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Outdoor Skills + Advice: A Challenge to Parents: Go Outside With Your Kids Every Day

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By Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, Field Instructor and Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School; Photograph by Julie Hwang

I had the trip planned for months. Reserved two llamas from Lander Llama Company. Made and remade my packing list ten times. Took my Deuter Kid Comfort II pack on some test runs. Mapped out the route and got permits. We would spend a night in a spot I call “Beaver Meadow,” where the Popo Agie River oxbows and creeps through beaver lodges and willow stands, the perfect evening snack spot for moose. Then a few nights in Stough Creek Basin, a high alpine basin on Roaring Fork Mountain. Then we would wander over to Deep Creek Lakes for a few days, leaving the llamas down at camp for the day, to summit Wind River Peak.

All in all, it would be eight days in the mountains with my husband, our four-year-old, and two llamas packing our gear. Not a hard-core adventure … by any stretch of the imagination. Without the kiddo, Jamie and I could probably hike the whole route in a couple of days. But we knew better than to be ambitious. We would go at Kieran’s pace. If that meant stopping for an hour to admire a bug, or throwing rocks in the river for another two hours, that would be ok.

Kieran was beyond psyched.

“Amma [mom in Tamil]? Are we going into the Wind River Mountains with the llamas tomorrow?”

“No, not tomorrow. Four weeks from now.”

Same question the next day. Similar answer. The clock was ticking down to go time.

But that is when life got in the way, as it often does.

Jamie was called into the field on an emergency, and he took a flight to India a week later to lead a group of National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) students on a monthlong Himalayan backpacking course. (Yeah, bummer for him.) We support each other in our quest to achieve the perfect balance: a month or two in the field with NOLS, a month or two of single parenting, a month on vacation together, and the rest of the time at home. So I encouraged him to go.

“We can book the llamas for next year.” (I was doing a terrible job of hiding the disappointment.) Of course, Kieran was crushed … for all of two seconds until the next thing came along to distract him. Now he has all but forgotten the llamas.

Jamie left on a Friday, and I was in a quandary. It would have been easy to just hunker down for six weeks until I saw him again. Stay at home. Watch more Disney movies than usual. Maybe go on a couple of runs to justify eating horribly. But every fiber in my body protested against the prospect of a month and a half of sedentary brooding.

So I decided to go the other extreme. Try to get outside every day, be it spending an evening in the playground by the river or the weekend rock climbing with friends. By golly, my kid pack would get outside if I had anything to do with it!

It’s been over two weeks since the llama dream died, and so far so good. There are a couple of cruxes to every day. First, getting motivated to pack up the kid and gear, drive out to the wilderness, and begin the trudge.

And then there’s that moment in the day—I call it the mid-morning blues—when the whining gets so bad that I’m almost maxed out. If you’re a parent, you know that moment: when you’re just ready to call off your plans, call it a day, head back home, and turn on the boob-tube babysitter while you decompress.

But once I push through those cruxes, the days outside with Kieran are amazing. He cracks jokes, sings songs, scrambles on rocks, makes fun of me while I’m climbing (“Amma, you have a big fat butt! Amma, you’re climbing too slow!”). He’s more patient than I would ever be, hanging out at the base of a crag while I’m going up and down the rock with friends.            

Gazing up into the Wind Rivers from my back porch, I feel a little pang. What would that llama trip have been like? Would it have been the time of our lives, with sightings of big game (“mega-fauna,” we call it), fields of wildflowers, refreshing dunks in creeks warmed by the summer sun, philosophical stove-side discussions (Why are the llamas eating the grass? Why can’t I eat grass? Why?), followed by nighttime readings of Dr. Seuss and family cuddling in our tent? Or, would it have been an epic debacle, with whining and llama poop and demands to go home immediately?

But I need to stop asking myself these questions. No time for wondering what our trip would have been like. Kieran and I have some other memories to make.