On Monday I climbed Mt Juneau with an old dog and a baby on my back. It was important that I do this, here’s why: For 11.5 years I have lived in Alaskan places where there was little to no hiking. Also, there were no stoplights in these towns, so invite me on your road trips please, but don’t expect me to drive.
Trails are a strangely urban phenomenon; a town has to have a lot of people around to generate demand and afford them. So, tiny Alaska = no trails = very little time in the high alpine. I’m not in great shape.
Even in Juneau (tons of trails), it’s hard to raise a nature baby. Looking at microfeatures, through the eyes of a 3 foot human, there is very little flat ground unless it’s covered in gravel, aka choking hazards. A steep hike might take you up a 30 degree slope, but even a flattish trail is usually narrow with that type of edge. Babies must be carried, almost all of the time.
This brings me to Mt Juneau, basically the steepest place in town. The push was motivated by this image: At the top, a wide, rolling, expanse of tundra would greet my tired body. I would lie in the shade behind a rock outcrop admiring the heathers, while baby A toddled safely around on the tundra. Talus dog would swim in a nearby snowmelt pond just far enough away not to attract the baby.
At the top, I thought, I could finally put her down and let her walk. It would feel so good, and it would be so much fun, that I wouldn’t want to leave. We would do the whole ridgeline – once my favorite hike in Juneau – casually spending the day in the high alpine, skipping down the ridge hand-in-hand-in-paw.
The hike up was hard, but I loved it. It smelled like dirt and ferns, and there were lots of hot switchbacks. Did I mention it was 75 degrees F this day? It took three hours up, twice as long as I’d anticipated, but no matter – the day was ours. That my climb was a quest for flat, baby-proof ground was not entirely conscious.
I saw two mountain goats and a tiny least weasel, who I found because I stopped for one of my many breaks near its hidy hole. “Too close!” It chirped. “Too close!”
We had a great day. The summit, however, was no place for a toddler. The ululating ground was covered in shale broken into jagged, spear top-like points. The ridge looked like a knife edge, and some of it was still snow covered. Thanks for nothing 20-something-super-fit-bad-memory-brain.
I took off baby A’s sweat-drenched clothes (my sweat) and fed and changed her while Talus lay in a lingering patch of snow. Then I ate everything I’d brought for the long ridge day: two sandwiches, cashews, protein bar, fig bars. If I let go of A for an instant she would roll down slope (micro-slope) or find some broken glass. Neat. Then I realized I had no energy for the trek down, and started down.
I couldn’t help but think about how many things in life do not turn out how I thought they would be.
Take parenting: Before I had A, I imagined her immobile babyhood lasting until she could cut hearts out of construction paper. I pictured her eating homemade veggie-based baby foods and sleeping soundly, in a crib, possibly in her own room down the hall.
Instead, I have a one-year-old, sprouting teeth rapid fire and growing as tall as the cowparsnip under a midnight sun, who sleeps in my bed. Last night she kicked me in the face twice. My child’s main food groups are cottage cheese and avocado, and she otherwise takes veggies only in those ready-made squeeze pouches. The more time I spend preparing baby foods the more she hates them.
Back at Mt Juneau, Talus struggled from the top. He was tired, hot, sore, and before long dramatically bleeding from two places. It made me want to cry that I brought him up there. I’m retiring him from climbing mountains. The first climb for A turned out to be the last for Talus.
Then I developed a cold sweat with vertigo and nausea and other fun symptoms of heat exhaustion. I thought about asking for help, there were lots of people passing by, but I couldn’t think of what to say – “I’m struggling.” “I don’t feel well.” I had to walk down, one way or another, so what was the point in making a fuss? They were all so supportive like, “Yeah! Great job mama!” And, “You’re so awesome!” That’s what I would have said to me too.
The only saving grace was that baby A was awesome. I told her all the way down how she was helping her mom, and when we got home I let her taste my chocolate ice cream.
So, there’s the dreaming and then there’s the doing. They’re different. The dreaming keeps us going, moving on toward new ambitions and adventures, making sure that we don’t get too comfortable or stagnate. The doing puts money where our mouth is, makes sure we walk our talk, prevents us from drowning in a life of unrealized dreams.
But the dreaming is quite often more fun than the doing.
This idea got me through doing life in the sub-Arctic and countless days where hammocks and palm trees turned into hot bus rides down nauseating mountainsides.
The late, great Fred Bull called this Type II fun. It isn’t actually fun while you’re in it, but when it’s all over you’re glad you were there, and glad it didn’t happen any other way. Because if we don’t press right up against that edge where struggle brings pain, then what’s the point of being alive? Try harder, feel deeper, and do more, even if it’s not always exactly fun, and life will be full of riches. Just don’t sunburn the baby.