My daughter was three when it really hit me that I was raising a city kid. Two thousand miles from our Brooklyn apartment, driving through a dense cedar forest in Grand Tetons National Park on the way to a wedding in Montana, she stared out the car window, utterly baffled, and asked: “Dad … where are all the buildings?”
She had no idea how to make sense of all that nature. Where were the skyscrapers hiding?
I grew up in rural North Carolina, with 12 miles of tobacco fields and peach orchards between our home and the nearest intersection busy enough for a stoplight. My memories of childhood with my father—good and bad—are all lit with Carolina twilight: After he’d get home from work, we would sneak onto the burnt grass of the local golf course and play till we couldn’t see the ball; fish in a canoe on a nearby lake; fill five-gallon buckets with scupperdine grapes picked from wild vines in the woods. I couldn’t say exactly how the outdoors made me. I just know it did.
Sixteen years ago, I moved to New York City and dove headfirst into the art-and-media scene in which I am still submerged. Eight years ago, I started raising a city kid. My daughter’s crib faced a Caribbean jerk-chicken joint and a Chinese takeaway, right around the corner from the Brooklyn Museum and a busy fire department that spewed nightly sirens. Now she can sleep through anything, and a lot of her life is like any eight-year-old girl’s anywhere: She loves Taylor Swift, hates Justin Bieber, knows “Let It Go” by heart, and gets lost in Hogwarts’s halls. But she also rides a packed subway to public school in Greenwich Village, where she takes math classes with kids named Palladin, Ghomeshi and Thage. She’s got more stamps on her passport than I had at 30. And when she’s comfortable, she’s got the unmistakable swagger of a cocky, hyperverbal city kid.
I’ve scrambled and commuted to the best the city has to offer, but I haven’t been able to shake the guilty feeling that she’s never really gone fishing.
She’s also scared of flies. House flies, fruit flies, gnats, mosquitoes: They all freak her out. A fly on a bowl of pasta can mean two-hour dinnertime. Also: ants. As a city kid, she regards even the most domesticated animals—a cat, a chicken, a cow—as wild and mystical creatures: a unicorn, a centaur, a Pegasus. She clambers over big rocks in Central Park and calls them mountains. Raised under street lights, she can get scared by the true black of natural nighttime. Walking over a sidewalk grate the other morning, she told me she loved the smell of the warm, noxious subway exhaust billowing around us.
I’ve scrambled and commuted to the best the city has to offer—gigs, shows, museums, and after-school stop-motion animation classes—but I haven’t been able to shake the guilty feeling that she’s never really gone fishing. She has never really been let loose in the woods. Her idea of climbing a tree means mounting one limb and sitting there for a while—since most low limbs have been sawed off in Brooklyn’s litigation-proofed parks. And, until this spring, she’d never been camping.
Hoping to counterprogram her urban childhood, my sister and I met up in Phoenix, then drove with my daughter north through the cactus-pocked desert to the red rocks of Sedona. She loved the hotel swimming pool. We jumped in a four-wheel-drive jeep and kicked up dust in the canyons, hiked through the slick slate of Slide Rock State Park, and marveled at some seriously scenic vistas. Her favorite was the one where Native American women sold bracelets.
My sister and I didn’t have a specific plan. But if we did, it was probably based in a New Yorker’s bigger-means-better delusion: My daughter hadn’t experienced much nature. So we were going to show her the most nature we could find: The Grand Canyon.
How does an eight-year old—or anyone—make sense of that scale?
On the drive up to the Canyon, my daughter—exhausted by the mile-high altitude, jet lag and a head cold—slept from Flagstaff to the park entrance. When we arrived at the edge of the canyon, she didn’t spend much time pondering the inconceivable scale of the canyon, as we adults attempted—or pretended—to do. She stared at her wobbling sneakers balanced on a little wooden boundary that marked he walking path, trying to balance. She was much more interested in scrambling in and around the cliffside scrub-brush, picking up pinecones and picking up leaves for her latest, fleeting miniature collection.
How does an eight-year old—or anyone—make sense of that scale? I tried to translate it into city-kid numbers: I told her it was 1.5 Empire State Buildings deep. So wide it you could fit the island of Manhattan Inwood-to-Wall Street, sideways, at the canyon’s widest point. It didn’t particularly matter. She collected pebbles—bits of dull quartz and chips of grey slate—in a beaded Native American purse we’d purchased at one of the scenic overlook gift shops. We adults oohed and ahhed, approximating awe as we adjusted camera viewfinders; my daughter focused on the natural world that could fit in her tiny hand.
A visit to another Native American gift shop thrilled her. So did an ice-cream cone. Then the three of us sat down on a wooden bench on the southern edge of the canyon for sandwiches. There, on the edge of this vast, unknowable canyon rippling with color, my daughter found her bliss.
Photo: Logan Hill
Behind the bench, she found a bent-over, slightly defeated-looking tree, with one branch, and then another not too far above it: a real-life climbing-tree, with bark and everything. She scrambled with the steely focus of Stallone in Cliffhanger. Falling, then trying again. Then climbing. She found initials carved into the tree high up above her head and as she climbed just a little too high for her comfort, she yelled, grinning, “Dad! I’m stuck!” It was the kind of cry for help that she utters when what she really wants is for me to see the amazing thing that’s she’s done.
Later in the trip, we would camp out, fish, hike, shoot rocks from slingshots, scramble up a steep mountainside, leap across a shallow riverbed, build a fire and roast hot dogs. She debated proper marshmallow-roasting technique with ash smeared across her face, as one should. And she complained about the boredom of fishing, also as one should. One afternoon, as she balanced on a fallen pine tree, I heard her tell herself, under her breath, “Okay, you can do this,” as she pushed down her fear and walked all the way to the end, like a miniature Philippe Petit. She freaked out about the water bugs at the river, the flies at the campsite, and the ants crawling over the picnic table. And she almost got used to them.
Exhausted, she fell asleep each night before sunset. So, one evening, around ten, I woke her up, unzipped her sleeping bag, and carried her outside, pointing up at more stars than she’d ever seen. She gawked and stared quietly.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said, still groggy with sleep. “It looks just like Manhattan.”