Toddling Toward Adventure

For most of July, the boundary was the edge of the yard. Allie, my 13-month-old daughter, could play in the grass and in the trickle of hose water that we ran sometimes on the marigolds. But if she toddled past the driveway, we grabbed her and she arched her back, screaming. She'd watched both of us, my wife and me, venture past the corner - seen us disappear like ships off the edge of the world, and now she wanted to know what was Out There.

Our city block is on a fairly steep hill. Earthquakes and frost heaves have ripped cracks in the pavement, and skateboarders slalom among kids on bikes. It was not a place for a baby, I thought, but my worries ultimately amounted to nothing. One night, Allie elbowed me in the ribs, hard.

We were going. Down Alder Street first - past the Dalmatian who churns inside his fence, past the vegetable patch on the corner, and - what was this? - on toward a telephone pole with a long wire anchoring it to the ground. Allie batted the wire so it sang like a guitar, then scrambled back toward the vegetables and picked at the lettuce.

I'd seen this routine before, of course. As a parent, you get used to the sputtering chaos and you try as best you can to go forward: Get out of the grocery store before your kid sees the candy. Get out of the lettuce before your neighbor shows up with an admonishing scowl. I reached for Allie now, but she wobbled past me, her tiny legs jerking like a marionette's. She stepped onto the pavement, then abruptly she crashed. There was blood on her knee.

She shrieked; I held her. I patted the soft blond down on her head, but still she sobbed, twisting and raucously kicking until finally I just set her down. I had to.

AND now there were baby carriages on the street, and cats who'd come out in the cool of the evening to slink through the grass. Allie chased after a marmalade kitten, then stumbled upon two plastic flamingos that, valiantly, she tried to pry free.

It was absurd. Usually, it took me less than three minutes to reach these flamingoes; Allie and I had been out for nearly an hour. All that kept me going was this: Somehow, we were making our way around the block. We were closing in on the third corner. My kid was going to pull this one off.

We kept going - past the house with the mossy rocks in the yard, then over a metal grate that clanged wonderfully when you leapt on it. At the last corner, there were pine cones.

Allie grabbed one; squealing, she pushed it up toward my hip. I laughed, but then she flailed her arms at me, grunting. No words (she couldn't talk then), but still she reminded me of a hike I took once - of the way the trail cut through a rock tunnel under a waterfall. You could stand inside the tunnel and feel the rock shake. That surprised me, and now Allie was surprised by this pine cone. It was new to her, and she was scraping it on my leg. "Wake up, Pop," she was saying, "The world is a luminous thing."

I took that bristly cone - and the next one Allie handed me, and the next one - until my arms filled and I started using my pockets. Then Allie spun off, and I had to drop the cones on the sidewalk. We went home (yes, all the way around the block), and Allie climbed into her crib. I just stood over her. I watched as, like a wild animal after a feast, she fell quickly asleep.

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