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Dan Kois | excerpted from How to Be a Family | Little, Brown and Company | September 2019 | 24 minutes (6,373 words)
“Is there a way I could chaperone,” I asked my daughter’s teacher, “that doesn’t include snorkeling in freezing-cold water?”
We were in New Zealand to learn how the lives of Kiwi families differed from our own east coast suburban bubble. One way, it turned out, was that my 9-year-old was taking a school field trip to snorkel in the little bay by our house in Wellington. It was an example of EOTC, education outside the classroom, a crucial part of Kiwi schooling, ranging from day trips like this to secondary-school tramps across the Tongoriro Alpine Crossing.
When I’d volunteered to chaperone, I hadn’t known that chaperones were expected to bring their own wet suits in order to get in the water with the kids. Now, I like snorkeling, but the very idea of owning my own wet suit was patently absurd. So that’s why I asked if there was some other way I could help.
“On the snorkeling trip?” she replied dubiously. “Errr . . . we do need a few people to stand at the shore keeping an eye on everyone. Perhaps you could do that?”
So on a sunny and warm morning we all hiked down the road from the Island Bay School to the ramshackle Marine Education Center, where fit parents and cheerful staffers awaited, snorkels at the ready. I was handed a whistle and a clipboard. “Now, you’ll blow the whistle to get everyone’s attention if needed,” said one of the ecologists who worked at the center. “And here we’ve got everyone’s names, so you’re to check everyone in and out of the water.”
Fully wet-suited, Harper and her buddy Bailey strapped on their snorkels, checked in with me in matching Kiwi accents — “Bailey?” “Yis!” “Harper?” “Yis!” — and then stepped into the bay. Harper shrieked as she felt the water and then immediately said, “Dad, you should do this, with the wet suit you can’t even tell how cold it is.”
“I’m good here,” I said and gave the thumbs-up to whoever’s wet-suited mom was accompanying the girls into the sea. I walked along the windswept beach, clambering over rocks, as a couple of dozen nine-year-olds in bright red suits floated along the shore. Everything about this seemed improbable — this brilliant morning; the South Pacific waves rolling in; lumpy Tapu te Ranga island, the sun bright on its flanks; these kids out in the world without a parent even signing a permission slip. Most improbable of all was my kid, my Harper, swimming with her friends, playing her netball, learning her te reo Māori, speaking in her aspirational Kiwi-inflected accent.
Lyra, 11, had enjoyed her intermediate school’s outdoor adventure, which consisted, as far as I could tell, of kids messing about just as they did at school, only at a YMCA-style camp. Would she appreciate a wilderness excursion that required her to actually be in the wilderness? Harper loved her snorkeling trip, mostly because she got to do it with her friends. How would she feel about an adventure she shared with only her parents? And what about my wife Alia and me? I was not exactly Mark Trail. I wouldn’t even put on a wet suit! But even now, as our time in New Zealand was coming to a close, we were collecting supplies — borrowing packs from neighbors, buying weird dehydrated food — and planning an adventure of our own. We, the Smith-Koises, were going to go tramping like real Kiwis.
O let me sing the song of the Smith-Kois family’s one previous journey into the wild, the occasion on which we let the grandeur of the earth overwhelm our senses and lift our spirits. It was the trip when we got so bored by bison.
We traveled to Yellowstone National Park one glorious August week. The park was alive with sunlight and flowers; the worst of the wildfires were over but smoke still smudged the horizon. Just a few miles into Yellowstone, we pointed, shouted, pulled over for the herd of bison snuffling along the road. By our family’s second day in Yellowstone, the kids no longer looked up from their iPods when we passed a herd, so inured were they to their wild majesty, etc. By day three, my only interaction with bison was to yell at them from the driver’s seat when they impeded my path. Our immunity to bison mirrored our family’s generally unsatisfying response to the natural world, a response that came into sharp focus at Yellowstone, a place we sometimes enjoyed but often just endured. Or, rather, a place we sometimes enjoyed while often enduring one another.
