Three months since I wrote a blog post? Yikes. But here’s my excuse: I’m writing a book. It’s about the year we spent sailing the South Pacific in blissed-out freedom, and the year we spent transitioning back into responsible adults and new parents. Stay tuned.
Between book writing, child-chasing, and working our real jobs, Rob and I occasionally keep up with a few hobbies. These mostly include playing in the water and the dirt, but we also try to squeeze in time for taking photos and telling stories. Here are highlights of recent articles:
As for playing, spring is in full swing, full of wildflowers and sun that beckon us outside. Last month, we reconnected with my family at a memorial service for my grandmother in Capistrano Beach. Highlights included building a fire pit in the sand, taking Talon out for his first ocean sail, and watching him turn into a monster over Easter chocolate.
Back in Montana, we loaded him in a canoe for a float down the Swan River. Sadly, boats are still second to buses in our son’s list of favorites, but he’s quickly learning the ropes on all sorts of watercraft. And Talon’s already got the whole throwing rocks in the water routine down pat.
Scroll down for a photo montage of our recent adventures. Happy Spring, friends!
Last Wednesday, I eased a stand-up paddleboard down the Clark Fork River through an eerily smoke-filled Missoula with a group of new and old friends. We had the river to ourselves, paddling our craft beneath a blood red sun. We weren’t about to let the dense wildfire smoke deter us from enjoying the inaugural adventure of a wedding weekend extravaganza.
This was the float where Kevin Colburn coined the term “vacational whimsy,” an apt description for fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants holiday planning. Vacational whimsy isn’t for the faint of heart. Rather than rainbows and gumdrops, unplanned adventures can lead to rainstorms and gum in your hair.
But, sometimes, letting whimsy direct your downtime allows the stars to align into an unexpectedly magical mix of people and energy. That’s why it’s addicting.
Last weekend, the stars aligned. The Montanabama Wedding brought together dozens of people who all felt inclined to trust the whimsy. It led us into long breakfasts, late nights at the campground, costume-fueled dance parties, skinny-dipping off sailboats, and inventing the new sport of SUP-tooning (surfing an inflatable stand-up paddleboard behind a pontoon boat).
The latter was definitely a highlight. We laughed at ourselves for getting thrill rides out of slow craft while wakeboarders flew past us towed by jet boats. (“It’s kind of like snowboarding without edges,” said one friend, watching his wife try to turn the SUP. “And boating without edges, too!” replied the pontoon driver struggling to turn.)
Our vacational whimsy worked because of the combination of personalities, the access to interesting recreation, and the beautiful location on Flathead Lake (which we remembered was beautiful after the smoke cleared on Saturday night). It also worked because we stumbled upon the perfect adult:baby ratio for Rob and I to fully participate in all events–14:1.
Yes, it’s true. It took more than a dozen adults to corral Talon from trotting into the lake or throwing pint glasses onto concrete. Even with the superb supervision, he still got two bloody noses and demolished a glass vase. Plus, with so many helping hands, Talon was able to have way more adventures of his own. In a mere 72 hours, our 1 year-old rode in more watercraft than many people board in a lifetime: sailboat, packraft, SUP, pontoon boat, and canoe.
We couldn’t have planned the easy flow of last weekend if we tried. Partly, this is because you can’t plan for magic. And partly it’s because planning is definitely not our strong suit. For instance, it’s currently 1:00 p.m. and Rob and I still haven’t decided if we’re driving 9 hours to Bellingham today to spend the long weekend with our friends at Controlled Jibe.
We’re waiting for vacational whimsy to guide us. I’m ready to trust that whimsy when it hits.
“You sure have a high misery tolerance,” my friend Linsey remarks cheerfully, as she passes us on the trail. I gaze after her wistfully, coveting her easy pace as Talon screams and writhes in the pack on my back.
It’s a Friday evening in mid-July, and we’re hiking straight up the Swan Mountains to camp near some backcountry lakes for the weekend. Even though it’s mid-July, the temperature is plummeting toward freezing, and the threatening grey clouds and howling wind aren’t helping my frame of mind. Quite possibly nothing would help my frame of mind, though, since bringing a baby on a backpacking trip does indeed entail a certain level of misery.
Every time Rob and I start down a trail–with Talon on my back, and 50 pounds of camping gear on his–I vow within five minutes to never do it again. Somehow, we do it the next weekend anyway. Are we gluttons for punishment? Obviously.
We stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that our lives might not be as adventurous as before. But the real reason we keep hiting the trails, misery and all, is because by the end of the weekend in the woods, we’re both glad we got out in the wilderness.
Backpacking with a baby is hard. First there’s the whining, and kicking, and hair-pulling. Then there’s the poopy diapers–do you haul the dirty ones out? Use cloth diapers and bury the poo? (It’s a lose-lose situation either way.) Once you get to camp, it’s only slightly easier. You have to manage the wee babe for sunburn and bugs, and constantly corral him from crawling off boulders or tottering into the cook stove.
The hardest part, though, is actually the non-stop, nagging voice in my head: “This used to be fun. What if backpacking is never fun again? What if life is never fun again?” Single-track trail often breeds existential crisis–or at least walking alone for long periods adds fuel to the fire. I find, though, that if I walk for long enough, my footsteps eventually: 1) rock Talon to sleep, and 2) bring my thoughts (now influenced by the peaceful quiet of a sleeping baby) full circle to: “Life is awesome, and backpacking is the bomb.”
This cycle of misery and joy repeats more often, and with bigger peaks and valleys, than a typical day at home. Playing in the tent with a giggling baby is exhilarating; taking the 87th rock out of Talon’s mouth is exhausting. Catching a trout in the lake is a triumph; trying to cook it while Talon tips toward the flames is terrifying.
We’ve taken three backpacking trips with Talon this summer to three different mountain ranges in Montana. All in all, the impetus for our continued expeditions boils down to the fact that we love immersing ourselves in the wilderness, and enjoy introducing Talon to the magic of lakes, peaks, and trails, too.
Here’s why I think it’s worth packing a baby into the woods:
1. You’ll have stories to tell. Regale your friends and family with exaggerated tales of your exploits and mis-adventures in the woods: “And then Talon took a header down the talus field toward the lake! But we caught him before that hawk swooped down to try and grab him.” They’ll think you’re insane, of course, but that’s half the fun.
2. Car camping becomes a walk in the park. Pitching a tent without having to carry it and your kid uphill several miles feels liberating. Plus, you can bring beer, games, and a big roomy tent instead of the two-man-that’s-really-a-one-man setup (which puts new meaning into the word “snuggle”).
3. It makes your home seem like a dream come true. Returning to the house lends a new appreciation for luxuries like running water, cribs, chairs, and countertops above your baby’s reach. The rooms that might have felt claustrophobic all week before your trip suddenly seem like lovely, comfy, safe zones for you and babe.
4. You get alone time surrounded by beauty. Once the baby falls asleep on your back (or switches to your partner’s back), the quiet reverberates ten-fold in the absence of his babble. The leaves look sharper, the air feels crisper, the peaks seem closer. You can breathe more deeply and think more clearly than ever before.
5. It builds endurance. Backpacking with a baby is a physical and mental strength-training exercise. Your muscle tone will improve, as will your reservoir of patience. As your tolerance for misery increases, so does your capacity for joy.
So, there you have it. Let me know how it goes if you brave the trail with a wee one on your back!
P.S. Stay tuned for my upcoming article in Backpacker for tips on taking a baby on outdoor adventures.
I bet you never thought birding was hard-core. I didn’t really, either. But then we added a baby to the mix, and Montana decided to sprinkle in some of its famous fickle weather to make our bird-watching missions more interesting.
I’ve always liked birds. During college in San Diego, I chose to study the nesting behavior of terns down at the estuary near Ocean Beach as my senior project. It wasn’t much of a hardship to bike to the beach and sit around watching birds dive and swoop against a bluebird sky. Then I moved to Montana, and lost track of my birding motivation when the shorebirds and waves were replaced with hard-to-spot, tree-dwelling passerines and cold air.
Enter Rob. He loves counting the songbirds off our back porch, or carting out his scope to find raptors along rivers. I started to excited about feathered flocks again, especially during the spring migration when birds seem to appear out of thin air after their tropical adventures to the south.
During our sailing trip last year, both Rob and I met a whole new host of birds, using them to gauge our distance from land during passages, and as a way to become familiar with each new island. We even had a pet Christmas shearwater aboard for a few days somewhere south of the Equator and west of the Galapagos–it got confused during a squall, and hunkered down in the cockpit of Llyr to recover.
