I left the baby at home and brought a knife. It’s a cold, heavy thing, weighting my hand awkwardly as I finger its contours. I try to imagine my instincts and ability clicking together in time to react to any kind of threat should it arise — and I fumble. So, I slip the knife into the front pocket of my coat before we get out of the car and hold dirty socks and a flashlight instead.

My dog, Jackson, is missing. My friend Liz took him for a hike at the humbly named Thousand Acres park outside of Portland, Oregon — where dogs are allowed off-leash on rolling trails through 1,400 acres of cottonwoods and sandy meadows — earlier that day. Ever since I had a baby, and everything that happened with the baby, Liz had been bringing Jackson along on her adventures as a professional dog walker. I used to hike all the time with Jackson. Now, he only ever goes hiking if it’s with Liz.

But I was relieved when she offered to take him that day. My daughter had been fussy, and I’d barely had time to let Jackson outside. But then Liz called and said Jackson had been spooked by something on the trail and ran off.

That was hours ago, and he’s still out here, beyond the fuzzy curtain of forest, and he’s probably scared. I worry my fingers through the dirty socks, planning to leave them in the park’s restroom where it’s warm; should we fail to find him, maybe the scent will draw him to safety later.

We stand quietly in the parking lot, sweeping our flashlights across the black asphalt where it meets the trees. I try to wipe away the image of Jackson’s golden eyes searching for me in the dark. I try to picture my daughter instead. I picture her dad rocking her to sleep: safe, warm, loved.

And then I stop thinking about her too because I’ve noticed something in the far corner of the lot: a white, rusty van. It’s after midnight, the park is closed, and the only other people here besides me and Liz are those who live deep in the trees in a tangle of sagging tents and tarps — and also whoever is in that van, its cardboard-covered windows leaking light through the edges.

I’m going to state the obvious now, because it’s what you do in the dark: Having a baby changes you. And I knew that, in a way, long before her frightening, premature birth. But I wasn’t prepared for how it would make me more scared — or if not viscerally fearful, at least more aware of all the terrible things in the world that could cause her harm: an unlikely birth condition, a changing climate, wildfires that creep closer to the city each summer, icy roads in the winter, strangers in rusty vans.

I was never someone who carried a knife for self-protection. I’ve never owned pepper spray.

But a new kind of caution slipped in with pregnancy and blossomed in the first months of motherhood.

instagram iconView full post on Instagram

I couldn’t pick my daughter up when she cried for the first three months. I couldn’t bring her to my breast to eat when she was hungry. My daughter was born with her esophagus attached to her trachea instead of her stomach. The connection had to be severed in surgery the day after she was born, and we were told it would be at least six weeks before she’d be big enough for surgery to properly connect her esophagus so she could swallow food. In the meantime, a fat red tube was placed down her throat to suction the saliva she couldn’t swallow, and a hole was placed in her stomach, connected to another tube that fed her. Sometimes, she’d choke on the tube in her throat, and her oxygen saturation would plummet. Occasionally, she’d turn blue. At first, it terrified me, watching those numbers drop on the screen above her tiny bed. But I learned to gauge the severity of the drop, along with her cues. Usually, she just needed her tube flushed out, which caused her discomfort, but her life wasn’t in danger.

I learned to watch her closely. I learned to live with, or at least function with, the fragility of her condition. And in those months of watching and waiting — of acclimating to the beeps and blares of the NICU — I thought a lot about all of the other things that could hurt her when the nurses and doctors were no longer in earshot, when it would finally be my job to protect her.

At the park, I’m thinking about the knife as I watch the van, and about my willingness bring a knife when my partner asked me to. Again, I was never the kind of person to worry about self-protection. Years ago, I was the kind of person who sometimes lived in a rusty white van.

Her name was Shirley because she had a red bumper like the cherry you find in a Shirley Temple. I bought the 1986 GMC Vandura van off a guy on Craigslist and I drove that van into the mountains of northwest Montana, across diesel-dusted highways to Seattle and Bend, and through drippy, windy roads to the Oregon coast many times, almost always with Jackson as my only company. The solo nature of my travel allowed me to do so without anyone immediately questioning my inclinations to get lost, to trust strangers, to sleep in remote places without cell service.

In March of 2016, I drove 15 hours from my home in Portland, Oregon to Death Valley National Park, alone, arriving midweek when the cracked-khaki earth was almost deserted. It was just me and one other group at the dusty campground: Two men in their twenties, one in maybe his fifties. They were traveling by motorcycles and wore all black. The older one came over to introduce himself as I set up my tent.

“We hear the sunset from Wildrose Peak is stunning,” he said, smiling. “You wanna join us for an evening hike?”

I agreed, relieved to hear my own voice after several silent days on the road. We had to hurry if we were going to make it to the trail and then up high enough to catch the sunset, so we piled into my car. (This was before I bought Shirley.)

I didn’t see the gun on his hip until we were bouncing over tortoise-sized rocks and potholes. The black shaft caught my eye when I reached down to shift.

He saw me see it. “Gotta be cautious in coyote country,” he said, winking.

My heart rate quickened then, but my mind forced panic down and flipped through facts that pointed away from fear—the way I’d trained myself to do.

