Ouachita National Recreation Trail
For young families, connecting with a trail is oftentimes just a matter of taking the first few steps—even if they’re taken at a crawl
Maurice, his summer shave growing shaggy, led the way—nose down then up, gathering the olfactory scene of the forest floor. His saddle pack wobbled against his sides, and occasionally he’d turn his head, black ears flopping as he looked to judge our approval of his direction and distance. I had the backpack, an old Lafuma internal frame I’d bought as a Campmor closeout before a college trip to Europe. It was heavy—a full tent, a camp stove, all the food, the sleeping bags, the rope and lights, and photocopied pages of the Flatside Wilderness section of Tim Ernst’s guide to the Ouachita Trail. I was carrying enough gear for two, but we weren’t going far, only three miles at most into the woods.
My wife Emily was behind me, a hand-me-down baby pack from REI extending from her back with a sleeping pad strapped on and as much gear as would fit in its small zippered pouch. Our daughter Lily’s legs dangled down from the sides, and her head peered out of the top, the curious blue of her eyes watching the bouncing brown-green vista.
This hike was both an embrace and a rebellion. I’d met Emily three years before at a time when she was backpacking the Ozark Highlands Trail, section by section, over a series of weekends. Our friendship was built on trails, and our love cultivated in campsites. We’d first held hands and kissed under the bright lights of the Milky Way, camping at Lake Sylvia. Then came marriage, then a swelling belly and the first-term nausea that kept us from the spring hikes we’d planned. Nevertheless, as we readied baby beds and onesies, we also sought out baby-carrying backpacks and read books like Babes in the Woods, an outdoors guide for new parents. We promised each other we wouldn’t be one of those couples who sacrifice the adventure of the trail because of a baby. We would keep hiking and bring our daughter along, raising her in the knowledge of bear bags, tent set-up and a one-match fire. Those were the plans hatched in the comfort of a living room; plans that seemed to crack with the cries that began to break the woodland quiet.
There is something animal about a baby crying. It hits at the recesses of our history, deep in the beginnings of our consciousness as a species. It sparks chemical cascades across the brain; it demands a response. It was a half hour down the trail when Lily started wailing. She cried, she squirmed and struggled against the barriers of the pack. She wanted out.
We tried pacis and other appeasements, but no luck. Her will and determination were greater than ours. We stopped by a creek, Maurice lapping up the clear water that spilled over mossy stones. I dropped my pack and helped Emily with hers, lowering Lily down. Emily sat on a stone and nursed the baby as we watched crawfish hardly larger than a quarter scurry among the rocks.
We weren’t covering the dozen miles we would have traveled without an infant, but we were here in the woods, sitting by a clear creek, listening to the birds—the clicks of tanagers and the slurs of vireos. We’d go slower, but we’d still savor the goodness of that going.
We followed the trail along the slopes, around a ridgeline, and into a section wrecked by storms. Large oaks, cross cut by the Forest Service, lined the trail like walls. Lily traveled in the pack, and then in our arms when that would no longer work. How had our ancestors done this? How had the natives of this place lived as semi-nomads with children? The questions came as my biceps burned and cramped, my arms crooked around the little girl who leaned in close.
We set up camp that evening along a creek, a grass-bent clearing that had seemingly proven a good stop for previous hikers. It was early, but this was an out-and-back, a beginning to our backpacking with a child, and so we didn’t want to try our luck.
Lily loved the tent, crawling circles on its floor, pressing her face against the mesh of the mosquito screen. She wasn’t walking just yet, so we kept a close watch as she traversed a surface more treacherous than the rugs and laminate of our home. Though she did cry from time to time, as babies do, she seemed enraptured by the wideness, the never-ending ceiling of the sky, the noisy music of frogs and birds and whirring insects.
Sleep didn’t come easily—it never does for me on the first night camping—but somewhere amid the noise of the college kids that set up camp across the creek and the whimpers of Maurice, whose ears were buzzing with the rustling of the night, we fell asleep. In the morning, Lily stirred at the tree-splintered light. I put on my boots, gathered her up, and slipped out of the tent to let Emily stay nestled in her sleeping bag a little while longer.
I carried Lily back along the trail, showing her what I knew, questioning with her what I didn’t know, and wondering with her at it all. A beetle, green with iridescence, walked among a flower’s petals; turkey tail mushrooms formed Escher stairs across the bark of felled trees; a broad-winged hawk let out a whistle before taking to a thermal, rising on its heat above the earth. We marveled at the strange variety of a world beyond us and yet near us.
I realized that in backpacking with Lily, my daughter still new to the mystery of the world, I had entered the wilderness not to show her, but to join her. My openness had been blurred by deadlines and pixels, data and urgent trivia. Coming here with her, I was able to bend down and see the ever-shifting beauty, the deepening mystery of it all, through the borrowed vision of her newness. I had come, as the poet Wendell Berry has written, into “the wilderness of Creation where we must go to be reborn.” I was alive again to the freshness of the world, still a child in a place defined by millennia. I was put in my place, like an infant returned to the safety of a parent’s arms, and I was glad to have returned.