Is it about the journey, or the destination? Hiking with a toddler helped this new mom decide.
By Christi Gubser
We had lived on the beaches of Brazil and trekked through the Cordillera of Patagonia. We had fallen in love based on our common passion for adventure and travel, and my husband Jeff and I spent our year-long honeymoon exploring the world. We were in Argentina when we found out that I was pregnant.
When Sky was born, we felt we’d created the perfect being. I fell deeply in love with her, and with motherhood. We took her everywhere: she was camping by four months and spent her first summer backpacking through the Rocky Mountains. She “oohed” and “aahed” from the comfort of her baby backpack, napped while we were climbing peaks, and slept through the night in a tent.
But before long, all of my conversations revolved around Sky, and talking about diapers and napping schedules all the time made me feel like I was losing an integral part of myself. For me, the challenge of motherhood wasn’t lack of sleep, or even losing my ability to get outdoors, but rather the slow loss of my identity, which had been wrapped up in boundless adventures. Who exactly was I becoming? I didn’t want my identity to narrow to just fulfilling the needs of my child – should I fight it? Succumb to it?
I need adventure like blood flowing through my body, so I decided to plan something epic that would shift our focus and make me feel whole, accomplished, and like myself again. The John Muir Trail – a 212-mile stretch from California’s Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney – had always tempted me, and I decided that Sky and I were going to hike the entire thing. If we were successful, she would break the record for the youngest “hiker” to complete it. I daydreamed about moonlit nights snuggled in the tent, sharing bowls of warm oatmeal at sunrise, and an entire month of living outdoors completely focused on our adventures together in the mountains.
Once this idea began brewing in my mind, there was no stopping me. As Sky starting crawling at ten months, I secured our hiking permits. As she was pulling herself up on the couch, I rented llamas to carry our gear. By May she was walking and talking, and I was busy assembling our supplies and planning our menus. We were ready.
The Sierras weren’t.
In mid–June, our llama packer called with some bad news. An unseasonably cold spring had kept the high passes buried under deep snow. By the time we would begin hiking, the rivers would be flowing fast and strong, and they might be too dangerous to cross. Weeks went by as we waited for more news of the snowpack and adjusted our plans accordingly. By the time we got on the trail in early July, I’d scaled back our plan to just 20 days of camping and 150 miles of hiking – still challenging enough to fulfill my goal.
We spent our first night in a buggy campsite, and Sky awoke with a mosquito-bite-swollen eye; her vulnerability on puffy-faced display above her innocent smile. But we sang songs as we cruised the grey granite wilderness of the Sierras and savored many magical moments: Sky learned first-hand about tadpoles in a high mountain lake, and we snuggled through cold nights under the stars, overlooked the mountains from a 10,900-foot perch at Silver Pass, and watched flowers tumble through bubbling creek rapids.
I had started with a grand idea: to prove to myself that having a child doesn’t necessarily lead to a loss of self identity. But early on, passing hikers warned that there was still serious snowpack up ahead. Warm temperatures hadn’t melted it, and it would be impossible for our llamas to navigate the icy switchbacks in the trail up ahead. In those first few days, I came to terms with the fact that this hike, despite my desire to complete it, was not going to happen. Sky was relentlessly attacked by mosquitoes and it killed me to look into her swollen eyes – even as they were framed by forests and peaks. Why had I wanted to do this? Were we really having fun?
In answering those questions, I began my own transformation, a change from the single-minded adventurer I had been to the still-adventurous, thoughtful, and loving mother that I was becoming. My obsession to accomplish an extraordinary goal became secondary. Having a fun and still adventurous trip together came first.
I thought about how to fill our days and both of our needs. Instead of feeling frustrated by our “constraints,” I started looking at little things, the details, while Sky walked slowly behind me. Time, and the urgency of my former life, passed as we watched a beetle crawl across the trail. Going at Sky’s pace opened my eyes, and I felt myself drifting away from goal-setting and settling into the present moment. We left the backcountry with 35 miles behind us, after five days.
Our grand adventure was a far cry from the 28 days and 212 miles I’d originally intended, but I felt wholeheartedly accomplished. I had reached the crossroads where a mother and child meet, where I could preserve my identity while helping to grow hers. We still backpack and camp, we still travel, but a fishing trip to a nearby lake sounds a lot more fun than hiking up a 14,000-foot mountain. An overnight backpacking trip to a place where Sky can scamper up rocks satisfies all of our cravings. Perhaps when Sky is 18, and I am almost 50, we will try the John Muir Trail again. We’ll see if it is something she is interested in – I know I will be.