Story by

Jennifer O'Donnell

February 28th, 2017

I have many fond memories of visiting regional, state, and national parks with my parents. At the time, I didn't think much of our adventures and probably thought everyone my age was spending countless hours in the back of a car or camper, off to the next destination. I didn't realize how much I enjoyed that time and the lasting impression it had on me until I was a mother with children of my own.

Anyone with kids is most likely aware of how fleeting time is with our little ones. I feel like I have so much to share with them and so little time to do it in. Now, more than ever, I want my kids to develop a great appreciation for this amazing, fragile world we live in. I want them to see that there is so much more to explore than they could ever dream. More than anything, I want them to know that they can do anything with a little bit of patience, strength, and an open mind and heart.

I love being outside. There is something so comforting and refreshing from taking in your surroundings. We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which, on the surface, is a very fast-paced, busy, stressful region. It's also home to an abundance of regional parks with countless trails and an array of terrain. It's important to me and my husband to show our children a life beyond the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area. It's important to us that our children continue to nurture that inherent connection they have with nature building upon their innate curiosity and hunger to explore.

We have endured an overabundance of rain this winter – something my children are not used to having been in a drought for the last few years. On a rare sunny occurrence, we decided to take a hike at the Briones Regional Park which is nestled in the East Bay hills, just 20 miles east of San Francisco. We began our hike and my children immediately began to notice the telltale signs of wet winter erosion.

Pieces of our trail washed away like a crumbled cookie. Small waterfalls popped up alongside the path where pieces of earth had broken off. My kids were in awe of the shape-shifting landscape.

We often stopped to test how fast a leaf could flow down a spontaneously created creek or to examine if a particular group of recently exposed roots could possibly be a home to fairies. On several points of our hike, we came to complete stops to examine the trail before us.

Never in all of our hikes have we experienced so much mud. I'm not talking about some light mud puddles, I'm talking about sticky, clay-type mud that grabs on to your shoe and beckons you not to leave.

We had to stop and think about how we were going to get across as a family. We would have to take our time and work together to make it uphill and through the mud. Despite some hesitation, we took it slow and steady and called out spots to each other where we could get through unscathed. (Well, not entirely unscathed but better than we had anticipated.)

One of my favorite things about our hikes is hearing my children gasp in utter amazement when they reach the peak. Whenever I sense we're approaching the top, I always stand back a little bit and let them experience that moment first. Suddenly, whatever hardship they just experienced or whatever pain they felt getting to that point becomes inconsequential. All that matters is experiencing the joy and self satisfaction of having achieved it with their own two feet.

We were the only ones on the trail that day, with the exception of a lone hiker off in the distance. We sat on an isolated bench staring out at a sliver of the Suisun Bay. In our sights we could see the Benicia-Martinez Bridge and the ghost fleet of retired ships in the distance. In our immediate vicinity, a myriad of small ponds appeared to be home to several species of ducks and a couple of other unidentified animals. My husband and I laughed uncomfortably to ourselves when we realized we couldn't identify the animals. Is it a bobcat...or a coyote...or a mountain lion...or maybe just a regular ol' house cat?

We continued our descent where we stumbled upon more mud and more steep, treacherous terrain. I'll admit my palms were sweaty as we attempted to make our way through the slippery mud as our shoes struggled to grip with the earth. My kids, unphased by the potential danger at our feet, squealed with glee at the notion that they were surfing down the trail.

After several more moments of traversing through heavy mud and pointing out several more rockslides and mudslides, we reached the valley floor where we were greeted by a beautiful horse. My husband and daughter immediately went over to say hello. For a few minutes, the two of them sat there quietly talking to her. When it was time to leave, the horse walked alongside my daughter until she was out of reach. I watched my daughter smile to herself as we departed, relishing the moment she just experienced.

The hike itself was around 4.5 miles and took us just over three hours to complete. It was a beautiful outing and probably our messiest. With each hike we complete as a family, I watch my children grow stronger and develop a deeper appreciation for their surroundings. A year ago, my kids would have fussed over those muddy spots on the trail, but instead of giving up, I watched them work together to find a solution. They still complain at times when we have a steep incline, but we always stop and help each other. The conversations we hold as a family while on our hikes will hopefully have a lasting impression on my children. Perhaps they won't realize it now, but like me, maybe they'll look back and smile at all they have seen and feel accomplished by all that they've achieved. And maybe, just maybe, this tiny seed of knowledge and respect for their environment will grow into something bigger than all of us.