Personal Journey: A great Grand Canyon father-son team

The writer and his son, ready to step off from Grandview Point at Grand Canyon on a five-day backpacking trip to celebrate Dad's 50th birthday.
The writer and his son, ready to step off from Grandview Point at Grand Canyon on a five-day backpacking trip to celebrate Dad's 50th birthday. (Courtesy Judd Kruger Levingston)
Posted: July 21, 2014

'Did you make it to the bottom?" everyone asked when we got back from the Grand Canyon. "Of course we did," I answered - but it took five days and a father-son journey to get there.

My son Ivan and I have enjoyed backpacking in the Pennsylvania wilderness, and our appetite for the Southwest was whetted four years ago on a family trip to Grand Canyon National Park. Ivan and I hiked most of the way down until an early sunset and common sense led us to pledge to come back to celebrate my 50th birthday with a father-son backpacking trip.

We met in Phoenix to begin our five-day mid-March trip to the canyon. We mapped out a route that would begin on the Grandview Trail and include three days along the Tonto Plateau, where we would be surrounded by 360-degree canyon views. Eventually, we would descend to the Colorado River on the South Kaibab Trail before returning to the rim on the storied Bright Angel Trail.

Moments after descending from Grandview Point with our 40-pound packs, we discovered the diversity of Grand Canyon, with snow at the rim and flowering trees below. At Cottonwood Creek, frogs chirped as we gleefully dunked our feet. At night the full moon bathed our campsite in bright, silvery light while we read aloud to each other.

Setting up and breaking camp, sipping hot cocoa, and climbing steep switchbacks allowed for some long silences and deep thoughts about the meaning of life. After rounding one bend and pausing for a panoramic view, Ivan ventured, "Dad, so long as we're here to celebrate your birthday, how do you feel about being 50?"

"I'm feeling pretty good," I began. Between biking 20 miles each day to school and back and teaching new classes every year, I'm feeling physically and intellectually nimble. My wife Hillary and I love each other as much as ever, and we love seeing our kids grow up.

The ancient, awesome cliffs seemed to call for something more profound, so I began again, trying to sound less scripted. I shared what it means to be married with a deep love, and to have to make compromises for the sake of the family. I shared some regrets. My opening gave room for Ivan to talk about friends, love, and choices about his college studies and activities. We agreed that adult decisions can be lonely.

We laughed plenty, too, scrambling up and down the trails, wearing bandanas like train robbers, counting lizards, and singing a favorite marching and drinking song. By the time we crossed the bridge over the Colorado River on our final day, we were a little scratched-up and sore, but Ivan and I had come to admire each other's wisdom, resilience, and capacity for love; together, we made a vigorous father-son team, in sync and ready to plan our dinner - and our next journey.


Judd Kruger Levingston is a rabbi and the director of Jewish studies at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, Bryn Mawr. He lives with his family in Mount Airy.

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