Hiking with baby

How’s it going? I’m Chris Mohnacky, and this is my daughter. I’m not sure how much it’s safe to share about her online, so I’ll call her Skylark for now because that’s the song I sing to her when we’re out hiking and because, like Kanye says, every hero needs her theme music.

“Skylark, I don’t know if you can find these things, but my heart is riding on your wings”

Chris and Skylark hike among bambooHey look, it’s us.

We hike out in Wissahickon Valley Park, part of Philadelphia’s massive Fairmount Park system, starting from the trailhead on Hermit’s Lane. There’s an isolated 19th century mansion there and, somewhere in the woods below, a hermit’s cave of meditation.

It sounds like something a dad would lie about, as in “water towers are actually bird baths built to placate the deadly pterodactyls,” but a German mystic named Kelpius actually did come here in 1694 to meditate and prepare for the end of the world.

I sing out loud as we hike down the trail. “Skylark, have you anything to say to me? Won’t you tell me where my love can be?” The melody begins on a major sixth, like “All Blues” or “Mack the Knife,” giving it an up-in-the-air quality, as if it were breezing over the trouble below and nothing could touch it. My daughter leans way back in her carrier and listens intently with pinched eyebrows not to my singing, it seems like, but to the song the song reminds her of, distantly, mysteriously.

“Hey, look! It’s another baby,” a woman says, coming off a side trail. She wears all pro hiking gear with her baby in a backpack rig. Two friends are with her and we meet in a big circle. I keep my distance because Skylark hasn’t had all her vaccines yet, but they’re cool and don’t try to get up in her face.

“How old is she?”

“Two weeks.”

“Good for you! I took her out at two weeks. People said ‘you’re crazy,’ but the air is better out here than inside, and they stay warm next to your body like that.”

In my BabyBjorn Baby Carrier Original, Skylark rides facing me. She stays warm pressed against my chest, and I can keep an eye on her and make sure she’s breathing okay and she’s not too cold or overheated. She can’t see anything past my face, anyway, so the trail views don’t interest her. The hiking mom’s backpack style carrier is for older babies with neck muscles fully able to support their outsized heads. Her baby is bright-eyed and bouncing, piping and curious and following the conversation with big eyes. She’s plainly loving the adventure, out hiking with her intrepid mom.

“Our pediatrician said dress her in one more layer than I’d be comfortable in,” I recited, “and then just keep her away from crowds at the grocery store until she’s had all her vaccines.”

“Avoid crowded and enclosed spaces,” the hiking mom and her friends confirmed.

I know—now that I’ve been a parent for a few weeks longer—that this is when I should have said, “Enough with the small talk, who’s your daycare?”

Philadelphia, more than any other city I’ve lived in, runs on personal connections. It is the city of brotherly love, true to its advertising, but you have to make friends or you will never get a job or find out about anything.

For instance, you go to see some of these daycares, trying to find a place accepting any new kids, and the apathy is just undisguised. “Well, there’s not much you can do with an infant, you know.” Then, you find a place where you can see that everyone is caring and engaged with the kids, but they’ve got a six month waiting list. And it costs all of your money. So, then what? Nanny sharing? What even is that?

To help sort through all that, it’s really vital to get advice and recommendations from other parents in the neighborhood. Facebook and Meetup groups are good resources, but walking around your local park apparently works, too.

“There’s a new playmate for you,” the hiking mom tells her baby as we all say goodbye and take off in opposite directions, they back to the neighborhood and we deeper into the interior. We haven’t met them on the trail again yet, but it’s late December now, and too cold for hiking most days.

“Skylark, have you seen a valley green with spring, where my heart can go a-journeying?”

If it weren’t for my daughter, I would never sing out loud. Now that I’m a dad, I don’t care what other people think. I go around all the time now saying sentimental things without irony, telling strangers she’s the treasure of my heart. I don’t feel self-conscious about singing for her because it isn’t about me showing off. It’s about calming her and making her feel close and paid attention to.

The trail splits, and a marker offers us a choice of Lincoln Drive or Hermit’s Cave. Which one? We want to stay out awhile and give Mama some free time at home, but Lincoln Drive is up and down a steep hill. Hermit’s Cave is shorter, but potentially more dangerous. It’s been a long time since Kelpius, and goblins may have moved into his cave since then. Skylark is curious and not afraid of goblins. “All right,” I say, “but goblins are not to be underestimated.”

We take the steeper trail down the hillside, over knotted tree roots and craggy rocks. We pass dark groves of bamboo where tigers nap secretly among stone ruins. It gets harder to sustain the long notes of a slow ballad.

The Cave of Kelpius

When we find it, the Cave of Kelpius is a frightening void in the hillside framed by elemental slabs of quarried stone. There is a monument beside it with an engraved legend, but we don’t get close enough to read it. It probably says, “Go on in and make yourself at home, the goblins will be with you shortly. If you want, you can get cozy in one of the bloody burlap sacks provided.”

“Nope,” I say. Skylark agrees, and we leave the goblins to tempt less wary travelers.

On our way back, we take some extra time to investigate the trail where the hiking mom and her friends came from. This trail leads to underneath the Walnut St. bridge, where a bridge troll lives who will challenge you to answer a riddle.

“Stop, travelers, and answer my riddle,” says troll under the bridge.

Chris and Skylark meet the troll under the bridgeMesl, the bridge troll.

Nope,” we say and run away.

“Wait!” the troll calls after us. “That was just a conversation starter!”

We hike back up the way we came, past the bamboo forests, past the Hermitage Mansion, back to the blacktop on Hermits Lane, on our way home.

“Oh, Skylark, won’t you lead me there.”

In its last few bars, the melody rises up and skips over that cool, detached major sixth interval it began with. Instead, it reaches the dark, troubled minor seventh, then climbs higher still to the bright, optimistic major seventh, before finally resolving to the octave above. Skylark soars away, free even from the hopes of the ones who watch with love from below.

Someday our daughter will fly away, too, but that is a long way off. She sinks down in her hoodie with her nose tucked in and her little hands over her eyes, fast asleep, and we go home, safe and sound and warm.

In conclusion, I’d like to encourage other dads to go hiking with their babies, and to sing songs and make up stories, or name the plants and trees or just talk about whatever. It doesn’t feel like a task that can go wrong like swaddling or putting a diaper on quickly enough to keep her from screaming her face off in the middle of the night. It’s pure enjoyment and it’s a chance to see the world new again and be close with your child.

Until next time!


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