It wasn’t until we caught our breath and headed downhill on a steep, narrow path scattered with loose dirt and fallen pine needles that I questioned my judgment. I stepped onto a slick boulder protruding from the middle of the trail and my right foot skidded out from underneath me. Reflexively my hands jolted out to my sides. My body froze, which startled Hannah, the nine-month-old riding on my back. Amanda, Hannah’s mom and one of my oldest friends, trailed close behind. If I slipped, her front-row view would confirm her fear: that this was too much of a hike for her young daughter.
Not that the doubts needed much confirmation. Amanda had already told me the hike was too much for Hannah. Too steep. Why not drop Hannah off at day care, she offered, so we could hang out alone? I, a childless adrenaline addict scoffed. Steep? Hannah wouldn’t know because she wasn’t walking. Amanda protested the hike would be too long. Having done the route dozens of times, I assured her it would take an hour and a half, tops. Three miles with a 2,000 vertical foot climb may sound imposing, I reasoned, but it’s really just a swift walk up a local hill. As she considered it, I made my deal-closing offer: I would carry Hannah on my back.
This gesture was entirely selfish. I wanted to visit with Amanda. I didn’t want to visit with Amanda in a coffee shop or a restaurant (activities we’d tried before only to lose an hour to mutual admiration of Hannah, followed by soothing of Hannah, who tended to fuss in public). Plus, I was training for a big winter ski mountaineering trip in Italy, and hauling an extra twenty pounds up a heart-burning small mountain was great exercise. If Amanda objected to my objectification of her daughter (most people train by placing a twenty-pound bag of sand in a backpack), she kept it to herself. We made a plan to meet at noon at the trailhead.
It didn’t start out well. Amanda arrived twenty minutes late, sputtering out flustered excuses before she even set the emergency brake. I reminded her I had a three p.m. appointment and offered to hold her dogs’ leashes so she could bundle Hannah in her backpack. Hannah pooped. A diaper change, sunscreen application, unpacking of the car’s innards and then haphazardly tossing the pacifier, blanket, teddy bear, snacks, water bottle, and baby bottle in the backpack’s storage compartments ensued. I tied and retied my shoes while waiting. I offered to help, but this was clearly a one-woman job – one that I didn’t understand. I thought, “Gee, this is a pain in the ass.” Then I felt guilty.
I smiled encouragingly at Amanda, who in her haste was getting in her own way. She dropped Hannah into the built-in backpack seat, tightened the straps, and hoisted her onto my back. We set out – Amanda with two dogs, me with Hannah and my dog. We toured up the valley trail, a wide path that leads into an open valley linking a meadow-lined mountain and a dry pine forest. A deep blue sky and bright sun warmed the unusual January day. Vitamin D poured into my body. Hannah kicked me and I took it as a good sign.
Yeehaw! We were off. We kept a brisk pace and complained cheerfully about the heat. Amanda, wearing long sleeves and pants, was sweating profusely, and considered stripping to her bra. As we moved further away from the cars and closer to the steep incline, my heart began beating faster. I relaxed. No more waiting, I thought. Now we were going. We smiled as sinewy runners swept past us. I ventured an opinion. “Amanda, don’t you think this is just what you needed?”
After all, she had been holed up in her suburban house for months, wrestling with conflicting emotions, mild post-partum depression, and self-doubt. Amanda had graduated from one of the country’s best veterinary schools several days before giving birth to Hannah, and eight months later, she hadn’t yet found a job. As her student loans came due in December, she sunk into a morose gloom, berating herself for failing as a vet, questioning her mothering skills, and feeling conflicted that her husband was the sole bread winner. Though I hadn’t said it directly, I believed she could reverse her negativity and stop focusing focus on difficult things with a mixture of personal will, therapy, and endorphins. My (unsolicited) answer to her troubles looked more like a Nike advertisement than a job and peaceful home life. Exercise, I thought, would be her salvation, and I would lead her to it – with Hannah in tow.
She hedged. Hannah began whimpering in the pack. “Possibly,” she said, casting a worried eye toward her daughter.
Certain that pausing would lead to a meltdown, I did a little jig, cooed to Hannah and caressed her sweet, soft hand that was resting on my shoulder. The baby talk flowed from my mouth, and somehow “Ooooh, Hannah Bananna id good wittle monkey and cwimbs big big mountains wit her aunty Rachel:” redirected her attention. Or maybe it was the pacifier Amanda popped in her mouth.
