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Embracing the wild

A family's journey of outdoor adventure and cherished memories


MATT STAFFORD is a lifelong Owen countian who enjoys a variety of outdoor activities. He’s also fond of writing on his experiences in hiking, hunting, and fishing.

My wife, Mariah, and I have always enjoyed spending time outdoors. We’ve hiked on our honeymoon in North Carolina, taken frequent trips to Red River Gorge, and she’ll occasionally accompany me to a local farm pond where she’ll end up reading a book on the bank after she’s caught enough fish to give her contentment.

 With that said, when we welcomed our son, Colter, into the world last March, we consciously decided to instill in him a love of the outdoors from an early age. Spring was a perfect time to start. Once we reached a comfort level and adjusted to the challenges that new parents face, we brought him along in early April to a local pond to sit on the dock with his mother while I threw out a couple lines. We weren’t out long, but I was able to take a photo with my son of the first bass he ever saw. I don’t think he was cognizant enough to appreciate the moment, but I sure was. Four days later, we spent the night in my wife’s hometown of Cynthiana so I could hunt on the family farm the following morning. Her brother-in-law and I doubled up on turkeys on the season’s opening day, less than an hour after sunrise. Of course, my son did not join me on this adventure, but my wife did manage to pack him up and bring him out to us, along with my nephews, for a photo opportunity with our trophies in the glow of a cool spring dawn. 

So when I felt the itch for another trip to Red River Gorge in late May, I mapped out a couple of trails I’d been longing to hike, and we headed to Eastern Kentucky, baby in tow. The Red, as climbers call it, is a hiker’s paradise. To be within an hour and a half from home, The Red is difficult not to take advantage of. This geological playground is home to hundreds of arches, and these features keep pulling me back every year. 

On this particular trip, I intended to hike three separate, shorter trails in close proximity to one another. I thought these three hikes would make the drive worthwhile but keep the trip short enough for the unpredictability of a 2 1/2 month old. The first stop was at Sky Bridge. Mariah carried our backpack of water while I strapped my son into a carrier on my chest. For the first little bit, all was well, although I have to admit, my audaciousness has toned down since my child came into the world. The path leads directly to the top of the arch, a narrow sandstone bridge with a respectable drop-off on either side. Before I was a parent, I’d have strolled over this obstacle nonchalantly. With a child snuggled up to my chest, it was a different ball game. 

I once joked while hiking in a stretch in Wyoming heavily populated with bears that I could spot a daddy long-leg cross the trail from 100 yards out. In this particular situation, I had no fear of bears, just a heavy price to pay for any misstep. I avoided the wet spots on the rock from the recent rains and dug my shoes in on the dryer points, taking me probably twice as long as if I’d been alone. We crossed without incident and continued the path that winded down and around, arriving underneath the bridge. We decided to take a break and hydrate in the sandy gap under the arch. Colter had become a little restless, and I sensed he might have been getting a little warm since he was nestled in so tight to me and probably picking up my body heat. I  began unbuckling him from the carrier, but not before he started squalling. My attempts to console him were in vain. So what does every panicked father do with a crying child? Pass him to his mother. 

Here we are, new parents, half a mile from our vehicle with a baby whose cries can be heard in the echoes reverberating through the forest for God only knows how long. While the occasional uncomfortable hiker would pass by, my wife sat on a small, rocky ledge and cradled a baby in her arms with the soothing touch only a mother possesses. It didn’t take long for our boy to calm down. I snapped a photo. Mariah probably never thought much of that moment, but it was raw and beautiful: a new mother with a crying child in the middle of nowhere. No TV, toys, or gadgets to take his mind off of whatever was bothering him, just his mother softly shushing him until his eyes gradually closed. Once we packed him up on my chest again, he was in such a deep sleep that I had to hold his head up until we arrived back at the car. We only hiked one more trail to avoid overwhelming the little fellow. Afterward, we headed toward the locally famous Miguel’s pizza joint, a mandatory stop for any Gorge trip for us, and realized our son had a diaper blowout. Luckily, a longer-than-usual diaper change and new clothes made him as good as new. 

Any parent, even one as inexperienced as me, will tell you the difficulties when taking a child on an adventure. Yet the reward is worth any obstacles. A treasure trove awaits for those who seek it. Little memories and fleeting moments are worth any hassle of comforting a fussy child or changing a messy diaper. There’ll be days in the future where only an hour passes on a late fall morning before Colter’s patience and warmth wear thin, and he decides to call it a day long before the first deer shows up. There’ll be days on the banks of a pond where I’m so busy baiting hooks and prying those same hooks from the mouths of fish that I won’t even be able to throw my line into the water. There’ll be times when his little legs have given out and he asks for a piggyback ride along the trail.

I look forward to every single one of them.


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