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Mud or Blood by Patricia Ellis Herr

Sage and Alex Herr, July 2012
Sage and Alex Herr, July 2012


I turn and see my nine-year-old daughter on the ground, her hands clasped around her knee, blood tricking from between her fingers. The large root protrudes from the earth immediately below the boulder from which we’ve just descended. It’s Alex’s first fall of the day; the trails of New Hampshire’s White Mountains are littered with chunks of granite and errant bits of forest. Most assuredly, there will be another spill before we reach the car. Neither of us is clumsy and both of us are careful, but the trails are never smooth. There’s always an abundance of natural obstacles to catch a shoelace or twist an ankle.

The instinct to comfort Alex isn’t as strong as it used to be. Spills like these are common – for both of us – and anxious hovering does nothing to help. I purposefully refrain from going to her and, instead, wait for her to look up. I’ll know from her face if this was a break or a sprain. She’s broken her leg once before, in gymnastics, after landing the wrong way from a routine jump. She didn’t cry or make a fuss when that happened, but I could tell something was wrong. It was the way her forehead creased and her eyes squinted. I had to go to two different hospitals before I could convince a doctor to order the MRI.

After a quiet minute of holding herself, Alex raises her head.

Only after her eyes meet mine do I ask the question, “Are you alright?” My voice is kind. She knows I care, and that I stay where I am out of respect. I treat her as I would a peer, which is what she prefers.

Indeed, on the trails, she is my peer. She and I began hiking together in 2008, when Alex was five and a half years old and I was forty-one. We’ve since made our way up and down each of New Hampshire’s 48 highest mountains, repeating favorite peaks multiple times, and we’ve summited taller peaks throughout the country. At this point, it would be insulting for me to make a fuss over a routine spill. Of course, she is my child, and I am responsible for her safety and well-being. This doesn’t mean I should rush over and throw my arms around her, though. It’s a mother’s duty to instill a sense of toughness in her children, to help them realize that minor cuts and bruises are a part of life. The world will not stop turning when you fall. You have to pick yourself and keep moving.

“I think so,” she answers.

Hiking has been good for Alex. As she’s explored the forests and mountains, my daughter has discovered just how strong and capable she really is. She knows, first-hand, that she can get just about anywhere if she’s willing to work hard, sweat profusely, and, every once in a while, bleed. The climb might be rough, but the views from the top are gorgeous.

Now that Alex has had the chance to assess her knee without my interference, I step forward and extend my hand. She takes it and pulls herself up. After a few hesitant and testing steps, she declares herself fit to continue. I bend and look at her injury. The small cut has stopped bleeding. I douse my bandana with drinking water and wipe the dirt from her skin. She’ll be fine.

“Hey,” I exclaim as she takes the lead and carefully clambers over the next heap of rocks. “You just made this a real hike.” She smiles.

“Yeah, I know. It’s not a real hike unless there’s mud or blood.”

We continue our descent, Alex’s eyes carefully scanning the ground as she makes her way forward.

About Patricia Ellis Herr

Patricia Ellis Herr is a mother and a hiker.  She’s also the author of the recently published memoir, Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure (Broadway Books).  Check out the website to learn more about Trish and her daughters, Alex and Sage.”


  1. Patricia, A well written atricle. Mud or blood, ehh. Do Bumps and Bruises count?

  2. Marco, bumps and bruises happen, but mud and blood give a greater sense of instant gratification, lol.

  3. I’ll be keeping your advice in mind as my Alex gets his first boo boos on the trail :)

  4. David, excellent. :) Have a great time with your Alex — he is blessed to have a father such as yourself.

  5. Thanks, very uplifting and encouraging. I sure wish more kids would grow up like this. And, in particular, that more parents would let them!

  6. Thanks, Philip. I’ve always been a firm believer in getting kids outside. Doesn’t have to be hiking, of course. Biking, swimming, climbing — as long as the child has a real chance to explore and get dirty, then it’s all good. Getting bumps, bruises, scrapes, cuts, etc. is simply part of the grand out-of-doors experience.

  7. I really enjoyed this post. It reminded me of when we took the kids for their first hike; my daughter was only 2.5 yrs. old and my son only 16 mos. older. It was not a long climb, but they had to do it on their own. After that, we have climbed many mountains in New England as a family. These outings are some of my most memorable activities with the kids. Now they are grown and hiking on their own.