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We weren’t exactly roughing it on this trip. We weren’t camping in tents or sleeping in our car; we were staying in Park Service cabins. But the singleness of purpose one must adopt in nature — you may hike or swim or boat, but really, you are there to be in beauty, that’s it, there’s no miniature golf — was a poor match for parents who were just discovering how little time they’d previously spent simply existing side by side with their kids.
Kids, it turns out, are annoying to adults. I didn’t understand this when I was a kid. I thought I was wildly entertaining, a laff riot. Of course, I was not. And while my annoyingness was perhaps exceptional in degree, it was not unique. All kids are annoying. Kids lack impulse control and perspective. They cannot let a moment’s discomfort or the tiniest indignity pass without complaining loudly, and they do not care if anyone else’s discomfort or indignities match or exceed theirs. They are constitutionally incapable of patience. They ask stupid questions, don’t listen to the answers, and then ask the questions again. They are solipsistic, greedy, and profoundly ungrateful for everything they have. They are frequently covered in food or snot or, on the worst days, food and snot.
And adults? Don’t get me started on adults. Adults are, if possible, even more annoying to kids than kids are to adults. Adults think they’re so wise, but actually they’re not. When something’s wrong, instead of fixing the thing that is wrong, they just tell kids about how the thing that’s wrong doesn’t really matter! Instead of just giving kids the things they want, they make irrelevant comments about how the things are expensive or unhealthy or dangerous. Or they say, “Maybe later.” Why be duplicitous, adults? Don’t say “maybe later” when what you mean is “no.” Just because they’re bigger and earn money, they get to tell kids what to do. Everything about the adult-kid relationship is unfair.
So anyway when you put adults and kids together in the same place with no internet to distract them, things can get pretty disputatious. This is not to say that the trip to Yellowstone was awful or that we completely failed to experience the Great Outdoors. There were long stretches of time in which we enjoyed one another’s company, held aimless conversations, sat at the edges of waterfalls or meandered down trails.
(Through every one of these moments, however, I was able to devote only 75 percent of my attention to enjoying the experience, as the other 25 percent was devoted to remaining constantly prepared for the appearance of a bear on the trail. Would the bear come from behind us or ahead of us? How would I distract the bear as the rest of my family escaped? What exactly would it feel like as the bear removed each of my limbs? Would my children remember me fondly, as the dad who saved them from a bear, or resentfully, as the dad whose dumb decision to go to Yellowstone meant they had to watch him be eaten by a bear?)
It’s only to say that perhaps my dreams for the Yellowstone trip were a bit out of reach. I dreamed of a journey during which my children would be filled, now and then, with awe at the beauty of the earth on which we live and in which they would embrace, now and then, the adventure and accomplishment of setting off on a trail, traveling its length, and reaching its end. Instead, in order to achieve even the shortest hike through the woods, Alia and I had to develop a system of bald bribery: For every mile that our children successfully hiked without whining, they would each receive a key chain. “You can’t expect us to never whine,” Lyra said reasonably. “That’s impossible when we’re doing something boring like hiking.”
So what would happen in New Zealand, a country that is not only generally accepted as the most beautiful in the world but also one where diving into that beauty is a national preoccupation? Vacation, for most Kiwis, revolves around the outdoors. For summer vacation, from Christmas to February, Kiwis tramp along a Great Walk, or tent near a stream, or drive a campervan from forest to forest, or rent a bach — a beach house — on the coast. (At Alia’s feminist book club, one mom suggested Alia was exaggerating when she said that “everyone” in New Zealand goes tramping or camping on vacation; when Alia then asked which of the attendees do, in fact, go tramping or camping on vacation, each and every woman raised her hand.)
According to a New Zealand Department of Conservation survey, 80 percent of New Zealanders visited at least one DOC site in 2016. Compare that to the United States, where recent gains in National Park Service attendance are due substantially to international visitors. A 2008–2009 survey revealed that only 47 percent of Americans could remember visiting any National Park Service site in the previous two years, and that included bogus “national parks” like the Smithsonian and the Freedom Trail in downtown Boston.
