Friday, June 12, 2015

Wonderfully Exhausting

As soon as we turned our bikes from pavement onto the dirt single track, the littlest one let out a petulant, disbelieving groan. Somehow, in the excited discussion about going for a family bike ride, she hadn’t expected THIS: bumpy dirt, knobby roots to maneuver, long grass scratching against bare legs. Through the course of the ride – a mere two miles or so – we went from frustrated to joyful, back and forth, a dozen times.

“A mixture of wonderful experiences and parental exhaustion,” is how another mother – with two children younger than mine – recently described her family’s vacation. I feel as if that is a pretty accurate description of nearly every family outing. And, many days, of raising kids, no matter how old they are.

Growing is hard work. Learning new skills is hard work. Figuring out all the different ways the world operates is hard work. It is sometimes exhausting for the kids and the parents. It is sometimes exhilarating. Often, it is both of these – exhausting and exhilarating – nearly simultaneously.

Soon after the mini meltdown over the bike ride’s turn into the woods, we came to the biggest beaver dam I have ever seen. The kids hopped off their bikes and scampered over to check out the long, pointy-ended logs the beavers had felled. They examined how the sticks went together to create the dam and the section that had been breached, allowing water to flow through. We found a wildflower we didn’t know and snapped a picture of it to remind us to look it up later. (Bunchberry, it turns out.)

Riding over the roots was challenging. The complaining about said roots – and working to keep my parental composure as a meltdown ensued – was slightly exhausting. Discovering the beaver dam and checking it out was a pretty wonderful experience, and hopefully one my kids will remember – and want to relive on some future bike ride along the same trail.

I remember being on family hikes as a kid and feeling as if they would never end, whether we were on a short jaunt or a hut-to-hut overnight trek. But once we reached the top, the reward was great: a sense of personal accomplishment, and amazing views of the lowlands from which we had ascended, stretched out now far below.

What I remember most from those adventures are the stories we’ve told over and over: playing cribbage with other hikers, eating weird green pasta in one of the huts, the thick clouds atop Mt. Lafayette that obscured the rest of the world, the weight of my little brother’s backpack after a day of collecting rocks along the trail.

From those outings (which I imagine included a good dose of my own folks’ parental exhaustion) I gained a lasting appreciation of the outdoors and exploring it, the realization that hard work often pays big dividends, and the knowledge that the view from a mountaintop, from a height attained by your own will and power, offers a vastly different perspective than the one you had pre-climb.

After we left the beaver dam last weekend, the rest of the ride included an ascent along a bumpy trail and a bit more complaining. But also the downhill on the other side of the hill, time spent drawing with sticks in the sand along the edge of a brook, scampering across the water over logs, and stopping to look at swallowtail butterflies. On the final stretch of single track, my youngest child slammed on her brakes and reached down to pick up the large empty cocoon of a cecropia moth: a tangible treasure to take away from the ride.

We emerged from the woods about a mile from where we’d parked the car, and the mostly-downhill paved return was smooth sailing. There was one final challenge at the end of the ride: a super-steep climb to reach the car. My older daughter was in the lead and pedaled her way to the top, then came back to cheer the others on. All three made it, pedal strokes gradually slowing with the exertion as they neared the top, arriving tired but happy.

I hope they remember – as I do – the happy more than the tired, that they take from these adventures more of the wonderful than the exhausting. I hope these experiences provide my children the awareness that often at the far side of a challenge is a big view, a thrilling rush of adrenaline, lessons learned, and memories to hold through many more adventures. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the June 12, 2015 edition of the Littleton Record.

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