"The mountains are calling and I must go." -Muir
I can laugh now because we’re a few days removed, but this past weekend was a marathon inside a marathon. If I’m honest it was too much. But I’m glad we went and I love that we're making it an annual thing. I think she would say something similar.
We have 3 kids now. Chronologically they’re almost 3, almost 5 and just turned 9. Developmentally, we’re sorta all over the place. All of us. We're leaning into adoption day while learning to parent 3 very different kiddos with complex profiles at breakneck speed. Just when we’ve sorted out this or that, we bump up against another developmental milestone or real life challenge; a series of sleepless nights; the passing of my beloved dog; growth spurts; job loss; car repairs; appointments; the electric bill; a visit with the woman who brought these beautiful kids into this world. LIFE. For a family that can only thrive with consistency, nailing down that day-to-day rhythm is a real challenge right now and we're all spinning a bit as a result without the reassurance of a balanced life looming in the near future.
Last year, September-November looked like back-to-school for kids, back-to-school for Therapist Mama, Tiny's birthday, Sweet's birthday, halloween, a trip out-of-state for Thanksgiving and National Adoption Day. This fall looks the same except we can add my hunt for a new job and the search for childcare or a nurturing school environment for our littlest guy.
Despite the business of the shift from summer to fall, and the reality that transitions will probably always feel seismic to us, it feels important to keep the big picture in mind as well. Having rituals as a family, particularly around changes in season, are a natural way for us to ground ourselves over time. We love autumn around here and we're always looking for creative and meaningful ways to sneak in 1:1 time with our kids, so taking our biggest kiddo on an annual mom/daughter camping trip is a win-win for me. Also, I'm a born & raised Michigander, so I need to be outdoors and away from the city on occasion to not feel totally crazy.
You can take the girl outta Michigan but you can't take Michigan outta the girl
I was raised in Michigan surrounded by lakes, 2 story snow drifts and the open sky. When I wasn't playing sports or building forts in vacant industrial lots, I was stealing a hammer and nails from my father, disappearing into the forest with my younger brothers. "Babysitting." When my parents divorced, both the city and my mom were in my father's rear view mirror. Which is to say, there are a lot of things about my upbringing that inform my parenting in helpful and not-so-helpful ways.
I remember many firsts from that time. The kickback from my father's rifle. The daily blasts from the nearby mine. Stealing candy from the country market. Stepping in bear poop. Being bullied. There was violence, violation and alcohol. I suppose my destiny was always bent toward grit. My love for the outdoors was born from a place of survival and isolation. Over the course of many years, much healing has taken place for me there. When I discovered ways to bring that healing to the lives of traumatized kids, my worlds converged in a powerful way and I've always looked forward to pulling that into my own family life.
Building a legacy
When I worked with kids there were 2 things I was proud of being good at: leveraging art as a vehicle to teach prosocial skills & tapping into the healing ways of the natural environment to build confidence through competence. Which is just a fancy way to say I planned overnight hiking trips for the kids that everyone said "couldn't be safe enough" for overnight camping trips and watching kids flourish was my most favorite thing.
My wish for my children is something along these lines. That the forest is a place of healing. That it's wonders offer fulfillment and joy, peace and beauty - not refuge from harm or a place to hide. This is that place where I get to take the best parts of something I love deeply, break my own cycle of intergenerational trauma and offer up an alternative to my kids.
Our kids are C O N C R E T E THINKERS. My hope is that taking them into the forest will also allow us to build skills together. I want them to learn there. Less about which plants you can or can't eat and more about discovering their own potential to problem solve, think through a plan, and deepen their capacity to be flexible while expanding their willingness to grow.
For me, that looks like a lot of different things that surface naturally while hiking, camping or climbing a mountain. I believe kids are our most available learners when their brains are accessible and I can imagine no place other than the forest to find one's baseline or reset. Of course, it does no good to throw a kid who's unfamiliar with the woods into the woods, but establishing safety while having fun is a great way to get started. When I thought about how to concretize and outline what I've learned to do so naturally over the years, for our 2nd annual mom/daughter camping trip, I came up with the following 5 ideas and am sharing them here.
All the moving parts
A well-executed camping trip requires lots of planning and heavy lifting. This trip was no different. From hunting down the gear in the cellar to cleaning it, setting up our campsite, navigating mountains, managing an injury, cooking in the back country, tearing down and post-camping cleanup, she and I did it all together…almost.
