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That Time I Decided To Go Hiking During Elk Mating Season


          I slept in my bra last night. It happens a lot. But last night, Caroline crawled into bed with me somewhere around the two o’clock hour and peed the sheets somewhere around the six o’clock hour. I mean she really soaked em good, and got my bra in the process. My last clean bra. By clean I mean not that clean, but not as dirty as the others. Now it smells like urine. Now there is no question. I will not be wearing this bra today.
          ”Sorry mama,” Caroline says sleepily, digging into the corners of her eyes. She’s five now, and way past wearing diapers, but it’s hard to be mad at this kid in the morning, with her pink cheeks and her wild blonde hair. Plus it’s Sunday, so no big deal. All I have to do is attend a kid’s birthday party at 3:30, plenty of time to get some laundry done.
          ”It’s okay, sweetie,” I say. “Let’s go downstairs to your bed.”
          We both strip out of our wet pajamas. Still waking up, I grab some clothes next to my hamper and pull them on–yesterday’s jeans (already twice worn) and a sweater from the day before with some gogurt on it. By the time we get to the bottom of the stairs, Caroline is wide awake.
          “I wanna watch something!” she exclaims. Caroline is addicted to certain Netflix shows, and although she’s never heard the term binge-watching, she may as well have invented it. After a pathetic attempt on my part to get her to play with something interactive, I succumb and flip on the television.
          “I can get things done this way,” I tell myself. And I do. Pancakes get cooked. Sheets get washed and dried. Facebook checked. Comforter washed and dried. Dishes done. Facebook checked. Floor swept. Facebook checked.
          Every once in a while this nagging concern for the well-being of the child, the development of her brain and the negative impact of screen time on both of us creeps into my head and really cramps my parenting style. I describe my style as predominantly Uncle Buck, but with a strange dash of Martha Stewart. Mostly I’m well-intentioned but hapless, sloppy, somewhat uninformed, generally unprepared, always running late and occasionally embarrassing. But sometimes, quite to the contrary, I summon Martha—I’m a ruthless, conniving, over-achieving and oddly crafty perfectionist.
I look down at Caroline, entranced in a zombie-like daze, the reflection of fast moving colors in her eyes.
          “Hey!” I shout. She’s watching this PBS show called Wild Kratts, and to be fair, this show is kinda awesome. It follows two real-life brother naturalists who teach children all about different wild animals and their habitats. The show is mostly animated, but starts out with the actual brothers who turn into cartoons for the remainder of the episode. They go on different “creature adventures,” always posing the question “what if?” at the beginning of each show.
          “Caroline!” I wave my hand in front of her face. “What if we go creature adventuring in REAL LIFE!?” This is brilliant, I think. We’ll go outside! Why didn’t I think of this before!
          She looks at me, confused.
          “Do you know what hiking is?” I ask. She nods her head back and forth.
          “It’s when you go outside and walk around in a circle. In the woods! Doesn’t it sound awesome??” I find that gesturing animatedly while increasing the pitch of my voice and throwing in the word awesome really does wonders to encourage desire (the checklist of things this strategy does NOT work on is ever increasing, however).
          “Yeah!” she screams.
          Now, we coulda puttered around in our own back yard looking at squirrels, or taken a walk around the block, or found a paved trail somewhere nearby. That would be the normal thing to do…but this is where the Martha Stewart part of my brain will often take control of situations. You know when 12 yr-old Martha got a book report assignment, that bitch wrote ten pages more than everyone else in the class AND hand-crafted a cover for it using hot glue and beads she whittled out of local dolomite and juniper—and just like Martha, we would not settle for the mundanity of some paved trail (I say in my mind with the utmost disdain). Oh no, I think, with a Stewart-like gleam in my eye. We will take a hot glue gun to this day.
          Round about this time I glance at the clock and a tiny voice inside my head says, “don’t forget about that birthday party at 3:30. Maybe don’t go too crazy…” I laugh off this ridiculous voice and decide on tackling the 3.2 mile long White Bison trail at Lone Elk state park just a half an hour away. One hour hike, the internet tells me, and I’ve been trusting the internet ever since it told me Tom Cruise is a gay alien (it explains so much). One hour? That’s nothin! Hell, if I lived through Disney World with Caroline during the height of Frozen’s popularity, I can do anything.