But the difference between Kiwis’ relationship to the natural world and Americans’ goes beyond the simple choice of where one vacations. Most New Zealanders, both rich and poor, live surrounded by a kind of splendor that most Americans can’t comprehend. (Yes, the Pacific Northwest is beautiful. So is Maine. Hawaii is great. But c’mon.) Take Wellington, the city where we lived for three months. To look at a Google map of Wellington is to note, perhaps, that it has a lot of parks, and that many of its roads are twisty. But to be in Wellington, to drive those hair-pinning roads or walk through the town’s green belt, is to understand that the city is nestled among dozens of deep valleys, the result of the confluence of two significant faults running deep beneath its streets. (Let’s leave aside for now the catastrophe that will occur, tomorrow or five hundred years from now, when those faults finally unsnag and let rip.)
Each valley appears filled from the bottom with houses, as if they’d been poured from a jug in the sky. The houses pile atop one another, each securing its own narrow slice of the view across the valley or to the water; their driveways and front walks, switching back and forth across cliff faces, can feel like daredevil trails. (A few forgo steps and have small funiculars from the garage to the front door.) Where the valley walls become too sheer even for ambitious Wellington builders, the cliffs erupt into tangled bush, every shade of green you can imagine, every paint-sample card at once. Tall pines that appear imported from a Scandinavian fairy tale jostle for space with palm trees and knotty scrub. Then lining each ridge, at the very top, is one last set of houses, an exclusive row of homes big by Wellington standards but smaller than your average North Arlington McMansion.
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The city is surrounded on three sides by the South Pacific, cold even in summer, and many of the city’s neighborhoods are defined by their relationship to the bays carved out of the land like bites from an apple. From Wellington’s southern suburbs, the bays, on sunny days, are a vivid greenish blue, the color of a jewel, the white flecks of wind-driven waves like facets. The deeper Cook Strait is a thin navy-blue line at the horizon, as straight as a seam. The mountains of the South Island, about forty kilometers away, are invisible in the mornings but appear, like Brigadoon, as the ocean mist burns off. In the red evenings they glow in shimmering profile as the sun sets behind them. One night, driving along the water, I turned a corner and there appeared before me a sunset so luridly beautiful that I immediately pulled over to the side of the road to take a photo. The two cars behind me also pulled over, as did, moments later, a Wellington city bus that disgorged its passengers onto the gravel path, phones held out in supplication.
Whatever, you don’t need to read an ode to New Zealand’s beauty — you saw The Lord of the Rings. But living every day steeped in Wellington’s crenellated splendor, in Auckland with the sun winking off the harbor, or with the South Island’s alps at their backs, Kiwis understand that the world exists and ought to be lived in. In our time in Wellington we saw neighbors surfing, mountain biking, rowing across the harbor. Kids were sent to the beach on sunny afternoons or when the adults at a cocktail party had had enough of them. One neighbor, a doctor, was paid by patients from time to time in live five-pound crayfish. Another neighbor liked to free-dive for paua, enormous New Zealand abalone with rich meat and rainbow-slicked shells, and bring them to us to cook.
And on a basic moment-to-moment level, Kiwis simply seem more attuned to the natural world. Quick — do you know what direction the wind is coming from today? A Wellingtonian would know if it’s a southerly or a northerly and what that implies for ocean temperature and whether your planned barbecue’s likely to be rained out. On multiple occasions, I witnessed Kiwis as young as eight point to some random-ass bird in a tree and tell me its name, its cultural importance, and its level of scarcity. “Ah, that’s a saddleback! He’s got that mark because Maui got angry at him and grabbed him. They’re quite rare.” The only birds I can identify on sight are affiliated with baseball teams.
