More than 150,000 people shuttle up crooked roads each year to White Top, VA, the apex of the Virginia Creeper Trail. From there, they ride rented bikes on a thrilling 17-mile descent beneath a forest canopy, cross a winding mountain stream over 47 trestles and bridges and arrive back to Damascus, VA.
I took my grandson, Colton, a few months shy of 11 years old, to ride the Creeper in September. But we weren’t going to shuttle to the top. We were going to ride up, then turn around and ride back down.
The Virginia Creeper follows the bed of a former railroad spur that carried a freight train uphill to White Top. Although the average grade is a manageable three percent, the heavy train creeped to the top, earning the nickname, Virginia Creeper. The trail is crushed gravel and cinders, rocky and often rutted from rainfall. The Appalachian Trail crosses it at one point, and riders are seldom out of sight or sound of a rushing stream.
Some adults suggested that surely I wasn’t going to make Colton ride UP the trail. “It’s 17 miles uphill,” they said. “He’s too young,” they said.
But his nickname is Wolf Cub, he climbs trees barefooted, he loves his bike and he loves a challenge. I knew that when he succeeded, the memory of his achievement would stick with him forever and verify in the future that yes, he can do more than people expect of him.
The generation of kids of which Colton is a part is not particularly resilient. Part of the reason is that when they say, “I can’t,” or even “I don’t want to,” hovering parents who want to spare their kids any stress too willingly say, “OK.” In so doing, they strip their kids of opportunities to prove to themselves just what they can achieve, to see a challenge and overcome it.
Of course, that means we have to be willing to risk failure – a risk from which parents wrongly strive to protect their kids. Consequently, when the kids run into their first real life problem where crying won’t summon a helicopter parent and they don’t get a participation ribbon, they can’t bounce back.
Yes, they might fall out of that tree, but successfully climbing it builds confidence, strength, resilience.
Like any 10-year-old, Colton ignored my admonition to ride slow and steady as we started up the hill. He punched it hard, pulled wheelies, jumped every rock and root, raced ahead, drifted back then raced ahead again. We stopped for pictures and he finished his water bottle and asked how far we’d come. “Three miles,” I said.
Downhill riders rolled toward us in waves, disembarking from shuttle vans at the top. Some were stopped to enjoy the scenery and they applauded Colton when they saw him riding up. That pumped him up, but even a 10-year-old can’t live on compliments alone.
At 14 miles there’s a little store called Green Cove Station that once was the last depot on the original Creeper line. Now volunteers sell refreshments and souvenirs there to support rangers on Mount Rogers. A candy bar and Gatorade reinvigorated Colton, along with the news that we were just three miles from the end, and he took off again. By now, even I was starting to yearn for the top.
When we rounded the last turn and arrived at an anti-climactic flat spot with a shed and shelter, Colton flopped onto his back like he’d never straddle his saddle again. But, we needed to get back down and after securing photographic evidence of our achievement, we took off.
Two miles down, my back tire went BANG. Fifteen miles from the bottom, and of course, no spare in my seat bag – a huge oversight. I’m racking my brain trying to think of how to get off the mountain when Colton suggests Green Cove Station might have an inner tube.
I gave him some money and he took off down the hill, empowered with a mission. In the meantime, I’m racking my brain to think of what to do if there is no tube. But in due time, Colton, once too weary to go another minute, is riding back up the hill in triumph, wearing a smile and waving a tire pump like it was a Sioux warrior lance.
The store had a tube, I had tire tools, Colton thought to bring the pump and we were back on our way toward ice cream.
I asked Colton later if there was any point on the ride up when he considered quitting, just turning around and coasting back down the hill. “At 11 miles,” he said. His butt was sore because he didn’t wear his biking shorts, his water was gone and six more miles seemed an impossibly hard distance.
But he didn’t quit.
And when we faced a distinctly precarious position with a flat tire, 15 miles from our destination, it was Colton who suggested the Green Cove Station might have a tube and he could ride down there and find out. Not every person, let alone a 10-year-old, has the intuitive sense to conjure a solution, rather than be paralyzed by the problem.
Lots of people can be directed on how to fix a problem. Far fewer have the intuitive ability to imagine the solution even as they survey the circumstance.
If we hadn’t attempted the ride, and taken the risk, if it hadn’t been tough, if we hadn’t had a problem, Colton might not have learned about his reservoir of resilience for a long time.
Don’t be reckless, but for goodness sake, give your kids a chance to fail to prove to you and to themselves that they can be lions.