Beginning a Backpacker

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It isn’t the world’s most comfortable pack, for her or for me. The material is flimsy, one zipper pull has already fallen off, and her feet don’t fit the stirrups. The fussy four-point child-harness clearly was not designed by a parent. Worse, there’s nothing in place to support a baby’s head when she sleeps, which happens often on the trail.

And it was expensive, an indulgence for a family on a city-living budget. I wondered whether we would even hike enough to warrant the cost. I had researched brands, watched the local used-gear boards, tried on models in swanky outdoor shops I knew we couldn’t afford. Finally, with hiking season in near-full gear, we gambled on a mid-level pack with moderate-to-positive reviews. 

What pride I felt, days later, when I lifted the black-and-gray heft of it from its shipping box. It felt like Christmas, that opening up of a thing with such great adventuring potential, like when I had unsheathed my fire boots for the first time. I saw this pack as a necessity—a door leading back to my old life, a thing I envisioned would carry her, and all of us, into the backcountry.  

I picked her up and slipped her into the saddle.

She hated it. Cried and writhed with such stiff-legged resistance that I couldn’t even buckle the harness. Damn, I thought. Served me right to hope so hard. It was a familiar frustration: one more little death, one step further away from the life and raising-up I’d wanted for her and us. Futile, I thought, all that hustling I’d done and wanted to do, to bring sprigs of wildness into her first urban months and years.

But my patient husband, he saw a glimmer. He warmed her up to the pack by first just leaving it in her path, a big funny new thing to crawl around and pull up onto. Then he began putting her inside, laughing as he launched her up in her “rocket ship” at ten second intervals. Soon, she was begging to climb inside.

I reinforced this training with short neighborhood walks and backpack treks through the apartment. The weekend was closing in; the weather looked right. We were ready.

I. Hiking the Hudson Highlands: Double Lollipop with a Side of Bamboo

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I like all kinds of hiking, the way I like (almost) all kinds of beer. Canyons, mountains, desert, rolling forest: all offer their own highs and lows and rhythms. New York City hiking—and the upriver Hudson Highlands count—is its own category, mixed-use and heavy on the human touch, with trail miles bookended by scenic hour-long train rides up and down the Hudson. 

We live on the top skin of the Big Apple, fifteen minutes’ walk from the Metro North, our escape to all points upriver. With no car in which to stash extra layers, post-trail snacks, books for the rides in and out, we haul it all from door to door, daypack-and-diaper-bag-in-one, condensed into one small compartment underneath the baby’s seat. The day’s journey begins and ends by the water, at the bottom of a steep hill, at Riverdale Station.

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The worthy hikes in our region commence in the Hudson Highlands: billion-year-old boulders and cliffs straddling the river at points with names like “World’s End.” This is the Lenapehoking, ancestral home of the Lenape Indians, and also the origin of the Hudson River School of landscape painting. Five state parks protect swaths of land on either side of the river, and fortunately for us city folk, many trails are reachable by public transit.

For our first excursion with our daughter on our backs, I chose Arden Point and Glenclyffe, two shortish loop-trails linked by a common path, at the southern end of the Highlands proper. I was drawn to this “double lollipop”-shaped trail by its alleged ease, as well as by its proximity to the train: the path begins and ends right in the station’s parking lot.

I was nervous: how would she hold up back there? How would we?

But trail magic is real: as soon as we found the trailhead we spotted, propped up against the sign, a perfect pair of hiking sticks. For certain these would show us the way.

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It was strange to hike without a map. We navigated instead with a turn-by-turn written narrative of the trail and a sampling of its human histories. “The large brick building on the left was built in the 1920s as a friary by the Capuchin Franciscan order…” we read, and “This platform overlooks the site of Beverly Dock, used in 1780 by Benedict Arnold to escape when his treason was discovered.” 

I didn’t love this constant glancing down at paper, this processing of language while I was also trying to admire the landscape, the routing and views, the lakes and waterfall, the unique and unexpected groves of bamboo. Generally I have always loved the mixing of the hiking with the writing, the former churning and bouncing ideas into me so that I can eventually partake in the latter, but on this day all I’d wanted was to be there, to sink gently yet meaningfully back into hiking stance, and to edge in the baby’s toes as well.

