“I don’t want to be your father,” my dad said.
We were sitting in camp chairs, morning sun warm on our backs, sipping coffee, gazing down the slope of the Sierra de la Laguna toward the distant coast of the Pacific Ocean. Between us and the water was a single, winding thread of thin dirt road snaking in and out of the lush, green canyon for miles. Today was going to be a good ride.
“I want to be my kids’ friend,” he followed up.
I heard the second part, but my heart was still feeling the first.
Months before, I emailed my dad to ask where I might find ridable trails in the winter, when the dull gray of the season seeps into my veins and coagulates my blood. In the recesses of my blackening brain, I relive a painful history that maintains a fierce grip on my neurology. It is the mark of abuse, rejection, neglect. It is the mark of shame, sorrow and unworthiness.
There is something about me that my dad has always seen, a kindness and tolerance in his relationship to me even when he could not understand my choices (in particular, the reckless, damaging ones). What he has always understood is my need to be outside, to go and go far, to quiet the noise in my brain so I can hear the song in my spirit. And so he responded to my email:
“Come ride the Baja peninsula with me.”
The Baja Divide is a bikepacking route that stretches some 1,700 miles from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, with a loop around the peninsula, crossing from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific Ocean. The route might be best described as “arduous,” although far more colorful terms were used when encountering miles of deep sand, treacherous rocky descents, ceaseless steep climbs, snakes, tarantulas and one horror-film worthy night with kissing bugs – quite possibly Mother Nature’s grossest invention yet.
We met in La Paz with our bikes and two weeks’ worth of camping supplies. While Dad had ridden The Great Divide and the Baja Divide, this would be my first experience bikepacking. It offered every opportunity for him to be a dad and me to be a daughter. This is mostly demonstrated by him sharing what he’s learned in years of bike travel and me doing it my own way anyway.
It’s a 40-year pattern we’ll likely never break, a rite of passage we’ll repeat until he’s gone and I am left to carry it on with my own children. Then I will suddenly be abandoned to figure things out on my own. I remind myself of this as he hands me various tools while I assemble my bike. He’s standing over me and shuffling back and forth, probably waiting for me to make some error he can point out. I am afraid I will grab the wrong size wrench and disappoint him.
I know how to put my bike together, I sigh in my head. And then, these moments are a gift and not without an end.
When we hit the open road, the warm sun begins to melt the frigid winter from my bones. We roll past hillsides covered in cacti and wind-swept plastic bags, soda bottles, car parts. The sand is a kind of fine gravel and it makes a soft, welcoming noise under the wide tires of my loaded bike. The air greets us with desert smells as we make our way into the rugged land of rancheros.
Occasionally, one has a sign out that lets us know we can resupply with water and snacks. We lean our heavy bikes on barn doors and walk into someone’s garage where I inevitably practice the four Spanish words I know. We sit on the ground outside, drink our cans of mango juice, look at maps, share potato chips. We don’t try to talk much. It is a quiet intimacy offered only by time spent together.
When we mount our steeds again, we roll beneath an enormous tree that is filled with the noise of what must be thousands of birds. They are loud and sing an exotic, unfamiliar song that surrounds me in stereo as I ride by. It lifts me up and I recognize where I am and that this is the justifiable purpose of leaving my children and husband in Idaho. Something in my soul is being purified. I look up to see if Dad is experiencing the same epiphany, but he cannot hear the birds and stares straight ahead.
My dad is deaf. During my childhood, he was also blind. Like many young parents, his vision was blurred by the oppressive, suffocating obligation of providing for an impoverished family. His myopic view seemed to be that hard work would solve the problems and so he set about doing just that.
He didn’t see the abuse for what it was. He did not see, could not imagine, what was happening to his daughter. He didn’t see that the challenges I brought (incessant talking, lack of boundaries, a fantastic neighborhood crime streak, risky behaviors ) were the chaotic responses of an injured child.
Instead, he corrected me, trusted me and loved me through decades of destruction. When I would confess my latest transgression, I would see the confusion in his eyes – a tired, worried sigh. He equally celebrated my successes to gently remind me there are many paths from which I could choose.
The first time he took me up a mountain, maybe it was a deeper wisdom from his own history. A knowledge that enduring wounds could be soothed from time to time by a different kind of suffering, the kind that gives you summit-perspective. The timeless, vastness of the desert offers the same perspective: You are part of something bigger.
When we come down from the cliffs to the green-blue waters of the Sea of Cortez, Dad needs to jump in them. He drops his bike in the sand and throws his shirt as he does a childlike scurry to the waves. He splashes his hands in the waist-high water, some courage-building ritual of his, and plunges into the sea. When he emerges, his soul seems purified, too.
“What is the one rule on this trip?” he asks me later as I stand on the side of the road waiting for him. We skip words often because my suggestion to take a left turn inevitably becomes, “What happened on Saturn?”
I shrug. Dad has a lot of rules: Always wait at the fork, stop for snacks, rest in the shade. I try not to roll my eyes.
“Always stop for water.”
He has a sixth sense for the trickle of a spring, even in the desert. When he finds a pool of clear (or questionable) water, he rinses, splashes, sits in it. It is a non-negotiable and one of the greatest parenting gifts he continues to offer me: a reminder to play. He also stops to trade bikes with village kids, or race them around their neighborhood tracks, narrowly escaping certain impalement by giant cacti.
In those brief moments, I see him for who he is as a person, not only as my father. We fall into a rhythm together that allows space for our differences. I go to sleep early and need solitude. Dad sleeps in and needs coffee. I will have a tantrum if I don’t eat enough during the day. Dad will have one if he can’t have a milkshake. As the miles roll beneath our wheels, I see how much we are simultaneously alike and different.
“You are just in your daughter movie,” my dad tells me as I complain at our latest disagreement, some mapping miscommunication, road rules, unmet expectations or my most volatile button, criticism from my parents. I was oft-reminded of how exasperating and disappointing I was, how sick, wrong, embarrassing. The need for approval lingers in me like a cancer that refuses remission.
When he is ahead of me, I watch his cadence and his line and try to learn. I want to grow up to ride a bike like he does. It moves beneath him like a burrow, steadily forging through sandy terrain and over rolling rocks. When he is behind me, I want desperately to be a good rider, to prove I have learned and that I can do the things, a perpetual little girl voice in my head.
Years ago in therapy, I asked my dad if my parents had even wanted me, and in a single tear-filled look he healed some of my longest-festering wounds.
“You are what made us a family,” he said.
Ahead of me, Dad’s shirt flaps in the breeze. I can tell he is smiling. In the open air, the blue sky resting on the crisp lines of the distant, scorched mountains, there is a gentle acknowledgment of how far we have come. The silence on our rides has given us a new language. Ours is a language of being seen.
I sip coffee from my titanium cup and look over at Dad. He is still so young, still so early in his own journey. I watch him take in the expansive view. He cannot hear the bells of the goats, so I tell him they are echoing down the ravines, as though a gypsy parade might emerge from the trees at any moment.
To share these days together, to see the value of these sweet exchanges is how I sew myself and my frayed understanding of family together again. It is also how I come to understand what he means about friendship. Ours is not a relationship of obligation, but appreciation, and of a love so constant, it will forever be my guiding light.
Much like his distant red taillight as he blazes a path ahead of me on this road of discovering ourselves and each other.
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.