          Getting ready to embark is another story. Typically, even if I’ve convinced Caroline that she really really wants to do something, she never ever wants to get ready to go do the thing she SAYS she wants to do. Lately I’ve been trying to encourage her to get herself dressed, but she usually ends up sticking a leg through the waist end of her underwear and her waist ends up in a leg hole. Shirts go on inside out and pants go on with the ass side in front, and she ends up looking something like Mel Brooks in Spaceballs after the transporter malfunction. She never seems to mind. Today though, to save time, I dress her.
          “I’m too cold,” she whines.
          “What are you talking about?” I say. “Putting on clothes will make you warmer!” I yank a shirt over her head.
          “I’m too tired.”
          “What are you talking about? I’m doing all the work!” I snap the pants.
          “But my butt itches!”
          “Oh good grief, Caroline, learn to mutli-task. Scratch it and gimme your foot!” I grab a foot, wrench on a shoe, and proceed to the kitchen to pack a bag with necessities, like toilet paper and gogurt.
          When I come back she has taken off the warm socks and sturdy shoes I put her in for the long journey ahead of us (oh, by the way, at this point I’ve started to think about this day as being epic, as though it’s being narrated by Tolkien and will involve many obstacles and setbacks, but will end with some wisdom we will have gained). Anyway, there she is, sitting on the floor in her white dress sandals, insisting she hike in them.
          “Honey, it’s pretty chilly outside,” I say.
          “Those don’t protect your feet.”
          Blank stare.
          “Guess somebody doesn’t want to go on a creature adventure,” I say, in my best Eeyore voice, slumping my shoulders for effect.
          Every once in a while Caroline morphs into one of the children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. By every once in a while, I mean daily. Veruca Salt comes to mind, or even Mike TV, or that fat one who gets sucked up the tube, whatever the hell his name is. So her response to my pleas comes at no surprise.
          “Want…..want. WANT, WANT, WANT!” she insists. INSISTS. “Want!” she cries. Like, tears crying.
          I wonder, sometimes, if this sort of behavior is some failing of mine as a parent. Perhaps the Uncle Buck side of me is far too lax, for instance. But then I think that can’t be it, because the Martha side is a total bitch. Then I think, Dear God, it’s Martha! That crazy person is way overbearing and must create some kind of contrarian nature in the child. Then I tell myself, nah, every kid is this way, dummy. I tell myself that, but I’m not so sure. Maybe the internet will tell me when I ask it later.
          Approximately an hour after the inception of our initial proposal, I finally have her dressed and a pack packed. We are on the road by noon. Three and a half hours till that party, I think. Plenty of time to go exploring and still make myself presentable! I realize, upon getting in the car, that I am still braless in my dirty clothes. Dirty clothing is a normal part of my Uncle Buck lifestyle, and we’re just going hiking, but I do wonder momentarily about zero upper body mammary support. Meh, says Uncle Buck, not wanting to deal with coaxing Caroline out of and then back into the car.
          After a half hour and a slight detour due to a lack of communication between my phone and me, we finally arrive. Thank god, because I could not have sung one more verse of “Old McDonald.” After we ran out of farm animals, we covered beasts of the African plains, beasts of the jungle, and extinct beasts. There were a lot of “roars.” You know, “with a roar roar here and a roar roar there, here a roar there a roar…” But thirty solid minutes of singing the same verse on repeat is what it takes to get this kid anywhere in the car without her foaming at the mouth for the phone. And I need the phone to get places. I no longer know how to get anywhere without the phone, including home. Directions, like other people’s phone numbers, have vanished from my mind, and I fully expect one day not to be able to choose dinner or remember my own birthday without it. You know how they say the brain makes a wrinkle for every new pathway of thinking? Do they say that? Hold, please, I’ll ask the internet…Yeah, okay see they say that. Well I have a theory that my phone is causing my brain to UN-wrinkle, and that someday, I will be left with what appears to be a giant marble inside my cranium. Wait, what was I talking about again? Oh yeah, hiking.
          “White Bison Trail,” reads the sign at a remote and unmanned Visitor Center. “3.2 Mile Loop…Difficult…Hiking Only.” No skipping then. Got it. But more importantly… “difficult.” The internet didn’t mention anything about “difficult.” I gulp audibly.
