This week, the Virtual Curriculum Fair’s theme is Exploring our World. What better place is there to explore than the woods? And what better story than that time I got lost? With all my children? As the sun was setting?
It started off simply enough. I drove out to Mahoney State Park, intending on watching the kids at the playground while my daughter attended an event. Except we were supposed to be at Mahoney Park in Lincoln, not Mahoney State Park in Ashland. Thinking back, maybe I should have taken this as some sort of omen. I mean, we couldn’t even get to the right public park on public roads using GPS. Why ever did I think it was a good idea to take my entire brood — six children aged 2 through 17 — traipsing off into the woods?
But I had just been thinking about how nice it would be to get out more with the children. Explore some of Nebraska’s natural beauty. Combine exercise, family time and getting to know Nebraska. And here I was, the brand new owner of a State Park Pass. It was perfect.
And this is Mahoney State Park. 690 acres which consists mostly of lodges, meeting areas a campground and a golf course. I go here for writer’s conferences. What could go wrong? Seriously. My fellow Nebraskans are probably laughing at the idea of anyone getting lost in Mahoney. It’s not like I just skipped off into the back country of Yellowstone. It’s more like I wandered into the trees in a city park and couldn’t find my way out.
So, yeah. I mentioned a hike in the woods and the children cheered. They wanted the longest possible hike. I picked one that had options. The entire trail was a couple miles, but there were several points where we could just leave the trail and go back to the road and walk back. Because it was late on an October afternoon and I didn’t want to be in the woods in the dark, no matter how small and nearly urban those woods may be.
The trail was rough. Far rougher than I was expecting. Most of our hikes have been on the tamed and heavily mulched trails of Pioneers Park in Lincoln. Suddenly, we were met with obstacles. Drop offs. Places where injury could occur if you didn’t stay on the trail. And it didn’t take long until even staying on the path was no guarantee for safety. Not that it was dangerous, per se. Just that it wasn’t like walking on a mulched trail in Lincoln. There were steep inclines and places where you just sort of had to try to keep your feet under you and slow the descent as much as possible. One such spot landed me face first in the mud at the bottom.
Which was actually kind of funny.
But this was not exactly what I had in mind. Upon reaching the first such descent, I contemplated turning back. But the children were so . . . alive. All their senses were alert as they took in the woods and the activity and this sense of real adventure on a real trail that they actually had to climb to navigate. So I staged the children on the trail, passed Asa down to my son who then passed him down to my daughter and we embarked on this adventure.
And it was an adventure. The children decided they were members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and perhaps the first white people to ever traverse this untamed wild. We saw so many tracks. Deer, raccoon, coyote. There is something about being on a rough-hewn trail in the wilderness that sparks the imagination. And the sense of togetherness.
It was all so right. It was everything I hoped to share with my children through my vague plans of exploring Nebraska’s state parks.
Until the trail we were on just didn’t seem to end. We walked and walked, following the trail, eyeing the sun as it sank lower and lower in the skies. It was below the trees, now, shining through the trunks, calling for us to hurry. It would be getting dark soon. And while I was sure the lights from the campground and the interstate could guide us back to civilization, I was not so sure I wanted to navigate these trails in the dark. Where we could just walk off a drop off and possibly break a leg. I looked at the trail map. It wasn’t a perfect map. But it clearly indicated that this trail should be circling along the outside edge of the treeline and heading back to the campground. But it just kept meandering, on and on. I began to suspect we were not on a trail at all.
At least not one made by park rangers and plotted on a map.
This was one of those spontaneous trails that sprout up in the woods. Trails that seem to be for a ways and then fade away. Trails that disappear when you turn around to try to make your way back.
And I had all my children with me.
I called them to a halt. The first reds and oranges of the sunset were already appearing above the horizon. We had to think through what was best. We could continue forth and hope this trail was indeed the correct one. We had to be close. We had already been walking for too long. Or we could go back. If we got to the creek, it would lead us to the outer fence that would lead us back toward the trail head . . . and several outlets near the campground. This ground was flat. A little less intimidating in the dark. But heading back was heading toward something that was known.
