He was hungry, he told me, as we began pedaling. His knee pads were itchy. He wanted a new bike, not this one. He was thirsty. And hot. And then cold. And then sweaty. He reported all of this to me each time he tipped over or ran into a rock or just felt stubborn, which was often.
He's six-years-old and he was born in the year of the tiger. Today the tiger was annoyed and, I have to admit, the tiger had good reason.
My wife and I had just hauled him a thousand miles from Washington to Utah. We'd woken him up early. We'd kept him up late. I wasn't particularly proud of his road trip diet--a happy meal, some granola bars, and far too many fruit snacks. Maybe he ate an apple. Maybe not.
Eight hours into the drive, as we passed through Pocatello, he started to melt the way six-year-olds inevitably do when they've be sitting in car for too long. He was edgy and impatient. He spilled things. He took to repeating everything his older brother said. He wasn't unbearable, not exactly, just obstinate and out of sorts.
Who could blame him?
And now, only a day later, here I was, dragging him away from the hard-won comfort of a vacation condo to a bike trail in the dusty desert. I hadn't asked his opinion, but as we began pedaling, he gave it to me. And he was unrelenting.
To make matters worse, only a few minutes into our ride, his bike chain slid off, causing him to bang his shin on the pedal and tip over into patch of prickly grass.
At six, he still mostly believes that I possess all the answers in the world, but I could tell then from the sideways look that he gave me that he had downgraded my parking lot promises of "so much fun" from "likely" to "big fat lie."
But I dusted him off anyway and righted his little bike. I tried to assuage his apathy and growing doubt with my best go-get-'em-tiger smile.
No one would have blamed me then if I had turned around and headed back to Moab. There was ice cream there and a coffee shop that sold giant chocolate muffins. Our rental condo was comfortable, the TV enormous, and (though I hadn't admitted it to him yet) I had found out that morning that the swimming pool was most definitely open.
Giving in would have been so easy, so simple.
But there was another part of me that saw this bike trail as a battle of wills--the kind of battle that a dad needs to win because he's supposed to know that truly right isn't always easy--sometimes it's a greasy bike chain on a dusty trail in a desert.
Bike rides with six-year-olds are, ultimately, acts of faith. Rocks and hills and faulty bike components tend to conspire against little wheels and tired legs. Yet we still need to believe in them. We need to believe that kids need bike trails the same way they need home cooking and encouragement and a good night's sleep.
Faith isn't easy, but when it's rewarded it can be powerful medicine.
So for these reasons and maybe because I'm a little stubborn, too, I held on. I fixed his chain. I slapped the dust off his butt. I propped up his spirit with a peanut butter cliff bar, and we kept pedaling.
He's a tough kid, I have to admit. He puts up with me sometimes more than he probably should.
Eventually, he stopped complaining.
For a while there, all I heard was the click of his bike chain and the occasional cricket chirp of his brake pads. The silence was nice. It gave me a moment to appreciate how perfect the day was. The wind had calmed. It was warm, but not too warm. The sun felt good. Red desert flowers bloomed along the trail. I could just see the snow-capped La Sal mountains on the horizon. Around me, the sandstone was luminous, the air redolent of juniper and sage. It was exactly what I'd driven a thousand mile to enjoy--spring break in Moab with my family. And, yes, a few bike rides.
We rode together in silence on a smooth, easy stretch of the trail. I followed behind but not too closely, so at first I didn't realize that he had started to hum. I can’t begin to explain how good his humming sounded—how life affirming and right.
The humming made me think about the guy who came out into the desert and built this perfect stretch of trail and the way trail building, like parenting--is also a labor of love. There's patience and there's craft and there are plenty of questions. At some point, I'm sure, every trail builder asks what the hell he's doing in the desert.
I wished then that that trail builder, probably an old half-crazy Moab local--could have been there with me, listening to my humming six-year-old because I think he would have liked it.
I have a hunch that when kids experiences a moment like that the feeling goes straight into their frontal lobe or heart or spirit or chakra—or wherever it is that truly meaningful experiences go—and it become a building block that shores up who they are.
Watching him pedal in front of me, I knew at least, that he'd forgiven me for dragging him into the desert. He'd forgotten about the crumb-covered car seat that he'd sat in for 14 hours. He'd forgotten that he was hungry and that his knee pads itched. He'd forgotten that only a few minutes before--when he banged his shin on the pedal--that I may have stretched the truth a bit when I told him that we were "almost there."
Like many dads, I have come to realize that the answer to "Are we there yet?" will never be "Yes." But at least I know that if we just keep pedaling, and if we stay on the trail, good things are bound to happen.