          “Are we gonna see buffalos mama!?” Caroline squeals excitedly, seeing the picture of one on the sign.
          “Erm, I don’t know, sweetie. I think it’s just called that. Maybe,” I say. Somewhere in the park there are actually buffalos, but even my smooth-ish brain finds it hard to imagine we can walk around with them.
          “Yay, buffalos!!” she exclaims gleefully. Great. Anything short of buffalos will now be a disappointment, like the final season of Dexter, or my love life.
          Another sign, a little further off warns, “Elk Mating Season – Use Extreme Caution – Do Not Approach The Animals.” Oh good lord. Really? Like, really? I increase panic threat level from yellow to orange. Repeat, we are now operating at threat level orange (my panic threat level never goes below yellow, the result of being responsible for a wildly unpredictable, insanely headstrong little baby life form with no notion of mortality. This alarm system has not been disengaged for four years and frankly I’m starting to get a crick in my neck).
          “What does that sign say?” Caroline asks as we continue checking out our surroundings and I try to get my bearings. I tell her.
          “What is mating?” she asks.
          “Uhhh, it’s when the daddy elk try to make babies with the mommy elk.”
          “Oh, then it’s okay. Let’s go,” she says, grabbing my hand and pulling.
          “Why is that?” I ask.
          “Because I don’t look like a mommy elk.”
          She has a point. Plus I had seen a couple with a child younger than Caroline a few minutes before, so I figure it’s fine.
          We walk from the small parking lot outside of the visitor center toward what appears to be a trail marker in the distance, at the foot of a hill where I had seen the couple enter the wooded area nearby. A small lake to our right anchors the trail, serving as a center-point and backdrop for the entire hike. The loop around the lake is shaped like the perimeter of a cypress tree–lots of ins and outs, but eventually connecting to itself. The land juts up around the water like the folds of a blanket, and I noticed many precipitous drops along the narrow and winding road leading into the park. The hills are covered with tall oaks, hickory and birch trees, not so densely packed that the sunlight doesn’t stream through to the ground in places. A cool breeze rustles the russet colored leaves overhead. It’s a perfect fall day. I can hear the voice of Tolkien as we climb the steep slope beginning our expedition: “The two eager travelers, full of wonder and merriment, embark on their journey deep into Middle Earth, the comfort of their shire behind them and only the unknown ahead…”
          That’s when I see the couple. Coming back toward us, having turned around, not twenty minutes after they’d started.
          “Got too slippery on the bits going down,” the man said as they passed.
          Dear god what was I thinking! Panic level red. Panic level red. Abort, abort!
          Then Martha takes hold. Bitch you’re doing this, she says. And that’s all there is to it. When Martha takes over, I am a force to be reckoned with—a crazy one usually. So we keep going. And you know what? Honestly it’s not that bad. The trail is definitely hilly, with lots of downed trees to navigate over, and some spots that are a bit slippery, but all in all, not that bad. Caroline has only two speeds, though, which does cause some difficulties—it’s either a) slower than a snail or b) faster than a hare. There is no in between. None. Zero. It’s exhausting.
          “Not too far,” I yell over and over again. “Wait for me! Do not run! Stop!”
          Or… “Caroline, let’s pick it up here. C’mon sweetie, we’ll never get done if we don’t move faster. Okay it’s called walking, Caroline, put one foot in front of the other.” These are the times I look at my watch, a worried feeling building in my gut. Party at 3:30.
          But we have some good talks as we walk and I’m really happy she’s not begging to be entertained by a screen.
          “Mama,” she says, climbing over one of the logs blocking the path.
          “Yes Caroline?”
          “Can I tell you something?” She asks this question on a regular basis before engaging in any conversation.
          “Of course you can. Go.”
          She stops. She listens. “You can’t see the wind,” she says. “But you can hear it.”
          “That’s right,” I say, listening to the breeze.
          “But I can see the wind,” she continues. “My ears hear the wind, and they make the sound go to my brain, and then my brain sends it to my eyes, so I can see it. Just like a bat can see in a cave.”
          I can’t count the number of times I’m dumfounded by the connections she makes on her own, the way she sees the world, or something she knows that I’ve never taught her. Like, how the hell does she know about sonar? Oh wait, it’s that show Wild Kratts. Hmmm, maybe screen time isn’t all bad.
