I turned around to find Gideon following a short distance behind me on the trail, his arms filled with sticks of various sizes and shapes.
He smiled at me and attempted to wave, and this made several of the sticks fall out of his hands and he awkwardly leaned over to pick them up which only led to him dropping the rest of them and nearly falling over onto his head.
I walked back and helped him collect his treasures into a more manageable bundle. I felt bad for the little boy. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up in Alaska and yet not have a yard full of sticks to play with. He was growing up so much differently than I had. I would have been embarrassed to save a stick in the trunk of the car to bring home with me after hiking through some far away forest. It would have been an insult to the millions of sticks that I had laying in my own yard. Poor Gideon, however, had nothing in his own yard except a barely surviving 3-year old mountain ash and whatever debris the most recent windstorm had brought from the forest near the mailbox.
So, I respectfully placed a gnarly twisting cottonwood branch in his arms without saying anything about how silly it looked.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said, and we walked on together quietly for a while.
“Dad?” he said a few moments later.
“What’s that, boy?”
He held up one of his sticks. “What is this?”
I stopped for a second and knelt next to him. “What is what?”
“This.” He pointed to a section of the cottonwood branch where he had peeled off a section of bark.
“Oh, you mean, what is this?” I pointed. “That’s the bark, dude. It’s like the skin of the tree. It protects it.”
He didn’t seem satisfied with that answer. “No… Um. I don’t mean the part around it. I know THAT. That’s tree bark. I mean, this part.” He tapped on the section where the bark was missing. “Under the bark.”
“Under the bark?”
“Yes, under the bark. What is that under there?”
I took my hat off and scratched my head, glancing behind me to make sure there wasn’t anyone around that could overhear us. Maybe a college recruiter might have snuck up on us on the trail when we weren’t looking. “Boy, that’s wood.”
“Oh! THAT’s what wood is? I didn’t know that sticks were made of WOOD!”
I put a hand on his shoulder and tried to motion for him to keep his voice down. “Yes. Sticks are made of wood.”
“Oh, Gideon…” I sighed and pressed my forehead against his in a sort of attempt at an apology. “I have so much to teach you, my little friend.”
“Yeah,” he matter-of-factly agreed.
Ten feet later he stumbled over a rock and dropped his sticks again. This time I offered to carry the ones that were giving him the most trouble so he could focus on hitting trees and bushes with the straightest one.