Member Spotlight

Dan Szczesny

Travel Writer, Nature Guide, and Parent

Dan Szczesny

There are no rules when you take babies into nature. You plan for everything, and often have to deal with the exact things you never imagined.
So, I should not have been surprised when my ten-month old daughter, for reasons only she understood but could not articulate, after handling a trip to northern India with grace and joy, completely lost it when we tried to give her a ride on a water buffalo.
Maybe I should provide some background.
As a travel writer as well as a hike specialist and nature guide, I have a special job indeed. Whether I'm working for Blue Hill Science Center and Observatory near Boston, or privately guiding scouts or library clubs, I have the very great honor of catching kids—second and third graders mostly—right at the crux of awareness, right at the moment when they are wide open to the world and largely unspoiled by reality. Kids in nature are open to anything.
So, I could not wait to get my own child into the woods, out on the road, experiencing travel and culture like I have through my travel books. When our daughter was born in late December 2014, my wife and I immediately began making plans for an epic journey to bring together our baby and her great grandmother. The only challenge was that her great grandmother, my wife's grandmother, lived on a farm in remote Northern India, a multi-plane, train, car, and carriage trip. And nature was the key to that trip; a familiarity with weather and wind, with the sounds of rain and the movement of animals.
We planned for the trip nearly from the moment the baby was born. We began by learning about baby gear: outdoor sleeping bags that fit into the car carrier, layered onesies and lined pants that we could get on and off her in a pinch, different types of packet foods that we'd have to carry on the journey. Then, in her first spring, we took her to our beloved White Mountains here in New Hampshire. I wanted her to feel the dirt and grass under her hands and feet. From nearly the moment she learned to crawl she was on rock and in water. We wanted her to feel at home in rougher conditions she’d experience on the farm in India—bathing in spring water, humid days, farm animals.
One of my proudest moments was spotting her, my barely crawling daughter, as she topped out on a boulder that overlooked beautiful Profile Lake in Franconia State Park, the warm, coarse granite under her tiny soft hands. The look on her face was priceless.  
Finally, she graduated to a backpack and began hiking with us. On our journey, we'd be walking quite a bit in places not designed for strollers. She had to get used to being on our backs and strapped to my chest. She had to be comfortable enough to sleep there, and I had to be comfortable enough to spend the day hauling around nearly twenty wiggling pounds. We picked small park trails around our city, and then climbed up a charming 1,000 foot hill for her first summit. It was time to go.
The trip itself was flawless. She slept on the plane, she charmed fellow passengers, she was unafraid of the chaos of Istanbul airport, of the streets of New Delhi. And when our carriage finally arrived at her Great Grandmother’s farm, she ran on the grass, chased chickens heedlessly, and bathed in washing bins filled with cool well water.
One of the main means of travel through the village roads is by a cart pulled by a water buffalo. My wife was born in neighboring Nepal and one of her most treasured photos was taken at the farm, her grinning madly, a little thing of just over a year old, atop a water buffalo. We wanted to duplicate that photo, but despite the baby's comfort with the mountains and the cows and the rivers, my daughter simply wanted nothing to do with the big, bulky animal that stood stock still as we tried to set her atop its back.
Alas, there would be no photo, but even a baby in love with the natural world must draw the line somewhere. To our baby, that line began and ended at a family farm, in a remote region of India, atop a confused water buffalo.


About the Author

Dan's a writer and naturalist living in New Hampshire. His latest Natural Start project is leading his 15-month old daughter on her first hikes. He's written about the White Mountains, Nepal, and Alaska. For more information on Dan's books or to contact him for nature hikes, go to his website at or drop him an email: [email protected].