          At this point, the lake comes back into view, and I realize it’s been over an hour and we’re just now on the other side of it, so probably halfway through.
          It’s also about this time Caroline tells me her legs have stopped working and collapses to the ground dramatically.
          Damn damn.
          I quickly calculate that at this rate, we can get back to the car before 3:00 without a problem, and that although I won’t be able to shower, I can stop at home to get the gift, change clothes and still be there on time. I grab Caroline and hoist her onto my shoulders, determined to make it out of these woods with time to spare. Maybe I can even shower if I really hurry.
          The rest of the hike, on and off, resembles something like a scene from Star Wars: Episode V, in which I am Luke in a training exercise with Master Yoda (Caroline), who is now perched atop my shoulders as I run through the swamps of Dagobah. Only instead of sage advice about the ways of the force, I get farted on and yelled at to go faster. Complicating matters, Caroline never sits squarely on my shoulders. Judging by the way it feels, she sits directly on my neck, the bulk of her weight pushing downward onto my head. Over the years I have trained my neck to withstand this kind of pressure, and although it may not look like it, my neck muscles rival Lou Ferrigno in his heyday. I begin breaking out into a sweat, accumulating on my brow and under-boob regions—and as my tits flop around and get kicked by Caroline’s feet every time she yells heeyah, I start to regret not wearing a bra.
          “Ughhhh, when I can I sit down!?” Caroline complains after another half mile.
          “What are you talking about? You ARE sitting. You’re sitting on ME!” I say.
          “Ughhhhh. I’m tired.” She pushes harder onto my head.
          “We’ll be done soon, sweetie,” I try to console her.
          “I hafta pee!” she yells. Which is fine by me, because at this point I sound like a heifer giving birth. We find a place off the trail and I pull down her pants so she can go. Usually she yells at me for privacy but I guess in the woods a little help is welcome.
          I wipe off my forehead with the back of my hand. God I need energy. I rummage around in the pack and realize I’ve only brought gogurts and Capri Suns. Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with me. I mean, seriously, who only brings gogurts and Capri Suns on a 3 mile hike? Then I realize Caroline’s peeing on my shoe and I yelp and point her in another direction, but it’s too late.
          This will all be over soon, I tell myself. I squeeze a gogurt into my mouth and nearly choke. It’s awful. Why does she like them?
          “I wanna see buffalos!” Caroline yells. “Where’s the buffalos? Want, want, want!”
          Someone shoot me. Party at 3:30. Must…go…on…
          “Buffalo!” she yells.
          I do wonder, though, where ARE the buffalo? Well, technically speaking bison. Well, not so much the bison as the elk, which are supposed to be mating all up in these woods. Where the hell are all the horny elk? I remember that the park’s name is Lone Elk, and wonder if maybe there’s only one here, wandering around on 500 acres all by himself, and that you’re lucky if you actually get a glimpse. Maybe that sign is a practical joke to hikers. Maybe this whole place is.
          I tell Caroline she has to walk for just a little bit, so my neck can brace for the next round. Thankfully she abides. We both mutter under our breath.
          “I hate hiking,” she says.
          “Me too,” I say. My feet have developed blisters from the highly uneven terrain and I limp slightly as we make our way forward.
          Then we see them. Elk. Right on the path. They’re huge. One, two, three of them directly on the trail.
          “Caroline!” I whisper-yell. “Stop! Look!”
          I put my hand across her chest. “Wait, honey. Don’t get too close.” I look around for the nearest tree to climb in case one charges at me. Caroline is little, she can burrow or something. I berate myself for not asking the internet what to do in the event of an elk stampede. I grab my phone from my back pocket, which I’ve managed to keep hidden from Caroline, so I can ask the internet for advice. But when I power it up, I realize I can take pictures! Hell yeah I’m taking pictures. It would not surprise me if someday something completely random ends up killing me—but not before I’ll have taken a picture of it for Instagram and forensics.
          Slowly, steadily, I creep forward, Caroline behind me. Stealth is key. They see us approach. We must not make any sudden movements or loud noises.
