The Itinerant Toddler

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Family Vacations, Summer

The Itinerant Toddler
What Terrible Twos? A parental primer on where to go, what to bring, and how to stay sane


Mackinac Island

Rug-Rat Resorts

Gear to Go:
All the right stuff for toddlers

Biker Mama
Max was being eaten by a dragon. Nothing else could explain his unearthly, piercing shrieks. Veering off to the side of the bike path, I leapt from the saddle and hurried back to the bike trailer where I'd stowed my 18-month-old son. "Mommy, mommy!" he was screaming. Thrusting out his blunt little index finger, he pointed toward my bike's rear end. "Wheel," he shouted. He looked at me for confirmation, then wriggled and grinned, squealing with glee. "Wheel! Wheel! Wheeeel!"

For more than two years, since I'd first learned I was pregnant, I'd been dreaming of this moment. My son's incipient arrival had produced the first prolonged interruption in cycling of my adult life. Before pregnancy and parenthood, my husband and I had commuted to work on bikes, vacationed on bikes, pillow-talked about bikes. Then I'd been forced off the saddle. (Bicycle seats are rather obviously incompatible with the anatomies of those who've recently given birth.)

So perhaps I rushed too soon into bike-sharing. When my son was barely a year old, we attached a child's seat to the back of my mountain bike, slapped a helmet on Max's head, and entered a new realm of terror. As Max peeked out from beneath the massive toadstool on his noggin, I wobbled to the end of our driveway. And instantly realized I didn't dare go on. Never before had riding seemed so perilous. A car meandered leisurely down our street. Traffic! Max wiggled. The seat was coming loose! He cried. I was a terrible, delinquent mom!

The lesson I learned from this abortive jaunt was twofold: First, forgo those damn child seats, which make your bicycle nerve-wrackingly unbalanced; and second, just forgo. You needn't rush back into an activity just because you long for your child to bond with biking — or skiing or hiking or whatever. Your bike won't rust. Your body won't calcify. And your skills won't dissipate if you hold off until your child can articulate an active desire to accompany you.

Which is exactly what Max did. When he was a year and a half old I assembled our shiny new bike trailer. Max crawled in, clutched hold of the side pocket, and emphatically declared himself at home. "No out," he told me firmly. So I hooked the trailer to my bike, pulled out onto the street, and rediscovered the joys of the open trail while Max sang behind me, a joyful aural reminder of how lovely it can be just to watch the wheels go round.
— Gretchen Reynolds

The Making of a River Rat
Winters are long at the 45th parallel, particularly when one is dealt a resistant strain of cabin fever. All it took was a freak 50-degree day in early May to inspire an outing. Time to take our five-month-old son on his maiden float down the Yellowstone River.

Driving up Paradise Valley, near Pray, Montana, the warmth through our windshield lured us into a summery complacence. What a grand milestone, we thought, exposing little Clyde Walker to the wonders of our nation's longest unharnessed river. All with an Absaroka-Beartooth backdrop. Cindy and I blushed with parental self-congratulation.

Topping off the raft, I noticed a gust of wind momentarily blow the river backward. Not to worry, I thought — but we should've brought the kite. That's when we broke out the ITD (infant torture device) — sometimes referred to as a "life jacket." Little CW was pissed. This foam-filled straitjacket pushed his wee little melon all cockeyed. Perched in the center of the rowing frame, sun hat tethered snug under his chin, he began to wail. And then the wind kicked in.

Thirty feet from the put-in, we began to second-guess our brilliance. But Grey Owl, our take-out, was just a couple of miles downstream. Beyond any reasonable fail-safe point, whitecaps blasted over the bow. Resolved nonetheless to this character-building excursion, we hunkered under our hoods, with me pulling the oars like a whip-scared Viking. For the entire float, CW screamed at that perfect pitch that turns adult brains to mush.

Zealous parental enthusiasm (ZPE) is a dicey thing. I wouldn't for a moment encourage you not to exercise it. It's what inspired us to get CW out for his first ski turns before age two, crank his first boulder problem and belly-board his first wave before three. But every now and then ZPE will burn you with third-degree severity. Such was our day on the Yellowstone.

