Taking My Children Out Onto the Trail of Life
● Published by Rick McGarry
Jeff and his family in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
By Jeff Alt
Some thought that my days of trekking would end with the birth of my first child. They were wrong. I had already experienced the triumph of completing the Appalachian Trail and John Muir Trail, and I wasn’t about to shelve future adventures because I was a father. In summer 2006, my family and I trekked across a 50-mile swath of Ireland. My then 21-month-old daughter and my four-year old nephew came along. Our journey was no trip up Everest, but I realized that it’s worth it to tone down my pursuits a bit if it means that my child can come along. My trail vocabulary definitely changed: “Do you want your sippy cup?” “Where’s your pacifier?” “Here, have a goldfish cracker.” But taking my family on a safe outdoor adventure was worth some small sacrifices.
Our daughter enjoyed the entire journey. She loved the horses, mules, and cows that would stick their heads over the fences, Mr. Ed–style. Walking as a family was a priceless bonding experience. The trip included nine other family members. Madison traveled with her aunts, uncles, and grandparents, creating some precious memories. We were able to share our hiking passion with our child, and her smile told us that it was worth every step. We hope that letting our child experience our dreams will help guide her to her own.
When I was a young boy, we kids played outside in the forest, in nearby creeks, and on my grandparents’ farm. The forest where I once played is now a sprawling housing development. My grandfather’s hundred-acre farm is covered with homes, too. The entire country has experienced this trend of housing and shopping centers replacing undeveloped forest and farmland. This has not only ruined wildlife habitats but also has diminished natural outdoor play areas for our children. Childhood obesity is at an all-time high. Many children prefer video games to playing outside. I’ve come to realize that it’s my role as a parent to help my child appreciate the simple things that only nature can provide. Our national and local parks have become the only resource for our children to discover the wonders of nature. Our parks play a critical role in nurturing in our children an appreciation for the outdoors.
On a recent hike in the Shenandoah National Park with my wife and daughter, we found ourselves splashing in a waterfall instead of following our plan to hike out to a vista. My daughter had a ball, and she couldn’t have cared less about the view that we never reached. Cutting back the distance has actually increased the mileage of happiness. The summit will be there for a future hike. Madison is a potential future steward of our Earth. I want her to have many positive and fun hikes in the woods so that she has a warm foundation to build upon when she thinks back to her outdoor adventures.
My current adventure is raising my children. Children are just as fragile as our environment, and our kids are the key to preserving it. I believe that taking my family on outdoor adventures will develop healthy, well-rounded kids who will grow up to carry the torch of preserving our nation’s great trails. My wish is that my children will discover their own dreams and passions, whatever they may be.
Excerpt from A Walk for Sunshine, Life Lessons from the Trail