Finding My (Kid-Free) Stride in the Backcountry

“It’s like riding a bike,” one outdoorsy mom told me when I mentioned I was embarking on my first kid-free, multi-day backcountry trip since Maya was born.

As her comment insinuated, I was anxious (in many ways without knowing it) that I had forgotten something in my two years of motherhood. But it didn’t have anything to do with travelling in the backcountry; I hadn’t forgotten how to do that. We’d been into the backcountry with Maya a few times, and years of experience trekking as non-parents wasn’t so easily lost.

I’m more comfortable hiking trails in the middle of nowhere than I am driving in city traffic.

Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Photo Meghan J. Ward.

My problem was: I wasn’t sure if I knew how to be alone anymore, how to turn off the ‘second brain’ of parenthood, and how to detach and disconnect without a sense of guilt. It had been so long since it was just me – backcountry or not.

Would four days of remoteness help me remember? 

Last week I set off with two friends to the Egypt Lake region of Banff National Park, leaving Maya behind with her dad and grandpapa. Prior to the trip, my anxiety paid its usual toll in the form of migraines, made worse by unstable weather here in the Rockies. I was worried I’d miss my little girl. But, deep down, I knew I needed to get out and let nature do the medicating.

While I had undertaken many backcountry trips before, the newness of organizing the trip while also caring for a toddler caught me somewhat off-guard. I decided to keep things simple for the trip to compensate, which mostly meant no elaborate dinners. If I could get out my front door without Maya sneaking my headlamp out of my pack, I was happy. Our goodbye was fairly typical – me leaning in for a kiss as she bulldozed her way past me – but I knew it didn’t mean anything. I just wanted to kiss those sweet cheeks one more time before venturing out.

Enjoying the wildflowers along the way. Photo Meghan J. Ward.
Enjoying the wildflowers along the way. Photo Meghan J. Ward.

As I expected, Day One on the trail to Shadow Lake was a chance to unwind and begin the process of disconnecting, not just from parental duties, but anything associated with work or life demands back home. Our conversations gradually shifted from the details of our everydayness to the present moment and life on the trail. It felt odd to be taking care of just myself, to sit and enjoy a meal without making sure the little one was eating enough, and then to meander my way to bed without first needing to go through the motions of “bedtime” and all that entails (bath, books, more books, water, songs, another book, songs, closing the door).

I was wiped at the end of Day One. I listened to music while I lay in my sleeping bag, and simply listened. No tuning in through the wall to an adjoining room to determine if bubs had truly fallen asleep. No sense of (slight) dread about waking up to my toddler-sized alarm clock. I drifted off as the birds stopped their chirping, and slipped into a somewhat fitful sleep – the kind I usually experience on my first night in a tent when it’s been a while.

On Day Two I left my brain at Shadow Lake as we moved to our new campsite at Egypt Lake. My thoughts were entirely empty and it was utter bliss. No real thoughts of home, work or even family. For hours on end life was about enjoying the scenery and putting one foot in front of the other. For the first time in a long time, I had only myself (and my hiking comrades) to be concerned about. Life was reduced to the possessions on my back and getting from A to B. And it felt so smooth. I felt nostalgic about previous, pre-parenthood trips; of endless hours staring at my boots and becoming familiar with my gait.

I was happy – ecstatic – to have my stride back, in more ways than one.

Summit cartwheeling (my trademark move) on Lesser Pharaoh Peak. Photo Dee Medcalf.
Summit cartwheeling (my trademark move) on Lesser Pharaoh Peak. Photo Dee Medcalf.

My hiking partners asked me how I felt about being away from Maya. My answer surprised me: I was 100% fine. It was neat to think that this little person existed back home, but I wasn’t desperate in that moment to get back to her. I knew she’d be OK, and I would, too. It really was like riding a bike – hopping back into a sense of individuality after years of coming second, most of the time, in my own life. The feeling of peace and disconnect continued through Day Three as we explored the area and journeyed up Lesser Pharaoh Peak.

On the last day, thoughts inevitably turned homeward. We had about 13 kilometres to hike out via Healy Pass, a trail decorated on either side with carpets of wildflowers. As we approached our high point, I realized I was coming full circle again in life. My last time at Healy Pass, I was 16 weeks pregnant with Maya, and it was my last big hike before she was born. On that day back in October, 2012, I caught a glimpse of the familiar peak of Mt. Assiniboine, rising in the distance. Reaching that summit in 2010 was one of my proudest alpine climbs to date.

“A range of emotions washed over me as I came to terms with everything that mountain represented for me,” I wrote in Facing the Giant at Healy Pass. “I had a moment where I had a clear view of my past, and the course my life has taken since.”

View from Healy Pass. Smoke from wild fires is obscuring visibility, but Mt. Assiniboine can be seen in the distance. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.
View from Healy Pass. Smoke from wild fires is obscuring visibility, but Mt. Assiniboine can be seen in the distance. Photo by Meghan J. Ward.

Now here I was again with a clear view of the giant again (safe for the haze from distant wildfires), giving me time to reflect on the course my life had taken since my last visit to Healy Pass. Like our hike through the backcountry, I have been on a great journey and one I couldn’t have predicted. I’ve felt the highs of mountain passes and lows of forested valleys – both on and off the trail. I have evolved tremendously as a person since becoming a mother, but as this trip reminded me, beneath it all my essence is the same. I grooved on those trails like I hadn’t skipped a beat. After a few years of feeling distant from “myself”, it was nice to encounter that essence again. Turns out a longer foray into the wilderness is what it took.

Or perhaps that’s the point. So long as we’re connected – even able to make a phone call – we can’t escape from life’s demands. Whether it’s motherhood you need a break from or a gruelling desk job, a journey into remoteness is perhaps what it takes in this day and age to truly escape.

Everything was OK in the end. After our 65 kilometres, I came home to 200 emails and picking up with the role of “parent” without a moment to catch my breath. The transition was harsh, but I retain my lessons from the trip.

I was reminded how important, how vital, it is to step away from our own lives for even a few days. Let objectivity be your teacher. Give your mind a chance to be calm.

We’re all better people, and parents, if we do.

Author: Meghan J. Ward

Meghan J. Ward is an outdoor, travel and adventure writer based in Banff, Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Meghan has written several books, as well as produced content for films, anthologies, blogs and some of North America’s top outdoor, fitness and adventure publications. She has a forthcoming travel memoir (Fall 2022), to published by Rocky Mountain Books.

6 thoughts

  1. Told ya it was just like riding a bike! 😉 Love this piece, Meghan! It is hard to leave the Mommy guilt behind, but when you do, you get some of yourself back. We need to do these things for ourselves – happier people make better parents (or so I tell myself!). Glad you had a wonderful time!

  2. Way to go, Meghan! It sounds like you had a lovely and much-needed adventure. I’ve gone and followed up #1 kid with #2, but made sure to get a wilderness solo retreat in before the little guy was born, even if it was in 6ft of snow this past winter! I think we mother better with the space to be ourselves for a little while, every so often.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jessie. As my husband and I contemplate the possibility of #2, I’m relishing this time I feel more myself to pursue my passions and break away from time to time. It’s true we need to create the space to be ourselves (and come to terms with how difficult it is to truly express that when life demands so much of us!).

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