On the Road with Huggies and a Binkie

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Family Vacations, Summer 1998

On the Road with Huggies and a Binkie

Some might call it lunacy to drag toddlers on "vacation." But we say, boldly go where no sane parent has gone before.
By Hampton Sides


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It was our first ambitious trip as parents, and we were anxious to prove a point to ourselves — that our lives hadn't changed all that much, that we could still cover serious ground with a papoose on our back, that additions were not liabilities. Our son McCall was about eight months old — old enough, we imagined, to groove on some marquee scenery. So we flew cross-country from Washington, D.C., and made our way up to Yosemite Valley where, on that parched day in midsummer beneath the chiseled scallop of Half Dome, it seemed that 10,000 other young parents were also encamped, determined to enjoy John Muir's playground with — or if necessary, in spite of — their young kids.

We rented one of those classic tent cabins in Curry Village, a bad call as it turned out. The tents are made of paper-thin canvas and built cheek by jowl into the hillside, a kind of rustic version of Hong Kong. You can pretty well guarantee that your every sneeze and snuffle and Velcro scritch will be heard by 2,000 other "sleeping" neighbors — and vice versa. The real trouble started about 2 a.m. when McCall woke up screaming, an anxious caterwaul that we recognized instantly: ear infection. We had medicine for it, but we didn't have a muzzle, and now we could hear all of Curry Village stirring around us — moans, expletives, random riflings for ear plugs and Valiums in a thousand backpacks. Will somebody shut that kid up!

My wife and I long ago stopped fretting so much about our kids' occasional and most unfortunate tormenting of perfect strangers, but back then, as new parents, we still had what they call manners. So I broke out the little framed baby backpack, slipped McCall inside, and headed out for a long, long walk in Yosemite Valley: The Moonlight Tour. Ah, El Capitan! Bridalveil Falls! We had the whole valley to ourselves, everything bathed in a skim-milk blue. Well, not entirely to ourselves — we did stumble upon a posse of giant Yosemite raccoons staging one of their early-morning raids on the Curry Village garbage cans. Another father wandered over with his daughter on his back. We stood there for a while staring vacantly at the fat happy coons as they stuffed themselves pink.

"Ear infection," I droned to my counterpart dad.

"Diaper blowout," he replied.

I nodded appreciatively, and then I noticed that others had joined us, nursing moms, sea-level kids bothered by the altitude, a grandpa stoically shouldering one of those fiendish newborns who seem to need constant motion before they can fall back to sleep. It was a scary brigade of insomniacs, all in all, emerging from the bosky shadows like the break-dancing corpses in the Thriller video. You could say we were having the essential Yosemite experience, or at least a dim facsimile — beautiful scenery, wildlife, family togetherness, camaraderie with fellow campers. Only it was 4 a.m., and we were too comatose to know it. I felt the gentle rasp of a snore against my shoulder. McCall was fast asleep.

The next morning, vast herds of young families were crammed into the Curry Village cafeteria: Scores of young parents just like us were pouring syrup, squeezing ketchup, cleaning up milk puddles. You could see an almost religious determination on our parental faces, the solemn conviction that it was indeed worth all the hassles of dragging our little angels here, our little up-spitting, diaper-soiling, booger-smeared angels. They may not know it now, but this is all for their benefit. Fresh air and big scenery are good for small bodies and minds. Right?

Sure. But let's not delude ourselves. Those first ambitious trips with a little one are less important for the kids than they are for new parents, who need to convince themselves as soon as possible that they can prowl the world much as they used to — albeit in more reasonable doses. The earlier you start this process of extending your range, the better. Otherwise, you begin to slip into a state of ossified domesticity, and insipid jingles from the television begin to infect your soul.

Over the past few years we've managed to get ourselves — and our three boys — from one end of the continent to the other, from Baja to Canyon de Chelly, from the Mississippi Delta to the Blue Ridge Mountains. More often than not, we've even enjoyed ourselves. And it was that first test balloon we sent up in Yosemite Valley that started it all.

All good trips require a suitable souvenir, and I found the perfect one on our last day in Yosemite. It enjoys a prominent place in McCall's room right now, a replica of a 1920s vintage poster from the National Park Service. "Experience the Valley by moonlight," it says. "Two-hour scenic tour departs tonight."

Illustration by James Yang

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