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Looking back down the Trail, Part Five: Where the path goes.

July 5, 2013

4630_1181844227035_5217691_nContinued from Part Four

It is late spring in 2009, and I just turned thirty one. My son Eli is the energetic age of eight, and my daughter Sophia will be six a little later in the year.  The gal in my life that I have been seeing for a handful of months is divorced and a parent too. Her name is Melissa, and her daughter is a creative ten year old named Veronica. Her son Logan is a thick haired, scrawny kid, just around the corner from turning eight. We are on our first camping trip together as one unit, at St. Francois State Park near Bonne Terre, MO. It is about ten o’clock at night, and it is storming like mad. Melissa and I are standing on either side of the picnic table, holding down the canopy we had set up, while the rain blows sideways through us. The lightning strikes close by, and the kids shriek in the nearby two-room tent as the thunder almost immediately cracks after it. This is definitely the adventure part.

10519_1238554164748_7519395_nMelissa and I look across the table at each other as the flashes of lightning illuminate our faces. Both of us are soaked to the bone. The terrified children are off to the side in their tent, with their flashlights nervously dancing on the other side of the nylon walls. The whole scene conjures up images in my mind of the deck of a boat, rolling through a storm as water crashes over the bow. The rain blows across my face and a pool of water from the canopy splashes down on my head. She looks at me with a smile and a shrug, and in the cacophony of the wind and rain and noise, I can’t help but laugh. She laughs too, and the weather soon begins to ease off a little. The wind dies a bit and allows the rain to head to the ground in a more standard, vertical direction. The lightning and all its yelling has moved out slightly away from us toward the northeast. The canopy is saved from blowing into the forest, and we have all survived. This was the point that I knew I had found a lady sturdy and adventurous enough to keep up with my unkempt and wild need to spend time in the woods, regardless of the challenges along the way. And it has been a handful of years since that first camping trip together.

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1096Our children are that much older now too, and a bit more weathered and independent than they were that dark and stormy night. They are all taller and more active. They now set up their own tents for the most part, though it can still be a challenge when it comes to working with each other as their diverse personalities dictate each one’s vision of how the process should go. They are more willing to hike the trails, that I the outdoor dictator, choose to have us hike together on our camping trips throughout the year. Either they have come to enjoy the excursions through the forest more than in the past, or they have gotten to where they realize that any increased amount of whining from them will almost always result in a longer hike. They continue to make sure that they stay within the campground when the night creeps in, but have also been afforded further boundaries to roam as the years pass. And they know to keep quiet in the morning, unlike many campground children, so that their mildly hungover Dad can ease into the dawn from the campfire communion the night before.

100_0158DSCF1635And I truly, really, powerfully cherish the time I get to spend in the woods with them, especially now that they are getting older. The hikes are more fun and exploratory. The setup and take down of equipment is less time consuming. The relaxing by the fire these days is with the best companions in the world. And it is those moments by the fire, when I see and hear my children talking about the hike we went on earlier that day, recounting the animals and plants and creeks and trees and mushrooms we saw…that I think back to those days long ago, hiking through the woods with my sisters and parents, canteen strapped to my belt, going up and down the bluffs along some river that is still out there flowing as it has for centuries. Those are the moments when I recall and cherish the memories my parents guided me to earn as a child. The experiences that sparked my love for all this stuff. The opportunities they gave me to make the connections to the natural world that I have, and that I now experience through the joy I feel as I see the continuation of that practice through my own kids, in these modern days.

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In the past four and a half years, we have been camping more and more frequently, a lot of which is due to my employment situation. Lack of a job creates a lot of free time, and camping isn’t a big expenditure if you already own the gear you need. We have, as a family and as just a couple, camped in a lot of the Missouri State Parks, centered mainly on the St. Louis area, and some of the other public and private campgrounds that are out there as well. The campgrounds that we have camped at in the State Park system are: St. Francois, Washington, St. Joe, Sam A. Baker, Hawn, Graham Cave, Meramec, Finger Lakes, Mark Twain, Cuivre River, Ha Ha Tonka, Onondaga Cave, Robertsville, and Trail of Tears. And those are only fourteen of the forty or so that have campgrounds in our Missouri State Park system. Some of the other campgrounds we have stayed at are Twin Rivers Landing, Ozark Outdoors, Highway K Park, Marble Creek, Lower Rock Creek, and Jerktail Landing along the Current River.

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In total, that list is just a small amount of all the places to go spend a night out in the woods in our beautiful state of Missouri. I live in the St. Louis area, and other than on a rare occasion, I usually keep my drive time to about two hours. It’s at about that point I am ready to be out of the car and among the trees, setting up the tent and gathering firewood. It occurred to me on a recent trip that the invention of the automobile was really what has made the ability to camp away from the house in some scenic location a leisurely practice. As I drive through the edge of the Ozark Mountains or on the curvy roads down through the Arcadia Valley, the lessening of true distance is something to be appreciated. That these places are as accessible as they are. That it isn’t beyond our reach to be in them. That it is something we can do as recreation instead of survival. That the waterfalls and rivers and mountaintops and deep woods aren’t THAT far away, is truly a blessing that we all need to plunge ourselves into from time to time. We live in an amazing age, and for those of us in Missouri, we live in a gorgeous state. I have said it before and I will continue to say it…that as we don’t have majestic mountains or exotic forests or breathtaking deserts that occur in some of the other states in our union, we have anything and everything else that the natural world and the earth and creation have to offer in the way of beauty and wonder and charm, here in Missouri.

DSCF1604And this story isn’t nearly over. Before I know it, these kids are going to be asking to borrow a tent and heading out on their own spur trail. Jeremiah sent me a message recently after a lapse in our contact with each other, to let me know that he was changing jobs and is going to have weekends off from now on. Last summer, while camping at Sam A. Baker State Park with family and friends, I asked Melissa to marry me and she said yes.  The trail still has many sections ahead, they just aren’t mapped yet, and I am always looking forward to the next adventure. If it is the weekend, you can bet  that I will probably be out in the woods somewhere at some point. It is where I like to spend my time, because the forest is in me as much as I allow myself to be a part of it, and the river is where my path always leads to.

1106So I hike to the ridge and I stand for a moment, taking in the heavy bouquet of earth and wildflowers mixed with the moisture in the air. I listen to the breathing of the trees and the messages from the birds and the hymns sung by the wind. I feel the warm soil and the cushion of leaves beneath my feet. I ease my weight against a determined cedar, clutching with its exposed roots to the rain carved sandstone on the side of the path. And I look forward down the trail, accepting that I can never know where it will end up, but that I will be thankful for every step I am blessed to take upon it.

Thank you for reading. Go spend some time in the woods.

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3 Comments
  1. I’m enjoying this series a lot, especially since you’re taking your kids along, raising another generation that will respect the great outdoors.

    • I’ve been enjoying writing it…but I think I have caught up with the present at this point so it might be a while before another installment happens. I will probably look to recount some of the more memorable trips. I’m glad you like it, thanks!

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  1. Looking back down the Trail, Part Four: New Life | Camping Missouri

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