Baby Onboard: Travels with Maia


By Melissa Hart

Jonathan and I met over my bumper sticker which read “If I wanted to hear the pitter-patter of little feet, I’d put shoes on my cat.” We didn’t want children. Then, about four years ago, we went on a kayaking trip with his niece and nephew (both adopted from Korea) and decided to adopt.

Two weeks after we adopted a 17-month old girl from Oregon’s foster-care program, my husband and I took her backpacking and swam with her in a frigid mountain lake. Our new daughter, Maia, met the challenge with a wide, delighted smile. Even though she could not yet talk, I suspected – watching her chow down on S’mores barefoot next to our campfire – that if she could articulate her feelings about her new parents, she’d say, “Bring it on!” Now Maia camps and swims in icy lakes, kayaks five hours at a time and has flown all over the United States. We couldn’t be happier.

Jonathan and I weren’t entirely sure how we’d fit a child into our life. We work as a professional writer and photographer, frequently collaborating on travel pieces for newspapers and magazines. We wanted to expand our family to include a child in need of a home, but we didn’t want to alter our adventurous lifestyle.

“So don’t,” our social worker said. “Children are resilient. Maia can simply go where you go.”

This proved to be true. We followed the wilderness trip with car camping weekends and hikes in which our child rode in a backpack and peered through binoculars searching for bald eagles. At the time, Jonathan and I were volunteering as raptor rehabilitators; on one memorable evening, a woman brought in a baby great-horned owl that had fallen from its nest, so we tramped through the forest just outside Eugene to look for the bird’s mother with Maia on my back calling “Whoo! Whoo!”

I’ve thought over the past two years about the life skills I want my daughter to possess. I want her to be able to identify birds and native plants and insects. I want her to hike with confidence, swim and bike with grace, travel by plane without splitting the eardrums of the passengers around us. I’d like her to be able to ride a skateboard, a surfboard, a horse. So far, she excels as a tiny traveler. She’s expanded the scope of our work; my travel articles now include destinations for children, which I hope will inspire other parents to shoulder a backpack and explore the world.

Lately, we’ve been kayaking every week. Maia sits at the front of our boat with a bug jar and a little pink fishing pole.

“Isn’t she scared?” a friend asked me last month.

“Of what?” I replied.

But then came an incident that threatened to undo all Jonathan’s and my attempts to create a fearless, outdoorsy little girl. We passed a fly fisherman standing on the bow of his boat, and Maia clambered up to stand on our kayak. Off balance, she toppled over the side and fell into Coyote Creek headfirst.

Jonathan calmly pulled her out by the strap on her life-vest, and I held her close as she wailed. Over her head, we traded a dismayed look. Would this mark the end of our adventures? Would she – already able to swim – now fear the water? What could I possibly say as Mommy to remedy the trauma?

In the end, I relied on the old standard I’ve used over the past two years – a salve that’s healed scraped knees from climbing trees, popping eardrums from cross-country flights, and now, an inadvertent dunking. I looked into Maia’s eyes and offered my finest solution: “How about some hot chocolate?”

It worked. We’ve been back in the kayaks several times now, and Maia’s as fearless and joyful as ever. Watching her approach each new adventure with an open mind, I’ve learned to mellow out in the face of flight delays and lost bags and missed trains. These days, I meet the challenges of travel inspired by my daughter’s motto: bring it on!

Melissa Hart is a later mom and the author of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Advocate, High Country News, Orion, Hemispheres, and Writer’s Digest. She’s a contributing editor to The Writer Magazine, with a monthly column spotlighting literary journals. Her first memoir The Assault of Laughter was published in 2005. Melissa lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband and 3 ½ year old daughter and several cats. She teaches journalism at the University of Oregon. To learn more about Melissa and her work: www.melissahart.com