The Hero’s Journey is, mythologically speaking, a solitary venture. When you’re out there alone against nature and time and fate, you really have to double down on your courage to get back home to Troy.
But who says one can’t have a great quest en famille?
Imagine if you stumbled on an adventure so perfectly challenging that each family member were forced to confront and conquer their deepest fear in order for the group to fulfill its mission.
I’m here to report that we found one.
And what a Big Day it turned out to be.
July 5, 2016: Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park.
In a high-alpine basin in the British Columbia Rockies, hidden to all but the travelers who trek in, lies Crypt Lake. It’s actually half in Canada and half in the U.S. If you wanted to be safe you’d bring your passport – although odds are any law-enforcement agents you’d encounter would shake your hand rather than shake you down for ID. You’re not the kind to sneak over an international line. You have a good day now, y’hear?
National Geographic called Crypt Lake “one of the world’s most thrilling hikes.” In the town of Waterton they sell T-shirts that say, “I survived the Crypt Lake hike.” Lila, our eight-year-old, eyed these covetously. She wasn’t sure at all that she wanted to do the hike. But then there was the matter of the T-shirt at the end of it. You only got the T-shirt if you completed the hike. Somehow, the T-shirt knew.
We rose at dawn and caught the first boat to the trailhead. Our guide, the nominal captain of the ship, looked and sounded like the comic Jim Gaffigan. He needed a hand mike to deliver his spiel, so he let his son drive the boat. The boy looked thirteen.
“You guys ready for a hike?!” Gaffigan said. Crickets. People were groggy from the early hour. “Ah, I get it,” he said. “Saving your energy!” He started roughing out what we should expect to encounter, the components that made this hike so special.
First, there was the climb through the forest. “Pretty quickly you’ll find out how fit you are.” We’d pass two big waterfalls as we switchbacked our way up the mountainside. Then we’d come to a river. To cross it we’d have to either mince carefully over step stones or Philip Petit-it over a fallen tree. At that point we’d be on the side of a mountain that we’d have to get around back of. The sheer cliff here is impassable. But there’s a steel ladder bolted to the rock. It leads to the opening of a sixty-foot-long pinhole cave that pierces the mountainside and emerges onto a narrow ledge on the cliff-face on the other side.
“The ledge is two-and-a-half inches wide,” Gaffigan says. “But don’t worry, there’s a cable to hold onto.”
“Wait, did I say inches? I meant two-and-a-half feet. You’d have no trouble walking a sidewalk that width. So you’ll be fine if you just don’t look down.”
So here would be our tests:
Lila’s skittish around water: her test would be the river.
Jen’s claustrophobic: her test would be the cave.
Madeline’s scared of heights: her test would be the ledge.
Me, I’m scared of failing as a provider. My test would be seeing if this a-little-bit extravagant trip would blow up my Visa credit.
“I see some of you are carrying bear bells,” Gaffigan said. “Hate to say it, but an inorganic sound like that’s more likely to attract bears than to repel them. We actually call them ‘dinner bells.’” Other folks had bear whistles. “Let me ask you this,” Gaffigan said. “What animals whistle? The ones at the bottom of the food chain.”
A couple of weeks earlier two middle-aged women had completed the hike, and were waiting at the dock for the pick-up boat, when a bear cub emerged from the bushes. They sprinted for the outhouse and hid in there. For two hours. “Have you ever smelled a backwoods outhouse on a Monday after a long weekend?” Gaffigan said. “I think I’d have fought the bear rather than do that.”
On the trail, Mad quickly set an Olympian pace. She was practically running. It seemed important to her to finish near the front of the pack. (She has her reasons. She is twelve.)
And so the family split in half. The parent/kid duos agreed to meet up at the lake – on the other side of the Rubicon.
Lila and I poked along through the forest, then up past the treeline where crazy Seussian plants called “bear grass” nodded in the breeze. (We got lucky. Bear grass, a kind of lily, blooms once every seven years.) The group had left us far behind. We were on our own: just us and the bears. Lila unwrapped a candy ring and started sucking furiously on it to quell her nerves. I hadn’t realized I was whistling till she called me on it. “Don’t whistle, Dad,” she said. “You’re the bottom of the food chain.”
And there it was: the river. Lila’s test.
Before brain could overrule body she heyfoot-strawfoot-ed over the rocks no problem. She’d slayed the dragon. All done with fear!
We could see where the path went next. It snaked up the flank of the mountain in front of us and then just … ended.
There was the promised ladder. And there was the cave.
Lila scrambled up to the cave mouth. The cave was really a tunnel, tight and long. And on the far side: empty space. This must be the view the Human Cannonball gets just before he collects his paycheck.
And here her awesome courage finally cracked.
“Let’s go back,” she said softly.
“Well, we could go back, but I don’t think we need to go back,” I suggested. “You can do this. Besides, your mom and sister will be worried if we never show up.”
She drew a breath, then stepped out of the sunlight, inching into the maw of the thing. Bit by bit. Almost through, yeah. And … through!
Just don’t look …
Lila went catatonic.
I picked her up in a fireman’s carry and together we navigated the ledge. I pictured her up there on my back with her eyes squeezed tight. But then she said: “Hey, a bear!” In the meadow far below, there it was: a drop of ink sliding down a green page.
Crypt Lake was as crazy-beautiful as promised. There was still snow on the lee side of the mountain, and some hikers were bum-scooting down it into the lake.
The family reunited. Fist-bumps all around. Everyone had passed their tests. Jen managed the cave, Mad the ledge. I’d passed the “provider” test — not by magically becoming rich but by keeping my youngest daughter safe.
On the way back, Lila walked the ledge all by herself. She squeezed the cable hand over hand. She never looked down, and she never looked back.
At one point I got too close to the edge for her taste.
“Careful, Daddy,” she said. “I’d hate to see you miss out on the T-shirt because you died.”