Now, birding seems like the perfect way to get outside for mini-adventures with an 8-month-old … especially when the baby in question is fortuitously named “Talon.” First stop: Freezeout Lake along the Rocky Mountain Front, home of a massive migration of waterfowl each March. We braved 50 mph gusts of wind and ominous (but gorgeous) skies to watch 8,000 snow geese rise off the lake. Talon slept through it.
Next stop in April: Bannack Ghost Town to camp and watch Greater sage-grouse strut in search of mates. It dropped to 20 degrees F and snowed covered our little tent before we could even finish dinner. After bundling up in parkas, hats, gloves, insulated boots, and downing thermos of coffee, we trundled to the lek before dawn and watched the male grouse dance up a storm for the uninterested hens. Talon slept through it all.
In California, I introduced Talon to the terns that I used to study. We pointed out pelicans and plovers, sandpipers and seagulls, all the while dodging the relentless rollerbladers who refuse to yield. While the weather always cooperates in San Diego, the cutthroat pedestrians on the boardwalk are scarier than any gales I’ve encountered. Talon definitely didn’t fall asleep on the boardwalk. But he certainly wasn’t interested in some old birds when dudes were blading by in chaps (and nothing else).
Back on the homefront, we heard that a Great-horned owl had set up a nest nearby, hanging out with her three fledglings in a big cottonwood tree. Making sure it was before Talon’s bedtime, we biked him down to the park and hiked along the creek to the nest. The mama owl landed in a pine directly overhead, and proceeded to eat an entire trout in front of us while her babies watched. Talon, of course, fell asleep before the scope was set up.
Last weekend, we joined an Audubon field trip to the Montana Waterfowl Foundation in the Mission Valley, which rears and then releases several types of native birds to increase their dwindling numbers in the wild. The birds that finally kept Talon awake? A pair of prehistoric-looking sandhill cranes that squawked loud enough to keep him wide-eyed.
Next up: a five-day rafting trip on the John Day River in Oregon, which is sure to add plenty of new bird (and fish!) species to Talon’s already-impressive Life List.
Did you know that The Little Engine That Could can inspire tears? It did for me this morning, reading it to Talon on the couch. I choked up smack in the middle of “I THINK I can, I THINK I can, I THINK I can.”
Maybe I cried because I feel like that too-small blue engine pulling the toy-laden cars over the mountain—terrified that I will slide backwards at any moment. Or maybe it’s because I feel like the anxious toys at the bottom of the mountain—waiting for just the right engine to haul my ass to the other side of this hump.
It makes sense I feel a little desperate as a new mother, as the owner of a new business, as a tropical sailor landlocked in the northern mountains. That’s a lot of change in a short time. One year ago, Rob and I were in Thailand winding through villages on a small motorcycle with two outfits each, a beat-up guitar, and a lot of time to kill. Two years ago, we were wrapping up the last day of our decade-long careers at conservation non-profits in Missoula, about to embark on a year of exploration at sea.
This weekend, our baby turns seven months-old, and free-time and the sea seem like distant memories. I went from zero to 60 on the stress-meter over the past year. But what’s life without a little adrenaline? (‘Peaceful’ is one answer…)
Back to The Little Engine That Could. With Talon gumming away at the book cover, I had this chugging through my head.
I THINK I can wash all the dishes and vacuum the rug in between loads of diaper laundry.
I THINK I can manage all 7 contracts through my writing and communications business.
I THINK I can find time to write creatively and pitch magazines and brainstorm a novel.
I THINK I can get Talon to sleep longer than his always-only-30-minute naps.
I THINK I can teach a few yoga classes and still squeeze in a dance class.
I THINK I can hug my husband and genuinely listen when he talks to me.
I THINK I can drink a beer without falling asleep in my dinner plate.
I THINK I can shower more than once a week.
I THINK I can not kill the houseplants.
I THINK I can see my friends.
I THINK I can do it all.
But I can’t. That’s why I cried, because I realized my engine ain’t getting over this mountain in front of me. I hate backsliding. I get through each day with a lot of grit, and just enough grace to sometimes smile at passersby. I wake up each night in a sweat, my mind racing through all of the tasks I didn’t complete the day before. I’m rarely present in any given moment.
But if that damn little blue engine can make it over the mountain, so can I. It just means I have to take deeper breaths, and remind myself that I am not a superhero, and that I only need to climb one moment at a time. Some of those moments I’ll smile, and some of them I’ll grit my teeth as I chant: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
The title of this post makes it sound like I’m going to tell you how to be a responsible female adult. Instead, I’m trolling for your ideas on the subject.
