Monday, February 3, 2014

Pablo Neruda was not as brave as my daughter

Disclosure: Piggyback Rider sent me a product for review, which was the genesis for this post.

A gate stands between us and Forest Road 89. A few steps and we pass out of (relative) civilization, away from paved streets, mailboxes, and chain-link fences. We pause at the threshold, pondering this weighty step we are about to take and we . . .

Later, dad!

. . . throw caution to the wind! My daughter is not one to wait quietly. Thresholds be damned! Because why stand still when you could be running? To have the wind blowing through your hair, tousled fondly by invisible hands. To feel your legs burning, pistons pumping, thumping, little engines of locomotion. To have your feet strike fresh, untamed ground, and strike it again, and again, thrusting into that great unknown with the impulsive courage of an explorer. Pablo Neruda said,
. . . life definitively ends at my feet,
what is foreign and hostile begins there:
the names of the world, the frontier and the remote,
the substantive and the adjectival too great for my heart
originates there . . .
But Pablo was a man, and not as brave as my daughter. Her heart is bigger than the world. It swallows up the frontier and still craves more. Onward! Stronger! Faster!

Until, that is, her seemingly infinite reserves suddenly run dry. The perpetual motion machine stumbles and collapses in a quivering heap. I'm left no option but to carry her tiny form in my arms, letting her soak the sun's rays while she moans about impossible distances and insurmountable barriers. And my arms grow heavier. And heavier.

I love taking walks with my daughter, but we mostly stay close to home. My daughter knows nothing of pacing herself. Hers is a personality of extremes. Her primary setting is full throttle, and so when she hits a wall, she hits it hard. The idea of being miles from home with a thirty pound melt-down on my hands makes my palms sweat. Which is unfortunate, because before I got all domesticated, I was a bit of an outdoors fiend. I'd disappear into the mountains for weeks at a time to get away from people, schedules, and modern "convenience."

As a parent, I've had to alter my expectations. I'm probably not going to be hiking twenty miles per day out into the wilderness with a three-foot-tall person in tow. Responsibility, and its attendant anxieties, has moderated my ambitions ("moderated" may be an understatement). But I want to prime my girl for a future of dad-daughter outdoor quests. 'Cause she's an adventurer at heart. She's my little Amelia Earhart, my Edmund Hillary. A love for the outdoors, a desire to reconnoiter our surroundings -- these are impulses we have in common. If only there were a way to "boldly go" without having to risk utter, soul-crushing defeat.

So I did some research and procured a "Piggyback Rider." It's a simple product, offering a lightweight harness and platform on which to stand a melodramatic "I can't walk anymore!" three-year-old. It's the mechanically perfected version of a piggyback ride, but a version that doesn't destroy your neck or back, and that allows the carrier full use of his or her hands.

I squat and let my daughter climb onto the inch-wide platform that rests just below my hips. She leans her head against my neck as I attach my harness to hers. Her hot little breaths blow into my ear. I stand and begin walking, and as she clings to the hand-holds on my shoulder, she offers me advice and constructive criticism.
"Go that way!"
"Your hair smells funny."
"You should go faster. I said FASTER!"
With her attention removed from the complicated task of putting one foot in front of the other, she's even the first to see the bird of prey. "Look, a eagle!"

A hawk, actually

It's good to get outside, but more than that, it's good to get out beyond the sanitized "outside" that's formed from sidewalks, playgrounds, and mowed lawns. It's a way to show my daughter that there's more to the world than can be found on a road map. That trails can be blazed beyond the paths that the masses travel. That having a picnic in the sand puts fun crunchy things in your snacks.

When you get far enough away from "civilization," you start thinking more seriously about self-sufficiency, about the things you want versus the things you need (Hint: water. Water should always be at the top of the list. And gummy bears). And when you have to carry all of those things, it gives the process of winnowing down a necessary urgency. Given that we don't make a lot of money, these are lessons that are really important for my daughter to learn. And for me to re-learn, in the process of trying to teach her.

'Cause in the end, most of the things that should make us happy, or keep us alive, are pretty simple. My daughter seems to get this.

Even with a clever device, trying new things with my daughter is not always easy. I used to think that I was an easy-going chap, back before I had responsibilities to anybody but myself. Now that I'm a parent, my sense of calm is very closely tied to routine and to the comfort of successful repetitions on a theme. Which is one reason that being a parent is such a growing experience. I know that even as my daughter and I benefit from setting achievable expectations and meeting them, there's something important for her and for me in trying things that are harder and riskier than our normal fare.

See, I relate to Pablo Neruda's anxieties about the "frontier" and the "remote," especially in the abstract sense. But with the help of a brave companion by my side (or on my back, as the case may be), there's something heady about the possibility of pushing at the boundaries that mark hostile territory, to ever expand our domain until it includes countries, until it includes worlds, until it includes universes.


Disclosure: Piggyback Rider sent me the NOMIS: Standing Child Carrier System in exchange for my thoughts about using the product. It should come as no surprise that my thoughts went all philosophical, so if you have any additional questions about the product, I can answer them in the comments! My opinions are my own.

