If you want to skip to the good stuff about our recent trip to the Grand Canyon, scroll down to the next header. If you want a glimpse at what happens behind-the-scenes before some trips, then buckle up. I have to be honest here. This trip almost didn’t happen. I was in a deep pit of self-loathing, self-doubt, and utter exhaustion. Any of you ever been there? The logistics seemed far too overwhelming so I began a list of excuses. Then I started playing the comparison game between me and the thousands of writers and photographers who are doing the exact same thing I’m doing. Then I humored the idea of giving up on those goals altogether.
As a millennial, I have constant competition in my field. Everyone has a blog. Everyone has a camera. So who am I to step in and offer these things to the world? Will anyone even notice? Am I wasting my time? Is my work even valued? Why bother? Listen, that rabbit hole is dark, deep, and ugly, but I let myself tumble down and get dirty, scraped, and scarred anyway. I felt so defeated and worn down that I wanted to give up on my creative pursuits. Ian tried his best to encourage me, but I didn’t want to listen. I just wanted to sulk, be miserable, and be alone. I really don’t know how else to describe how painful that feels, but maybe you’ve been there too and can understand without having a full explanation.
Becoming a mother is the hardest thing I have ever done. Taking care of my son and maintaining my role as a wife, all while remaining true to myself and giving my aspirations validity is nearly impossible. Fulfilling mom and wife duties tends to take everything I’ve got. Rather than maintaining a regular regiment of self-care, I had been ignoring what I needed in thinking that this would help my family. Wrong. Ignoring my needs to care for the needs of others, even if it’s for people I love, is not healthy. I’m (slowly) learning that I can ask for help without having to feel weak or inadequate. I’m (slowly) learning that my success isn’t measured by likes, followers, and website page views. And I’m (slowly) learning that my behaviors and attitudes in setting, chasing, and achieving goals are being constantly observed by my son. The goals may be mine, but the benefits of perseverance and hard work are for both of us. I can’t give up because I have something to prove to myself and to my son.
Waking up on Wednesday morning, I felt a change come over me. If I don’t do this now, then I will always find an excuse to stay home. I have to do this. And I did. The instant I noticed Gavin starting to wake up around 9:00 A.M., I got him out of bed and we hit the road for supplies. We were almost out of diapers and wipes, so we definitely had to stock up on those necessities. I also got a new pair of hiking shorts because I desperately needed them for the upcoming season. By the time we got back to the house and packed it was almost 12 noon and our flight was departing at 1:57 P.M. I hurriedly packed our bags and made way to the airport.
Thankfully Ian (who also works at the airport, that’s how we met) had a few minutes to spare before taking a conference call. I called him in a panic, “WE ARE IN THE PARKING LOT CAN YOU HELP ME?!” In my packing-frenzy, I had failed to organize the car and our bags. I blindly threw what I thought we would need in the car and off we went. What’s worse was that Gavin had recently outgrown his infant carseat. This graduation to a convertible-style carseat meant I no longer had a spare carseat packed in the travel bag ready to go at a moment’s notice. This also meant that Gavin had to hang out on the floorboard of my vehicle while I packed his carseat into the travel bag. I could feel my hair starting to frizz as the panic set in. I was going through my mental checklist taking careful notice of the time. Our flight was close to one hour from departure and I had Gavin and I’s belongings strewn all over the public parking lot. Ian met me at the car just in time to hold the baby while I packed away the carseat with the same fury as a man wrestling an alligator.
I slung the carseat bag over my shoulders and used the stroller as a bag caddy while Ian carried Gavin and my backpack into the terminal. I was practically lunging as we made our way inside. We said our goodbyes and Ian returned to work while I checked the carseat and went through security, literally sweating through my shirt by the time we arrived at the gate. I was relieved that Gavin and I would have an entire row to ourselves because this mother was stanky and I needed all the recirculated airplane air I could possibly get.
