The Great Wall: More than a History Lesson

"Climbing the Wall was very scary in the beginning," Judah writes in his journal, "but as we got to the fourth tower, it got a lot more fun and I got more brave." 

A little over a year ago, I mentioned to Josey (my wife) that I would like to take a small trip with Judah to the Great Wall. She thought it was a good idea too, but the conversation somewhat ended as soon as it started, because there wasn't time in our schedule - we were soon planning to have our fourth child and move back to the States. Near the halfway point of our last hundred days however, she brought it up again and suggested maybe we look into it - as a sort of last goodbye to our five years in China. 

In the coming months, the idea began to gain momentum and my journal slowly accumulated ideas and plans for the trip. Some of which would come to fruition, others would not, and that was fine because what I unexpectedly gained was the chance to watch my son, over the course of a couple hours, overcome his fears and learn foundational life-lessons. All because we made time to hike the Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is long, 21,196 km (13,171 mi) long, and it holds some of the most splendid and awe-inspiring images Google can offer. But we didn't go to those places. Instead, we went further north, where the Wall has not been refurbished, where portions appear more like raised dirt paths than an ancient impenetrable barrier, and where we could stay the night without being bothered. 

Isolated, we walked on the original, untainted yet weathered, Great Wall of China.  

From the beginning, the path was tough. Often, the stairs were higher than Judah's knees, a few sections required straight up climbing, and at all times, the terrain was rough and uncertain. Steep edges plunged down on either side. For a ten-year old boy carrying a fifteen-pound pack (there were no lakes or streams around, so we had to carry up all our water), it was a bit unnerving. "It's dangerous," he kept saying, hunched over, clinging to the wall with both hands, "We could fall."

At first, I was patient and tried to sooth his fears. Then, as the whining continued and the sun grew more and more hot, I wasn't. "Stop being afraid!" I barked, but it didn't help. Unsurprisingly, it made things worse. Tears came to his eyes. "Just make it to the next tower," I said, "Then we can take a break."

Inside the tower, the temperature dropped about ten degrees and a swift breeze rushed through the windows and doors. We sat, pulled out our lunches and had a talk about fear, about how it's okay to be afraid because it can act as a guide - it can protect us. But also, how it should never control us. "You need to respect the Wall, son, but not fear it. When we climb, we need to be careful and go slow, but we don't need to give in to our fear. We overcome it." 

He nodded and said, "okay," but I didn't really know what that meant or if what I'd said mattered. I wasn't sure if he heard me or not. So we finished our lunch and continued, him in the lead and me encouraging from behind, and I watched my son transform. He started attacking the Wall, embracing the harder sections and walking with a confidence and surety he hadn't shown before. The whimpering stopped, his back straightened, and our speed steadily increased. Suddenly, we were hiking the Great Wall of China.

This lesson, this time and transformation of my son, was not listed in my journal prior to the trip, but it presented itself because of the trip, and because I was fortunate enough to be there and to, literally, walk through it with him. On the Great Wall of China! (As often as I write it here, I said it there. Every time we stopped for a break, every tower we summited, and just about every ten minutes or so, I'd say, "Judah, we're on the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!")

Around five-thirty, we reached the last of the towers (there were more, of course, but this one was in the best condition). We set up camp. We rested.

"We put our bags down," Judah writes, "and went up the mountain a little bit more and found a destroyed tower. A whole side of it fell into the inside and me and my dad sat on the edge and looked at the mountains. Then we found some firewood and we started back down and I slipped but I was far from the edge but then gave my firewood to Dad because we were right at the edge."

"Me and my dad." I love that, because that is exactly what this trip was, just us. No cellphones, no computers, and no games. Just us. 

And a hammok. 

And the sunset.

When the sun went down, we crawled into the tent and read by lamplight. Birds picked at our leftover dinner, the wind shook the flaps of our tent, and Judah asked if I'd rather stay in China or move to America. "I don't know," I answered, "I love them both. What about you?"

"Same." He said. Then we talked about moving from China and leaving family and friends and school and all the things we love about China. This conversation was in my journal of things to do, but coming up this way, in the still of the night, seemed much more appropriate, more natural. And even though it didn't last that long, for Judah, it was enough. Which was enough for me.

That night, we both slept better than expected. I even set my alarm, just in case, and was surprised that I actually needed it. I rolled out of bed around 4:30 but didn't have the heart to wake Judah. The little guy was tuckered.

Right outside the tower, on the edge of the wall, was a small ledge of crumbled stones, and it was just large enough for me to read, drink some coffee, and watch the sun rise in the far, hazy distance.

Judah slept for almost another three hours, allowing me plenty of time to think and consider the last true days of China. 

In recent days, the packing and cleaning and scrambling to put the major pieces in play for this trip has stolen any chance of considering all that we're moving toward, and all that we're leaving behind. But, while sitting in the quiet and watching the sun rise, a question finally surfaced, "How can our leaving bless others?" I've been so consumed with what we'll be missing, what we'll be leaving, and how we will be struggling with the transition that I've thought very little of how our leaving could bless others.

It suddenly occurred to me that I've been rather selfish in my final days. That I've been thinking of me and my family, not others. Not how I could bless them and love them, but how they might help me, how they could bless me. Many people did, graciously, but what did I do for them? 

Not much.

Before leaving for Beijing, I grabbed a few cards and stuffed them in my backpack, not sure what I might use them for but pretty confident I would need them for something. I snatched them from my bag and pulled the permanent marker from Judah's. Then, I sat and wrote a note. I knew how our leaving could possibly bless someone - even if it was too little  too late.

It was time to wake up Judah.

"What are you doing?" he asked after everything was packed. "I'm leaving these here," I said.


"Because it might bless someone."

He was warming his hands by the fire, but then stopped and walked over, "But don't we need them?"

"Need them? No. We could still use them for sure, but don't you think it would be pretty cool to hike all this way and find these nice things?"


"Well, that's why we're gonna do it. To leave a blessing for someone."

A small smile crept in, "We should leave a note with your email address."

I smiled too, "Already done."

"I have learned two lessons," Judah writes at the end of his journal, "but my dad says I learned three. He says I learned that it's okay to be afraid but fear cannot overcome you, and that dads know everything. I also learned that video games won't teach you anything but physical work can teach you to endure even when you're tired."

Like any other kid, Judah loves playing video games. He's playing one now, as I write, and it is a constant discussion of when and for how long he is allowed to play. Near the end of our journey, at the place where Judah was initially afraid and wanted to stop for the night, I asked him, "Aren't you glad we didn't stop when you wanted? That we kept going to the top."

He laughed a bit, "Yeah. We wouldn't have made it very far."

"Nope," I said.

"I don't know why I was so scared, it really isn't that big of a deal," and we both walked, with ease, over the section that challenged his heart so deeply the day before. Something a video game could never have taught him.


To paraphrase and steal from Thoreau, we went to the Wall because I wished to live deliberately, to suck out all the marrow of our last days in China, and to see if we could not learn what it had to teach. At the end, all my thoughts and emotions are reduce it to its lowest terms...

A night on the Great Wall of China, with my first-born son, to cap off five years living in this beautiful country. I can think of no better way to say goodbye.


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