The Secret Garden, Now with Dinosaurs! Two Views of One Trail

Photo via Flickr's DRwise

When I arrive to visit my friend Jon in Pennsylvania, two things are guaranteed to happen within a minute of walking through the door:

  • His 4-year-old son Jack comes tearing across the house and hug-tackles my leg like a mini Jack Lambert
  • His 5-year-old daughter Emma asks if we can play Nintendo Wii (her parents assiduously limit her TV time so she looks forward to the treat of getting to “beat” me at Wii Tennis when I stay over)

I don’t usually push outdoor time because I know being a parent of young kids is hard enough without some bossy treehugger demanding to be escorted to the nearest venue for communing with nature. So it was a nice surprise when Jon suggested we go for a trail walk during my visit last weekend.

The first part of the walk on a paved path along a cold water stream was mostly spent reminding the kids of the rules that keep them safe – watch out for poison ivy, walk on the right side of the path to avoid the speeding cyclists. (“Really, Lance Armstrong?” Jon asked after one went flying past us on the bucolic trail like it was time trial in the Tour de France.)

On the paved path, Jack and Emma seemed to feel confined – they constantly veered to its edges to look at flowers or to pick up sticks (seems like Murphy’s Law of trail walking that the best sticks always hide in the poison ivy). It wasn’t until we went off the pavement that nature sprang to life for the kids. I’ll let Jon take the story from there on his parenting blog, Every Day Father:

After a short walk we departed the paved trail and followed a winding dirt trail through the woods and closer to the creek. We stopped and watched a man fly fish as 2 Canadian geese flew just feet from our faces. Jack had found a stick which he planned on using to protect us: “If I see a shark or an alligator, I will stab it.” As we walked through the woods, we talked about ferns and hostas. The kids laughed at my assertion that hostas are a perfect toilet paper substitute, if you have to [go] in the woods. The moment was broken up by Jack’s discovery of dinosaur tracks (deer & dog). The Green Miles agreed and assessed them as that of a T-Rex. This caused Jack to hold his stick at the ready.

Our hike led us to a rocky beach along the creek. Both kids ran to the nearest rock deposit and began hurling stones into the creek. Jack nearly hit each of us with errant throws. We showed the kids how to skip rocks. Emma was elated when she finally got one to skip. We found a trout minnow and followed it with our fingers until Jack shouted, “I see it! I see it! Ahhhhh, it’s so tiny.” After throwing, the negotiated for, 2 more rocks … we headed up the trail. The kids kept stopping to point out ferns, nests, and tiny wild flowers. Jack picked a purple wild flower for Emma, because she loves purple and it is a “girl flower”. I found myself reconnecting with my childhood and all the time I spent in the woods. My thoughts were pleasantly interrupted by Emma saying, to no one in particular, “I like the peace and quiet of the hike.” It was a unexpected thing to hear.

That night, I asked the kids for their favorite part of the day’s walk. “The secret trail!” Emma exclaimed. Never mind that it was a beaten path used daily by anglers and dog walkers – to Emma, the moment her dad had stepped off the paved path, we were discovering new adventures in our own special world. Who knew where it would lead?

When the trail wound back to the paved path and we backtracked to where we’d first veered off the main trail, Emma had a moment of stunned realization that we were back where we started – not quite Dorothy waking up in bed back in Kansas, but you get the idea. What had seemed like a small difference to me – paved path versus dirt trail – had made all the difference for her.

And as for Jack? Being Jack, of course he liked the dinosaur tracks best. I don’t think it will change his career trajectory from bone-crunching middle linebacker to bone-dusting archaeologist, but if even a little of his boundless energy is directed towards new outdoor discovery, I think the world will be a safer place.

Emma had found a peaceful secret place to share with her dad. And Jack had found a place fraught with danger, filled with sharks, alligators and dinosaurs from which we might need him to save us at any moment (using only his tiny stick, of course). How many other activities could lead two very different children to two completely different places of happiness and contentment?