A 700-mile walk in the woods with our 11-week-old

Courtesy Jess Ausinheiler ’08

Gliding across the soft pine-needle ground, I feel a quickening sensation across my torso. I look down, expecting to find the purple cover of my wrap; instead I meet her eyes, a deep ocean blue that sucks me in. Arching back, she stares first at me and beyond, at the contrast of the dark pine canopy against a light sky. I stop and gaze into her eyes. My husband, Bryan, catches up and joins me in the spectacle. Some version of this scene — plus rain, sweat, and sometimes tears — repeats multiple times per day, every day, for the next eight weeks. It is seared in my mind as the cover page to my maternity leave—and my family’s parental leave.

We began preparations for our trip with a long list of questions: What risks will our infant face on the trail, and how will we address them? What will we do about diapers? How will we carry all the weight? 

As is in our nature, we began the hypothetical discussion of how we would approach our maternity and paternity leave at around the same time we decided to try to get pregnant. (As a California-based manager with Deloitte, I would enjoy six months of paid maternity leave; Bryan’s private practice and our savings gave us additional flexibility.) Since the two of us had bonded over outdoor adventures — bike touring in the high Sierras, kayaking in the Bahamas, canoeing in the Amazon — we agreed that there was no better way for our family to welcome its newest addition than through an outdoor family adventure.

For this first family adventure we decided it would be safer to hike — rather than bike or kayak — in a place with fast access to good medical care. We developed a whole decision tree to determine whether, where, and how intensely we would trek, based on mama and baby’s health and the season of our child’s birth (we sought long, warm days). When baby Zia Iliana was born in the winter of 2017, we confirmed our plans to fly to her grandparents’ home in Virginia shortly after her first vaccinations ... and from there, to embark on a two-month, 700-ish-mile section hike along a third of the Appalachian Trail, from Virginia to Massachusetts.

We began preparations for our trip with a long list of questions: What risks will our infant face on the trail, and how will we address them? What will we do about diapers? How will we carry all the weight? When our internet search for information came up empty, we extended our search offline to family adventure books and interviews with their authors, as well as conversations with friends-of-friends who’d embarked on similar adventures. We also experimented our way to answers and solutions in our living room, backyard, and local trails, iteratively testing gear, relying on Amazon Prime free shipping and returns. And in our search for the right questions and concrete solutions, we had to remind ourselves that the “common sense” that dictates what not to do with your infants is dictated by culture, and worth checking against facts and our own values. (We are summarizing what we have learned in an upcoming article in Outdoor Families Magazine.)

We completed our two-month section hike along 707 miles of the AT on June 13, 2017. Of course the trek required us to overcome challenges. Orthopedically, the bones and tendons of our feet felt ossified every morning, and my knees screamed on the downhills — requiring Bryan to carry 60 pounds of gear as well as 17-pound baby Zia on many descents. Temperamentally, we had to care for an unpredictable infant in the unpredictable out-of-doors, with crying fits to the beat of late spring downpours in 35ºF degree weather, and piercing hunger cries that must be met right now by the side of a swampy trail with mosquitoes buzzing all around.

The bigger challenges were mental. On days that Bryan carried all the weight and I was still unable to keep up, I sometimes struggled to show my post-partum body compassion. On cold and rainy days when Bryan refused to wear raingear that chokes the body and makes it rain on the inside, he found it difficult to hike at the “family speed” that required him to pace himself and thrice stop for 30 or 45 minutes of nursing and tummy time — while he shook, cold.

But all of our adventures involve overcoming some physical or mental challenge. What we did not anticipate was that our adventure would in many ways prove easier to do with an infant than living in the city. Back home, we have professions we wish to grow, friendships we wish to strengthen, hobbies in which we’d like to excel, a house we need to maintain, and now an infant we need to care for. During our parental leave, we put professional, social, and other priorities aside to pursue a single goal as a family unit: to walk together. Each of us played a critical role. Mine was to care for and nurse baby Zia; his was to carry the gear, set up camp, cook, and play with baby Zia on days I slept in. Our collective family goal reigned supreme and we focused all of our energies toward achieving it, together. 

We have since returned to the modern world, closer as a result of our walk in the woods and the challenges we had to overcome together. We already have our next adventure planned—a summer trek through the northern third of the Appalachian Trail. In addition to annual adventures, we are trying to figure out how to create the space for our family to feel like a unit in pursuit of a common goal, where each of us has a critical role to play. Nightly book readings? Weekly circus training? In the coming years, we will test out “modern world” activities that would bring us closer and into the present, like our walk in the woods did.

From left, Bryan, Jess, and Zia Ausinheiler
Courtesy Jess Ausinheiler ’08
Jess (Gheiler) Ausinheiler ’08 is a strategy adviser in the philanthropic and social innovation space, as well as a biking, hiking, and acro yoga aficionada. She is currently on sabbatical from The Monitor Group (part of Deloitte Consulting) while pursuing her MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School. You can follow her family’s adventures on Instagram @ausinheiler.

This essay is part of a series of personal essays at PAW Online. If you would like to contribute, contact us at paw@princeton.edu.