Alia and I set ourselves a goal upon our arrival in New Zealand: we would overcome our apprehension of the outdoors and embrace nature as real Kiwis do. We’d start slow, with some short hikes around places we visited on the North Island. We’d build up our strength and tolerance while also somehow magically making our children enjoy walking through the bush. And then we’d finish by taking on one of the New Zealand Great Walks, the nine splendid multiday tramps all Kiwi outdoorspeople strive to complete.
The Kiwi love of the outdoors is tied not only to the country’s close connection to its farms but to the thoughtful animism at the center of Māori culture, which has spread into the consciousness of most New Zealanders, even Pākehā (whites). While we were in New Zealand, the country’s parliament passed the Te Awa Tupua Bill, the unique conclusion to Treaty of Waitangi–related litigation that originated in 1870. The bill recognizes the North Island’s Whanganui River as a living being, an entity with the same legal rights as a person “from the mountains to the sea.” This vision of a river’s personhood stems from the longstanding beliefs of the local Māori iwi that the river itself is an ancestor, and it stands in stark opposition to, say, recent American case law determining corporate personhood.
“Look,” our next-door neighbor Gary explained a few days after the bill passed as we drove along the harbor on the way to the Remutaka Forest Park, forty-five minutes outside Wellington. “I’m sure there are rednecks here and there who think, Oh, that’s so stupid, but for most New Zealanders, anything that cleans the river up and treats it with respect — that’s good with us.” Gary was driving us to our first attempt at an extended tramp, a night in a bush hut a two-hour hike into the Orongorongo Valley. It was a training-wheels tramp, with Gary as the training wheels. He loaned us sleeping bags, booked the hut, and told us what to stuff into the enormous backpacks he had just sitting around his house. His joining us was a kindness, though (he assured us) not an extravagant one; “I really like tramping,” Gary told me when I pressed him to make sure we weren’t imposing. “My family’s quite useless this weekend,” he added, a touch glumly, “so I’m happy to take yours out.” Tracey had a business trip and Trinity had a race and Grainger had a big soccer tournament. (It did not escape my notice that Gary went tramping with us rather than attending his children’s sporting events.)
It was gray and cool when we set off, and soon a light mist filtered through the trees onto our rain jackets. By the end of the hike, as we prepared to descend from the ridge to the Orongorongo River, we looked out over a landscape clouded in rain sheeting north up the valley and obscuring the trees on the opposite ridge. We cinched up our jackets, flipped up our hoods, and elasticked waterproof tarps over our packs. By the time we squashed through the small bog that fronted our hut, mud sucking at our ankles, summer had fully transformed into late autumn. “Why do we have to do this?” Lyra wailed plaintively as a howling wind that seemed to have traveled straight north from Antarctica blew rain into our faces. Somehow, a wasp stung me on my fucking foot.
The hut was chilly and utilitarian, although with its flushing toilet and gas burners, it was in fact the peak of luxury as far as Department of Conservation huts went. Gary and Harper took the hatchet out to the woodpile and split logs into kindling. “I’d help,” I told Harper, “but my shoes are so wet.” She rolled her eyes into little apostrophes like a Peanuts character.
After Gary had gotten a fire roaring in the squat woodstove (assisted, of course, by Harper), the hut warmed up, and our candles gave it a cozy glow. I cooked pasta for five, marveling that the bulky bags of noodles and jar of sauce and loaf of bread I’d hauled in would evaporate from my pack on tomorrow’s return trip, transformed into energy. We played cards until bedtime, then explained to Lyra that there were no lights to turn on, so if she wanted to read in bed she’d need a flashlight. Gary’s donated sleeping bags were so warm that we all shed our clothes in the middle of the night; our socks and hoodies littered the floor next to the platform where we’d burrowed into them.
The next morning was bright and sunny and I woke up determined to accomplish something. I managed to wrestle my sleeping bag into its compression sleeve, then loaded up the girls’ packs, sneaking some of their stuff into mine to lessen their loads. They’d whined the previous day, but not nearly as much as you’d expect, given the weather — or maybe with my hood up over my ears, I couldn’t hear them. Anyway, I didn’t want to take any chances.