We landed in Salt Lake City shortly thereafter. Because I fly non-revenue standby as an airline employee, I never know if I’ll have a seat until just prior to the close of boarding. As I was checking the passenger totals for our connecting flight to Phoenix, I quickly realized that if there were no seats available for us on this flight, we likely wouldn’t make it to Phoenix until the following day. Shrug. Boarding commenced and I sat in anticipation as the groups were called. The boarding pass scanner seemed to echo through the terminal like the theme song from Jaws. The final boarding announcement was made and there was one passenger missing from the flight. If this passenger didn’t make the flight, I would be awarded his seat. I approached the podium with eager feet that were ready to run down the bridge if necessary. I dared not glance around the gate area for fear of seeing that one remaining passenger barreling through the gate and dashing all of the hopes and dreams I had envisioned for this trip. I took notice of the clock again, becoming painfully aware that a mere two minutes were what stood between Gavin and I getting a seat on this flight.
The longest two minutes in human history finally passed without a sight of the missing passenger and we were awarded a seat. We actually sat next to some college teammates of the man who missed his flight. I was relieved to discover that he had been unable to travel for this particular event due to some kind of extenuating circumstances, which made me feel less guilty about having his seat to Phoenix. I quickly booked our rental car in the ID90 Travel app before switching my phone to airplane mode.
We landed in Phoenix as the evening’s light swept across the landscape. I picked up our baggage, which warranted quite a few stares, and we made our way to the Rental Car Center. Take note, readers, that PHX does not have any car rental agencies in-terminal, so you’ll have to take a shuttle bus. Retrieving our bags, riding the shuttle, and picking up the rental car took about 90 minutes. I already felt so drained and we still had to embark on a three hour drive north. The folks at the Alamo facility were the friendliest rental car employees I have yet to encounter on my travels with Gavin so far. After handing over the keys, the gentleman came around the podium and carried two of our bags to the car for us. I was blown away. While I can certainly carry the load by myself, my shoulders were thankful to have some reprieve.
I picked a vehicle, loaded up the trunk, and installed the carseat while Gavin happily played on the floorboard. I could sense his excitement for our little adventure together. He smiled and cooed as I strapped him into his carseat, as if he knew we were going somewhere special. Just the two of us.
I was well overdue for a caffeine fix at this point and Gavin was only slightly overdue for a milk break. I took the nearest exit so I could fulfill both of our needs. One of the best pieces of advice I can give families who want to travel with their child(ren) is to be flexible and avoid having a strict schedule. This pitstop definitely could’ve been much faster if I just hit a drive-thru for a Coke and continued on driving, knowing that Gavin would eventually fuss himself to sleep. He wasn’t starving, he was just unsettled. But I have found that the more I cater to the needs of my child when we travel, the better time we both have. Kids will be tired, hungry, and cranky no matter what, so just tune in to their needs and meet them exactly where they happen to be. Gavin, in this moment, just needed a little snack and comfort, so we picked a quiet corner booth inside a restaurant where I rocked and nursed him for a half hour before getting back on the road.
We made it safely to our hotel in Williams, Arizona, but I was exhausted. Gavin was too and he almost fell asleep on my shoulder as I brought our bags to our room. I dimmed the lights, turned on the Relax Melodies app, and nursed him again as he drifted off to sleep. For being in a new environment with somewhat noisy hotel neighbors, he slept like a champ. I tiptoed around the room to organize the disheveled piles of bags and supplies before jumping in the shower to soak in the silent fog of my fatigue. I barely remember getting myself to bed afterwards.
The baby and I were both awake before the alarm clock could do its job. “Coffee,” I whimpered aloud to myself. “I. Need. Coffee.” Preparing for a hike with Gavin at home is pretty easy because I have all the bells and whistles to keep him occupied. In a hotel room, however, we run into a few more challenges. I made a pillow fort so he could sit comfortably on the bed, and I surrounded him with Gerber Puffs and the few toys we had brought with us. He appeared to be on cloud nine, which meant I had a clean getaway to pack up our bags, get them in the car, and then get the two of us ready to roll.
We were in the car within the hour, en route to Grand Canyon National Park. We made a detour along the way to pickup a few groceries for our excursion. My child loves peanut butter sandwiches, but making our own food while on trips helps us to save money for better, more practical things. Like stickers and lapel pin souvenirs.
