I can tell immediately that the trail conditions will be poor today. As soon as I step out of the car, my boots sink into the ground. It’s saturated from snowmelt. This is going to be muddy.
But here I am. I’ve packed the baby and the dog up in the car, timed the excursion to land between naps and brought the tiny pair of sunglasses, extra bottle and diapers just in case. Plus, it’s a beautiful day — the sun like a trumpet over the desert, temperatures in the 50s, the sky a clear blue, the smell of melting earth in the air.
Springtime is nigh. And I can’t wait any longer to taste it. So I strap the baby into the front carrier, secure her sunhat in place and take off, dog ranging through the sagebrush ahead of us. The main trail squishes beneath my feet like pudding. This won’t do. After about 30 feet, I veer off on a side trail that climbs toward the ridge, where I’m hopeful things have dried out a bit. The baby coos and sings on my chest, drinking in the world with her intense curiosity.
It’s been a long winter. A time of tectonic change, upheaval and transition. Powder days and movie nights were replaced by nap times and nursery rhymes. We experienced the exquisite torture of sleep deprivation, made bottles and pureed food, organized our lives around sleep schedules, changed countless diapers and elated in the sound of a baby’s laughter. Patience was put to the test, emotions frayed with the demands of the job and we were humbled by how much we have to learn.
The only way to dive into the crucial, tedious, difficult and joyful work of raising an infant is to do so with everything. When you do that, many of the activities that normally identify you get shelved. No room for them anymore. And while we got out with her on frequent walks this winter and the occasional desert hike, our outdoor excursions pale in comparison to our previous life. Pre-work ski laps and long days in the snow?
They vanished in a sea of bottles and binkies.
I climb a north-facing slope through snow that is growing slushy. At the top, the trail gains the ridge, and we begin tracing it, walking on the back of a leviathan. Below, a small valley yawns, edged by a city of pale sandstone bluffs. Beyond that, the mountains spread across the horizon, lumps of blue and white.
The trail has improved, but only slightly. From pudding to polenta. Dry patches are interspersed with muddy sections, and I try to tread lightly. The air smells too good to turn around, the sun and breeze making me feel alive.
They say that nothing can prepare you for parenthood. They are right. It is the biggest fundamental shift I’ve ever experienced, like I was scrambled at a molecular level and emerged and different person.
One day, I was living for myself, my husband, my work and my community. Then in an instant, my once-broad world zoomed in on itself and began a new orbit, this time around a tiny human being.
Sometimes I think mountain folk like us are particularly ill-prepared for parenthood. We spend our 20s mastering the art of living for ourselves — going on river trips, ski bumming, buying expensive gear, spending weekends on outdoor adventures that usually entail punishing exercise, seeing live music, traveling the world and hosting loud dinner parties.
So when we are ready to settle down and have a family, the shift from selfish to selfless is so abrupt and acute that it blindsides us. That’s what it felt like to me, anyway.
Up on the ridge, she is growing heavy on my chest. I find a sunny spot in the nook of a juniper log and sit down. I pull her out of the carrier and plop her down. As I watch her take in her surroundings, I realize this is the first time she has sat on the bare earth, uncovered by snow.
She flaps her arms in excitement, pounds the ground and slowly begins grabbing fistfuls of dirt and dried grasses, examining them, tasting them.
I realize with joy that she is getting acquainted to the wild landscape that I hope shapes and inspires her. She is fascinated. I no longer pay attention to the view. There is no better show than this.
She is getting filthy. I don’t care. Watching her explore her backyard, even in this small way, feels intensely gratifying. Right now, this small moment in the high desert is enough to eclipse all the worries and demands that plagued me through the winter.
Here’s the thing about parenthood. It’s hard. The hardest job I’ve ever had. And it was something I felt totally unprepared for, ambushed by and at times, like I was completely failing at. Normally in life if I apply myself earnestly to something, I succeed. Parenthood rewrites those rules.
But when something is that hard, and that humbling, and you pour so much of yourself into it, it makes the successes (when they come) that much more significant. And they do come.
After awhile, I pack her up and hike back to the car. I change her diaper, brush off the dirt as best I can, wipe my boots in the snow and make her a promise: “There will be lots more where that came from.”