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first person

Illustration by Ashley Wong

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The door slammed shut behind me as wind lashed my face and ice-cold air crept down my lungs.

Through the car window, I watched my partner rummage in our bag for the tiniest pair of thermals we could find. She dressed our three-month-old and strapped him to her chest.

We had arrived in the Montana park the evening before, driving through valleys shrouded in acrid smoke from forest fires burning nearby. The fires didn’t worry me; we checked with the rangers and they said the trails were safe. But now, confronted with the idea of taking our son, Caleb, out of the security of the car to tromp up a mountain, I felt anxiety descend like a cloud.

Our son was born two weeks late and our planned natural birth turned into an emergency cesarean section when we discovered he was breech. My partner had a rough few weeks after the surgery. Sitting still is not her strong suit. This hike was not only Caleb’s first, it was her reintroduction to strenuous activity.

“What the hell are we doing?” I thought, even as my partner strode off confidently across the parking lot in search of the trailhead.

We picked a short hike for the first one – climbing 500 metres over eight kilometres from Glacier National Park’s Logan Pass to Hidden Lake – admiring spectacular views of glaciers, alpine meadows and cobalt-blue water in the shadows of towering peaks.

“Are you okay?” I asked Alison

“Yes,” the one-word, slightly breathless reply came.

“Is he okay?”

“He’s great, my love,” she said with all the patience in the world.

And he was. When Caleb was awake, he was all giggles and searching eyes, hands probing for a buckle or zipper to finger. Other than that, he slept peacefully while my heart raced from concern. This had been my idea in the first place. And now, as a father, I felt as exposed as the windswept rocks we picked our way through.

When we told people our plans for this six-week odyssey, road tripping through 13 national parks up and down the western United States, responses were split. A small minority was immediately supportive. The majority, although, thought we didn’t know what we were getting into; too ambitious at best, irresponsible at worst. And although I didn’t admit it to anyone – save for Alison – in moments of reflection I found myself in the latter camp.

Our son hadn’t been born yet when we dreamed up these plans. The pregnancy was a surprise.

My partner and I had been together shy of two years and while we were deeply in love and committed to building a future, we were also separated by 6,000 km and an ocean. We had never shared a roof for more than a few nights at a time.

We began dreaming of the ways our lives would change while putting plans in place to make sure it remained unchanged in others.

What did we know about being parents? But that fear is why we went.

Adventure had always been part of the DNA of our partnership, not just in terms of travel, but embracing new experiences in the usual places as well. We sought them out with gusto. We were tourists in our everyday lives.

All of that was over, was the message we heard from others. When the baby came, we’d need routine. Consistency. Normalcy. The ingredients to a stable childhood – and the death knell of our adventures.

Our road trip was our best effort to find out if that had to be the case. Not everyone is afforded such an opportunity.

Women have matrescence, the transitionary period of becoming a mother. Fathers don’t. And neither do families. Matrescence involves hormones, chemical shifts in the brain and, for many, a new identity. For fathers, it’s more immediate. One minute you’re not a father; the next, you are. It’s the same with new family units, born in an instant along with a child.

Somewhere between Big Sky country in Montana and the red scarred desert in Utah, the giant redwoods of California and the endless rugged coast of Oregon, I felt like I became a dad and our threesome a family. I learned to respond to my son’s every need while we realized we could be parents in our own way. Prosaic lessons, perhaps, but revelations not found in any of the parenting books I frantically tore through in the months leading up to Caleb’s arrival.

I learned those lessons piecemeal over the 10,000 km we traversed.

There were compromises, to be sure. We skipped hiking in Yellowstone’s stunning grizzly bear country, concerned that a small mammal that smells like milk would attract unwanted attention. But we found we didn’t have to settle in other areas.

I changed diapers in the shadow of the peaks of Grand Teton. My partner carried our baby up thousands of steps in Yosemite. We saw his curiosity pique at the sounds of wind against our tent. We talked endlessly about what kind of family we want to be.

My partner returned to work six months ago while I filled another four months with Caleb spent on long walks around the city instead of through the mountains. He’s now at daycare, learning to put one foot in front of another and walk on his own.

Fatherhood once appeared like a foreign land over the horizon that I couldn’t imagine travelling to. Even worse, it seemed like a snare that caught people unaware and changed them. Instead, it is a wonderful place to dream and to grow in, a place that forces you to see the world anew while giving yourself wholly to another. I’m learning daily what it means to be a father, to embrace the humility and folly, humour, beauty and frustration that is this challenge. Our time in the mountains set me up for a lifetime of discovery.

Jesse Mintz, who used to live in Toronto, now lives in London, U.K.