From the town of Williams to the Grand Canyon South Rim Entrance was just shy of a one hour drive. And what a drive it was: mountains and deserts and cacti, oh my! I anticipated hoards of people because of spring breaks happening around the country and knowing that the North Rim was still closed for the winter, but we scored a great parking spot just after 10 A.M. Using the hatchback as my kitchen, I prepared a few peanut butter sandwiches for the two of us to devour later.
Remember how I said to be flexible and not worry about time when traveling with kids? Sometimes I have to remind myself of that too. My goodness, we spent nearly an hour in the parking lot just getting prepared for the day. From preparing and packing our food, to feeding the baby and changing diapers, to packing and repacking for a comfortable fit. I put Gavin in the Tula and placed the straps of my hiking pack gently over my shoulders, being conscious to not squish his sweet little feet between the two. Moments later, we were standing at Mather Point. I became breathless when the desert wind rose against the walls of the canyon and made me anxiously aware of how steep the canyon actually was. I took a gentle step back.
I hadn’t been to the Grand Canyon since 2005, and all I remember from that trip was the jaw-dropping size of this place. I felt overwhelmed to be here now with my son and to show him this special place in America. We hiked three miles along the rim of the canyon, taking the time to step out to the various points and overlooks. We helped take photos of strangers, while strangers helped take photos of us too. Gavin slept on and off throughout the afternoon, but he was always sporting a smile when he was awake and taking in the views. Maybe it was the sunshine on his skin or the friendly people on the trail, but I liked to think that he was born with an infatuation for the wilderness just like his dad and I were.
He smiled at every person we passed as if he were walking by a familiar friend. We noticed other parents with babies; some having meltdowns and some loving the views. I made a point to smile at the parents and encourage them. I told them how great they were to be showing their children this place and that they were doing a wonderful job, regardless of the tearful toddlers in tow. As a parent, sometimes you just need to hear that you’re doing okay. That you’re making it. When my child is having a “special” moment in public, I am always so grateful for the parents who nod and smile at me with sincere understanding. I want to offer that same encouragement to other parents who are experiencing a “special” moment with their children in public.
We stopped at Park Headquarters Junction to stretch and have some lunch while overlooking the sweeping canyon below us. While changing Gavin’s diaper, he pulled his bandana over his eyes and sat there, perfectly still, for a moment before gently pushing the bandana back up. “Peek-a-boo!” I exclaimed. That boy smiled like he had a hanger in his mouth. He continued to repeatedly hide and reveal his eyes using his bandana, which was the first time he had ever actually played peek-a-boo. I was so overwhelmed that the sun could’ve set and my glowing pride would have lit up the entire canyon until morning.
I wanted to see as much of the South Rim as possible, but knew the full 13 miles would be too ambitious this late in the day and with so few supplies. Thankfully the shuttle busses were running, which meant free rides along the road that we had yet to explore. I admit, I was initially afraid the buses would be a pain to use and confusing to navigate, but they actually proved to be quite convenient and simple. We hopped on the bus at Village Route Transfer and rode the entirety of Hermit Road by the time the day was done. Hermit Road ends at Hermit’s Rest, with nine shuttle stops along the way at various points of interest. If you have plenty of water and are in good physical health, you can even hike between each of the nine points of interest, or alternate between hiking and riding the bus. We stopped at all but two of the shuttle stops and took the time to explore around each of the viewpoints.
Gavin was ready for a milk break about halfway to Hermit’s Rest. How did I know? Because he was kicking and screaming in protest of more hiking. I found a bench under a tree to change his diaper and nurse him, with only a few wide-eyed stares from strangers. It’s 2019, can we please move on from being offended by breastfeeding in public?
Anyway, I closed my eyes and breathed in the beautiful view, thinking there are definitely worse places for my child to be having a meltdown. The way I see it, my child can have a meltdown anywhere at any time, so I may as well pick great places for them to happen. Gavin was still incredibly fussy and irritable after the new diaper and feeding, so I started playing his bedtime Relax Melodies sounds on my phone. I was amazed at how quickly the soothing sound of water calmed my son. A mere dozen steps along the trail later and he was fast asleep. A fellow mother passed us as she smiled and said, “Isn’t it amazing how quickly that sound soothes them?” She took the words right out of my mouth. “Sure is!” I replied.
