“Walk it off,” I say to my 8-year-old son as he drapes himself across the top of our wheelie bag and instantly falls to the floor with a near-sickening slap.
We’re at our departure gate en route to the Finger Lakes region for our first-ever father-son trip, and I suspect I’ll be invoking this phrase again as Felix is, after all, a boy.
And without mom along, he’s naturally trying to get a sense early on of how far he can push the limits of his boyishness without getting into too much trouble.
“Walk it off” is said half-jokingly, of course – it’s a ridiculous expression no doubt originated by a high school football coach centuries ago – just as I’m half joking when, after leaving Felix alone at our table the next morning at the Woodcliff Hotel so I can make a quick trip to the breakfast buffet, I return to find our waiter mopping up a spilled glass of ice water. I say “I guess I didn’t specifically tell you to stay out of trouble while I was gone.” The waiter is also half joking when he tattletales, “He was trying to get your coffee.”
Felix just looks at me and smiles as I sit back down and lunge at my second heaping plate of crispy bacon while he pours far too much syrup over his waffles.
This is what boys do when you let them travel without mom.
Pushing limits is bound to be a least an underlying theme whenever a dad and his son indulge in anything away from mom and, especially, away from home. But that afternoon the theme was dominant when we spent several hours lashing ourselves to trees high off the ground at Bristol Mountain Aerial Adventure Park.
Here, within an idyllic forest canopy in fun-to-say Canandaigua, we each pushed our personal boundaries in terms of how far we were willing to go on the courses, which vary in difficulty and include mixes of bridge crossings, tight rope walks, rope ladder climbing and, the undisputed “fun part,” zip lining.
It is all fun in a low-key way, even when you reach the point where you decide you need to quit. The challenge at Bristol Mountain, put philosophically, is to cross the first bridge, and then cross the next one, and then to keep going and going until you reach that one bridge you’re just unable to cross.
There are seven courses – two yellow for beginners, two green for advanced beginners, a blue and black (intermediate and advanced, respectively) and a kids’ course for ages 4-6. Felix and I stuck together and did one of the yellow courses and half of a green before we quit.
But let me back up a minute.
The adventure starts, as many outdoor adventures do, with signing waivers and getting your gear, which in this case includes a harness as well as work gloves for gripping cables for support as you work your way through the courses. The staff, sweet and patient, helps tighten you into your harness and gives you pointers about how to tighten the straps as well as how to stow your two carabiner clips, which are attached by cables to your harness and sit in handy holsters when not in use.
Once geared up, you head out to a training area where you’re schooled in how to use your clips. When you do use them — and this is as important a safety tip as you’ll ever get — you need to make sure that at least one of the two clips is always properly attached to the cable that spans whatever “element” you’re about to tackle. You’re supposed to have both clips fastened to whichever cable you’re near, and conveniently, once one clip is secured to a cable, it won’t open again if your second clip is open. To paraphrase the staff, two clips attached to a cable is good, one is still good, and none is not good.
Each element – be they bridges, tightropes, ladders, or zip lines – is suspended between two platforms attached to the trees, and as you mount each platform, you’re encouraged to clip yourself to the cable encircling the tree as you wait your turn to descend or cross.
There were times when I’d remain lashed to a tree for a very long time while Felix would cross ahead of me and I’d hear him calling from the opposite platform, “C’mon, Dad!” as I let other people pass me. And there were also moments when I’d cross first and would be waiting for him.
Much of the time I would let Felix go ahead of me, as I didn’t want him to feel stranded if he didn’t want to cross right away. And there were also times when I felt it was better to set an example to show him that the crossing wasn’t as difficult as it seemed. It’s the type of thing where you just see how you feel as you reach each platform.
There were different moments early on when we each wanted to quit, and either a staffer or a fellow aerial adventurer would encourage us to keep going.
It’s a humbling moment. The first time I wanted to quit, at a bridge that had widely-spaced logs as its footholds, a staffer joined me on my platform and simply asked me quietly, what was scary about crossing this bridge? We talked through it, and we determined that if I alternated between stepping on the logs and the cable that ran alongside it, it wasn’t as daunting. And in this case, it was important that I not quit, as Felix was on the platform ahead of me.
By the way, in order to quit a course, you can’t just descend a stairway attached to your platform. There are no stairways – if there were, as I remarked later to Felix, many people would likely quit the courses early and not challenge themselves to continue.
So if you don’t want to attempt an element, you’re done. And if you are going to quit, you need someone to come get you, attach you to a special harness, and lower you to the ground.
And so, there did come a moment when Felix and I stood on a platform together and he looked at the bridge in front of us, and he said, “Dad, I’m done.” And as each of us had “practiced” quitting before and had gotten through it, I knew he was serious.
It would have been feasible for me to continue without him – Karen, a kind Finger Lakes tourism person who was escorting us that day, would have waited with him (she also generously took the terrific photos included in this post).
Honestly, I leapt at the chance to say, “Felix, wherever you go, I go,” because I really, really didn’t want to cross that next bridge either.
That was the funny thing. Had Felix not wanted to quit, would I have been willing to continue? Had I crossed the bridge first, and then he wanted to quit, would I have been more inclined to get him to join me on the other side? I didn’t have to answer those questions, nor did I ever have to admit to him that I’m glad he quit first, as I didn’t want to have to quit and make him quit with me. Though knowing Felix, he wouldn’t have judged me, just as I didn’t judge him.
So one by one we were “rescued” and lowered from the platform to the ground – the only mildly scary moment here was scooting off the platform into mid-air, and at that point, the descent is fun, and we made our way along the forested path to meet up with Karen.
Felix and I agreed that we were proud of ourselves and each other for having made it that far. And since we were no longer high off the ground and faced with having to cross a scary-looking bridge, we talked about how far we would hope to get if we ever tried this again.
How nice it was to be back on the ground, I said, and perhaps from a combination of making myself anxious up in the trees and clenching my toes during much of our adventure, I felt a little wobbly, and I remarked to Felix that my legs did, too.
“Walk it off,” he said.
Our visit to Bristol Mountain was sponsored by the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection but, as always, all opinions in my posts are my own.
Image source: Karen Miltner