It’s high time I introduce my son to a trail that means so much to me – Bridge to Nowhere in the San Gabriel National Monument mountains, CA. It’s where I cut my hiking and backpacking teeth; it’s the first place I’ve witnessed the changing of the seasons and come to know as a second home on the trail. He naps as I maneuver the winding mountain roads and wakes with anticipation when I finally pull into the familiar parking lot. There are few cars and even fewer people on the trail; we have it to ourselves in its rugged beauty.
I wrangle precious cargo onto my chest and back. In front my wide-eyed son, on my back 40 liters of painting and baby hiking gear. I have an emergency shelter and extra formula packed away, a personal locator beacon just in case of emergencies, my hands full of trekking poles and bear spray at the ready. It all weighs heavily on my shoulders, but the weight is nothing compared to the one on my psyche.
My heart jumps into my throat at the first obstacle: A granite cliff face with small steps and a ledge.
Going solo has never bothered me, but going solo with my six-month old son? My new parent anxiety is through the roof. I’m not even at the trailhead before I almost turn back a few times. We get on singletrack and wind our way through wild-grown chapparal. My heart jumps into my throat at the first obstacle: A granite cliff face with small steps and a ledge. I’ve thought about that ledge. I’m convinced I’ll turn back at it, settle somewhere at the trailhead and stay at a half-mile hike.
The ledge isn’t as bad as I thought it was. We maneuver it with ease. My son reaches out to touch the granite.
The trail takes us over rocky terrain, over another boulder scramble, branches and chapparal reaching close but not quite touching us. I’m hyper-aware of every tripping hazard and potential danger. I plant my trekking poles with great caution over every obstacle. The trail dips into the river, over a sandbank and into riperian terrain and back up to wild yucca gardens. The sun burns off the cloud cover and with it the early morning chill.
We approach the first river crossing. A quick assessment makes me doubt the stability of the dry crossing. I trudge into the clear, rushing, cold water instead. It reaches to my knees and floods my boots, refreshingly cool, and my son stares at the river beneath us with wide eyes and a raucous laugh. On the other side of the river I set down my pack, lay out his sleeping pad and tarp and give my son a moment to stretch. He stares up at the trees and takes up a conversation with them I can’t even begin to understand.
His ease is contagious. I feel myself slowly relaxing as I watch him discover this trail, watch his joy at the sand between his toes and the birdsong in our quiet resting place. I am content in his contentment; his joy reminds me of my first time soloing this trail. As he discovers the land independently with me by his side I take out my painting kit and re-discover the land in paint.
I wondered where the fearless, strong artist went, the one who packed out sixty, seventy liters of trash and two paintings by herself, gliding over rock-strewn trails and through yucca blades with ease.
Becoming a mother is an amazing experience, but it is also one that is challenging to navigate. It’s easy to lose oneself in the everyday mundane, the shoulds and should-nots of parenthood, to lose the balance between self and son. In a way I grieved the woman who thought nothing of going to wild places by herself. During my difficult pregnancy I became so dependent on those around me it crushed my spirit even though I was lucky and grateful for their support. In a way that almost-year trained me to be dependent, almost helpless, and constantly terrified for my son and of my own body and the pain it endured. I wondered where the fearless, strong artist went, the one who packed out sixty, seventy liters of trash and two paintings by herself, gliding over rock-strewn trails and through yucca blades with ease.
One painting and a finished bottle later and we’re back on the trail, hiking along an old floodplain strewn with rocks and yucca. I see a large dog run toward me. I grip my bear spray and yell a friendly but firm greeting. I’m ready to mace this dog in the face if need be. I’m ready to jam a trekking pole in his maw. I stop as he yaps and runs back to his canine companion and his person. In the back of my mind I knew the dog’s body language was exhuberant, but friendly. I relax my grip on the bear spray when the dogs are leashed. I exchange pleasant greetings with their equally friendly owner.
She’s still in there. That level-headed, independent hiker who can handle herself on the trail.
The trail takes us through another river crossing and amidst tall trees. I hike in the brilliant late morning sun. Before I know it it’s time to turn back. We haven’t reached the iconic bridge, but I knew we wouldn’t this morning. I look forward to the time when we will.
On the way back we reach that first granite face and that contentious little ledge. I stop and roll out my son’s sleeping pad and tarp again. He rolls over and grabs two fistfulls of dirt and laughs, looking at me with a wide grin that reminds me of my first time on this trail. It was summer, and oppressively hot. I swear I had the same grin when I finally wet my feet in the cool waters of the river. I sit down and paint that ledge and its fascinating geology, the sparse and golden winter foliage just on the other side of it. I commemorate the transformation of fear to wonder in paint.
I’ve followed in the ancient footsteps of mothers before me; nomads and wanderers who have successfully raised children while walking as they nap in their arms and allow their children to see the world carried close to their beating hearts.
We return to the car and the frontcountry but something has changed. I feel closer to my son than ever, our bond forged strong in the quiet moments on the river bank and the closeness of his naptime against my chest as we hiked through the mountains. I may care for him but he has given me more than I can ever repay. Thanks to my son I’m cautious but not afraid. I see the beauty instead of only the danger. I’ve rediscovered the joy of the smallest details through his eyes. I’ve followed in the ancient footsteps of mothers before me; nomads and wanderers who have successfully raised children while walking as they nap in their arms and allow their children to see the world carried close to their beating hearts. The trail is once again a place of freedom, strength and home.
I just had to rediscover it with his help and on my own two feet.