Now age six, CW defines river rat. Just look it up in Webster's and there you'll see his snaggletoothed grin. None the worse for wear.
— Mike Harrelson

The Princess and the Futon
As rock climbers, my husband and I always considered camping secondary to climbing; we'd spend days or weeks on the road and think nothing of it. But once our daughter arrived, the prospect of spending even a single night away from home — in a tent, no less — assumed the proportions of a full-on expedition.

It was our first time out, and my husband and I still traveled light: the clothes we were wearing, a layer of fleece to sleep in, plus down coat, hat, and gloves. But seven-month-old Celia could have used a porter for all her bags — enough diapers and wipes for septuplets, her favorite cuddly toy plus umpteen alternates, blankets, books, meals, snacks, and outfits for any climate under the sun. Then there was the futon. Forget the Therm-A-Rests — since we were already lugging the four-season, eight-person, 25-pound tent we received as a baby-shower gift, we figured we might as well furnish it in style.

We packed the car during a pelting rainstorm. What were we thinking? It would have been so much easier to just stay home. But I guess somehow this trip was symbolic. If we were to give up, it would mean we had imprisoned ourselves in parenthood, something we promised each other we'd never do. So we crammed the car and drove off, determined to camp at one of our favorite spots outside Flagstaff, Arizona, a mere 400 miles away.

Hours behind schedule, we arrived to find the campsite (surprise!) cold, damp, and dark. So much for the gourmet camp dinner we had envisioned; instead, we wolfed down a tuna sandwich in the car. We put the tent up, and Celia down, then settled in on either side of her.

Aside from waking up nine or 10 times each to check on her, we made it through the night relatively untraumatized. Celia, of course, hardly stirred. Suddenly it was 6:00 a.m. and she was wide awake, much better rested than we were. She flashed us an impish grin; we smiled back, a bit wearily. We'd packed a hundred things we hadn't used and driven hundreds of miles, just to sleep eight hours in a tent. But the point is, we'd broken a barrier, and we knew it would get easier from here on out.
— Liz Lee

Mackinac Island
The Gold Standard in Toddlerdom

Any vacation that starts on the top deck of a ferry and takes you to an island where they produce more than 31 flavors of fudge is guaranteed to make kids happy. And since traffic consists of only horses and bicycles — no cars allowed — it's ideal for letting toddlers off their leads.

Our kids are still pretty young, so we haven't trekked through Nepal or paddled dugout canoes in Botswana. Our family adventures have been more along the lines of the Griswolds's, minus the cadaver thumping along behind the car. But for us, Mackinac is now the gold standard. We crawled in and out of Skull Cave (once an Indian burial chamber), visited 18th-century Fort Mackinac with its costumed guides and historical reenactments, skipped stones into Lake Huron, and rode bikes (we rented tagalongs for our three- and five-year-olds) along the shoreline road that rings the island.

We stayed at the Mission Point Resort, a cross between a Northern Michigan lodge and a Victorian clapboard mansion that has a heated pool, a health club, and the island's only movie theater. Our room-with-a-view was snug for five but outfitted with a stocked refrigerator and deluxe cable selections. Kids 12 and under eat free at any of the resort's four restaurants; we always opted for the Round Island Bar & Grill, where the menu wasn't dazzling but the live entertainment was — between courses the dance floor was packed with shimmying kids from two to 15.

Our boys loved the resort's Discovery Club for kids four to 10 ($8 for a half day, $14 for a full day, including meals and snacks) that offers games, hikes, storytelling, art projects, and a daily field trip — either to the fort (boy nirvana) or to the Butterfly House, where exotic butterflies flit about a tropical greenhouse, sometimes landing on your head and arms. A two-night family package at Mission Point, including breakfast, one dinner, complimentary Discovery Club membership, round-trip ferry transportation, admission to Fort Mackinac, and evening hayrides, is $299-$399 per adult, based on double occupancy (kids 12 and under stay and eat free). Call 800-833-7711. — Anne Goodwin Sides

Copyright 1999, Outside magazine

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