Transitioning from one way of life to another takes time. We are creatures of habit. We like our routines, our familiarities, our creature comforts. So moving from life in the “front” country to life in the “back” country requires a great deal of adjustment, fortitude and patience- especially when traveling with a 6-year old. We are all stumbling about trying to find our rhythm. We schedule short days at first, as we adjust to the new reality of carrying our lives on our backs. Our shoulders and hips ache under the weight of our packs. At full capacity, our packs weigh in just under 40-pounds. That’s our base weight, plus food and water. Setting up and breaking down camp takes a long time, as we circle around each other trying to figure out who is going to do what. Sara is as helpful as any 6-year old can be, which is to say, not helpful at all.
In the first few days, we are still our “old” selves. We respond to things the way we typically do, not having fully transitioned from one life to the next. Sara asks repeatedly, “How much longer? Are we there yet? What’s for dinner?” These are the questions of her “front” country life and she has yet to settle into her new identity. We too find ourselves reacting to small irritations, as if they are big. In our regular lives, these moments define us.
Eventually, we settle into a routine. And in the familiarity of that routine, we find solace. We wake up when the sun rises, make coffee and breakfast, break down camp, put our lives on our backs and start walking. I teach Sara how to make up stories in her head when she gets tired and this appears to be a breakthrough for her- and for me. Like most 6-year olds, she is a talker. And like most 6-year olds, she talks about the things that are important to her- cats, birthday parties, Halloween costumes, recipes. Paul and I do our best to allow her the space to talk incessantly about these things, as she finds her new rhythm, but eventually we too must retreat to the silence and solace of the great outdoors. So I fill her with jellybeans and implore her to please talk to herself in her own head. She gets it. At least for a little while.
By the time we reach our first big pass (Donohue Pass, 11,050 feet), we are settling into our stride. Paul teaches Sara how to balance on rocks across rivers and streams and we all seem to understand that the up-hills require a different kind of fortitude and patience. And a whole lot more jellybeans.
Sara finds a walking stick which she names “Little Whitney.” The stick for her becomes not only a physical support, but also the very essence of what makes sense- something to hold on to. For the entirety of this trip, she is without any of her regular “things.” She has with her, a lightweight journal and a pen and a few colorful erasers. That’s it. For a modern day kid, that’s pretty much the equivalent of parental neglect and so she clings to “Little Whitney” with every fiber of her 6-year old self.
Halfway up Donohue Pass, Sara realizes that she has left “Little Whitney” near the stream crossing where we were forced to take off our hiking boots and wade through the stream in our Crocs. And so she does what any 6-year old who has just lost the one thing she has to hold on to would do- she cries. My guilt about taking my child on a 220-mile hike has not yet been transformed into pride, so I do what any parent with a guilty conscience would do- I drop my pack in the middle of the trail and head down the trail in search of “Little Whitney.”
I find the stick at the side of the stream crossing, just where she left it and I head back up Donohue Pass, furiously trying to catch Paul and Sara. They are way ahead of me, reaching the snowline, unencumbered by the weight of sticks and conscience. They have found their rhythm. When at last, I reach them, just before the pass, I hand over Sara’s stick, breathing a sigh of relief as I wait for her heartfelt expression of gratitude. But that’s the other thing about 6-year olds. They are exceedingly ungrateful; unaware of the mental gymnastics that we parents perform in order to support their growth and happiness. Without missing a beat, she takes the stick from me and continues up the pass. I wait for the thanks that never comes. Yes, I too am developing a new rhythm. The rhythm of letting go.
Little by little, we find ourselves. Sara moves back and forth between stories and silence. Paul develops an efficiency in setting up and breaking down our camp homes. My anxiety about the enormity of this trip begins to fade as I watch my little daughter become more confident and self-assured with each passing day. Our bodies and our hearts grow stronger. Yes, I believe we have finally found our rhythm. We are on our way.