Content and images by Payton MacDonald www.paytonmacdonald.com Probably every father dreams of sharing his passions with his children. If our children are extensions of ourselves, and the things we love define us, then it is logical to bring them together. My children are Madeline (age six) and Maia (age four). My passion is bikepacking. I am fiercely devoted to my girls, but I also love spending long days in the saddle, feeling the power of natural settings course through me. My wife Jessica is also a lover of nature. She and I agree that time spent in nature is much preferable to time indoors for our children. The woods, mountains, lakes, streams, beaches, and meadows are places of infinite creativity for our girls. A pile of rocks will occupy them for hours. They revel in the patterns and colors and shapes, and invent endless games and stories. Early childhood experts describe these kinds of objects as “loose parts toys,”1 creativity in children. The natural world is entirely made up of loose parts toys. Lincoln Logs and Legos are examples of manufactured loose parts toys and they are effective tools for learning, but they don’ hold a candle to the magic of a field of wildflowers, or a rocky beach. Lincoln logs don’t breath. Legos don’t flow. With all that in mind, I hoped that someday I could share the magic of bikepacking with one of my two daughters. I figured it would take a while, though. Not only would my girls need to learn to ride bikes, but they’d need to be sufficiently tough enough to weather rain, hike-a-bike sections, wet tents, and gas station food. Those situations are not exactly fun for an adult, much less a child. But I underestimated how tough kids can be. Madeline got rid of her training wheels by the time she was six and a half. Shortly thereafter she asked me if she could join me on one of my bikepacking adventures. I explained that she would have to learn to ride on dirt and carry some of her own gear. She said she could do it, so I started to look for a route. New Jersey has many miles of rail trails. I figured that would be a good introduction for her as there wouldn’t be any serious hills and we could resupply easily enough. Based on our rides around the paved loops in the parks, I thought somewhere around seven or eight miles would be good. That would only take an hour or less, and then we could focus on one of her primary motivations for the trip: roasting marshmallows on the campfire. We started in Allamuchy State Park in New Jersey and rode the Sussex Branch Trail. The goal was to make it 7.5 miles to a campground in Kittatinny State Park, where a bundle of firewood would be waiting for us. I didn’t want her to carry too much as her bike was already quite heavy for her size, so I just loaded her up with my ultralite down sleeping bag on the handlebars and a backpack that had a few food items in it. We practiced loading everything on and off the bike for a few days before we left. She was quite proud of her bikepacking setup. When her friends came over to play she was quick to tell them that she was going bikepacking with Daddy in a few days. We waited until we had a clean stretch of weather and we were off. Things went pretty well at first, but I miscalculated the pace. Indeed, our moving average was just over 7 mph according to my bike computer, but I didn’t realized how much she would need to stop. It hadn’t occurred to me that she wasn’t yet able to ride with just one hand, so every time she had an itch or got a spider web across her face, she pulled to a stop and took care of it. I also forgot that sections of the trail are somewhat technical with rocks and roots, and although it was basically flat, there were still small rolling inclines and descents. She powered through rooty and rocky sections on the descents, bustling right along at 10+ mph, and even letting out a “whoo hoo!” on occasion. However, the climbs gave her considerable difficulty. She is still getting the hang of getting the bike going, and with the combination of the incline and rocks it was tough sledding. Our progress slowed to a crawl on these sections and she ended up pushing her bike for long stretches. (I also made a mistake with my gear. With all the starting and stopping, unclipping from the SPD pedals became a hassle. I should have used platform pedals for this excursion. Lesson learned.) We didn’t get riding until 4:30. I expected to get to the camp site by 5:30 or 6:00 and have plenty of daylight, but as the evening stretched on I began to get anxious. At mile three I asked her if she wanted to consider riding back to the car and then driving to the campground. “No!” she said resolutely. “We are riding there.” And with that she trudged ahead through another stretch of hike-a-bike. That’s my girl. I was proud of her, but honestly it was difficult for me. Almost all of my bikepacking adventures have been done at a fairly fast pace. I typically put in 100+ mile days, riding from early in the morning until late at night; often hard and fast so I can evade a storm or make a supply point before closing or just because I enjoy the exhilaration of pushing my limits. It has become ingrained in me to push, and push hard. Bikepacking with Madeline became a Buddhist exercise. I struggled to find acceptance of the tension inside of me as I fretted about the impending darkness, while thoroughly enjoying the quality time I was spending with my daughter. There was nothing I could do and more importantly there was nothing I should do, except encourage her and keep her spirits up when the riding was hard. I did my best to make the situation fun and get her to laugh when things went wrong, like when I made a navigation error and we had to back up to find the trail again. (There are parts of the Sussex Branch Trail that go on and off roads. I missed one trail reentry from a road.) We thought it would be fun to shortcut it, so we climbed a steep hill to get back to the trail. We eventually made it to the campground, after three and a half hours of riding. She was ecstatic. We pitched the tent and made a fire. We ate our dinner and roasted our marshmallows. Night emerged. We gazed at the fire and philosophized about the color of the flames, and the dancing patterns they made. She asked me existential questions about life and love and nature. I answered as best I could, but at the end of a long line of questioning I had to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, and neither did anyone else. I was reminded again of the power of Socratic inquiry and the humility it bestows, and the fact that children pursue it much better than adults. I believe she saw me as a human being that night, vulnerable and unsure, like herself. But I also believe she saw the strength that comes from dedicated fatherhood, as well as the humility that nature inspires in someone who is open to it. The bond we shared over the fire was both empowering and humbling for me. I am a man in full, with a beautiful family, a successful career, and a passion to fill my time. But the universe is vast indeed and one’s life is so brief, just a spark of light, extinguished before it has even really caught fire. My chest swelled with power and pride even as I shrank before the open sky. We were asleep by 9:30. It was dark, but just barely, and the sky was purple with only a few twinkling satellites. But when I got up in the middle of the night to relieve myself I noticed that we were sleeping under a riot of stars. I nudged her awake when I was back in the tent and gestured upwards. “Wow,” she said softly. We spent a half hour gazing at the stars and cuddling up, wondering about how far away they were and if there were any other creatures out there. We eventually drifted back to sleep, our foreheads touching. We awoke to a chilly morning, and the tent covered in dew and condensation. After stamping around a bit we got moving by 7:00 a.m. Breakfast was a few granola bars and crackers. The day warmed quickly and after we got our blood moving a bit, the riding was glorious. She continued to enjoy the descents and had quite a bit of fun passing me on the flats. I made a big deal of this, showing feigned surprise at her speed. I told her more than once that she was “tough as nails.” That statement produced a big smile. She only broke down in tears once, when she was struggling to get her bike up a rocky incline. I realized she was hungry (as was I) and needed something more substantial than the usual junk food drip bikepacking diet. I shared her pain as there is some punishing technical single-track in the area off of the rail trail that has given me considerable difficulty over the years, no matter how much I ride it. Any mountain biker will admit that there is nothing more frustrating than trying to get a bike going up a technical incline and having to start and stop and ultimately end up walking. Things with wheels want to roll, after all . . . However, we weren’t far from a supply point and we eventually managed some egg and cheese sandwiches. It was the first time I got to sit in a parking lot and share a bone-fide bikepacking meal with someone in my family. It was glorious. I complimented her again on her tenacity and strength. The rest of the morning went quickly and soon enough we were back in the car. I was surprised whenwe weren’t even out of the parking lot and she was already asking me when we were going to do anotherbikepacking adventure. I assured her there would be many, many more.