We weren’t always an outdoorsy family. But a few years ago, we made a conscientious decision to become one. When people ask how transitioning ourselves into an outdoorsy family has changed our dynamic, I think of the easy, generally happy chatter and story telling that happens when we’re outside.
The kids love to pretend they are on a mission on the trail. Niklas, aged 6, and Camden, aged 2.5, pretend to be knights looking for dragons under the rocky overhangs while my husband Rande charges ahead on the trail. Niklas is the trail boss, though, and often pleads with us to go “Faster!” while Camden is now less willing to ride in the backpack, push sled or stroller, so we all move quite a bit slower. Camden is less interested in climbing to the top; he’d rather check out what’s happening on the ground by his feet. And so he sits. And Niklas sighs in resignation and lays down on the trail, waiting for his slow family to get a move on. And yet, everyone is gentler, chattier, and just easier when we are out in the woods together.
We made a commitment to take ourselves outside, and so, during the week the kids and I go out in all weather for treks and picnics. We all spend our weekends under trees, up on the bluffs, on our bikes, in the lake, in our yard – anyplace, as long as it’s outside. There isn’t a whole lot else to do where we live and thank goodness. The more I reflect on why we so deliberately kicked ourselves out the front door a few years ago, I see that there is more to it than our need for an inexpensive way to get exercise, or to just get out of the house.
I inherited my grandparents’ old family movie reels, complete with the 1949 movie projector, still in its original box. When we feel like taking a look, my husband mounts the old projector on top of stacked furniture and carefully feeds the film into the projector. Soon, the reels spin, light flickers, and there they are, in black and white: my grandparents and my dad, all younger than I ever knew them. There is no sound other than the clicks and whirrs of the projector and reel after reel shows fishing trips, boats, picnics, holidays, layer-cakes, kids, water spaniels, practical jokes and togetherness.
Though most of the movies are in black and white, I can still tell my grandmother’s lipstick is bright red and those three-inch, open-toed platforms match her belt and the buttons on her dress perfectly. I know the cake she’s carrying is frosted in chocolate whip. I know it because I’ve eaten cakes just like it in my lifetime. I’ve made that cake, her recipe. On another reel, Summer ’53, I can tell that she isn’t thrilled with how fast the boat is going, but my grandfather, despite his vigilant, protective nature, is willing it to go even faster. There’s a twinkle in his eye that is still discernible sixty years after this vacation took place.
And as I sit and watch with my husband and children, there’s no one to ask: who is that? What kind of fish did you catch? Was that your car? Why were you wearing three-inch heels and a dress on a camping trip? The time for those questions has passed.
I am preoccupied with time. Just as I’m focused on the images of the little blonde-haired boy, my dad, splashing, smiling, silently talking and running after his cocker spaniel in the old movies. His parents admire him, fully immersed in the joy of parenthood. Timeless.
Although the black and white moving images allow us to see into the past, sound and other tactile outdoor sensations are lacking. My childhood memories are more powerful because they are rooted in my sensory experience: me pulling my bedspread out into the yard and my grandmother and I lying under the Florida sky, looking at clouds. My mom and I tagging along on an old work boat navigating the Gulf of Mexico in search of my marine biologist dad’s beloved varieties of seaweed. I can feel the prickle of salt from the water on my sunburned shoulders even now.
My memory jumps to an afternoon spent under trees draped in Spanish moss. The Girl Scout troop learns how to tie ten kinds of knots and my mom, our leader, stands there with a red bandanna holding back her hair, vivid in my memory. These Florida childhood years were short and my memories are likewise short, but powerful.
My dad died the year after we all moved away from Florida. He left before I was ready. Thankfully, these memories of my childhood and of my dad are inexorably linked to that which makes them real – I can smell, hear, taste, feel and see them because they took place in the Florida outdoors, where time is lush and physical. And my memories are clear and lasting.
It’s important to me to create memories with my husband and children in vivid color – in tactile certainty – so that these years do not play like a black and white movie for any of us. I want my kids to experience their childhoods in true surround sound and high definition and in actual as opposed to virtual reality. Not just witnessed on the ubiquitous flat screens of our time.
