We camped at 8,700 feet in a wide, bare spot with a clear look at a line of white peaks to our east—the thin edge of the towering Rockies. Smack in the middle of a swath of mountain pine beetle devastation, the remains of gutted trees forking at the sky, or shattered on the ground around us. We watched clouds slide their shadows over the slopes before wandering off to the horizon.
Much of the Roosevelt National Forest wouldn’t be open for a few days. Winter’s not quite done at Colorado’s higher elevations, and the area’s fractured web of forest roads is still mired in snow and melt. We’re here because Beth wisely signed up for a wilderness first aide class in Fort Collins with our friend, Brandon. The two of them have a measure of EMT experience, and figured a little more knowledge couldn’t hurt.
We had a solid plan: We’d arrive Thursday, find a suitable campsite a short drive out of town, then Brandon and his wife, Leigh, would join us late Friday night. The two of us who weren’t busy learning about splints and puncture wounds would hang out with kiddo, maybe get some hiking in, and have dinner ready when our newly educated rescuers returned.
It was a good plan that immediately went out the window. Beth and I pulled some hellish head cold from the dark depths of Utah, and, like the friends we are, passed it on to Leigh. By Saturday morning she was a ball of shivering misery with exactly zero desire to help me wrangle a one-year-old all day. So the plan changed. Kiddo and I would hold down the campsite while everyone else loaded up in Brandon and Leigh’s superb, Subaru-powered Westfalia and drove the hour or so into town, where Leigh could spend the day sleeping in a quiet and comfortable van.
In the 15 months she's been alive, I haven’t spent more than six hours alone with our daughter. It’s a cruelty that no one warns you about parenthood. No one tells you that diapers and bottles and nap times are the easy bits—the tangible, mechanical tasks you can put your hands to. People say, “it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” like the words mean something. But they don’t. They fail to convey the horrible and brilliant duality of the thing.
How you can be consumed with her. How she can be a burning singularity, a galaxy's worth of your hopes and loves and fears, dense and impenetrable and spectacular at the same time. And also how she can drive you fucking insane. How your ear is engineered to hear her wails louder and sharper than anything. How it digs at your spine and burrows like a blade.
It was a long two months before I felt anything for our daughter. Sixty hard, sleepless days of wondering what the fuck was wrong with me, why all the old prophecies hadn’t come true. Why I hadn’t fallen deeply, madly in love with her the moment she opened her eyes and filled her lungs; why there was no joy in me when I held her close.
If I could have managed to think past the half-second at my feet, if I hadn't been so tired and terrified, I would have realized that love doesn’t work that way. People don’t. Nothing about what we’re doing is binary. It's not a rush, but a swell. A deep and slow and powerful thing, ancient as the switching seasons. Gradual, and perfectly so.
Beth is a wonder with her. Endlessly patient. Can endure our daughter’s sobs and flails and tantrums with a grace that stokes an incalculable envy in me. I am a measurably worse parent. For the first time in my thirty years I live in cold terror of my temper. Of losing it with our child—of harming her, somehow. I made Beth swear to never leave me alone with our daughter. This is a terrible kernel of fatherhood.
And that’s what’s in my mind as I watch everyone drive off into the morning fog. As my daughter shuffles a few steps to the camper door, pulls back the curtain and cries, “momma!” again and again, her breath on the glass and her brown eyes wild with worry. She points to the photos of my smiling wife on the wall, desperate to communicate what we’ve both lost for the day.
I pull out a few Hot Wheels, some books. We take turns putting socks on our hands and pulling them off again. Filling her tiny boots with alphabet letters from the fridge. She grunts and wiggles and works her way up the steps to the top bunk, giggling a deep and earnest, “Wow!” at the view from up there. Scrambles around on all fours and breaks her own heart when she drops her stuffed bunny to the ground below.
There’s nap time and lunch. Rain comes and brings thunder with it. Hail. All pounding on the thin skin of the camper roof. She’s fearless, as always. Looks up at the racket like it’s little more than rudeness, and goes back to babbling at an upside-down Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Another nap. Snacks, then dinner. She eats her weight in green beans. More books. Bedtime, at last.
There are days that vanish in my hands—weeks and months that pass as slender moments. And there are these. The slow, good days on the raw edge of the Rockies, where my daughter and I grow together. Gradual, and perfectly so.