Thoughts on Adventure and Fatherhood

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Taking a morning ride on a camp tree swing might be the new definition of adventure

Meghan stumped me with her question: "What do you consider adventurous?"

She's in the throes of the Adventures in Parenthood Project (link), interviewing folks who find the time to ski or bike or climb or camp after becoming parents, and those other delirious souls who summon a certain dose of boldness to take their kids, too. I had no good answer prepared for this one. So, like any tense moment, I turned to humor.

"Leaving the house," I joked.

That was days ago now, but it still rolls through my thoughts all day long. What do I consider adventurous?  Well, highlining perhaps. Seven days hiking in Peru. Driving dirt roads in Mexico. Backpacking, bicycle touring, backcountry skiing, canyoneering, swinging on a rope and splashing into a river. Hiking 10 miles in the backcountry to climb a joyful three-pitch 5.8 stone spire that eats #2 Camalots and fits my fist just right. My daughter will turn 5 years old in a matter of weeks, and I've never taken her on any of those kinds of adventures. Though I certainly do miss those backpacking trips and chasing after the ultimate backcountry climb, our adventures as a family are much smaller—of course.

We started with a few camping road trips. The very first one she was 5 weeks old. We loaded up the truck with the camping gear, grabbed the map and drove a long dirt road to a quiet and lonesome place in the mountains and ponderosas. We discovered the difficult act of juggling the usual camp set-up chores like striking the fire, cooking a meal, and getting our little home situated all while holding a baby. We still enjoyed it. The night was a sleepless one, as any night is with a baby so young. Breastfeeding, swaddling, borderline panicking about rolling on top of her, and dealing with the midnight cries kept us awake most of the night.

We got through it, and so we tried it again with friends who had a baby one month older than ours. We suffered something of a nightmare this second time: our child wailed once dusk set in and didn't stop for hours. My wife was cold and worried, me too, and we lost our grip. And nothing we tried worked to calm the baby — or us. It seemed Chloe cried harder and louder the more we cooed and sang and bounced and snuggled or fed. As first time parents, we're probably like most: when the limited techniques we'd learned about quelling a baby in the night had been exhausted several times over, we fought with each other. I climbed out of the tent and went for a walk in the night, cooled off, and came back an hour later around 3:00 am. In the morning we asked our friends how they'd slept, thinking we were going to swap war stories and they killed us, "Oh, we slept great. Awesome night. She only woke up once and then went right back to sleep."

I've pressed on if for no other reason because one day I do want my daughters to be smitten by the freedom and satisfaction of sleeping outside after experiencing the rush of dipping feet in a chilly mountain stream or using their feet and determination to hike to the top of a 10,000-foot peak. Or relish in the cool air of a trail run at dusk. Or whatever. No, it may not happen because they'll grow up and form their own opinion of all this stuff. But they will grow up knowing, even if a little, that their dad has a love affair with the gorgeous views, the calm moonrises, the scent of afternoon rain and the satisfying sore muscles that come with a little outdoor adventure of any flavor.


Last year we hosted a 16-year-old girl from Ukraine for the school year, and when she saw the mountain that rises right in the middle of our city she mentioned its beauty. "There's a trail that goes to the top of it," I told her. Her mouth dropped open and she insisted we needed to take her up the trail. So one Saturday I did. We hiked the trail and scrambled over a few exposed rock outcroppings, arrived on top and sat down. She developed blisters on her heels, yet she sat so quietly, looked around at the 360-degree view and only uttered, "this is so cool," numerous times. 

Her small reaction gave me hope, and I'm holding on tight to that memory.

Not long ago, my little family set up a primitive camp in the forest and watched a train of elk, well over a hundred head, waltz by us. We stopped and watched, then I surprised my daughter by using a 30-foot sling to make a tree swing. I pushed her for far longer than I wanted to as my wife prepared a dinner and cracked open cold beers for us. Everything slowed as the sun crept down on this perfect day. We slept soundly and in the morning Chloe wanted more pushes on the tree swing before we packed up. Later that day we drove a Jeep trail near Sedona, Arizona that took us down to Oak Creek. At the water's edge, 4-year-old Chloe so politely asked, "May I take my shoes off, please?"

"You bet. Go ahead. We're here to play."

She slid them off, placed them on a rock like a good girl, then walked right up to me, grabbed my hand and said, "Come on Papa, take me across the river." One chilly step at a time we entered the water and crept through. It got up to my knees, up to her stomach and her little hand squeezed mine harder with every step she took. She giggled at the squishy feeling of mud between in her toes, declared it weird with a smile, but told me not to stop. "Keep going! Don't let me fall. Keep going!" she demanded.

Keep going, but don't fall. The words I've uttered on every climb and powder run I've ever been on.

Comments   

 
Aaron
+5 / 0
# Aaron 2012-06-15 04:50
Nark...you're gonna make me cry! :) Those moments of our child's life are what is so important. They are also the moments I sometimes miss in my rush to meet my own goals for whatever it is we are doing. I think you're right...we have new adventures now with kids. Keep it going!
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Aaron
+4 / 0
# Aaron 2012-06-15 04:51
Mark...not Nark! My eyes are getting bad! ha!
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Kate C
+3 / 0
# Kate C 2012-06-15 09:25
Just... plain... awesome.
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Lindsey Wilson
+4 / 0
# Lindsey Wilson 2012-06-15 14:52
My new favorite post on your site. Loved every word!
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Mark Stephens
0 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2012-06-15 20:46
So very kind, everybody. Thank you.

Aaron, I've been called worse.
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Debi
+2 / -1
# Debi 2012-06-15 22:26
Okay, my eyes are a bit teary eyed. Beautiful post, Mark. I'm not a hard core adventurer myself, but it warms my heart to see others who are reinventing their love of the outdoors with their kids. I feel honored every day to share in moments like the one you described with my own kids. I'd like to think they'll carry those memories with them as they journey through their adulthood.
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shawna
+2 / 0
# shawna 2012-06-16 00:10
beautifully written Mark. Thanks for sharing your experiences...a dventures every one!
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Mark Stephens
0 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2012-06-17 08:03
So kind. So very kind. Thanks Debi & Shawna.
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Meghan J. Ward
+5 / 0
# Meghan J. Ward 2012-06-17 12:38
Beautifully written, Mark. Adventure seems to be something we can't easily put our finger on. I have a feeling I have a long journey ahead at figuring out how adventure manages to morph with each person, each situation and season. Why is it that we can feel 'up for something' one day, but not the next. Our own adventurous spirits seem to waver when nerves kick in or when something changes our delicate internal equilibrium (like a child). What you've captured here in your post is really important: it's all about allowing ourselves to be sucked into the mystery and awe of the smallest things. As adults we love to 'go big or go home' with our adventures. Children teach us to go small again.
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Mark Stephens
+1 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2012-06-18 23:05
Quoting Meghan J. Ward:
Children teach us to go small again.

Or force us.
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Meghan J. Ward
+4 / 0
# Meghan J. Ward 2012-06-19 06:48
Very true. Noted!
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