Gary recommended a different path to the river, one that avoided the bog, and I led us past another hut and down the graywacke scree to the floodplain. In the sun, the river, which had seemed leaden the day before, sparkled with personality like a living thing. The water glinted a gold-tooth smile as we waded across it, our still-damp shoes held in our hands.
The whining started immediately as we climbed the ridge. Alia and I distracted the girls as best we could with games of Ghost and Twenty Questions, sighing at how on a perfectly beautiful day the absence of distracting rain seemed, perversely, to encourage complaining.
The sun spangled through the trees, dappling the trail and the kids and the stream we crossed over and over again on sturdy wooden bridges. The sun dappled everything. The sun was a freakin’ dappling machine. The wild profusion of ferns and palms and the still-damp ground made the forest look and feel like a tropical jungle, albeit one where the temperature was a perfect sixty-six degrees and there was no dengue fever. As I walked, I’d notice that the trail became more and more peaceful, but then I’d realize that was because I’d walked far ahead of my complaining kids. Then I would stop, and their voices would get louder and louder until finally they appeared.
Sometimes for a change of pace I would let them get ahead of me. About halfway down the track, I caught up with Gary and Harper, standing silently on a bridge and looking out over the trees. “What do you hear?” asked Gary, who has a lovely natural pedagogical bent.
“Water,” Harper said.
“Those are cicadas. What else?”
Harper squinted. “Nothing,” she finally admitted, and Gary laughed.
“Yes, nothing. It’s perfectly quiet otherwise. But look at the way the sun shines on those trees. Beautiful, right?” They hiked off, leaving me dazzled and determined not to outsource my kids’ appreciation of the natural world even to so kind a teacher as Gary.
A kilometer later I held out my hand to Lyra at a spot where the track hugged a hillside, the tangled woods scribbling down the hill below us. She gave me a dubious look but took my hand.
“Lyra,” I said. “Listen. What do you hear?”
“Water,” she said.
“Yeah! And what else?”
“I don’t know, Dad,” she said, starting to squirm. I was reaching the limits of her tolerance for direct interaction.
“Nothing!” I said happily. “Nothing else! It’s incredibly peaceful and quiet.”
“Yeah, except for you,” she pointed out, and walked away.
In our final weeks in New Zealand, we prepared for a true test of our outdoorsfamilyship: a two-day, two-night tramp on a Great Walk, the Abel Tasman Coast Track on the South Island. As in Yellowstone, we wouldn’t exactly be risking life and limb. We were sleeping, again, in DOC huts and had been well supplied by Gary with warm sleeping bags and a gas cooker. We wouldn’t even be hauling around gigantic packs stuffed with those sleeping bags; I’d hired a tour company to pick up our packs each morning and deliver them by boat to our next location each afternoon.
Unlike in Yellowstone, in Abel Tasman Park I did not need to worry about bears. There are no bears in New Zealand; in fact, the largest predator of any kind in New Zealand is the possum. (It eats a lot of birds and garbage but does not eat trampers.) New Zealand is also free of poisonous snakes, and the last recorded fatal spider bite was in 1901. But what New Zealand, particularly the South Island, does have is the tiny pest that became the bane of our existence in our time here: the goddamn sandfly (Goddammus sandflyus).
Some versions of Māori legend tell a story of the demigod Tū Te Rakiwhānoa, who carved the deep valleys of the South Island’s Fiordland. The land was so lovely, the story goes, that the people stood staring in wonder and as a result got no work done. Angered, the goddess of the underworld, Hine-nui-te-pō, created the sandfly to bite them and get them moving. I could believe that Hine-nui-te-pō truly was the goddess of the underworld: sandflies come straight from hell.
