Backcountry 101

If there’s one thing Durangoans pride themselves on, it’s their prowess in the outdoors. Whether it be snow, sleet or scree, they’ve got the tools and know how to handle it. Put them on a blustery mountaintop miles from nowhere with some old gorp, and they’re right at home. But plunk them down behind a desk for too long, and you’ll have a confused, cornered animal on your hands, willing to chew its own limbs off in order to escape.

And I should know. After just one month of cubicle, fluorescent-light, career-wear hell, I went scurrying back to the mountains. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, I have a confession to make. As a newly arrived freshman at the University of Colorado, I was completely and utterly clueless about anything involving the outdoors. In fact, when approached by dorm mates to go on a “hike,” I may as well have been asked to partake in a death march. I was a suburban girl from the flatlands, and the thought of tromping through the woods, unless it was to get to a kegger, had never even occurred to me.

“What do you do on a hike?” I asked in all seriousness.

My colleague from down the hall, an East Coast, outdoorsy type still bedecked in beads and batik from her recent trip to Nepal, was stymied.

“I don’t know … walk around and look at stuff,” she stammered in disbelief.

I returned her baffled look. The closest thing to hiking I partook in was pounding polished tile in a climate-controlled mall – at least there, you had the option of buying the stuff you were looking at. And let’s be honest. I had come to CU for its extracurriculars, but communing with nature was not one of them. In fact, up until then, the only memory I had of hiking was of a torturous third-grade Girl Scout outing. It involved a Birkenstock wearing troop mom, who insisted we call her by her first name and force fed us homemade granola bars the consistency of sawdust.

“I’ll take a pass,” I returned with rolled eyes to my would-be hiking companions.

It would be at least another year before I actually partook in the activity of hiking for hiking’s sake. And much to my surprise, I quite enjoyed it. I even went so far as to forego new aerobics shoes (hey, it was the late ’80s) for a pair of hiking boots. I was no Sacagawea, but I did find a simple walk in the hills to “look at stuff” was a pleasant diversion from my studies and a welcome change from the mechanized world of indoor recreation. Needless to say, I still shudder when recalling that notorious line, “what do you do on a hike?” – which, regrettably, has lived on in infamy in certain circles.

Fortunately, being human we are able to learn from our mistakes and thus, protect others from committing such painful faux pas. Therefore, I decided it was high time to introduce my progeny to the great outdoors at the tender age of 2. Sure, there had been outings before – in a backpack, sled or riding the chairlift – but this was to be the first under his own power. OK, so maybe it was a little early, but he was going to start preschool in a few years. And sooner or later, someone was bound to ask him about hiking, and I didn’t want him to be the laughing stock.

Besides, it’s not like I harbored any grandiose delusions of summitting a Fourteener. It was to be a simple, enjoyable affair on a flat, easy trail. We’d go a ways, eat a little lunch (no homemade granola bars), skip a few stones into the creek, and head back. But, I soon learned even this was an ambitious plan. See, anyone who has spent time with small children knows they do not think in a linear fashion. Instead of going from Point A to Point B to Point C, they randomly ping pong amongst the three, and all unnamed points in between. I, of course, neglected to realize this until it was too late and the outing had deteriorated into a miserable test of parental patience. So, in an effort to allow others once again to learn from my mistakes, and with due respect to the legitimate hiking guide authors out there, here is my list of dos and don’ts for hiking with small children:

• Whatever you do, do not forget the highly coveted sippy cup of lukewarm apple juice sitting in the car. Even though you have packed an icy-cold water bottle of freshly squeezed lemonade, they will insist on drinking from the same, ratty old cup and will not fail to remind you of this, with intermittent whines and wails, every 5 feet or so.

• While a basic, healthy lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and fruit may seem like a good idea, it will only be transformed into a sticky film that will entice the resident bee and flying insect population to swarm in droves around you. Maybe sawdust granola bars aren’t such a bad idea after all.

• Do make sure the little tyke is wearing comfortable, supportive footwear that cost you lots of money at the chi chi sporting goods store. Not that it matters, because you will likely be carrying him once heat exhaustion and/or boredom sets in, after the first 20 yards or so. But hey, at least he’ll look the part.

• Do not be fooled that, even though it is the hottest day of the year, it will be cool once you start gaining some elevation and are shaded by the towering pines. Chances are, you will never make it that far, and instead spend a majority of your time baking in the parking lot or within the immediate vicinity of the trailhead, which actually traps heat like a black Camaro in Death Valley in the summertime.

• Do take time to explore your natural surroundings, pointing out the various flora and fauna. This way, the outing can facilitate family bonding as well as education. For example, exploring the creek side, one learns that it takes a toddler less than half an hour to completely denude a beach of rocks, thus effectively undoing eons of geological forces.

• And last of all, don’t forget to have fun. Don’t worry if a game of fetch deteriorates into throwing the stick at the dog instead of to him; you turn to find your little darling’s hand tightly grasping the severed limb of a dead animal; or there is more interest in the irrigation ditch rather than the free-flowing mountain stream adjacent to it. These moments are priceless – something you’ll never find in even the most air-conditioned, bug-free, muzak-playing mall anywhere.

– Missy Votel