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No Small Wonder

By Evan L. Balkan, A&S '05 (MA)

Amelia with her llama. the stuffed animal was procured in Peru by her father, the author. My brother Erik and I got the trail out of Aguas Calientes, traveled along the old railroad tracks to the defunct station, and crossed over the Urubamba River to the great mountain. Then the hike really began.

Huffing and puffing in the thin air, the humidity of the cloud forest pressing against our backs, we slogged straight up the mountain as the tourist buses zigzagged around us, kicking up dust and making the go even more difficult. With our water supply dwindling, we turned the final corner and caught the smooth edge of a column of perfectly laid stone. Just beyond was our goal: the Incan wonderland of Machu Picchu.

With more treks in the Andes and a trip through the Amazon jungle along the Peru-Bolivia border, I was able, by trip's end, to scratch off three goals from my life list, fulfilling long-ago promises to myself to see as much of this wondrous planet as possible. But this trip was different from others I've taken. Hanging over it all was another promise I had made: Before I left my home in Baltimore, I asked my 4-year-old daughter, Amelia, what she wanted from Peru. "A llama," she said. "And an anaconda for Molly." Molly is her younger sister.

"A llama," Amelia reminded me daily as my departure drew close.

"A llama, a llama, a llama." Or, barring that, an alpaca, guanaco, or vicuņa. Of course, I wouldn't be returning with a flesh-and-blood camelid but rather a stuffed animal. And I found the perfect one, made from silky soft baby alpaca fur (putting cashmere to shame), in a little shop in the Peruvian capital just hours before my plane departed for home.

We made the drive to the Jorge Chavez airport with a displaced Mapuche Indian who had so thoroughly taken to the savior of his ancestors' oppressors that he hectored us the entire ride, tapping the Bible miraculously perched on the dashboard while we pretended we didn't understand a word he said. We were running late, and I willed the man to make half-crazed dashes through the traffic. It was harrowing. Still, I had to smile; in my bag was Amelia's llama, its cartoonish muzzle nodding goodbye to the craze of Lima's outskirts. Its knitted Andean cap rode low over its eyes, as if the animal was steeling itself for the long flight home. I stroked its fur, imagining the glee in my daughter's eyes when I delivered her present.

When I pulled the llama from behind my back as I stepped through my front door, she snatched it up in her arms and put it to her face, the edges of her upturned lips peeping out from behind the furry mass. It was a hit.

Amelia and Molly know of llamas and anacondas from watching Dora the Explorer and her cousin, Diego. The two Nickelodeon cartoon characters are forever going on adventures, often saving some animal from immediate danger, and from animal obscurity. It is through Dora and Diego that Amelia and Molly know not only about llamas but also about capybaras, jaguars, tapirs, sloths, and all other sorts of jungle dwellers. My trip to where these animals live is a source of endless wonder for them.

And their interest in the natural world is thrilling to me. For I'm fighting a difficult battle with the society around them, which often teaches them to be afraid of bugs, and that the woods are dark and scary places. Of course, in some respects, that's true. I've emerged from some of my local hikes covered in scratches, scrapes, spiders, and ticks. I've had to skirt poisonous snakes and flee maternally aggressive geese. And while Amelia listens with wide-eyed delight to my story of turning around inside the hollow of a massive lupuna tree in the Amazon and coming face to body with a wolf spider, the diameter of which from leg to leg was wider than my head, it would be quite a different — and more frightening — thing if she had to face that spider herself.

Dora and Diego's animal friends are altogether different. For one thing, they're two-dimensional, frolicking safely behind a plate of glass resting in a cabinet in the living room of our home. There, the jaguar that peeps, licks its fur in a cloying manner, and likes to be stroked on the head is very different from one that can stalk and kill you. The trick is to teach Amelia the middle ground, that a real live jaguar would most probably turn and run from you before you even knew it was there — and what a privilege to be in a place where a jaguar actually lives. This is a great wide world, full of amazing places and people.

But when you're barely 4 years old, the wide world is simply too vast and limitless to conceive. How fantastic it is then that we live where we do. We can drive a few hours east and watch the crash of waves and the seething hiss of foam as the water retracts into the ocean. We can drive west and see the gradual rising of the land, mere bumps at first. But we can continue until those rounded hills take on more pointed shapes, buckling like seawater over the land as we reach the far western reaches of our home state.

