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Rachel Liechty was pregnant when she and husband, David, had an inspired idea for binding the family together after the birth: They would hike the Pacific Crest Trail. More than a year later, the University of Minnesota graduate students -- she is studying natural resources science and management; he is focusing on education -- headed out, with baby Hazel riding in a pack on her mother's back. Now that they're home, the parents have lots to say on the subject (see G1 for details on an upcoming talk). No word from Hazel, though she looks quite content in her fleece and mini hiking boots.
Q You were out with Hazel for six months, beginning when she was 1 year old. How did you plan for that?
David: We had done a long-distance trip before [on the Pacific Northwest Trail], so we basically knew what we had to do. We started planning before Hazel was born, but we weren't going to do it if she wasn't amenable. We took her on a high-altitude trip in Colorado when she was 5 months old, and she did great. We had to figure out whether we could set up a system where Rachel was carrying Hazel and I was carrying the gear.
Rachel: David's pack weighed more than 50 pounds, close to 60 when we had to pack a lot of water.
David: The biggest thing was, we had confidence about bringing Hazel outdoors. People have been living outside with their kids for centuries.
Q So what was in that heavy pack of yours?
David: Beside the usual supplies and clothes, I had diapers, a small pack of wet-wipes, Hazel's rainsuit, the rainfly for her pack and that's about it. You don't need to bring toys. Hazel prefers rocks and leaves any day. We did usually have one book, which got read over and over and over again: Dr. Seuss' "The Foot Book" or Eric Carle's "Baby Bear, Baby Bear, What Do You See?" I didn't have to carry "Baby Bear" after a couple months because I would recite it from memory ad nauseam to Hazel when we were hiking.
Q What kinds of reactions did you get from people?
David: People were rooting for us to hike the whole trail, but it wasn't about that. It was about being together as a family and being there for Hazel and seeing her grow. So many parents can't spend that much time with their children.
Rachel: We got a lot of questions, even from experienced hikers, on the trail. People asked, "How do you keep her warm?" Diapers was the number one question.
Q What did you do about diapers because, really, that is kind of a puzzle in this age of disposables.
David: We use cloth diapers called Flips that have a leakproof shell that buttons around a cloth insert. One side of the insert is made out of a moisture-wicking fabric, so they kept Hazel dry for a little while before changing. We packed 10 inserts, and would hand-wash them in a collapsible basin called the Kitchen Sink. We would fill the basin at a water source and wash the diaper inserts with biodegradable soap. After wringing them out, we'd hang them to dry on breaks, but the quintessential shot of our trip would be of me hiking down the trail with two to nine cloth diaper inserts hanging off my backpack. We always carried out Hazel's poop in a sealed waterproof and leakproof -- but most importantly, odor-proof -- sack called OPSAK.
Q What would you do if Hazel got cranky?
David: Hazel really didn't get cranky on the trail, primarily because she just doesn't get cranky that often. Since the day she was born, we wanted to expose her to different environments, but we've always let her dictate our trips. You don't have to drag Hazel kicking and screaming to get outside; she's actually more cranky if she can't be on the trail. On the occasional times that she would get mildly cranky, I would recite books from memory, sing lullabies or do a call and response "loon call." I would do my best -- painfully amateurish -- loon call, and Hazel would respond with something bordering on a happy primal scream.
Q What did you learn about your daughter during those months?
David: I think the great thing about our trip is that we didn't really learn much new about Hazel at all; we just had the opportunity to appreciate what we already knew about her: that she's a beautiful, incredibly happy child who loves being outside with the wind in her face and climbing on (or chewing on) rocks.
Q What surprised you, even with all your trail experience?
David: The biggest surprise we encountered wasn't the snow. We were already surprised with the apocalyptic snowfall the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains got over the winter, well before the trip started. I'd say the biggest surprise was how mild the 700 miles of Southern California were weather-wise. When you're planning a [Pacific Crest Trail] trek, you always read about the "dreaded" Mojave Desert, where it can reach triple digits and be unbearably hot. Well, our coldest, wettest and windiest days came when we were descending onto the desert floor in Southern California. We actually saw snow falling on the fringe of the Mojave in the middle of May; that was pretty crazy.
Q Now that you're back home, what do you most want people to understand about this trip?
David: You don't need to go 1,500 miles. Take an overnight trip, or even a day trip. We are raising a generation of kids where getting dirty is an inconvenience, being outdoors is a foreign notion. Going backpacking with your kids shouldn't be viewed as this big accomplishment; it should be something you integrate into your life.
Before our trip, there were several people who basically told Rachel and me that our "time for playing is over." They implied that once you have kids, it's time to switch to anonymous provider mode. Well, we believe that it's fundamentally important that you don't stop playing, that you show your kids that you plan on living your life centered around your passions, whatever they be -- but you also center those passions around your child. You can't raise a passionate child without passionate parents.
The three things we focus on are rooted in children's brain development, D.N.A.: disequilibrium, novelty and adventure. Kids are constantly seeking these out and savor opportunities to be in new, challenging situations. We learned that if we keep our lives rich with disequilibrium, novelty and adventure, we're going to do all right as parents -- and we're going to be genuinely happy.
Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282