I’d signed the guest book at the visitor’s center earlier that day; there was evidence that I was here. The ground was too hard for them to bury my body. Sound travels faster in the desert than it does in the mountains.

But also: There is only one recorded instance of a coyote killing a person in the U.S.

15,000 people were killed by guns in America that year.

But also. They seemed nice.

The sunset was, indeed, stunning. That night they shared their s’mores with me. When his son and the friend were busy looking for more chocolate, the man with the gun told me this was the first time he’d spent quality time with his son since an ugly divorce several years ago. This trip meant the world to him.

I saw the glint of tears in the light of the fire before he looked away.

When a woman from New York was killed while traveling solo in Turkey in 2013, a chorus of online commenters said she’d been reckless for being out in the world alone. Foolish, they said. As if it was her fault, and not the man who brutally murdered her. But I knew they were wrong. Traveling alone, hiking alone, encountering new people, food, and culture on my own terms — it seemed so much riskier to miss out on the joy of these things than to let the unlikely hold me back.

Back then, I lived life on a whim, with some faith in the general goodness of most people. Some faith in the unlikelihood of worst-case scenarios. My instincts once learned toward adventure and the unknown. And then my daughter was born with a one-in-4,000 diagnosis. Now my instincts lean harder toward caution, fear, mistrust — I reach out for the warnings I once rejected. Like the face of the steep inclines I used to hike with Jackson, I may not need to, but it feels safer to place my hands on them while I climb.

For years, I was sure I didn’t want a baby. It felt wrong to subject another human to the horrors we were increasingly steeped in. The extreme weather disasters, the gun violence, the fascism. I felt helpless and hopeless in the face of so many threats. Even as someone who believes there’s more good than bad in the world, I saw bad winning. The strangers I met at campgrounds were most often good, but the people calling the shots were willing to sacrifice all of us to make a buck. Greed was winning. Fossil-fuel companies were winning. Racism and sexism and homophobia were winning. And how many of the strangers I encountered on the road were willing to deny me (or a future daughter) the right to make decisions about our own bodies?

Eventually, my desire to mother grew louder than my fears for the future. We didn’t know what the future held exactly, so what right did I have to assume there wouldn’t be plenty to love in the days ahead too? Yes, sea levels would rise, and there would be more mass shootings. But surely, there would still be stunning sunsets. There would still be kind strangers worth meeting and getting to know.

There would still be kindness — more so, if I raised my child to be kind.

And so, after just three months of dating, I told my partner that I wanted to have a baby. Less than a year later, we were pregnant. Eight months later, I was checking in to the hospital for monitoring of symptoms of premature labor. Eight hours later, she wailed on my sweaty, suddenly softer stomach, and our eyes met as I clung to her wrinkled, purple skin. Ten minutes later, doctors took her away. Twelve hours later, I was finally discharged to go see her at the other hospital she’d been rushed to by ambulance for emergency surgery. Three hours later, I collapsed into bed at home, my back toward my partner, and wept. We had no idea what the next few months would look like, only that she wasn’t coming home any time soon.

I am more cautious since becoming a mother. I am more fearful too. Just as I hadn’t gone for the long, steep hikes I once enjoyed with Jackson when I was pregnant — too aware that a misstep could hurt not just me but also her — I find myself thinking twice about all kinds of risks, both concrete and perceived. I haven’t been on a hike by myself in more than a year. I watch white vans with suspicion; I scan the dark trees for the people forced to live in their tents out there. I carry a knife in my pocket when looking for my lost dog.

But I don’t want to teach my daughter distrust. I don’t want to teach her to focus on potential threats in a manner that distracts her from all the beauty that exists around the possibility of danger.

It’s important for her to understand that people can hurt her. But also that most people don't have that intention. I want her to know that she lives in a world that is deeply flawed and sometimes dangerous, but that we can do more to change that if we try to see the good worth fighting for: the sunsets; the dogs who will love us unconditionally, even when we don’t hike with them anymore; the friends who will help us find the lost dog.

As Liz and I hike through the park, calling Jackson’s name, I notice the stars. I can’t remember the last time I was outside at this hour. The sky is a glowing grayish blue, streaked with wispy clouds and the light of an almost-full moon. The landscape looks soft — mysterious but welcoming.

Liz and I look for Jackson for about an hour, and then I tell her we should call it a night. My partner will be worried. We agree that someone probably picked him up, and at some point tomorrow we’ll hear from animal control or whoever has him.

Nervousness returns when we’re back in the parking lot. I watch the van as we walk past it from a distance; the lights inside are still on.

“This place is so creepy at night,” Liz says, and I agree. But I also think about the nights I heard people outside of my van and curled up with Jackson under the covers, trying not to make a sound, afraid of the strangers who lurked outside.

I can’t protect my daughter from everything. But I can go home to her now.

My partner is lying on the couch with all the lights on when I get back. He wakes up, and I immediately start to cry. He wraps his arms around me and hugs me hard. Once I’m able to wipe away my tears, I peek into the nursery and see my daughter sleeping soundly in the dark, curled up on her side; she sleeps in the same position as me. Then, the phone rings.

“I think we found your dog.”

Britany Robinson is a Portland, Oregon-based writer covering the connections between people, places, and the environment. You can find her on Twitter.

Get Shondaland directly in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TODAY