  8. Jane, I’m glad you and your children made many wonderful memories together on the trails of New England. I hope that my kids, like yours, continue to hike after they’ve grown. I’ve a feeling they will. :)

  9. Great post, Patricia. Battle scars is what I call my excellent bruises and cuts I get while hiking. Btw, I finished your book two days before I finished my NH 4000-footers (last Sunday!) and I really enjoyed reading about all (well, almost all) of the peaks I’d already completed. We didn’t see the crazy grouse on Isolation (perhaps s/he’s gone now?), but I did slip and fall and land with my butt in a puddle – does having wet clothes count as make a hike real, or do the clothes have to be muddy as well?

  10. Our kids grew up loving the outdoors, scars and all. I think they learned more on our expeditions into the woods than they ever did in the same amount of time spent in school. That contact with nature and carrying your world on your back is so humbling. When they’re out there in the great woods they realize that we may not be the masters of their universe and that they’re merely participants in something much bigger than themselves.

    Great post.

  11. Patricia, what a great attitude on raising a child! Too often these days, I see parents coddling children to the point of nausea. It’s refreshing to see an attitude of caring, but teaching independence and self-sufficiency. I suspect that your daughter will be very successful in her life’s pursuits for it!

  12. Liz, a hearty congratulations to you on your recent finish of the Four Thousand Footers! I’m very glad you did not see the grouse on Isolation. I haven’t heard anything about that critter since 2009, so I think it’s moved on (or passed on). As far as wet clothes…nope, sorry, according to my daughters, it has to be mud or blood. :)

    Dennis and Scott, many thanks.

    • There was plenty of mud, too, so I guess that counts. And for me a hike is unusual if I DON’T end up with some blood somewhere. :-)

  13. Patricia,
    Thank you so much for sharing with your readers your experience and philosophy with your daughter. I never had children but as the youngest of seven children myself (five boys and two girls), your parenting style mirrors that of my mother. In her later years I once asked her how she handled us doing all the things we did. She told me that having lived with four brothers herself, she knew that “boys will be boys” and that as a parent you just have to trust in God to protect them.

    I will be forever grateful that both of my parents encouraged us to explore, to take risks, and have fun. This approach, unfortunately, seems to be the exception rather than the rule these days and I feel sorry for kids who are ingrained in fear because of their parents’ fears. Alex is a very fortunate girl who will grow up to be a happy, confident woman. Happy trails and God bless you both!

  14. Liz, same here, one of us (usually me) always gets mud or blood before the hike is through, lol.

    Gerry, many thanks for your message. I’m guessing that, back in the day, it was probably relatively easy for children in large families to get some outdoor playtime. My girls’ father, Hugh, was the youngest of five children. He and his siblings were all born within a seven year period. His mother used to turn them all outside in the summertime; they were not expected to come home until dusk. I suspect that was one way she kept her sanity, since when everyone was inside, the house was loud and chaotic. :) All that outdoor time greatly benefited the kids, though, so it was a win-win situation.

    Nowadays, and especially in smaller families, it’s too easy to stay inside and watch TV/play video games/whatnot. Wish more families would toss their television sets.

    • It is rare for me to not get bloody or at least bruised on my New Hampshire and Maine hikes/backpacks. Walking is a full contact sport. Especially when the bushes and rocks whack back.

    • Patricia,
      You make a very astute point. We had nine of us in a 1,600 square foot house. We did NOT want to hang out indoors. And yes, my mother did not want us in the house until 5:25 PM (supper was at 5:30 prompt). We did not have air conditioning, computers, video games, only one television (black&white). In some ways we did not have much (stuff) but in other ways we had so much (social interaction, fresh air, adventure).

  15. Patricia, Wonderful report. It is great to see kids on the trails. I was looking at your website and wil have to check out your book. I am so impressed that you and your girls ahve done so much hiking at an impressive age. My son and daughter in law want to get into it with their daughter soon, She is only 18months and will be starting out in the spring, with the aid of a backpack when needed.

  16. Thank you so much for this! I have been away from the outdoors for too long & just recently started backpacking with my daughter, who turns 2 tomorrow! I use the excuse that it’s to get myself back into shape, but the real reason is to expose her to the wonder that is outside our front door!

    My daughter still rides VIP in her Kelty pack (she was born 3 months early, so she’s got some catching up to do when it comes to walking & such), but I can only hope we’ll share a similar experience down the trail!

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