Though we enjoy TV, movies and computers, I am afraid of too many lost hours. Lost time is like the evaporation of water – all of a sudden, it’s happened, what was once there, isn’t. Who took notice? There might be nothing more tragic than someone realizing at his or her child’s graduation or wedding: I missed it, the years that came before. Where did the time go? I don’t want that to be me. And so, I’m paying attention.
The impetus for getting my family outside regularly was a deliberate attempt to cherish our kids’ fleeting time as kids. Two years ago, we made some lifestyle choices to get outside every day, to move, slow down and take note. The irony? We move faster than ever: running, biking, rowing, climbing, swimming and hiking. But there is more room to block out the inessential and to savor the hours spent walking along a trail with my family. Stepping into the woods grounds memories and floods the senses in such a way that these experiences feel like a permanent part of our story, impervious to the passage of time.
Two summers ago, on the top of a Mississippi River bluff trail with my boys, I accepted that I cannot stop time. We took a break under a copse of birch trees, fairly high up on a bluff pass: Camden snoozed in the Baby Bjorn and Niklas sat next to me on a bench, happily chatting and swinging his feet, asking questions about preschool, sticks, spiders. He paused and then told me he was glad we were best friends. I tried to stop the seconds by remembering the size of his hand as I squeezed it, his expression, his shoes, the temperature, the direction of the wind, the baby scent of Cam’s head as I bent to kiss it, the color of the leaves and Niklas’s words.
It was then that I felt it. A reminder: wisdom old as dirt. These two people will keep growing up, like trees extending toward the sky. I can’t stop it. It’s sad, but also freeing. Something about those trees that day reassured me that though each sapling grows up and away from its sibling or parent tree, they, we, are all rooted in this dirt, together.
We carry on the family tradition of outdoor togetherness, the thread that links our past to present: my kids tromp through the woods, pedal their bikes on trails, bum around on boats and dive into lakes, with us in step beside them. As parents we lead our kids to new places and then sometimes turn over the lead as we hang back a bit chatting about the future. There are times we all get the gift of quiet, our kids deep in their imaginations, absorbing the seasons. We are our best selves outdoors, our best family.
We’ve been caught in the rain on our bikes, thankful for the effectiveness of thick tree cover. We’ve come across a young family of Canada geese learning to swim. We’ve left our beds at 3:30 on a dark summer morning to lay in sleeping bags under a meteor shower. We’ve borne witness to hundreds of migrating white Trumpeter Swans bobbing in the gentle waves of a thawing river – and then watched as they flew off to the next place together. We’ve trusted our child to manage his footsteps on a rocky trail that goes up, up, up to where eagles soar overhead. And made sure to get a glimpse of his pride in accomplishment, to see that he knows what it feels like to earn trust. We’ve lifted our little one down off of our shoulders and let him squat and stare at a butterfly sitting on a leaf.
These are some of the poetic moments. Not every outdoor adventure is an eagle soaring, butterfly gazing, skipping, laughing, loving, good time. Children whine. Feet tire. Mosquitoes attack. People trip. Leaves fall, making steep trails slippery. The wind knocks off a favorite hat, carries it down the bluff, and deposits it just before pitching it over a breathtaking cliff. Ran goes after it. The kids watch delightedly as the adventure unfolds. I hold my breath. We end up laughing about moments like these while munching on cookies brought along for just such an occasion. We glance down the trail to see how far we’ve come and up, to see how far we want to go.
I’m happy that I come from a family that takes pride in documenting memories in a kind of virtuous precision; those who came before left me with the priceless gift of perfectly preserved, encapsulated time. Sometimes, I see our present lives play in flickering, silent, movie-reel fashion. Each time we lace up our shoes together and head outside to make memories, we honor the passage of time that links us to those who’ve gone on to other trails. But unlike those silent, unfelt memories in black and white, the ones we create together outside are vivid. Living. Lasting.