“I can’t wait to get there,” my five-year-old daughter declared about 20 minutes into our mother/daughter bikepacking trip. I tried hiding my annoyance and reminded her that we still had a long way to go. I tried to act as the wise mother and make this a teachable moment as I told her, “The fun of bikepacking is riding your bike and enjoying the adventure.” Although I believed what I was saying, I got it. I’m just like her. I can’t wait to get to where I think I’m supposed to be.
I picked a trail that I knew would be challenging for her, but hopefully not discouraging. The route totals about five miles of single track. It starts with some steep, rocky ups and downs that I knew we would have to walk, then opens to a narrow cow trail that follows a creek. The second half of the ride crosses the creek and connects to a popular hiking trail that circles a well-traveled campground. We had taken a family bikepacking trip a few weeks before, but she rode a tag-along attached to my husband’s bike. This was the first time she rode her own bike, and certainly the most miles she had ever ridden. I pulled a trailer designed for mountain trails loaded with gear for both of us.
When we started on the trail, I rode behind her, wanting to watch how she handled the trail and allowing her to set the pace. That didn’t last long. She would take about two or three pedal strokes before stopping to tell me a joke or ask a question. I knew we would have to go slowly, but at this rate, we literally wouldn’t make it. I hopped in front and tried to make sure I didn’t get too far ahead. When we hit the cow trail, I thought it would be smooth sailing as the hills were more gradual and the packed dirt was mostly free from rocks and roots. As it turned out, that two-mile stretch took much encouragement. I knew a great stop along the creek, and promised her a long break once we got there. She couldn’t wait to take off her shoes and wade in the water. Her cheeks were bright red from both the heat and the physical exertion demanded on her little five-year-old body.
Although I was tempted to pick a closer place to break, I know from experience that there is nothing better than pushing yourself to that perfect resting place. We arrived at the creek with a huge rock that held a wobbly board to bridge the other side, and a large dirt patch by the bank that passed as a “beach.” She beamed as she ripped off her shoes and socks, pulled up her pant legs, and waded in the water. We pulled out a snack and took some photos. She wanted to play pirates and walked across the “plank” with bare feet. The game ended with me trying to pull slivers out of the bottom of her feet. One particular sliver was so deep, I pulled out my pocket knife and tried to gently break through some skin to pry the small wood remnants out. She sat patiently and bravely, rubbing her fingers over the scar on the back of my right calf.
The scar was from a bike wreck many years ago, before I even really knew how much I loved biking. I hit a log, toppled over, and the clipless pedal jammed deep into the back of my calf, leaving three puncture wounds that would turn out to leave a permanent mark. Back then, I mostly rode my bike to impress boys. I was hoping to snag the kind of guy who wore Patagonia jackets, repaired holes with duct tape, and walked through parks and backcountry campsites in bare feet. At the time I got the wound that would leave the scar, I didn’t know that I would eventually snag a guy like that. I also didn’t know that I would end up falling in love with biking, and that those dirty, bare feet of the type of guy I pined after would end up annoying me every time he propped them on the new ottoman I bought for our house 12 years later. Yet, here I was, with our daughter, digging a sliver from her foot with our bikes propped against a rock, as she rubbed her pointer finger across the scar on my calf.
We still had a couple of miles left to go. The excitement of setting up camp and playing cards in our tent was enough for her to put her shoes back on and press on. There were several more big hills. I ended up pedaling up each hill with the trailer, setting my bike down, then going to help her push her bike up. There was a fine line between encouraging her to rise to the challenge and the challenge being so great that she felt defeated. I know that line well. This was the first bikepacking trip where the one dragging behind wasn’t me.
I am usually the one trailing behind my husband who is faster, fitter, and honestly, mentally stronger than I am. I got a small glimpse into how he must feel. Do I help her? Do I push her? Is she about to lose it? Truth is, on most bikepacking trips, I am about one small log I have to drag my heavy bike over away from a mental breakdown. But that’s the beauty. That’s why I keep doing it. The struggle ends up being enriching. The process more important than the destination.
My daughter and I eventually made it. We set up camp. We ate noodles. We took selfies. We did yoga on a big rock. We purified water from the creek. We played cards in the tent. We cuddled close as it got dark. We woke up in the morning and prepared for the long journey back. This time, my daughter was acutely aware of what that entailed. Although a bit reluctant, she rose to the occasion. The ride back seemed more difficult on tired legs and a night of sleeping on the ground. When I pushed her bike up the hills, she would lag behind, walking slowly, kicking dirt, picking flowers, and meandering her way up. But, we made it! When we got to the car, she was thrilled. She sat and ate a snack and I packed the car and loaded the bikes. We took a celebratory selfie and hopped in. She wanted to go home and eat mac and cheese.
As we drove away, I asked, “Was that harder than you expected?”
“Yeah, it was really hard,” she replied.
Another teachable moment. I told her, “That’s why I love bikepacking. We get to discover how strong we are.”
She didn’t respond. She was gazing out the window, wondering out loud what her dad and brother were doing. I relented. How could I explain to a five-year-old the psychology of the human spirit? That she will learn over and over and over again that material things will not make her happy? That the most fulfilling experiences of her life will be the ones that she chooses to move through struggle, not avoid it? That the quality of life is amplified when we choose to rise to the challenge inherent in so many moments in our lives? That focusing our consciousness on the challenge in front of us clears our minds, quiets our anxieties, and grows our capacity to harness inward happiness? That working through challenges and focusing on what’s presented in each moment teaches us that the richness of life isn’t about the end product, but the process? How could a five-year-old possibly understand that a bikepacking trip does all these things and more?