. I think he likes who he is becoming, and trusts himself more. I certainly do.

The young man in my house has a deeper voice, a mouth full of metal, and a set of experiences truly his own. And that has made all the difference.


P.S. It’s hard to find words to explain the magnitude of this change, though it will surely be tested when school starts again tomorrow. Last year he struggled with the independence and responsibility required by junior high; I’m truly curious (and hopeful) about how this year will contrast.

P.S. from Breanne

I was so excited that Owen went to Camp Menogyn this summer because that is where I had my own transformative experiences as a teen, first on trips like Owen’s and then culminating in 30- and 45-day whitewater canoeing trips in Canada. Like him, my days on trail taught me so much about myself and the world, and truly changed my life.

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