Here are the stages of a sandfly bite:
Day one: Stand still near a river or beach for any amount of time greater than four seconds. Feel a sharp pain in your ankle or calf or, god, the knuckle of your thumb. A tiny midge is biting you. Crap! Swat it away, preferably while doing a little dance! For the rest of the day the bite, as well as the other five bites you got, will itch like a mosquito bite.
Day two: Your bites itch a little more than mosquito bites. But whatever, no problem, you’ve had insect bites before, you can handle it.
Night two: Holy shit, does that itch, you think as you don’t sleep.
Day three: Your bites are now angry red welts. They itch like hell.
Days four through seven: Still itchy, now angrier and redder, reminiscent of that zit you got on your nose just before homecoming.
Days eight through fourteen: They itch a bit less but still look terrible.
Day fifteen: More sandflies bite you.
On our various outdoor treks in New Zealand, we wore heavy-duty insect repellent with Deet. I pulled my socks to my knees, so I looked like an old-timey base-ball man. It didn’t matter; the sandflies always found us. If at any point you read a description of wondrous natural beauty during our Abel Tasman journey, assume that a sandfly was biting me while I was viewing it.
Journal of the Smith-Kois Expedition down the ABEL TASMAN COAST of NEW ZEALAND from the beach at AWAROA to the beach at ANCHORAGE (and points in between)
Being a chronicle of Birds, Children, Sand-Flys, and Snacks
DAY 1. 30th March, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Seventeen.
Weather fair and mild.
We party of four disembarked upon the beach at Awaroa, and members of the crew immediately called for Snacks. Espying an attractive island separated from the sandy shore by but a small channel of shallow water, we removed our shoes and waded to the island for luncheon. (PBJ, crackers, et cetera.) It was not to our credit as Explorers that we were quite surprised by the tides continuing on their clockwork course! “The tides!” we shouted, shaking our fists at Heaven, as but a quarter-hour later, the channel between us and shore had deepened significantly, such that we all became quite wet upon the return. Indeed we only just rescued the shoe of crew member L. as it began to float away. My spirits being undampened, however, I laughed at this inauspicious beginning to the journey. Both young crew members had to change clothes, and I myself was left with wet Underpants.
The hike to Bark Bay, where we would spend our first night, took four hours through dense forest, a mishmash of long pines, fat palms, and immense ferns, mostly absent the Mosquitoes of tropical climes but rich with avian life. L., whose mood had improved, was unexpectedly the first to recognize one of the multitudes of birds calling all round us like R2-D2s from the trees. She stopped in the middle of the track, pointed up, and said casually, “Oh, it’s a fantail.” We commended L. on her identification and admired the bird flitting from branch to branch, ruffling his brown-and-white tail feathers with the élan of a courtesan. What a spritely fellow he was! We soon noticed more fantails assembled around us, chirping their approval, each occasion we sat for Snacks. As fantails whickered overhead, we dined, at divers times, on Dried Fruit and Dried Beef, on Trail Mix, on Chocolate Chip Cookies, on Apples, on Apricots, on Granola Bars, on Lollipops, and on Pineapple Lumps, a local delicacy that tastes like stale Starbursts coated in bad chocolate.
Snacks were important for the morale of our little party. I found, in fact, that it was not only the greenest of the crew members who became grumpy the farther we traveled from the previous Snack. Co-Captain A. herself looked forward to the next Snack with a passion one might call indecorous. (As it’s important for the leader of an expedition to partake of the pastimes of his crew, I, too, ate Snacks.) After we cleaned up our wrappers and shouldered our packs, I enjoyed looking back to see the fantails descend upon the clearings where we had just sat, pecking stray crumbs from the ground.
The trail traversed a series of picturesque bays — Tonga Bay; Frenchman Bay; Sandfly Bay, which the crew refused to visit — and so along our course we often found ourselves climbing one valley’s wall only to descend into the next. Though the temperature remained pleasant, the tramping was thirsty work, especially when we emerged from dark forest to bright ridgetops where we wended our way through scrub and sun. Within several hours we’d drained most of our four water flasks, despite A. making frequent reminders to the crew to Sip! Don’t glug!
