A brunette and her twin girls did their best to ignore me after I reached the highest point in my local California state park. I stood a few feet away from them while I tried to minimize my excessive huffing and puffing. I’d put on some extra pounds and saving face was futile. The mother’s smirk grew bigger the longer it took me to regroup.
The sun angled across a blue sky as large birds, jet-planes, and an occasional helicopter passed overhead. Sweat drenched my shirt, long hair, and bushy beard. My lower back, calf muscles, and thighs burned from the effort to get to the top. The pack’s straps, coupled with too many sports injuries in my youth, also made my shoulders ache. For three weeks, I’d been strapping my toddler into one of those new-fangled carriers and trying to hike off the added girth. Damn, I had a long way to go.
Tuesday mornings in the park during late September were often slow, and we had Araquipa peak to ourselves. As I recovered, she gazed past me like I was invisible, and I did the same to her. Even so, I sensed we were on the verge of conversation. She seemed like an inner tube getting pumped full of air, ready to burst at any moment. My little man chattered and squealed while her girls remained subdued, their curious eyes on me.
She nodded at my pack. “You’ve got it pretty easy, don’t you?”
Her barb hit its mark, and I said, “What do you mean?”
“One little guy and a lightweight backpack — it should be easy to get up here.” She roll-rocked her double stroller, eyes glinting.
“Ah. Well, for someone who’s in great shape, sure.” I wanted to wink, but it’d be too much. I shrugged.
Her stare turned icy. “It took me an entire year to get the baby weight off.”
“You look fantastic, congrats. Hmmm, whose trek is easier? It’s about the same, right?”
She scoffed. “Twins in a double stroller versus a boy in a fancy lightweight backpack… there’s no comparison.”
“What about the variables?”
Her face contorted. “Like what?”
“Humans invented the wheel for a reason. The pack and my son weigh forty-five pounds. Your girls and their stuff are about sixty pounds, but on wheels.” I left my ace in the hole. “It’s a draw.”
“Pushing this contraption and my sweet darlings up the inclines of an old service road is way harder than packing him up here on your back.”
“Ah, but I’m fifty pounds over my gym-rat days. I’m slugging a hundred extra pounds on my old frame up that long grueling march. You’re pushing a little over half of that on three easy spinning wheels.”
The fine-looking lady became harpylike. Her beautiful girls glowered at me, yet they were too young to understand.
“That does it. Meet me in the parking lot tomorrow morning at nine o’clock and we’ll find out who has the harder workout.”
“Whoa. Look, you win.” I patted the air between us, “I’m sure yours is…”
She cocked her head. “Chicken?”
“No. I have…”
“C’mon, don’t be a little biatch.” A warm sneer.
My eyes widened. “Did you just call me a—”
“A pleasant little challenge between stay-at-home parents.”
I adjusted my stance. “Fine, you’re on.”
The following morning, we met at the same trailhead. We agreed to keep the kids in their normal surroundings. I’d push her daughters in the stroller, and she’d haul my son on her back. We also used an honor system instead of an all-out sprint. Upon reaching the top, at our own paces, we would discuss who had the greater challenge and then we’d declare a winner.
Of course, the competitor in both of us came out, and it turned into a foot race. I’d predicted as much when I told my wife, Rachel, about the silly competition. Rachel became excited about the challenge. My ability to show this woman up was the furthest thing from her enthusiasm. Stoking the fire of my desire to get in shape before the holidays would do wonders for my health kick. I wished my challenger and I would’ve exchanged our awful first looks and then went our separate ways.
We raced up the series of foothills like runners in the movie Chariots of Fire. Two parents speed-walking to the top of Araquipa peak for bragging rights. Often, I lagged because the view was spectacular. Her light blue four-way stretch yoga pants shimmered in the brilliant morning sunlight. However, I struggled to keep the distance between us respectable because I wanted to come in a close second place.
On the last, long incline to reach the apex, I found some reserves in my tank and geared down. Her eyes darted away when I caught up, but she would’ve welcomed a breather if I asked for it. I pushed myself harder than I had in years, and I’ve no idea why. Perhaps I was chasing my former glory as an avid basketball player or because I’m part of team “man.” The odd yearning drove me up that slope like a lost Tule elk in search of its herd.
We reached the peak neck-and-neck, panting and gasping, but I won by the tiniest of margins. The length of her stroller clinched my victory. Bent over next to one another, we continued to recuperate from our ridiculous exertions. Our gasps broke the wondrous silence, and I took in the remarkable scenery. The spectacular view of brambles, prairie grass, shrub trees, and a U-shaped valley below — the real prize — enchanted us. Soon, we let the kids out of their traveling systems, and they began playing together.
She smiled as our toddlers romped around. “Hey, will you be my walking buddy?”
“Yeah, I’d like that.” I took a deep breath. “Promise me one thing.”
“We go at my pace until I’m in better shape.”
She chuckled. “Fat chance.”
David Grubb is a retired Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer. He’s been a creative writer his entire life, yet never focused on it because of career and family. He’s changing that part of his life one day at a time and loving every minute of it. He also immensely enjoys being a stay at home dad, more or less.