First off, an explanation. I spent a fabulous three estrogen-soaked days with a couple of stellar lady friends last weekend. We convened with a 5-week-old and a 5-month-old in a wood-fire-heated cabin near Sand Point and proceeded to settle in. We chatted. Cooked. Cooed at babies. Changed a LOT of diapers. And we walked in the snowy woods, drank dark beer, and debriefed what it means to be a mother. One of my friends remarked that she recently got called out for not behaving like a “grown-ass woman.”
Back in my own homestead, this term shot into my sleep-deprived brain during a mid-night awakening. I started ruminating on what, exactly, characterizes such a woman. Was I a grown-ass woman? More importantly, do I want to be one?
I certainly feel a lot more grown-up lately, though in a tired sort of way. And I definitely notice my ass more, now that I run up and down the stairs to wash diapers, and squat up and down to pick up my big baby boy. But I might feel the least womanly that I’ve ever felt. Becoming a new mother seems to have neutered–or at least muted–my gender. My boobs are utilitarian. My hair is limp and dull. My mujer mojo is missing in action.
That’s why I’m putting it out to all of you wise readers. Does being a grown-ass woman mean waving bye-bye to my pre-baby mojo, or does it mean I have to get it back? And how, exactly, do I get it back?
Neutering aside, here are a few more reasons why I’m pretty sure I’ve become a grown-ass woman:
I put my child first.
I can touch poop without making jokes or gagging uncontrollably.
I appreciate my family and friends more than ever, and strive to help them as much as they help me.
I worry about getting injured or dying, which makes things like snowboarding or flying in helicopters less appealing.
I still want to have fun, escape reality, and do reckless things (even though #4 gets in the way).
I wash dishes when they’re dirty (eventually).
I’m willing to make sacrifices and compromises.
I totally hate making sacrifices and compromises.
I can have serious conversations about important topics.
I can make snow angels or play balloon wars.
This list tells me that being a grown-ass woman is an oxymoron, a contradiction, and often confusing. What do you all think are the qualities of a grown-ass woman?
I was just looking for a little more space. And yeah, a quick exit would have been nice, too.
“Ma’am, you can’t sit in the emergency exit row with a child,” the flight attendant informed me. With my arms full of wriggling infant, coats and snacks, I headed back toward a cramped window seat. I wasn’t sure which felt worse: being called “ma’am,” or being denied the luxury of the exit row for the next dozen years.
As I settled myself and Talon in for the short flight from Portland to Missoula, I glared at the back of the business-suited dude who slipped into the emergency row after me, glued to his iPhone and clueless about what was going on around him. I would definitively be more effective at opening the door and pulling the ripcord on that inflatable slide than he would.
It doesn’t really make sense, when you think about it. Aren’t mothers of small children exactly who you would want opening doors in case of disaster? I guarantee that mothers of helpless infants will have the exits ready for immediate departure in record time. Instinct kicks in, and we will kick down doors, take out predators, and protect our offspring at all costs. The other passengers on the plane would greatly benefit from this mama-bear instinct, meaning they should actually pay mothers to sit in the emergency exit row.
You with me?
To be fair, my snit on the airplane was a bit more existential than simply wanting more legroom. As I breathed through the claustrophobia of sitting with a hot baby in a tight corner, I was also breathing through the claustrophobia of feeling like I wouldn’t have any quick exits to anywhere—emergency or otherwise—for the next several years.
No more spur-of-the-moment road trips or impromptu jaunts to Mexico. No last-minute bike rides, ski trips, or parties. Goodbye to simply walking out the front door when life gets overwhelming. The full weight of motherhood settled around my shoulders, leaving me slightly angry, extra sweaty, and mostly petrified.
But then Talon giggled, and the urge to flee subsided like mist under the sun (at least until he started screaming inexplicably during the last ten minutes of the flight).
The point? It’s normal to feel trapped in an airline seat. And to want to flee when confronted by a massive life change. Most of the time, though, my visions of quick escapes include taking my baby with me to beaches, mountains, or even parties.
It’d just be a lot more fun to bring him along on those escapes if they paid us to sit in the emergency exit row.
Cutting our kid’s nails is kind of like wrestling a small iguana, except iguanas don’t drool.