          “Hi Elk! Hiiiiiiiiiii!!!!!” Caroline yells, flailing her hands and arms in a triumphant salutation. “Hellooooooooo!!!! Hi elky, elky, elky. HIIIIIIIIII!!!”
          Panic level red. Panic level red. My heart is beating out of its chest.
          “Caroline, shhhhhhhh!!!” I shush her as best I can.
          “Remember what we talked about? We don’t want to scare them sweetie,” I whisper, holding her tightly. “Don’t wave at them, don’t say hi. We’re gonna walk slowly by them, okay? Slowly. Quietly. Understand? This isn’t like the zoo.”
          She nods. There don’t seem to be any males. None of them have antlers. I count at least twelve fully grown females standing or sitting all around us, every one of them with their gaze locked on Caroline and me. As we walk by the three on the trail, I wonder what color the panic level is after red. I decide it’s fuschia. We veer off the path so as to provide them with some space, but are still almost close enough to touch them. Or at least it seems that way. They make no movements to indicate cause for concern, and a few go back to chewing on grass. We stand there for several minutes, staring at these beautiful creatures, before the voice in my head reminds me…party at 3:30.
          Ten yards further and I throw Caroline on my shoulders again. Only a quarter of a mile to go, and I hit it like I’m in boot camp, weaving in and out of the still green thickets of baby hickories, hop-scotching over gnarled roots, digging into the mud on steep inclines. My blisters hurt, but I ignore it. This is my least favorite section of the hike, but if I had to guess, it’s Caroline’s favorite.
          “Yeehah!” she yells.
          We emerge from the woods at 2:45, only to come face-to-face with a thousand pound bull elk sporting antlers so tall and expansive, I could string a hammock between them. When I say face-to-face, I mean about fifty yards away. But STILL. It’s humongous, and staring straight at us.
          “I see you bitch,” the elk says with his black eyes.
          “Hi elky, elky, elky!!!” Caroline waves. “Hiiiiiiiiii!”
          “Honey, stop!” I quickly turn and run for the car, just where we left it 2 ½ hours ago, in the sleepy visitor center parking lot. Of course, now we’re on the other side of it, since we’ve traversed a loop. We reach the vehicle, and I throw Caroline into her carseat and fumble for the safety harness as she screams something about buffalo. I ignore her. Success! We’ve done it! We’re gonna make it after all! Then I hear it. My phone chiming an alarm in my back pocket. What the hell could that be? I dig it out and look at the screen, my face twisting into a look of sheer horror.
          “Reminder,” the phone says. “Party at 3:00.”
          Great Scott! Three o’clock! Why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner you stupid phone! Panic level fuschia. Repeat…PANIC. LEVEL. FUSCHIA. You know the voice of Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown in Back to the Future screaming, “one point twenty-one gigawatts!” over and over in a crazy high voice when he realizes the impossibility of sending Marty back to 1985? Any time I realize the futility of something, that voice yells in my head like an imaginary .gif. Inexplicably it yells only “one point twenty-one gigawatts,” and never anything relevant to my situation. Just that. Anyway, it’s yelling now. I’m yelling too.
          “One point twenty-one gigawatts!” I scream as I jump into the car like I’m on the Dukes of Hazzard and Boss Hog is at it again. Caroline is utterly confused.
          “I’m hungry,” she complains.
          “Oh, well, I have great news! You can have cake for dinner!” I say, making sure to elevate my voice. “Isn’t that awesome??”
          “Yay!” she cheers.
          I throw the car in reverse, glance quickly in my mirrors, step on the gas pedal and proceed to exit cautiously at a speed no greater than 15 mph. I mean, seriously, you should see this road—it’s got one hundred eighty degree turns in some places with no barriers to keep you from rolling into a valley.
          But as soon as I’m back onto the highway, I ramp it up to full speed. The limit here, despite this being an interstate, is a mere 60 mph, which is just crazy. I cross into the left lane and settle on 77, playing out an imaginary discussion with the state trooper who is inevitably going to pull me over.
          “You know why I stopped you sir?” he says, hovering over my window.
          I ignore the gender misidentification. “I can explain,” I plead. “I’m late for a five-year-old’s party and I have no bra!”
          He stares down at me.
          “I know, right!?” I continue. “And it gets worse. It’ll be full of affluent businessmen and doctors and their socialite wives.”
