“This is it. Come on!” I call excitedly to my family as I walk toward the trailhead at Muir Woods National Monument in California.
Spinning around, I see that my husband is still trying to nudge our 13-year-old daughter, Honor, and her 5-year-old brother, Justin, out of the gift shop to start our hike. Sigh. Obviously, the kids don’t share my enthusiasm.
“Turn off your cellphone, Honor,” I say when my daughter finally joins me but doesn’t even bother to glance up at the ancient forest of coast redwoods towering before her. “You won’t need it while we hike.”
“Yes, I will!” she whines. “I want something better to do than just stare at a bunch of trees all day.”
“Yeah,” echoes Justin. “This is going to be boring.”
“Okay, enough complaining,” says Russ, walking into the forest and beckoning us to follow him. “This is going to be fun.”
I wonder: Can declaring it “fun” actually make it that way for the kids? I hope so.
Russ and I have wanted to take this trip to California to see the majestic redwoods and sequoias, among the oldest and largest living things on Earth, for years. But the trees’ ancient age and massive size haven’t impressed Honor and Justin enough to capture their interest in this vacation. Our kids’ idea of a good family holiday? Anything that features constant entertainment: theme parks, shopping malls, arcades. The kitschier the tourist places (mini-golf courses are a favorite) we can visit and the more shows we can see, the better, as far as they’re concerned.
I actually enjoy roller coasters, 4-D movies and themed mini-golf myself. But trips filled with those kinds of activities always pass in a frenzied blur, just as our life at home so often does. We seem to go from one activity to another without enough time to reflect on our experiences and consider whether they might be changing us, for better or worse.
This family vacation will be different, Russ and I have vowed. On this trip, we want our kids to break free from their preoccupation with entertainment and connect with something bigger than just passing thrills. We’ve been alarmed to read media reports of research showing that young people’s frequent use of electronic media changes their brains, making them more susceptible to distraction and less able to concentrate deeply enough to solve problems well. If our kids are becoming wired that way, we want them unplugged for a while!
So we have flown into San Francisco, have rented a car and are driving through several ancient forests on our way to Los Angeles, the last stop on our trip. The cities that bookend our travels contain plenty of entertaining activities, and we’ll sample a few of those — riding San Francisco’s cable cars and strolling L.A.’s Hollywood Boulevard — to get a taste of the difference between civilization and wilderness. But we’ll spend most of the trip among the redwoods and sequoias of Muir Woods, Yosemite National Park and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park.
Our first glimpse of the tremendous trees is in Muir Woods, just 10 miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This park protects groves of coast redwoods up to 2,000 years old and 380 feet tall. None of us breathes a word for a while as we stand staring into the canopies of the redwoods stretching into seeming infinity above us. Then Justin pipes up: “Okay. These trees really are big.”
The kids seem genuinely awed. They pay close attention during a ranger program and seem to enjoy studying the ranger’s container of tannic acid (the blood red chemical that helps redwoods resist threats such as insects and fungus that can destroy other trees).
We grab lunch at the park restaurant, and Russ and I anticipate a great afternoon of further exploration in the woods. But we can tell that the novelty of the trees has worn off when the kids insist that we’ve seen all we need to see and ask that we head back to town to find something else to do.
However, Russ and I aren’t giving up that easily. We hike into Cathedral Grove to soak up the scenery, despite the kids’ protests. Then we overhear a conversation another family is having nearby. They’re setting up a photo of themselves in front of the same tree that has been featured in several generations of family photographs, going back nearly 100 years. All the people who were featured in earlier photos have changed significantly over the years; many have died. Yet the tree, the family members remark, looks just as it did nearly a century before — and probably many centuries before that.
“I wonder what stories that tree would tell if it could talk,” Honor says. That comment, much to my delight, leads to a conversation about how quickly time passes and why we should make the most of it. We never would have enjoyed such a philosophical family discussion at a theme park.
By the end of the day, Honor and Justin are making up games as they walk around the redwoods’ tall trunks, playfully imagining what forest creatures may be secretly watching them. It’s a far cry from how they usually isolate themselves in their rooms at home, each engaging with his or her own electronic media rather than interacting with one another.
We drive east from San Francisco through California’s Central Valley to reach Yosemite National Park. We all find the park’s dramatic rock cliffs and waterfalls awe-inspiring, but it’s the giant sequoia trees in the Mariposa Grove that give us the most compelling reasons to reflect on our lives.
Many of the sequoias there have survived devastating forest fires, and some are still standing strong even though the entire bottoms of their massive trunks have been burned clear through by traumatic fires.
We’ve also recently been through something traumatic as a family: Russ’s battle with kidney disease, which he survived thanks to the successful transplant of a kidney donated by a friend at our church. Honor and Justin hadn’t talked to us much about the experience. But as the kids trace part of the charred black burn scar on the trunk of one sequoia, I quietly say, “That tree’s a survivor, just like Dad.”
Honor stares at the ground as Justin says, “I bet it hurt a lot when it got burned.”
“But it’s still here,” Russ says, and Justin runs to him for a hug, confessing for the first time his fear that his father’s sickness meant that he would leave us.
“Remember what the park ranger told us about trees like this?” I ask.
“They keep growing sapwood even after they get hurt,” Honor replies.
“Just like we do,” I say, and Honor nods.
Walking among the giant trees has helped us all reflect on our family health crisis and what it has taught us.
From Yosemite, we drive south to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, which is out of range of even the satellite radio broadcasts that the kids want to listen to in the car. At home, we have our choice of more than 100 satellite radio stations, but driving around the park, it’s either static or silence, so we switch off the radio and begin talking. It’s just about little things — random observations about the wildlife we see (including several black bears) or silly jokes that we make up. But those little things mean everything. Too often, we’ve neglected to make enough time for relaxed family conversation. Now, we find it flowing naturally.
Maybe I’m being fanciful, but when all four of us place our hands simultaneously on a sequoia’s wide, bumpy trunk, it seems to me that we’re connected to the roots of something strong inside us. The trees around us have grown slowly yet steadily into some of the strongest living things on the planet. And, gradually, through this trip, I feel that we’ve grown, too. It reminds me of a quote from Henry David Thoreau: “I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings.”
Soon we leave the peaceful forests behind and travel back to civilization. Our final destination is Los Angeles, which is, of course, the entertainment capital of the world. This is definitely the place where we’ll find out whether the kids will slide back into a focus on constant entertainment or stay rooted in what the trees have taught them.
As we approach L.A., the kids see a billboard advertising Universal Studios and immediately start asking when we can visit. “They’ve got a new King Kong ride!” Justin yells enthusiastically from the back seat. We give in and spend a day at the park, hoping that what they learned among the redwoods and sequoias won’t be erased by their re-immersion in entertainment land.
The next day, we get our answer. The kids inform us that they don’t want to go back for more theme park thrills. Instead, they choose to go to Malibu and do something that I like to think would make the big trees proud: take a family nature hike in the hills above the ocean.
Hopler, a Fairfax writer, hosts the Angels & Miracles page for About.com.