On the final descent into Bark Bay, the young crew members speculated, in their delirium, on the perfect vacation, the alternative they’d each choose over tramping four hours in the middle of nowhere. L. declared her ideal trip a Disney Cruise “where I don’t have to do anything.” H. concurred, though she suggested that in her ideal world, the Disney Cruise would be “even better, like each kid has her own room, and there’s enough waterslides for everyone.” A. and I smiled tolerantly, for what was the harm of such fancy, when the harsh wilderness might be the only life they’d ever know?
All in all the day was a success; from the young crew members we heard less Actual Whining than we did Ironic Whining, statements delivered in hopes of getting a rise out of the captains without actually being in earnest. (“Are we there yet?” seven consecutive times, for example.) When we arrived at the Bark Bay hut, we picked out four mattresses lined up in the loft; L. crawled onto one and slept for an hour, after which she and H. raced each other on the beach in the lovely blue-purple gloaming. I joined them for a jolly dash, at the end of which I had earned both the glory of crushing children in a footrace and a dozen sandfly bites.
Young H. took great pleasure in the preparation of the evening ramen — setting up the gas burner, lighting the match, fetching the water, &c. A life of exploration seems most appealing to her, if for no other reason than the plenitude of new tasks she can master and details to which she can attend. (Whence this helpful spirit? Perhaps her time spent at age four with the high priestess of the Montessori faith had more effect than I knew.) L., meanwhile, lay on a bench and read her Kindle. After dinner I sat with these two youngest crew members and said: “We hiked four hours and you guys did great. You were fun, and cooperative, and you barely whined at all. It was so fun to be with you both. I’m really proud of you.” Perhaps not the iron fist of discipline with which some captains rule their subordinates, but I won’t apologize for hugging my crew!
DAY 2. 31st March
Weather fair and warm.
Due to a misjudgment of the tides (“D—ed tides!”), we tramped two hours longer than I’d hoped today, for a total of five and a half hours. As Captain, I might have been expected to be better acquainted with the tide tables, a lapse I blame entirely on the lack of Cellular Data. Cookie supplies ran out by mid-afternoon. Also, late in the trek, legs weary, shoulders heavy, sandfly bites itching, I heard a bird chirp for like the fifty-fifth time and shouted, “Shut up, bird!” I relate this story with great shame. Though by and large the crew tramped bravely, I did hear mutinous whispers that this day “sucked big-time.”
DAY 3. 1st April
Weather cool and cloudy.
Triumph! The water taxi brought us back to civilization, where we ate Brunch.
It would be a stretch to say that everyone liked our trip along the Abel Tasman Coast Track. Lyra enjoyed that for hours, we weren’t asking her to do things, although she didn’t like that she had to walk really far. Harper enjoyed unpacking the sleeping bags and lighting the gas burner and cooking the dehydrated meals and packing the sleeping bags back up, but even her general enthusiasm was beaten down by hours of tramping each day. Alia and I found the trip beautiful and fulfilling and very difficult, including the weeks after, when everyone itched from scabies acquired from the mattresses in the huts. (Good news: New Zealand universal health care meant scabies cream was really cheap!) “I would do a tramp of one or even two hours,” said Lyra as she tucked into a giant burger at brunch, “because after this, that would be, like, pfffffft. It would maybe even be fun.” She licked her fingers. “I’m absolutely never doing a five-hour hike again, though.”
As we hiked we sang songs and told bad jokes and played as many games as we could think of. Lyra liked Ghost; Harper wanted to play Ghost, too, but she did not yet know how to spell so many words, which made it tough for her to compete. For a while Harper and I played imaginary gin, in which you just pretend you have a hand of cards and pretend to draw and discard and eventually Harper says, “Gin!” But for quite a while on the tramp, we hiked in silence broken only by occasional exhausted complaints or requests for snacks. In that tired silence we all found, perhaps, just a bit of meditative peace.