          More staring.
          “Thank god you understand!” I say. “I haven’t washed my hair in two days and smell like desperation and stale urine! And my boobs are several inches below where they should be for a woman of my age. See?” I point to my sad rack.
          Thankfully, we do not get pulled over and make it home in one piece. I glance at the clock. 3:20. In a flash I unholster Caroline, leap the front stairs of my porch, throw open the door, grab the present, fish through the dirty laundry for an old bra, and take two seconds to look at myself in the mirror by my front door.
          Dear god, it’s worse than I thought. I look like a lesbian. I mean, I am a lesbian. But this is rough. I look like Ethan Hawke from Reality Bites, the ultimate in nineties grunge—greasy and unkempt—but with a brightly colored mesh-backed trucker hat covering my stringy hair. I regret my very existence. Nothing I can do about it now.
          We pull into Art Mart at exactly 3:29. Art Mart is a store that, as the name would imply, sells art supplies. It also apparently hosts kiddie painting parties. How aristocratic. I imagine the children, all dressed in Ralph Lauren, sipping sparkling grape juice cocktails and sampling cheeses as they discuss what colors to include on their palettes. It’s times like these I question my decision to move to one of the wealthiest school districts in Saint Louis. At any rate we’re only a half hour late, not too bad. I’ve been to dozens of these damn parties over the last 4 years and they always go about the same way. We haven’t missed the important stuff—cake and gifts.
          I realize as I limp into the building that Caroline and I are both covered in burrs. They’re all over us, and one of my pant legs is streaked with mud. And I smell like butt. I think the bra I pulled on must’ve been the one I used at the gym recently. This is truly one of the best days of my life.
          “Hi!” I smilingly greet the hostess, trying hard to seem happy to be there. “So sorry we’re late!”
          “Oh, don’t worry about it!” she says graciously, making clear movements that would indicate she wants to shake my hand or something. That would bring me in closer. I cannot allow it. I deftly dodge, holding up the gift and asking where to put it, maintaining a bubble no less than five feet in circumference to my exterior.
          I usher Caroline to a remote corner and kneel beside her as the teenage Art Mart employee helps her engage in whatever crafty activity they’ve been conducting. After a few minutes, I let down my guard and stand up. A woman approaches me who looks like she’s just been to the spa, dressed in such a perfectly pressed outfit it must’ve come directly off the rack. Her mouth is moving. Is she talking to me? I look around. No one else. I realize she’s talking to me. WHY IS SHE TALKING TO ME? I back up to offset her approach and realize when her mouth is done moving I forgot to listen to her words. Dammit.
          I laugh casually. “Hahahah, yeah,” I say, nodding my head. “Kids.” That seems to do it, and I turn my attention back to Caroline.
          Pretty soon they move to an adjacent room for cake. Finally, dinner. Caroline runs in and grabs a chair. I drop to the rear and wait for the herd to thin. My eyes glaze over as everyone sings happy birthday to little George, and when they refocus I realize there’s a camera phone right on me. Well it’s on some kid but I’M IN THE SHOT. I drop instantaneously to the ground to tie my shoe, and spend the rest of the party ducking and weaving like an erratic tribesman who thinks his soul will be stolen if one of the black magic devices captures him. Three hours later I look down at my watch and it’s only been 45 minutes. When it’s all finally over, Caroline and I gather her artwork, wave goodbye and hightail it outta there.
          In the car on the way home Caroline says, “Mommy we saw moose today.”
          “No, sweetie,” I reply. “We saw elk.”
          “But mommy,” she says, her voice becoming agitated, “sometimes elk are called moose.”
          “Okay, honey, sure,” I say, not wanting to get into a battle over it. I’ll ask the internet later just to be sure.
          At home, I undress Caroline, bathe her, comb her hair, put her in pajamas, feed her real food, play with her, read to her, and coo her to sleep. Then I collapse on the couch and ask the internet about moose. I stare at my phone in disbelief. The first damn line of the Wikipedia article on moose calls them elk. You’ve got to be kidding me. How the hell does she know this shit? Sigh. I’m just gonna sit here for another second, I think to myself. Just for a second. My eyelids droop, my brain unwrinkles a little. And of course, completely exhausted, I fall asleep…in my bra.

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