Three Kids and a…High Mountain (My Husband’s Travel Tale of Fear)

He is no novice to this. The first time I was with him when it happened, we were on our honeymoon in Australia, years before little people entered our world. It was Christmas day, and the Great Ocean Road was all that stretched before us (literally, as everything was closed except for one McDonalds, which we ate both breakfast and dinner at. Super. Just super). As I remember it, the views were stunning; they were what the books said they’d be. Beautiful beaches. Giant waves. Spraying sea mist. Swarms of flies. Sheer cliffs. In his anticipation (perhaps anxiety would be a better word here), he had planned for the changing scenery and the snaking road. You see, my husband of two months declared himself the sole driver of the car that day. He gave himself the control in the moment when he felt he was bound to lose it.

A cliff view from The Great Ocean Road in Australia.

Fast forward to our last summer as just a couple, and he did it again. Driving around the Peloponnese on tiny roads taking us through Greek mountain villages, he demanded to be the one behind the wheel. He took us through guardrail-less roads where walking into the front door on the first floor of a restaurant would lead us, with just a few small steps, to the windows of the back of the restaurant, which was actually seven stories above the ground. Tiny buildings perched on the edges of steep cliffs with roads crumbling around them. And yet, he managed (albeit with a few moments where his grip on the wheel beckoned the hard surface to melt beneath the weight and sweat).

A view from the road through the Peloponnese.

You see, my husband is scared of heights. Not just uncomfortable scared, but more like he-got-stuck-at-the-top-of-Chichen-Itza-spouting-out-a-string-of-profanities-and-I-had-to-literally-lead-him-down-one-step-at-a-time-gripping-a-rope-while-he-slid-on-his-backside scared (fortunately it was pre-little people so they never had to hear that come out of their father’s mouth). (In his defense, it was insanely steep.) So those sheer cliffs of the winding Great Ocean Road? The disintegrating edges of the miniature mountain roads of Greece? The climb up Mount Rainer in Washington State? They are the stuff his nightmares are made of. But, he did it.

The steep view into Hvar from Hvar Fortress, a walk that my husband easily made.

I say all this not to disparage my husband. You see, he’s confident in his fear. He is not ashamed of it; rather, he recognizes its existence and carefully measures his choices with it in mind. There are no ferris wheels in his future or helicopter rides. He, we, have come to terms with this long ago. Sure, I could push him, but to push him too far means it strips him of his enjoyment, and really, there’s no fun in that. So we use baby steps: a mountain hike, a scenic drive, roller coasters. You get the picture. But this picture is changing. We’ve figured out, like most things, it has to change.

We managed the walk from Honolulu to the top of Diamond Head with no major fear.

In this traveling tribe, my husband’s fear of heights has been embraced and enjoyed by us all. One of the great games my little people play with him on every road trip is to continuously ask him how he’s feeling as he drives over bridges, especially the big ones, the tall ones. When the road gets steeper, they ask him more often, softly giggling as they do. Maybe one will suggest, quite sneakily, that he move out of the center lane and get closer to the edge so they can see better (tricky little tricksters know how to say things in just the right way to get what they want). If they see a monument on a hill, they ask him if he’d be scared if he were up there with it. It’s a barrage of questions with my husband always providing the predictable answers, even if it means exaggerating his fear a bit. It brings them such delight to have this inside joke with their Daddy.

And then, one mountain drive, this joke turned and took on a life of its own, a darker life. A life I, nor my husband, felt comfortable with. As we hit switchback after switchback on the slow climb up Vermont’s Equinox Mountain Skyline Drive, my husband allowed his fear to creep into his voice. While on bridges and hikes, where he can stay far from the edge, he can maintain an aura of calm, but on this drive his tone changed. Perceptibly.

Initially, he couldn’t see any of the vistas so his rational side prevailed, but with logic telling him that he was climbing a mountain, he slowly let the fear crawl in. Each switchback he became a bit more quiet and the littles became a bit less excited about the joke. There were check ins now that didn’t focus on giggles, but instead focused on reassurances: Are you ok? Are we ok? Are we safe? Should we turn around?

The stretch of road that changed everything.

Then, just as we were about to hit the summit, we had to cross the top of a ridge, where to the left and the right was nothing but views from nearly 3800 feet up. It was like being on a bridge in the sky. Each of us felt a rush of fear. And that’s where this realization that things would have to change hit both my husband and I.

My biggest little, an empath of sorts, tapped whole-heartedly into her daddy’s fears and made them her own. She panicked. She wanted to turn around. She begged. It was too high. It was unsafe. It wasn’t meant for us to be there. Her frenzied fretting filled the car, and my husband and I looked at each other, knowing what we had to do. Even if he didn’t want it. He took a breath and pushed his fears out of himself (well, for a bit anyway). As we waited for the road across the sky to clear (there was absolutely no way he was going to drive across that stretch anywhere but the middle of the road), he told the big one it was ok. Daddy was ok. We were ok. And then he drove.

A view from the top of Equinox Mountain.

She quieted down as we went up that last bit of hill, where we parked the car and tumbled out. We were all giddy with the fear of falling off the edges, but glad to be standing, the ground secure beneath us. My biggest little, eager to get to the lookout, grabbed my hand as we ran ahead. Hunting for the stairs, she was the first to reach the top, run to the rail, and grab ahold of the space in front of her. She had not an ounce of her father’s fear left in her.

Little people soaking up the big world.

But she would have had it had my husband turned around as he would have liked. But he didn’t. And not because he wanted to show her this stretch of the world above the mountain tops. He did it because he wanted her to find her own fears and joys–not his, not mine. The little people, the biggest in particular, have soaked in all of our passions, be they good or bad. He couldn’t let her make his anxiety her own, so he pushed himself to push her.

That‘s the change we realized we had to be making. Traveling has given us the chance to find the uncomfortable and face it. Our uncomfortable. And as much as I, as a parent, want to take credit for putting my little people in new places and up against new things, whether they be near or far, I must offer credit to the little people too. They have made us push our own limits and question our own beliefs as we watch the world unfold in front of them. Our baggage can’t be theirs. Traveling with them has taught us we have to toss it off until there are no longer mountains that we’re just too scared to climb.

Happy and high up on a mountain (though he is clutching the sign and probably very near collapse, but he hides it well).