After a mile, the trail narrowed, jogged left and began switchbacking up a steep, rocky slope. As we gained ground, pausing where the trail turned right, I began to pant. Amanda took the lead, and I wondered if she wasn’t inflicting a little punishment with her long steps. She tossed questions my way and scurried ahead, leaving me to navigate my footing, the incline, and the difficulty of speaking. When we hit a shaded area, I begged her for some rest and water and mentioned that the “extra weight” was harder than I imagined. She smirked – nicely – and said, “Yeah.” Implied, yet left out, was, “. . . you dumbass.”
I shot downhill as Hannah’s whimpers achieved full-fledged crying, which I ignored. By the time we scrambled to the top, we were out of breath and hot. And late. Our trek had taken us twice as long as normal, and we had only forty-five minutes to descend. We swallowed the east-facing view of Boulder and Colorado’s great plains. Then I took off jogging down the mountain’s backside, yelling over my shoulder that we ought to hustle. My three o’clock meeting was with an editor I very much wanted to write for. I momentarily forgot my goal (Amanda’s transformation) and pushed forward. As we jogged, I pressed Amanda further: “Isn’t this great? Do you think you’d feel better if you did something like this more regularly?”
Then I launched into a soapbox lecture on how exercise is the foundation of my confidence. Amanda chased after me, pausing only as I ventured onto the slick rock at a particularly steep section. My foot slipped and I flexed my muscles to regain my balance. I continued talking. Amanda interrupted.
“You sure you’re okay?” she asked trying not to sound nervous. “Looks slick.”
Her mother’s instinct kept her from listening to my advice, which was probably a good thing. I stopped talking. Took a deep breath. Gingerly made my way down the boulder. Then, as I was about to resume my hybrid persona of Oprah Winfrey and Richard Simmons, Hannah started to cry. I continued forward. We were still moving downhill, and her initial chirps sometimes evolved into sniffly mini sobs. I looked at my watch: a quarter to three. The trailhead was probably ten minutes away. I bounced up and down and again attempted to soothe Hannah. In the shade, the trail down the mountain’s backside was cooler, but the tricky decline traveled over a path strewn with sharp rocks.
“I think she’s hungry,” Amanda said.
“Yeah . . .” I stalled, then picked up the pace.
I shot downhill as Hannah’s whimpers achieved full-fledged crying, which I ignored. Our hike, which had started out as a goodwill assignment, had somehow morphed into a hostage crisis. I was a terrorist, ignoring the misery I had created as I forged ahead with my fanatic agenda. Curse the crying! I had an editor to meet. I knew I was being insensitive, and I justified it with thoughts of my career, my future, and the car, which was now only five minutes away. Then, in my mind, I got defensive. Who says life has to revolve around every whimper? Maybe Amanda just needed to be a little more assertive and she wouldn’t feel so conflicted all the time.
In retrospect, I was right, but her assertiveness should have been focused on me, not on Hannah. I knew the baby wanted to stop. Amanda wanted to stop. This had been their routine since Hannah’s birth. Life was good; then it wasn’t. Then Amanda made it better.
But this unwelcome delay would ruin my day, I thought. And with the cars so close . . . well, don’t some parents even let their kids just cry themselves to sleep for hours? The car was three minutes away.
I barely remember the final stretch. We made it to the parking lot as the clock struck, and I helped Amanda load up her dogs before handing her the backpack with her tear-stained baby. I kissed them both on the cheeks and jetted, wondering if I had done more damage or benefit to my initial cause. As I rolled into the coffee shop fifteen minutes late, I knew the answer. I had violated some of my own mother’s best advice: Don’t be a jerk. I’d let the blinders of my enthusiasm and my unspoken judgment turn what could have been a fun day spent outside with Amanda and Hannah into a mini ordeal. A park would have been a lovely place to pass a few hours outside, endorphins be damned.
Amanda answered my call in a hushed voice.
I wondered if I had done more damage or benefit to my initial cause. “How did it go?” I asked.
“Well,” she whispered, “I tried to nurse her, but she was too upset, and she wouldn’t eat anything. So I finally calmed her down, gave her a bottle, and now she’s sleeping in the backseat.” Ever the optimist, I enthused, “That’s great! A hike and a nap. What a fun afternoon.”
“Kind of,” said Amanda.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I misjudged that.”
“Yep, it was too much.”
“Babies are hard,” I offered.
It might have been the only right thing I’d said all day. We made a date to see one another again in a few days. In a coffee shop. I planned to work there all afternoon, so Amanda wouldn’t feel rushed by my schedule. Before hanging up, I almost offered to babysit while she went on so she could go on a run. Then I decided against it. After all, I concluded, I was the one with the compulsive need to just do it. She’s just getting it done.