First things don’t happen for me at work all that often, but in one day last week I was called a nigger and filled out a police report. First things don’t happen too often, but the variations on the unexpected never end. Seven year olds are rarely able to articulate the despair and injustice which comes out of the long instinct towards wholeness and adulthood being denied, but first or second grade almost always gives enough socialization and social proximity to well acquaint even the most remote with just what they haven’t yet got. And even the most stunted will find many ways to express this; hence the swearing, biting, kicking, and screaming. Experience, cognition, and behavior speak which other in an obscure, analogue language. It’s hardly ever up to me as to when one of our clients might have something important to say, however that gets said. I can only be there ready to listen, whatever listening might entail, and given that my mandate is revelation and not tranquility, not only being comfortable with but welcoming the most strident and offensive ways of speaking out loud is usually the most important thing I can do on a given work day.
My least favorite thing in Helena is the curb along the center of the universe, that stretch of the west side of Park between the library crossing and the bakery. Encompassing the library itself along with the best pizza, beer, cake, and bread in town it has everything we need most week nights. The library crosswalk is significant, as it provides a controlled crossing of the only busy street one must navigate going from our house to the center of the universe. Little Bear is now three and a half, and 2 years of cultivated practice has his physique eerily mirroring my own; skinny arms, barrel chest, defined quads which bulge out beyond both knees and hips. He loves his two bikes for different reasons, the light alu green balance bike for speed and familiarity, the solid blue Cleary singlespeed (stripped into a balance bike for the moment) for predictable spoke wheels and pneumatic tires, along with front and rear v brakes whose control he firmly harnessed over the summer. Even without cranks and pedals the Cleary is close to half his body weight, and thus a trial up hill, but with gravity in his favor he tucks feet onto the bottom bracket spindle and confidently accelerates up close to 20 mph, dodging potholes, boosting cracks in the sidewalk, and braking late but well at road crossings. His limited height terrifies me on open roads, but take other cars out of it and I’d follow his judgment anywhere he cared to take himself and his bike.
I don’t want to say no to that, so on the many afternoons when work has my ears past overflowing into my soul and I need a reminder that the world is still there, I herd the children off downtown with the promise that LB can ride his bike. If I push Littler Bear in a stroller or carry him on me the spirit of the ride is disrupted, to say nothing of the disconcertion we force of pedestrians and drivers when a small figure flies around the corner, no adult in sight. So I load LlrB in the Chariot and bike along, through the tight alleys and rolling hills and the tight foot path and under the bridge, to the library and whatever parts of the center of the universe we want that night. Policing the bear in traffic while keeping trailer wheels off parked cars is not too complicated, though the symbolic burden never ceases to exceed the pragmatic concerns. But damn that curb and the way it encourages overparking. If everyone could manage to hang their bumpers just a few inches over this stretch of sidewalk would have room for one pedestrian and our family circus caravan, only just. But the typical overhangs (including mine, on the occasions we drive) exceed this, often by several feet, leaving me to keep eyes back to negotiate the 3 inches of total clearance, and forward to police the Bear as he screams up the ramp, braking at the last minute in his enthusiasm for pizza. Some days it just seems so fraught that I want to stay home, when telling him he can’t ride his bike feels like the most wrong thing.
The revelation is now far in the past, but it took a shocking number of years for me to accept all stress as the same, functionally, insofar as metering out energy and warding off sickness and lassitude are concerned. These days it is not that I lack interest, ideas, or certainly ambition when it comes to going out in the woods. Today, I am supposed to be breaking trail towards Route Creek Pass, finishing a big ski traverse. Five days was first trimmed to four, when the initial departure was 10 hours away and I had only just bought food, packed nothing, and was profoundly flat of mind from the aforementioned days of profound progress at work. That day of rest was made less so when LlrB, who at not quite 9 months is on the verge of walking and inspired to daily increases in speed by his vertiginously energetic brother, took the early evening to totter over to the open oven and grab hold, raising a series of blisters along most of his right hand pads which came to equal the joint upon which they grew. Their dimensional horror was equaled only by our concern for his discomfort and what that would do to our sleep. Remarkably, the phlegmatic ways and quick metabolism of babies had him sleeping that night, and acting the next morning, as if nothing extraordinary had happened, save his right hand being imprisoned in a gauze wrap and sock (to defeat chewing).
So the ski trip was back on, until a mile down the snowy road, the official wilderness still looming in the distance, when and odd sideways slide proved to not be a rut hidden by fresh snow, but rather a front binding screw which had almost entirely backed out. My thought first went to the irony of having written on just such a subject the day before, then to the question of what horrid glue I had used to mount the bindings last winter (which would surely have all screws loosening quickly), and then to needing to call M, quickly. The drive between Ovando and Helena has sporadic cell service, and I hoped to catch her before she got too far, and before the walk back toward the highway took away my one bar of service. This messaging was not effective, and M noticed my messages a mile from home. All such tragedies are in the end small, the kids survived the many hours of driving, I got to hang out with Charlie for a few hours and share our love of cottonwood trees, and I was home the next day, rather than camped in Danaher Meadows, when the cold I’d been dodging all school year bit.
All equanimity put aside, it is impossible to not see two things as pointing towards my continued decline in adventure prowess. In work and kids I have daily, tiny adventures the magnitude of which easily equals anything else, and by that standard my life is more adventurous today than at any other time. It’s certainly more full of meaning, the kind which you choose once in the big picture and ever after marches towards and over you with equal randomness and inevitability. I’ve done enough packrafting, backpacking, skiing, and climbing that familiarity has forever (?) robbed me of the novelty and fear which once made these things so compelling. Today challenging trips first offer tranquility, in a way six years ago I would have never considered. Less time outside inevitably means less practice, which inevitably means that things get missed. Like a pair of skis that apparently didn’t get skied enough last year (or at all?) to reveal a bad mount. There’s a not inconsiderable extent to which this takes away both joy, in the illusion of competence, along with wearing away at the margins of safety.
There are reasons to hold on to that which is slipping away, beyond the very large portion of my identity and ego which has been tied up there for the last couple decades. Foremost is the kids, especially the big one, whose joy in being outside we’ve built so successfully. Doing stuff with kids outside is hard, and complicated, and the last thing that will help that cause is the big people dulling the edge of their skill and fitness. The question then becomes how. How can I stay sharp in the face of declining interest and much reduced time? That reframing of the question might well be it’s own answer. Work and family has taken a view of adventure, and how it shapes me daily, and pulled straight the waves and ripples of my developing self. I used to, by default, look for the soft 5.11, the fastest trail across a range, and most predictable descent. Now I know that, insofar as your soul is willing, difficulty always teaches more and better. You might want to avoid that bushwack if you only have 2 days for fifty miles, but ease is almost never clearly seen through the prism of knowledge per mile.