When wearing a baby backpack, you look down a lot more than you look up. The weight of the pack and the preciousness of its cargo saw me staring often at my feet, ensuring their grip and placement, and glancing only briefly at the tree canopy, the circling turkey vultures, or the clotted-cream-on-blue of the sky.

How clever, how evolutionary an adaptation. Our baby on board had slowed our pace, forced us to look down. And on the forest floor, we were able to notice the following: orange mushrooms popping against verdant green; the otherworldly webbing of bamboo roots; a katydid-like creature on a jewelweed leaf.

 

I am slowing down, learning the pacing, intention and attention I will need in order to teach this baby her wildness. And it is lovely.

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II. Poking Around Peekskill: Finding Forest Friends 

“Walking is almost an ambulation of mind. The human armor of bones rattles, fat rolls, and inside this durable, fleshy prison of mine, I make a beeline toward otherness, lightness, or like a moth, toward flame.”

–Gretel Ehrlich, Islands, The Universe, Home

We had had such a glorious time training-and-hiking the weekend prior that we decided to continue our momentum: just days after our Arden Point and Glenclyffe trek we headed north again on the train, to Peekskill, where we hoofed a tiring hour through town, stopping with frustrating frequency to MacGyver head-supports for a sleeping baby. Finally we arrived at the Blue Mountain Reservation.

No hiking sticks greeted us at the entrance, but the tell-tale screeching of a red-tailed hawk sweetened our first pit stop and hearkened of beings to come: more verdant forest, toads, an epic lunch-lake, an American dagger moth caterpillar. Myriad mosquitoes.

Sweaty-eyed, we trekked up the bald of Spitzenberg Mountain, skirting the edge of a shooting range. We weren’t exactly steeping in silent solitude, but we had been assured we were well outside the area where the constant cracks and booms could harm us.

The view from the “mountain” was vegetated, not sprawling, more of a glimpse than a vista. But I realized that I’d been misaligned to place the emotional climax of our hike on a peak, when the forest itself was the place worth dwelling.

More often than not, Elizabeth slept.

 

What does a baby-in-a-backpack dream? What, of the wild forest, will a wide-eyed baby absorb? What of all of this, if any of this, these city beginnings with trail-adventures tucked into the margins, will she remember?

*

“Today I’m filled with longings—for what I’m not, for all the other lives I can’t lead, for what is impossible, for people I love who can’t be in my life. Passions of all sorts struggle soundlessly, or else, like the falls, they are all noise but can’t be seen.”

–Gretel Ehrlich, Islands, The Universe, Home

Rumi suggests that life is a balance between holding on and letting go.

I was a hiker once, a badass hard-calved tanned mountain hiker, and I was a writer once, a sharp-fingered whittled woman of words. I don’t know where this person is right now. There have been such earth-shattering shifts.

I am convinced I’m not done with her. But nothing looks like it used to, and I have got to learn to navigate trails a little differently.

The pack is rough, the baby grumbles, our pace is slow, the Hudson is not the Yellowstone. But hell, this is a beautiful place, a beautiful chapter. So here’s to the hiking sticks that await you at the trailhead, ready for another lap. Here’s to looking down, walking slower, and marveling at the here and now—in glorious company.

Bring what you carry, love what you marry. Might I teach her, if anything, how to be a wild woman—ever-adapting, with a many-chambered heart.

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2 thoughts on “Beginning a Backpacker

  1. I love that you are getting out with a pack on your back! That bad-ass woman is still in there… she comes out to play every so often as she did on these hikes. And she will come out more as time continues. I love the Gretel Ehrlich quote. I, too, often long for lives I cannot lead.

    Like

  2. Neysa

    Though I don’t know you, Hilary, I echo what Julianne wrote, including the Ehrlich quote she mentioned. Thank you for another piece of fine writing illustrated with wonderful photos and enhanced by thought-provoking quotes of others.

    Like

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