Food & Fire
In our home, we don't eat much processed sugar. We start almost every morning with a chocolate kale smoothie. Like, actually. Our kids help us shop, prepare meals and we always eat together. They don't always love going to school with tofu, but, they've grown to accept that this is how we eat. For now. We talk about how certain foods are good for certain parts of our body and they sorta understand low blood sugar. They know that if they're feeling super crabby, its likely because they're hungry, thirsty, tired or getting sick. We talk about how we need certain food to get us started, different food to keep us going and bigger meals to burn lots and lots of energy - like a campfire. When we're camping and collecting wood for a solid campfire, I make the analogy here as well. Tinder to get the fire started, kindling to make it grow, logs to keep it going. If we're missing certain pieces or there's too much of one thing, not enough of another, its tough to build a fire for cooking and making s'mores. Sometimes I'll throw in a little deep breathing/oxygen to demonstrate its own significance for both our bodies and fire. It's all a little rudimentary, but I've seen the analogy be really powerful for older kids and I hope its something my kids understand one day.
Our biggest kiddo also helped me meal plan for our whole trip. We wrote down each meal we would need from start to finish and made a grocery list. We did some shopping together, creative problem-solving around how to keep food refrigerated for 60 hours, and she helped me cook on the trip as well as pack our lunch for our epic dayhike.
Gear & Clothes
We pulled the weather report together a week before leaving, then again a couple days before (I monitored the weather ongoing). I called it researching on the internet and she was obviously into it because our kids have next to no screen time. The nights were forecasted to be cold, days were hot and humid and there was a chance of rain. Temps also drop on mountaintops (we were going to gain about 2000' elevation one day - not much temp change - and 6000' day 2, significantly cooler). So we talked about what preparing for the coldest/wettest would look like and the hottest/driest, then packed nearly everything to accommodate. This is always a ton of work and our kids aren't verbal processors, so this looked a lot like me doing all the heavy work, packing layered outfits, tarps and waterproof gear, and her making choices day of for what she would need to stay warm and dry or cool. We packed wicking layers for hiking and sleeping, insulating layers to keep us warm and shells to keep us dry.
Our day hike was an epic climb that included lots of technical work, a steep elevation gain, switchbacks and an injury halfway through. I burned nearly 3000 calories, which is ridiculous. Last year, we climbed a small mountain together. I knew it well and had climbed it in the past with several groups of kids, so I knew it had super rewarding views. She was astonished that the world was so expansive. I was aiming for a similar impact this year with a little more challenge and bit off more than we could chew. We got lost along an outdated path, then problem-solved our way back to being on course, which was awesome. We discovered really cool things, like an old train trestle and waterfall, and there was a whole lot of looking behind us to see how far we'd come - a great way to demonstrate immediately the gains of her hard work. There were lots of passersby going in the opposite direction, applauding our choice to take a challenging route and lots of self-esteem building as a result. People were kind and some needed directions, so we were able to be helpful in that way as well and we talked about cairns and how they are made by people to help people find their way if they are lost or going off-track. All good things.
I've always packed a leadership bag and groups have upvoted their peers, giving examples of why they nominated kids they felt would make great group leaders (eventually everyone would always have a turn to keep it fair). The leadership bag was novelty as whoever carried it also carried a small first aid kit, the map and lead the group along the trail, careful to walk only as fast as our slowest hiker and modeling how to look out for one another. As we grow into hiking as a family, I hope we'll carry this torch forward as it really has been a special thing for kids. I'm sure we'll modify it, maybe nix the voting or something, but when our oldest kiddo walked around with that pack this weekend, she had a little extra pep in her step and lots of agency over her own outcomes and our accomplishments as a team.
In the end, our hike took twice as long as it should have (thanks to my aging body!) but her attitude was incredible and man, do we have stories. She was positive, patient, outspoken, funny, consistent and trying and tackling lots of new things. For a kiddo who's only done one other serious hike in her whole life, I was inspired.
Confidence through Competence
I could go on here about the real life implications of tackling these sort of adventures and all their moving parts, along with lots of other examples of learning opportunities. I believe so fully in creating scenarios that our kiddos will want to return to as they grow up because they were fun and they felt good. We will always face adversity as family and if we can raise kind and resilient kids, building confidence as they tackle new things and expand their skillset, I will feel good about my role in their lives as their parent. Next year, we'll plan our trip together and do a second one, with everybody.