We decided to turn back and move quickly. But the trail instantly turned into a dozen trails, winding this way and that, confirming that we were not on a trail at all.
“We might be spending the night here,” I said aloud.
I hadn’t really meant to say it. I was just trying to figure out what to do.
We were just standing in the woods, looking first one way, then the other. I kept staring at the now useless map, trying to make these passageways through the undergrowth into an actual trail.
“No. It’s only supposed to get down to 45 tonight. That’s cold, but I’ve slept in colder. Did I tell you about the time my hair froze to the side of the tent?”
Their eyes were wide. I thought better of telling them that story just then.
“We’ll be fine. We’ll be cold, but we’ll be fine.”
I looked at the colors of the setting sun. That was west. That meant this way was south. South should be the quickest way back to the park road. I could keep us going south as long as there was light on the horizon.
“We’ll brush away a little hollow at the base of one of these trees and you will all snuggle in a family pile. I’ll spread all of our jackets over you like one big blanket and your body heat will keep you warm. I’ll stay up to make sure you’re safe.”
I wanted to give them some sense of calm. Some sense that even the worst case scenario wasn’t that bad. It wouldn’t be a comfortable night, but there wasn’t really anything to be afraid of. But I so wished my husband were home. If he had been home, I would have been certain that at some point, he and a park ranger would come marching through the woods with flash lights until they found us.
Instead, we left what hints of a trail surrounded us and I marched them straight south through the undergrowth as fast as we could move.
We came out of the woods in a clearing and were greeted by five deer. Five breathtakingly beautiful deer. We were on the horse trail. The kids were convinced we would be jailed for walking on it because there were signs at the gate warning against entry. I just felt relief. The trail was broad and clear and regardless of which way we went, it would end up back at the horses.
We were safe. We were free. We were on our way home.
And it amazed me how thin and fragile this line is between civilization and the wild. A trail had been left to overgrow and sent us wandering through the woods, less than a mile from roads and houses and people, and yet there had been a very real chance of getting stranded. One mistake, one miscalculation and we were lost in the wooded area of an otherwise busy state park. There was a time when people hiked off into the wilderness and simply lived off the land for months at a time. Now we aren’t sure what to do for one uncomfortable night and the thought of being forced to fills us with fear.
But adventure is just hardship that ends well.
And do you know what my children ask for every time we go out for a family day? A hike at Mahoney State Park.
I haven’t quite had the courage to go back. But when we do, it will be with a flashlight and a cell phone.
Please visit my fellow homeschool bloggers who are talking about Exploring Our World this week:
Note: all links will be LIVE by Monday 1/23 at noon EST.
Notebooking Our Way through History by Susan @ Homeschooling Hearts & Minds
Studying the Where and How by Michele@Family, Faith and Fridays
The History of Our Mysterious Struggle With History by Laura @ Four Little Penguins
Social Science, Science and Exploring our World – Our Path by Joelle @ Homeschooling for His Glory
Learning History Through Fiction by Kristen @ Sunrise to Sunset
History in Our Homeschool by Amanda H @ Hopkins Homeschool
Exploring Our World Through History And Science by Laura @ Day by Day in Our World
Bringing History to Life! by Yvie @ Gypsy Road
History, Living Books and the Imagination by Sarah @ Delivering Grace
Exploring our world comes in many different forms. by Kim @ Good Sweet Love
Bible, History and Geography by Lizzy @ Peaches At Home
Beyond the Books – Social Studies and Science by Shecki @ Greatly Blessed
Exploring the World with Living Books by Brittney @ Mom’s Heart
High School History & Science without Textbooks by Christy @ Unexpected Homeschool
Exploring the World Starting with Canada by Annette @ A Net in Time
Visit The World Through Video by Lori H @ At Home: where life happens
Nature Study is Our Favorite Way to Do Science by HillaryM @ Walking Fruitfully
What A Wonderful World by Kym @ Homeschool Coffee Break
The Time we got Lost in the Woods by Dana Hanley @ Roscommon Acres
What a World by Jennifer King @ Worth A Bowed Head