The common monarch butterfly that crosses our path and fails to raise too much excitement in me becomes the object of animated shouting and pointing from her. This past summer, I updated my book 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Baltimore. When I wrote the first edition, Amelia had just been born. Now, she's old enough to accompany me on portions of some of these hikes. Here, she performs her role admirably, reminding me that there is wonder under every leaf, that the smallest trickle of water falling from an overhanging rock can be as spectacular and unexpected in its way as Angel Falls. The common monarch butterfly that crosses our path and fails to raise too much excitement in me becomes the object of animated shouting and pointing from her. I watch as Amelia chases the butterfly with its ungraceful dipping and rising. My daughter, too, is somewhat inelegant in her pursuit, threatening to trip and scrape a knee at any moment. Her eyes on black and yellow wings, one unsuspecting root or rock will send her reeling.

But I don't intercede. I'm too busy watching her unembarrassed display of pure joy and wonder. This frequent butterfly is as exotic to her as the tapir I managed to spot in the Amazon. I realize now that my story of seeing the flick of its rounded rump as it scurried away and the patter of its little hooves is no more extraordinary to her than if I told her about a bullfrog in a pond a hundred yards from our front door — they're equally amazing.

And this is what having children does, after all. Though only 35, I find myself sometimes lamenting the loss of my youth — those days that seem in retrospect to be nothing but sweetness and light (a rosy-colored view, I concede). But Amelia and Molly remind me that all is not lost on this count.

In 1991, I made my way from Baltimore to Philadelphia for a Grateful Dead concert with a friend who had just gotten a new puppy. She declared on the way up that the puppy's name would be the first song the Dead played. Lucky for her that song was "Sugaree," a perfect name for a floppy-eared mutt with a permanent smile ringing its black gums. The puppy had a penchant for shaking itself in such a way that it looked like an electric jolt was traveling from its ears to the tip of its tail. As the swell made its way through the body, we could hear the flap of ear on head and see saliva shuttling from its muzzle. So the song's refrain, "Shake it, shake it, Sugaree," was especially apt.

The dog passed many years ago, and I haven't seen nor spoken to that friend in a decade. For a long time when I heard that song, I would flash back to a time when my only real concern was whether my 1982 Corolla would make it. It did, of course — it always did in those days. Now, when I punch up "Sugaree" and replace the refrain with "Shake it, shake it, Amelia-ree," my daughter dances with abandon. It won't be this way forever, I know.

On an early October jaunt to the beach, my wife and two daughters made one last protest against the end of summer. There, my girls made crude sand castles on the beach. It's precisely what I did and where I did it when I was a child — year after year until I became a teenager and minimum wage jobs replaced such frivolity.

But now I've returned, with them — and this time I understand the ephemeral nature of it all. I watch the wind and water make quick work of obliterating our traces. It's enough to put a tickle in my throat and a burn behind my eyes. This won't last. My girls will lose their youth, too.

Driving home, the sun having set over the bay, Amelia ruminates on the possibilities concerning that new bright crescent in the sky: It could be the moon, yes, but that doesn't speak so much to the imagination. Better story, and one she comes up with on her own: A giant has taped his toenail to the darkness because he was bored by the black slate. Soon, diamonds take their places alongside the toenail, glittering and twinkling, and shooting like tadpoles. I've got music on — "Sugaree," of course. The ocean speeds by on our left. The bay is on our right, and we're hemmed in. With the windows up, the music going, and Amelia offering up fresh explanations of the workings of the cosmos, even suggesting that Molly has eaten the missing portion of the moon, I realize that things are perfect.

The old saws are true: It goes too quickly; blink and they're grown; enjoy each moment now; you never know what you've got until it's gone. I know it's true. I see it already. They do grow so fast. But this moment — this is perfect.

And this accompanying realization: What is a successful life but the accumulation of perfect moments? I've been banking them for years, and with my daughters, those perfect moments are multiplying with extraordinary alacrity. Whenever my end comes, I've got a bulwark against regret stronger than an ocean current.

Because these days I can travel thousands of miles from home, find myself in remote outposts on other continents, and think only of how to best fulfill my daughters' stuffed animal requests. Because I can listen to a song that used to bring with it bittersweet sensations and have that same tune transformed into something even more sweet than it ever was (with nothing bitter besides). Because a little walk in the woods is, in the end, a portal to all that is pure and innocent and right with my world. Because a sand castle can last forever. Because of all these things, I couldn't be happier.

Evan L. Balkan, A&S '05 (MA), teaches writing at the Community College of Baltimore County. His books include The Best of Tent Camping: Maryland and Shipwrecked: Adventures and Disasters at Sea.

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