All in all, this simple thing made our hiking experiences appreciably better. "Riding the bar," as the company puts it, requires the rider to stay alert and engaged, at the same time that it offers a nice break from having to hoof it every step of the way. By this same token, it encourages a kid to get down and continue walking when they're ready, rather than just falling asleep like they might in a different type of carrier. While there's a place for a more substantial, cocoon-like product, the Piggyback Rider is the one that I like for getting my daughter used to outdoor adventures in which she has to remain an active participant. 

SPECIAL OFFER: Piggyback Rider is offering a chance to win a free child carrier, just for my readers! All you have to do to get in the running is leave a comment here and then post an image to Piggyback Rider's Facebook wall using the theme, "Why I need a Piggyback Rider," and mention my blog. *** (EDIT: Expired - Congratulations to Ishkhanoohie Ouzounian Clayton for winning her own Piggyback Rider!)


  1. This is genius! My daughter, too, loves at the extremes and sometimes needs a lift. This looks easier than the awkward hand-lock-under-the-butt piggy back rides. Plus, she would totally pretend to be a horse rider and yell, "Prance!" Great, great, eloquent post. May they always want to push the boundaries.

    1. Mike, thanks! I've always been jealous of those parents who figure out ways to get outside on wild adventures with their kids. My own barrier is largely idiosyncratic, for having a really hard time letting go of control and getting really anxious when things start taking a turn for the worse. Some parents just take that in stride, but I've had to really stretch myself to get okay with it.

      And every time now that I suggest to my daughter that we should go out on a hike, she practically drags me out the door to start our adventure. It's really cool.

  2. I explained to a friend the other day how my hand hurt... well, really my thumb.

    "Do you have grandchildren?" [Yikes... how can anyone know me these days and not know the answer to that!??]

    "Yes... why do you ask?"

    "Because you've strained the tendons in your thumb by lifting your grandchildren. It's the only thing we life like this," he said showing me that grab-under-the-arms-and-lift-straight-up approach.

    Nice post! And enjoy the many trips with your daughter: they are SO precious!

    Charlie Seymour Jr

    1. Charlie, thanks. My daughter only weighs thirty pounds plus a bit, but I'm already dreading the day that I can lift her anymore. I never had a bad back until she was born, and now that pain is a nice little memento of fatherhood. Nifty little contraptions like this are helping out, though.

  3. I love going on hikes with my boys. It's even better now that they can walk on their own. That Piggyback Rider would have come in handy back in the day.
    P.S. The long shadow is a very cool pic.

    1. I know. I've mostly avoided hikes for the last few years, mainly because it was so hard to make it a pleasant experience with my daughter. And because I get kinda anxious about parenting when things start getting out of my control. But I love that she likes hiking with me now, and I hope we can build it up into a tradition.

  4. Very nicely done, I love Pablo Neruda.

    The Gif is cool. Do they make the rider big enough for a 13 year old. Mine weighs about 102 now but every now and then when we are wrestling I pick him up just to let him know I still can. ;)

    1. At that weight, Jack, I think all you can do is drag him by ankles.

      I truly do love Neruda. Discovered him in high school, and I look for opportunities to break him out ever since. All-time favorite: either "Ode to my legs" or "Black Pantheress."

  5. Looks pretty ingenious! I love how it keeps her involved in the hike. At a certain age, strollers are no longer appropriate, but my kids never want to actually walk, or they insist on going at their own pace. This would be really helpful.

    1. Yeah, I really like it. It is still a little awkward getting her in and out of the thing, but we've gotten better at it, and it's not really a barrier for us. It helps to have a stump or bench to assist in both the mounting and dismounting effort, especially if you're not super limber. But even without that, it only takes twenty or thirty seconds to squat and release the kid after she demands an impromptu picnic in the sand. Which she does frequently. It probably takes at least double that time to mount up again, but I'm not aware of a carrier that's any easier. And what really seals the deal is how lightweight and travel-worthy the thing is.

  6. Love the idea Neal. And by the way, this is one of the best review posts I have read in a long time. Very nicely done.

    1. I agree with James - well done review post and I love the beautiful hiking photos.

    2. Thanks so much, Alissa. There's nothing like getting out in nature.

  7. I too, as a parent, have found it quite remarkable how my kids taught me a whole new definition for courage, theirs and mine too.

  8. What a fantastic idea! With an almost 2 year old I'm thinking a lot about new hiking strategies :)

    1. Isn't it? In the end, my daughter spends more time sprinting up and down the trail than she spends in the Piggyback Rider. But it provides just enough rest and novelty that we've multiplied the distances that we can comfortably tackle. Three-mile hike: you don't scare me any more. And since the thing only weighs a couple of pounds and packs into a tight bundle, it's easy to travel with. We flew with ours to my ten-year high school reunion so that I could hike with my daughter on the same trails that I hiked back when I was a kid.

  9. Spending time with our kids as fathers is absolutely irreplaceable in our children's lives. I wrote a parenting tip about it called - Goofy is Great: What Dads Can Do to Create a Better Bond with Their Children.