What to Do When Your Toddler Loses it in the Middle of Nowhere
A toddler, Pennsylvania blueberries, and the best and worst of things.
Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.
It’s late by the time we work our way to the trailhead, the coolness of the morning already gone. Kiddo’s fussing, already tired, her red curls matted under the heavy heat and humidity of the late morning. The meltdown is coming.
The path is narrow, ducking the low branches of fir and pine before twisting its way in and out of the sun. Weeds and wildflowers fill in the forest floor, growing to hip height out of black earth. A lake catches the sun in places, sends it scattering into the trees where we walk. It doesn’t take ten minutes for Kiddo to start wailing in earnest.
I spend too much time wishing we’d left five years ago. That Beth and I had thought hard on what it was we wanted out of our lives together. It wasn’t a house or a pretty half-acre. It wasn’t cars or motorcycles or furniture or a kitchen with perfect morning light. If we had been brave enough to be honest with ourselves, the answer would have been simple: we just wanted to be together.
That’s what this year is. Us, together with our daughter, but there’s a part of me that pines for the simplicity of the two of us. The ease of a rainy day hike or a mid-summer swim. The joy of watching the sun flicker and slip at the raw edge of our horizon, of walking together under a bannered and brilliant night sky. I want to grab our younger or retired friends by the bone of their shoulders and shake them, to force them to see the wealth of freedom at their feet. I want to scream in their ears to run. To go.
Taking this trip with an 18-month old is a bizarre balance of bests and worsts. Hers is a world of perfect and beautiful detail. She is our guide, pointing us to the miracle of flower petals unfurling in the morning sun or the mystery in a frog’s eye, its iris a lattice of gold in a dark dewdrop. She pulls us to her level, down on our knees in the dirt where the world is no less a wonder.
But our days are fractions, slices of time between naps and meals, whittling hours that offer glimpses of the country we’re traveling through. We are birds, one of us circling the nest while our daughter sleeps, the other never beyond shouting distance.
We build the fences that pen us in, be it a mortgage or a job or a toddler’s schedule, but Beth and I have taken our daughter so far from anything that could be considered normal. I owe her the stability of a routine, or at least the semblance of one. She knows what to expect and when to expect it, regardless of whether we’re perched on the withering edge of the Grand Canyon or tucked into the soft green hills of Pennsylvania. We push our luck some days, skipping morning naps for quick hikes and damn the consequences.
Her screams are piercing things. We pull her feet from the pack’s stirrups. It doesn’t help. We take off her shoes. More wails. We give her water. More fussing. Snack? Outright, spread eagle thrash. She grabs at the back of my neck, her little nails like kitten’s teeth, impossibly sharp. I want nothing more than to turn around and be finished with this hike. With these mountains. With everything. Beth does her best to keep the two of us from losing our minds.
“How about I carry her for a while,” she says.
The suggestion makes exactly no sense to me. Why the hell would it matter whose shoulders were carrying the pack? There’s more than a mile left in our loop.
“Let’s just go back.”
But Beth insists. I take off the pack, then help her into the straps, our daughter still screaming at the treetops. Beth cinches the various buckles and pulls, then immediately begin galloping like a horse with 30 pounds on her shoulders. Kiddo bursts out laughing.
When the galloping no longer works, Beth switches to “The Wheels on the Bus.” Then she names off various animals and the noises they make. She performs the miracle of motherhood—anything to keep our daughter distracted from the heat. We wander until we find a small square of open meadow with a crop of wild blueberry bushes to one side. The fruit glows in the sunlight, the thin skin warm and perfect and sweeter than any we’ve tasted.
We pick the ripest. Kiddo’s talking now, laying the foundation of the language she’ll use all her life, testing syllables and enunciation, impatient with her own imperfection. She reaches a tiny hand from the pack, palm outstretched.
I know I should correct her. Work out the phonetic leaps and bows required to say the word, “blueberry,” but I can’t bring myself to do it. Not yet. This stage is a flickering moment, brief. And I am greedy for it, desperate for every drop. I smile and handed her a berry the size of grape. She coos and devours it, scrunching her nose and eyes and grinning her gapped grin at the perfect taste of summer. I can feel myself trying to grab hold of every detail, to record it. To hold onto it forever. It’s like this some days. A bizarre balance of bests and worsts.