Crossing the Continental Divide is my idea. In the past year, I’ve attended two bar mitzvahs and, watching my friends being welcomed into the land of adults—or something like it—I feel like I’m missing out. My family isn’t religious, so there’ll be no ceremony to mark my own passage from childhood. Casting about for a way to prove my mettle, I picture myself straddling the definitive ridge at 13,000 feet and somehow talk my dad into going.
This is our first trip with just the two of us. Our usual hiking companions can’t make it this time, and we know better than to ask my mom, who has a long list of reasons she thinks our beloved pastime is crazy. My dad and I have been backpacking together since I was nine, mostly in Tennessee, North Carolina, and our home state of Georgia. We meet hikers from all over on these trails, and it’s not like passing someone on the street. There’s an instant connection, a sense of community and common objective. We strike up a conversation with anyone we encounter. We unite to tackle common challenges. Hiking the Conasauga River Trail when I was thirteen, we had to ford the river more than thirty times in thirteen miles, assisting some nervous hikers whose names we never caught. A lush canopy of trees hovers above these southern trails, so it feels to me as if we’re all exploring a protected world together.
After flying to Colorado, Dad and I catch a train in Durango and get off at a trailhead in the San Juan Mountains. From there we plan to spend six days making a loop in the Weminuche Wilderness. On each trip we’ve taken, I’ve carried more in my pack, and now, at fourteen, I split the load evenly with my dad. We bring just the essentials: tent, sleeping bags, water purification system, dishes, utensils, stove, first aid kit, food, and a food canister to keep bears away. And, because June is early in the season, we’ve brought an ice ax and crampons to help us traverse any lingering snow.
I can’t get over the immensity of sky out west. Without the familiar tree canopy, I feel like the shell of my known world has been peeled back. The only other humans we see are thru-hikers making their way from Mexico to Canada. They’ve been charting their progress to arrive at the high elevations in Colorado just as the snow becomes passable. Their entire journey will take four to five months. We share some food with them, and after they move on my dad says I’ll have to make that 3,100-mile trek with my friends.
Dad’s a quiet man. When he spots something noteworthy he lets out a little laugh, and I know to look in the direction of his nod. As we hike along a ridge, we see melting snow forming icy blue pools on the plateaus below us. The sun-warmed water spills off the mountainside, creating cataracts that rush into the canyon. Some of the beauty sneaks up on us. We trudge toward a field that looks from a distance like a swath of unremarkable green. When we get up close, yellow and white wildflowers turn their faces to us, like shy girls who still know they’re pretty.
With a starting point of 8,900 feet, we climb thousands of feet every day, but with all the ups and downs from ridge to ridge most days we lose nearly as much as we gain in elevation. When we hit 12,000 feet, a thick pad of snow, packed down by its own weight, coats the trail. But the path reveals itself to us, and we never quite lose our way.
On the third day, we reach the Continental Divide. My dad takes a photo of me with one foot on either side of the boundary, and then we head on. The terrain is no different.
It’s when we’re ascending a pass on the fourth day that Dad runs out of steam. For years, I had to run to catch up to him. Now, he lacks the strength to carry his pack. I carry my own pack 400 meters, then set it down and run back and shoulder my dad’s. I do this for about three miles, while he slowly makes his way up the trail.
When we reach our campsite, we rest for a long time before I set up the tent and make dinner. A flame-bright sunset outlining the mountaintops dissolves into boundless space as the weary sky casts down her first bright star, silvery and steady. Thousands more trail behind. And we both let out a little laugh at the beauty just out of reach.
Stephen Thomas Fuller lives in Marietta, Georgia. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Straylight, Defiant Scribe, and the Kenyon Review Young Writers Anthology. He plans to major in chemical engineering, and he spends way too much time daydreaming about extravagant backpacking adventures.