How many times have you heard the term “unplug” bandied about? Scientific studies of late tell Americans that their electronics are making them dumber and that it is affecting our children. We are inundated with commercials telling us to take our kids out into the forest so they can explore. I thought to myself one day, “How tragic is it that a commercial has to explain this to me as a parent?” I am not going to tell anyone from my “high horse” that I never play with my iPhone or that every afternoon I am driving my kids to a National Forest so they can be enlightened about the wonders of nature. I can only tell you about my own personal experience that indeed, unplugging and playing in the woods with your family is rewarding beyond what can be relayed in a commercial.
For openers, my husband is the true outdoorsy man in every sense. He hunts and likes to build fires. God blessed him with daughters, of course, because God has a sense of humor. And a wife who likes pedicures and clean sheets. But, every once in a while, us women-folk give in to his pleadings and go backpacking. We don’t possess fancy, expensive equipment. We buy dehydrated food primarily because it doesn’t weigh much. We have a couple MSR water filters, a Jet Boil, simple backpacks from LL Bean, and a Garmin GPS. We have never invested in pricey backpacking gear so we sleep on the hard ground in regular sleeping bags that a true backpacker would scoff at.
In order to reach the most secluded forest for backpacking, we loaded our trusty vehicle and drove down endless, winding, narrow, dusty roads to the ideal spot where we would mark the beginning our adventure, albeit some members of our family were green from motion sickness upon arrival. It was a beautiful Wednesday afternoon and our spirits were high with the thrill of the unknown. We locked the phones in our car, said goodbye to civilization and headed deep into the woods where we descended deeply into a gorge, miles away from civilization and anyone else.
Learning to be flexible
Our primary goal was to cross the river over a bridge and find a great campsite. But, like life, things did not go as planned or on schedule. We reached the bridge and unfortunately it had been wiped out and carried away by summer floods. We searched for ways to hop rocks and get across to no avail. Our oldest daughter pleaded with us to try and cross using para-cord as a life-line. I pretended that his option was tempting me so as to seem more courageous and carefree, but thankfully even my husband was not willing to risk searching for a place to make camp I was while soaking wet. So we turned back and made camp at the first place we found because it was getting dark and we were shaky with hunger. Once we decided on a spot my oldest and I went to get firewood while my youngest and my husband set up the tents.
While scouring the woods for snakes and getting panicked by the setting sun and the thought of bears, my daughter and I had fabulous conversation. It was uninterrupted by a ringing phone, text messaging, the computer, or neighborhood kids ringing the doorbell. I had an audience of one and so did she. In no time, we had gathered the firewood and set off for camp. She proceeded to sort the wood and build the fire with the assistance of her father and a lighter. My husband gave us each fire starting implements in a Ziploc bag. We had a lighter, waterproof matches in case that failed, and a fire steel as a last resort. I love this man. With the fire started we then prepared our dehydrated meal and munched on chocolate pieces for a simple yet satisfying dessert. We were exhausted from the hike in so we decided to hit the sack. Did I say sack? That’s funny because what we hit was ground covered with rocks. I sustained zero injuries on our hike, never had to fight off coyotes, mountain lions, or ravenous bears, but became crippled with the worst injury of the trip…in my sleep. I awoke in the middle of the night to searing pain in my collarbone area that made me want to scream. I was awake most of the night thinking horrible and vengeful thoughts about the wicked and cruel man beside me who forced me into a pit of darkness! And I admit, in the morning, I did not have the best outlook or attitude. I wanted to go home and wore the expression of a pouty toddler.
Thankfully, once I rose from the “tent of torture” the pain subsided and I had hot coffee. We ate a warm granola breakfast and washed our dishes in the river. Before heading out again we had to filter water from the stream beside camp. I was struck by the sheer effort it took to just gather supplies for survival. The breakfast calories and energy are quickly burned away even before we could have lunch. My hat goes off to pioneer women and the energy they had to put in just to live day to day. I was humbled at how wimpy I truly was and if I had my phone on me I would have posted this deep thought onto Facebook.