Back when I had a 9-5 job and no kid, I always knew what day of the week it was. I was also way better at watering the plants regularly – once a week like clockwork. And I used to remember whether it had been one or two weeks since I’d washed the sheets (or even three).
Our plants are barely hanging on. The sheets are rarely clean. I can’t tell you the date to save my life. But our baby has given me a new way to mark the passing of time: by the rapid growth of his sharp little fingernails. Instead of a calendar, I now measure time in nail clippings. The passing weeks are quantified by the small snippings of dead keratin that fly into the cracks of the couch, never to be seen again – just like all the many moments that passed while my child’s nails grew long.
When we finally agreed on his name, I had no idea how apropos ‘Talon’ would be. His little claws sometimes seem like an animate part of him. They dig reminders into my breast when too much time has passed between trimmings. I appreciate the claw marks. They are a physical indication of the quickly fading months of his infancy, vivid hash marks that tally the blur of diapers, smiles, coos, and tears (mine as well as his).
The act of nail clipping is a rite of passage in itself. I cried in fear the first time, holding him tight and averting my eyes while Rob braved the miniscule nails, already so long at birth. And I cried in commiseration the second time, when Rob accidentally nicked his thumb, unleashing Talon’s first howls of pain. After a couple of months, I finally felt confident enough to clip his nails on my own.
But, like all things with parenting, as soon as I said to myself, “I’ve got this thing down,” the kid proved me wrong. Now Talon bucks and protests when I try to trim his wee talons. It’s kind of like wrestling a small iguana, except iguanas don’t drool. If I get two nails at a pop if I call it a victory. It’s a test on my perfectionist tendencies, a challenge to my need for symmetry.
To be honest, I don’t mind Talon’s jagged, imperfect edges. They ground me in the present, especially when the fingers behind those nails reach for my hand and hold on to my heart.
P.S. Check out the new “look” on our website, and let me know what you think!
“I’ll always take care of you,” I whispered to my sleeping son. And as I tiptoed out of the room, I thought to myself, I just hope you’ll always let me.
Talon had just finished a massive crying jag after his first big scare. Our glider rocking chair tumbled over accidentally, sending Mr. T on a roller-coaster drop as Grandpop flew forward with him in tow. The baby was safe and uninjured, but let forth a new type of bloodcurdling scream that rang with fear.
I sang and soothed and patted and rocked. As his jerking gasps subsided, I breathed my own sigh of relief. Crisis averted. First of so, so many.
That night, I thought about my own parents. I remembered the times I needed them to take care of me, physically, financially, emotionally. And, with twinges of guilt, the many more times I refused to let them help. Now that I am a parent of my own, I get the need to coddle and pat. To hold and sway. To do anything and everything in your power to make your child happy and whole again — even if your child is bigger than you.
I feel blessed to have parents who will always take care of me as best they can. Not only will I now let them, I’ve realized that I desperately need them to soothe me through the falls that are part and parcel of being human. My screams may be quieter than my son’s, but the drops are no less scary.
“This baby is a daily reminder that I can’t control the universe,” said my friend, Hilary, last week as she frantically jiggled the newborn slung around her chest.
I nodded. It’s humbling, we agreed, to give up control. To say goodbye to who we were and hello to the new person named ‘mom.’
“I just wanna get drunk again,” jokes another friend, downing her coffee. Yup. Me too.
I started a coffee group a few months ago to get Talon and myself out of the house. A revolving group of new mamas meets weekly to remind ourselves that sleep deprivation, poop explosions, and sore boobs will pass. But for now, they are the new normal.
Without these friends and my super-supportive family in town, I wouldn’t feel whole these last six months. They are the backbone and muscles that keep me strong when things seem to slip out of joint.
Returning from our travels left both Rob and I in a bit of an abyss—a wide space where anything might happen, but nothing feels concretely possible. Should we stay in Montana? Find salaried jobs or strike out with our own businesses? Will we ever sail again? Can we live the life we planned now that a kiddo anchors us in new ways?
Sometimes, too many possibilities are crippling. A privileged first-world problem, for sure, but one that can cause real stress.
The most interesting part about giving up control to a dozen pounds of drooling, squirming baby is that it limits the stress of endless possibility. Parenthood undoubtedly brings different kinds of stress, but it also gives clear direction on which way to point the sails each day: care for the child. For now, I can smile at the baby, feed him, change him, and try to loosen my hold on the existential questions that I sometimes grip too tightly.