Because we were hiking on school days, most of the trampers we saw were tourists, Belgians, Germans, or Brits, mostly in pairs, young and old. But we did see the occasional Kiwi family, and on our trip into the Orongorongo, we’d seen tramping kids galore, plus a dozen adult hikers making their way down the trail with infants strapped to their fronts or toddlers bouncing along on their backs. One poor bastard had one of each, both of them squealing and waving their arms about; he looked like a stormtrooper being brought down by rowdy Ewoks. Seeing all these tramping tots had reinforced my sense that New Zealand kids start hiking early and are trained by repetition to enjoy the experience so that by the time a Kiwi kid is Lyra’s age, she’s learned to appreciate the outdoors without whining.
But in the run-up to Abel Tasman, I’d started to rethink that notion. At Alia’s feminist book club several moms had asked her if she was bringing friends along for the girls. “I find that’s the best way to keep them from driving me crazy through the tramp,” one said. Another suggested developing a nature scavenger hunt to occupy children as they clomped through the woods, with strategically deployed lollies to distract them. And when we told friends that we were putting our giant packs on boats rather than hauling them around, no one shamed us. “We’ve done that!” said our friend Miranda. “No point giving kids something else to complain about.”
So Kiwi kids do complain while tramping? They’re not magical creatures who spend their childhoods appreciating nature? “Trinity’s always enjoyed it,” Tracey said of her daughter. “But Grainger’s always complained, every step of the way.”
“But you just make him do it anyway?” I asked — the kind of question that, even as the words are exiting your mouth, you’re anticipating the other person’s look of dismay.
Tracey looked dismayed. “Of course!”
Even adults confessed that their love affair with the outdoors wasn’t completely uncomplicated. Miranda told us that her husband gamely put up with her passion for tramping even though his allergies left him miserable every second they spent in the bush. And then I read the Wellington writer Ashleigh Young’s essay “On Any Walk,” which perfectly describes the exasperation I often battled while hiking, but to which I thought Kiwis were immune:
On any walk into dense bush, at some point we ask one another, “Why are we doing this?” We could be at home, we say, where there is hot water and a flushing toilet. The question ripples up and down the chain of walkers, and one or two people raise the serious possibility of turning back right now. Their voices are bright with certainty, seeming almost to hold apart the foliage we are struggling through, making our way easier for a moment . . .
No one is enjoying the walk. Has anyone ever enjoyed the walk? Perhaps none of us ever enjoyed it, even early on when our legs were fresh. Maybe even back then we all secretly wished it were over. Even as we agree that the pieces of sky through the trees are very blue, as we admire the persistence of the tiny streams, the marvel of the koura scrambling through them, a thought hums between us: If we had turned back before, we would be home now.
Suddenly I got it. The difference between American families and Kiwi families wasn’t that Kiwi families were somehow magically more attuned to nature than American ones. It was that Kiwi parents felt strongly enough about nature to endure everything that sucks about hiking and everything that sucks even worse about making kids do something they find boring.
About what did I feel strongly enough to overcome my disinterest in making my kids do stuff they complained about, and not once but over and over, enough times to make it a habit? I had taken my kids to classical music performances a couple of times, but not repeatedly. I had required them to sit through dinners with adults enough that they basically tolerated the experience of eating politely and not interrupting too often. (Well, we frequently let Lyra read at the table.) God, I didn’t ask them to clean their rooms as often as Tracey and Gary made their kids go tramping out in the woods.
So it was great that our kids survived tramping two days through Abel Tasman with us. But if we really wanted to foster a lifetime in the natural world, we needed to do it again and again and again, and each time we’d need to put up with the complaining. That is to say, Lyra and Harper weren’t the only ones who needed to learn to endure something unpleasant — Alia and I did too.
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Dan Kois is an editor and writer at Slate.
Excerpted from How to Be a Family by Dan Kois. Copyright © 2019 by Dan Kois. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company and Dan Kois.
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