The girls played on the rocks and repacked their supplies. I decided I could muster the grit needed to push on another day and night after all. We hiked out and had to get back to our car so we could find another spot to go in since we couldn’t cross the river. I have to confess that we stopped at a diner to eat lunch since we had to drive to the next site anyway. I must have looked pitiful because my husband relented without a fight. The food was delicious, nothing fancy, but I do believe they had the best blueberry pie I have ever tasted. And my cup of coffee with fresh half and half was a treat. My phone sat in the glove box, alone and forgotten, while we talked and laughed and speculated as to whether the clientele in the diner could smell us or not.
After a lovely lunch and use of humane facilities we headed out again. The trek to the bottom of the gorge was long and the girls were excited to set up camp by the river instead of by a quiet stream. I, on the other hand, was crossing my fingers and hoping for softer ground. It was breathtakingly beautiful once we reached bottom and the sound of a roaring river was peaceful and almost medicinal. We hopped rocks out to the river and took our shoes off to soak our feet in the cool water. The water was refreshing and I found myself more relaxed than I had been in some time. That is until one of our delightful children dropped my shoe in the river. And then laughed; because I had just told her that my shoes were there and to be careful so as not to sacrifice them to the flowing river. I quickly gathered my shoes and sat them gingerly, with a hint of indignation, next to where a fire would soon dry them out.
Settling in for the night
Firewood was gathered and this time the littlest girl started the fire. Her face was beaming with pride as she watched the flames take hold. Our oldest set up the tents by herself, and she, too, was left with a feeling of accomplishment. There is something to be said for knowing that if the going gets tough that your family won’t be the first to perish: that you have some skills that can carry you through and that all these feats were achieved without the help of Google.
That night, we sat by the campfire and played a game we call “ventriloquist”. This involves a person being the “dummy” and someone else saying outlandish things and the “dummy” has to act like they are actually the one speaking. It may sound silly and ridiculous on paper, but we were howling with laughter. My husband, especially, has a gift for being comical and I must confess, watching him pretend to talk with the high squeaky voice of one of his daughters was hands down the funniest thing I have ever witnessed. After hours of laughter and some dehydrated chili mac, we went to sleep on much softer ground. During the night I heard a raccoon scrounging around our camp, but overall my sleep was deeper and more restful.
The next morning was crisp and the girls spent their final hours in our woody haven at the river. My husband and I talked as we watched our children chat and enjoy each other’s company. I reflected on the realities of living in a house full of girls. There can be tense emotional outbursts between them that end in tears and wounded spirits. Girls, for those who haven’t noticed, can be moody and vindictive. Sisterly love has to be nurtured and encouraged. Forgiveness and mercy does not always win the day, so watching our girls enjoy each other’s company and laugh with each other in vulnerable conversation in the midst of nature’s magnificence is a beautiful thing. And to see that they could genuinely belly laugh without being huddled around a phone or iPad watching something ridiculous on You Tube gives us hope.
Coming home together
Reluctantly, we packed the gear and began our grueling ascent out of the gorge. Along the way, we made up ludicrous songs and stories to entertain ourselves and take the bite out of the burn in our thighs and backs. As we journeyed up the ridge , I nearly stabbed a rattlesnake with my walking stick and we quickly learned the lesson of why you shouldn’t bunch up on a narrow treacherous path. As I turned to move away, quickly I might add, from the angry reptile, I discovered my oldest so close behind me that I could feel her hot breath on my face. She toppled onto the one behind her and so on. My husband preached a lesson from our misadventure for the next fifteen minutes up the switch back trail.
We saw two other snakes on our way. They were winding their way out into the warm sun and did not care to be confronted by our loud and boisterous group. After several rests and water breaks, our youngest daughter decided she didn’t have the strength to go on. Her face was sweaty and pink from exertion. She swore that she could not go on another step and we took a picture (with an old fashioned camera and not a phone) to mark the occasion since it was the last we would ever see her. But instead of leaving her lifeless body for the hungry bears, we all gathered round her and strengthened her with words of encouragement. We bribed her and prodded her onward never once searching the internet with the key words “HOW TO PERSUADE YOUR CHILD TO GET UP AND MOVE”. In that moment, I realized how a few inspiring words spoken from her loving family can be food for a weary soul.
Upon reaching the summit and trudging to our dusty transport, we gave thanks to God for keeping us safe. Although this was no climb to Everest and there were no real traumatic moments to write a memoir on, we had still persevered together. Our family had “unplugged” successfully and I cannot help but feel that we came away a little stronger, a little closer, and bonded in a way that a text or e-mail cannot convey.