We were lucky to have an outstanding driver on our long trip back from Hermit’s Rest to the South Rim Visitor Center. She noticed Gavin, and we engaged in small talk while they exchanged smiles at each other. Gavin absolutely loved looking out of the big bus windows when we were in motion. Every few minutes he would squeal and kick his little feet with excitement. The bus quickly began to fill with tourists as we stopped along the nine viewpoints, which meant we slowly got pushed to the back of us the bus to make space for the other travelers. I learned very quickly just how claustrophobic my son can be. With swarms of people all around and no wiggle room in sight, he started to cry. Then yell. Then meltdown.
He’s a baby, so I understand that he can’t control his emotions yet. Some of the people around us clearly weren’t parents. I bounced Gavin up and down in the Tula while patting his back to soothe him, but he wanted none of it. Moments later at the next bus stop, the driver made an announcement over the loud speaker. “Excuse me, can we make room for the lady with the baby to come up front? The baby likes my driving!” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, there was miraculously a wide and clear path straight to the front of the bus. Almost instantly, Gavin became content again and smiled at the driver. All was well in both our worlds.
After returning to the Visitor Center, we walked back to the car to put on some warmer clothes and shed some gear before heading out for sunset photographs. Because we were both feeling a little “touched out” after seven hours of constant contact, I put Gavin in the stroller. I grabbed a blanket, a handful of Fig Newtons, a sippy cup, and a Dr. Seuss book to keep him warm and entertained so I could take photographs at my leisure. Well, as leisurely as possible with a nine-month-old.
Dark clouds were starting to form over the canyon as we walked along the trail. I didn’t think I was going to capture anything worth saving and questioned whether to even bother, but we continued forward anyway since perseverance seemed to be the unintentional trend this trip. I am so glad we kept going because the clouds ended up creating dramatic shadows and a unique perspective to this national landmark. Becoming a parent has changed a lot of things, and it has definitely changed how I take photographs. Gavin played with his snacks and toys the entire time I was shooting, thank goodness. In between shots, I would make noises at him and sing songs. He emanated and radiated pure bliss and joy. I will never forget his wide smile from that night.
When the clouds became too thick for the sun to glow through them, we returned to the car to start our one hour drive back to Williams. Gavin chattered to himself more than halfway to the hotel before dozing off in the middle of his own conversation. The town of Williams had spectacular neon signs in the downtown area, so I did a quick lap around the city center to capture what photos I could from the driver’s side. Gavin woke up by the time we returned to our hotel, so we took a hot bath and cleaned up a little before crashing hard into the soft hotel mattresses.
Not sure why I bothered setting an alarm again because we were up with the sun. Packing and loading up the bags while entertaining Gavin was a challenge, so I boxed him in again with pillows, gave him a few toys to play with, and donned his Junior Park Ranger hat on his precious little noggin. I double and triple-checked the room to make sure I hadn’t left behind so much as a baby sock.
We took our time driving back to Phoenix as our flight didn’t depart until 2:00 P.M. and it was still morning when we left our hotel. The drive was much more pleasant in the daylight, with swarms of wild cacti surrounding the highway and rising above the desert like misplaced skyscrapers. Even though I was sunburnt and exhausted, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelming gratitude for this experience with my son. My heart and mind felt completely rejuvenated thanks to our time in the dusty, sweaty desert.
I know Gavin won’t remember these trips from his infanthood, but I will. I hope that one day he will look back at our photo albums, full of trips together and the letters I’ve written him, and be able to experience the same emotions of gratitude and renewal. I hope that if he ever becomes a father, he understands the value in taking trips that his children won’t remember. Children always grow up; they will need us less and less, that is just life’s natural order of events. Gavin’s independence and maturity are being sown into these fleeting days of infancy, and I know that one morning I will wake up, after a full and uninterrupted night of sleep, because my son is no longer in diapers or teething. My son will have gone off to make his own memories that don’t include me.
So even when I am tired, overwhelmed, or doubting myself, I will continue making memories with him for as long as I can. He won’t remember everywhere we’ve been, and truthfully I won’t remember how hard it was to take him to these places. I will only remember how these places molded me as a mother and filled me with joy for the gift of motherhood.