The moment I hit the dirt I’m smiling. It’s exhilarating to have my feet on the trail that I have desperately wanted to hike since I was 12. The trail markers of the Pacific Crest Trail bring back floods of memories and dreams of the days of care-free, spontaneous adventure. My son shakes his hands around wildly, yelling out “Happy Day! Happy Day!” Indeed, everyday spent this way is a happy day. This experience of day hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is dear to me. It represents living my dream, being healthy, and overcoming one of my most heart felt challenges.
I’m not super mom. I struggle, as everyone does, with the challenges of day to day parenthood. My story is about how I was able to build a bond with my son as he joined me on my greatest adventure to date. It’s about how I learned to balance the load of parenting and my own needs. It’s about not giving up.
I had a rough Cesarean when my twin boys were born and an emotional recovery as I learned to cope with the fact that one of my babies, Steven, was born with special needs. I remember holding his brother and feeling an instant connection, a bond. When I held Steven in my arms, I felt empty and scared. Was he wanted and loved? Absolutely and undoubtedly. But was there that same immediate maternal bond? The hard truth was no. It seemed like any person who held him was better at taking care of him than me and that was so heart-breaking.I didn’t tell anyone about my feelings. How could I? Everyone in the NICU was telling me how to take care of him. It made me feel so inadequate. I felt broken inside, I was his mother and I had no idea how to even hold him…
I remember when he was 2 weeks old, I realized if I could get a hold of one of those “baby-wrap-things” maybe then I could hold my son. Something clicked. I haven’t stopped holding him since.
I’ve held this child tight to me for almost 5 years. I’ve held him through another pregnancy. I’ve held him through surgeries and dozens of doctors’ appointments. I’ve held him through deserts and to the tops of mountains. I didn’t know how to deal with all of the complicated issues surrounding his condition but I knew I just needed to hold him. It’s what felt right; and sure enough, amazing changes began to take place: after months of holding my baby boy, a true, deep bond was finally forming.
Steven’s condition presents unique challenges. Although I try not to focus on the what-if’s, the toll of caring for a dependent child is strenuous. The weight is heavy. The emotional incline is tough. Special needs moms are not super moms. They are just like you.
Overtime, the accumulated stress began to wear on me; I was developing a mild case of anxiety. It was amplified by the fact that finding friends who understand your child’s unique needs are not easy to come by; I couldn’t help but feel lonely at times. It took a long time but I finally accepted that I needed to adventure, even if that meant as a solo-mom. I was determined to make my tribe the world around us. I broke through the fear that had been holding me back from adventuring by myself and took the twins to Joshua Tree National Park when they were 18 months old. My anxiety disappeared immediately and the door to the world swung open.
This new momentum didn’t stop at Joshua Tree. I continued to seek out paved nature trails so I could put Steven in the stroller if I became exhausted of carrying him. After our 3rd baby was born I found that I felt ready for bigger hikes. We hiked a killer trail at Zion National Park while I tandem wore Steven and the 2 month old. We were not necessarily completing these big trails but we were on them and that was enough.
With this new found confidence, I began to feel a nudge, the Pacific Crest Trail sat in the back of my mind like a dusty book on the corner of my night stand. It seems that some dreams never die. I couldn’t help but face the facts surrounding Steven’s condition. I know things are good right now. But I also know that the reality is we have some dark days ahead of us. Damn it, I’m going to live now. This is it. Now is the time.
Before I knew it, I began telling my husband, “I want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Section C, this year by myself with Steven… Some day his brothers will be hiking it and…I don’t know if he will be able to…so if I take him now…” My husband stopped me, “Then let’s do it. Plan out the hikes, I’ll pick you up where the trail crosses the road.” My husband is the glue that keeps this family together.
I’ve completed nearly 30 of the 132 miles I plan on completing. It’s difficult at times. I’m hiking by myself and I’m often carrying 50lbs of weight with no frame. But at the same time, it is also peaceful and beautiful. Every weekend, I look forward to it. Hiking with Steven helps me to be centered and better able to cope when situations are hard at home. I’m also finding an incredible strength within myself when things on the trail become challenging. Being able to solve problems I face has boosted my self-confidence.
I’ve learned that sometimes things are difficult and you can’t change them. Sometimes things are not okay and that’s actually okay. Sometimes things take a hell of a lot longer to accomplish than they should but it’s still an accomplishment. And sometimes, when things are at their darkest and you feel like you don’t have another step left in you, you find the strength.
I’m a better hiker than I was before. I’m a better person than I was before. I grow everyday as a parent and when things get tough…I keep going. I’ve learned that there is no giving up.
My hope is that mothers become advocates to bring more accessibility to the outdoors. Let’s speak up about enhancing access to those with special needs. Let’s partner and volunteer with those who manage our local forests, BLM lands, state parks, regional parks, and national parks. Let them know it’s important for mothers to feel comfortable to bring themselves and their children into nature.
Let’s keep posting our success stories of connecting our families with nature. We are all part of a greater movement that is having a healthy physical and emotional impact on families around the world.
Let’s get outside and continue our badass adventures with babies in tow, regardless of their unique, special, and dynamic needs, and support one another lovingly along the way.
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Ashley resides in Apple Valley, California with her husband Tim and their three boys. She spends her time homeschooling the boys with a large emphasis on forest/nature school. She is a proud volunteer for many organizations within the forest service. Her favorite being the Urban Conservation Corps, a program the gives inner city teens a chance to work and study with the forest service. You can follow her on Instagram @BaggerlyAsh.