The best way for me to observe the changes I see in my 16-year-old stepdaughter is to look at them obliquely. It’s kind of like not staring into the sun. I take in details about who she is and is becoming by noticing evidence collecting around me and carefully taking it in, being cautious not to hold on too hard or put too much stock into any one thing.
Life is all about change and growth. But teenagedom in particular is about trying on, discarding and trying on some more, often at what seems to me like breakneck and exhausting pace. There are so many opinions! There is so much comforting consistency in who she is at her core, but also new habits and preferences.
Sometimes I think the kid’s got a lot to learn. Other times I see her and realize: oh, she is going to pass me! That leaves me with a bizarre mixed sense of sadness but mostly pride and hope. I’ve known for a long time that she’s going to leave us (all of us) in her intellectual dust, but me getting left in her actual dust is another thing altogether.
Last week my husband asked us if we were going to go on a hike with him. He works with Mat Su Trails and Parks Foundation, an organization that as part of its overall scope of work leads routine “daycations” to connect people with trails in the Valley.
This hike was slated for Gunsight Mountain, 120 miles north of Anchorage just next to Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway. This is a challenging hike that gains 3,300 feet in about 3 miles, depending on the trail you take. Our trail was straight uphill, starting in the lot just across the street from Meekin’s Air Service in Glacier View. After all, we Alaskans don’t often fool around with switchbacks.
At first I told him, no, I couldn’t really go. I needed to stay strapped to my desk and work. I figured my stepdaughter would say the same.
But then I overheard her say sure, she’d go.
Context: Here is a kid who just a few years ago told friends, “Nature is Daddy and Alli’s thing.” She likes being outside, she clarified, but not in the intense ways that her Dad and I do.
That’s fair, and probably quite rational. I have not tried to push her on that. There are few things I know for sure in life, but one thing is that trying to force a human — especially a teenager — into trying or, even worse, liking something guarantees failure.
For her to casually commit to spending an entire day on a challenging hike was new, and a big deal. I knew it was at least in part about getting to spend more time with her Dad while she’s here for the summer. But she also knew what she was getting herself into, and she wouldn’t have willingly said yes unless she was at some level open to the experience.
I looked at it out of the corner of my eye, like I’ve trained myself to do. So I didn’t respond directly as is my full-bore personality and default with a “WAIT, you are going on that hike?! Does that mean you like hiking? Is this a new thing, is this permanent, is this for real?!” Instead, I said in what I hoped was the vocal equivalent of a shrug, “Oh, well if you are both going I’ll see if I can swing taking the day off.”
I have been learning over time that it seems her generation values, maybe above most things, “chill.” This explains why Drake is so popular. It is also the antidote to what she tells me is her generation’s overriding feature: anxiety.
(On a side note, when I asked why they are so anxious, she fixed me with the same stare she gave me at age 10 when I hadn’t ever heard of the particular brand of stuffed-animal-turns-backpack thing she was excited about getting for Christmas. “We’re anxious because of climate change, politics, being born post 9/11, coming of age after the 2008 economic collapse and school shootings.” I was chastened.)
The hike, as advertised, was straight up. Early on, the full group of 20 or so formed a line of slower and faster hikers. I’m not fast by any means, but I ended up somewhere in the middle. My family stayed behind to sweep.
My little crew and I reached the top of Gunsight, which was glorious. It is a mountain-y mountain, with clear views in all directions from a pointy, rocky precipice. It was fun to experience a hike I hadn’t done before.
But the best part was meeting up with my stepdaughter and obliquely checking in on how she was doing and how she felt about the hike. I learned the most difficult part for her had been not being able to get into a consistent and natural pace because being sweep required her and her dad to start and stop several times, and that she’d decided where to stop because she felt done. She said, casually, that she’d come back again and try to summit. We tromped our way back down over the steep scree and eventually over tussocks, chatting and watching our step.
I find that the best times I have connecting with my stepdaughter are when I don’t try to do so directly. I think she needs grace and space to try out different facets of her personality without my full-bore (and admittedly intense) attention focused on her. Some of the best conversations we’ve had have been in the car, both of us staring ahead, or in the kitchen, chopping things. Now it makes my heart full to be more in a routine of sharing something I love so much with her: hiking and talking about whatever comes up as we both stay focused on the way forward.
I won’t get locked in on it. Hiking mountains might be a phase, and that would be fine. But I’m happy we have had that time together. I’m happy I took that day off. I am proud of her for steadfastly taking on a challenge, for pushing and knowing her own limits, and most of all for enjoying herself. Hopefully those qualities, even as they take on different forms through her life, don’t change.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.