Ben fits Kinnon into the backpack hiking carrier, then lifts it up and positions himself into it. Straps adjusted, he gives a final twist to settle it into place and we head up the old road. It is a cool afternoon in mid-April in the coastal hills of California, near Atascadero. Even though it is mostly sunny, a strong breeze pushing through the trees leaves us grateful for two thin layers and committed to keeping Kinnon’s little knit beanie in place on his head.
We are hiking uphill alongside a spring-fed creek on Beauty Springs Ranch. Raging waters from last month’s flash flooding undercut the bank, nearly taking out the road in a couple of places. Layers of debris and driftwood tangle the road surface in the cuts and curves. Nearly all of the old smooth stones that once lined the face of the trail washed away. What are left now are crisp and sharp-edged, brutal for tires and tough enough on hiking shoes.
From time to time, we take a closer look at the creek, the occasional cropping of boulders and large stones forming pools underneath the tangle of oaks and other trees. I draw in the fresh scent of woods and clear water and the soothing smell of wildflowers once in a while. I watch Ben and his sure strides, bearing and balancing the weight of his fifteen-month-old, and remember how I hiked with him and his siblings a few decades ago. Those are good memories, long walks taken in the woods and alongside sandstone bluffs or limestone cliffs high above the Kentucky River. Early morning fog and summer sunsets. Sometimes the whole crew and sometimes just two or three of us.
We walk on, conversations about safe water and hunting wild turkeys, taking care of a place and what it means to have a job you like. Kinnon ratchets his head from side to side, sudden twists toward sounds or sights. Three-quarters of a mile up the hill, we come to a clearing and the empty stables. Black cattle graze in the pasture beyond the barns. Over five hundred feet above the houses in the valley, we look out over miles of California hills, April green and leaning toward the ocean. The sun is warm on our faces and the wind cool against our skin.
There is a nourishing in such things as this, a closeness of the divine in such fellowship of creature and creation. It is a drawing from ancient springs, the things that bind father and son and son, an understanding of those finest strands that grow stronger with time, the things of love and understanding. Things made even finer by shared faith and forgiveness, the deepest blessings of blood and choosing.
I close my eyes gently, concentrating on Ben’s voice and Kinnon’s happy babblings. For a moment, I feel that I could hike clear back to Kansas if they would stay with me. I smile to myself, open my eyes and Ben asks me, “Are you ready to head back down the mountain?”
I believe I am.