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It was June 2011, one of many mornings over the course of our six-week road trip when I woke up smiling in a tent. 

Two moms, four kids, one rented minivan, and no electronics allowed. Months had been spent researching favorite camping spots, haunted hotels, and the best hikes for kids across the western states.

Amazon was my go-to for car games, and the folks at REI were my friendly counterparts, filled with ideas to make it fun for the kids. Every child had their own CamelBak water bottle, whistles, national park passport books, and hiking poles (somewhere in Vegas lies one lost pole—I’ll never understand how that happened). The kids kept track of days on the road by marking our back window with paint.

This was a dream trip for me. My oldest was on his own, but I wanted my two younger sons, Carson and Christian, to learn from adventuring in nature and being on the open road. I agree with Richard Louv, author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle: “Kids can grow up fine without nature, but with it, there are marked improvements in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning ability, creativity, and mental, psychological, and spiritual health.”

My husband, at the time, was supportive and would meet us for the last two weeks, while my sister-in-law and her two kids, Grace and Jared, joined us for the start. Our family road trip taught us the fundamentals of survival and provided tools to push through life’s hard times. We faced long, difficult trails, fear of animals, cold nights, unpredictable weather, yet we woke up to watch sunrises with awe and wonder.

I remember being on a 10-mile trail in Glacier National Park. Christian’s little feet never quit walking, even when we were so tired. Beautiful flowers graced the mountainside, while snow covered the highest peaks. We finally arrived at our destination and found the clearest blue lake I’d ever seen. The kids were fascinated and spent hours throwing rocks in the water, watching the surface ripple. This discovery made the hard trail worth the effort.

It’s now nine years later, and though I knew the trip would be a life-changing experience, not even I could have foreseen the positive impact it would have on the kids’ lives.

Grace, age 12 at the time, had her first summit experience on Angels Landing in Zion National Park, a profound moment. Since then, she has logged hundreds of miles and climbed many mountains beside me, including a hike in the Grand Canyon at the age of 17 that proved to her that whatever obstacles life threw at her, she could overcome them. Carson and Jared, then age 10, learned to try new things as cousins and best friends. Christian turned five years old—and found his voice—on Angels Crest in Zion National Park. Together, all four kids learned what it is to trust yourself, to trust one another, and to respect the world around you. And all four of them have become independent, kind, free-spirited, empathetic humans leading adventurous lives in their own way.

Two years after this trip, in 2013, my boys had to face their biggest challenge when my marriage fell apart in a devastating way. We went through a season of completely redefining our family unit while facing life’s uncertainties.

How do you overcome such tragedy and know you will survive?
What do you do when you feel lost and don’t know which way to turn?
And how, when life is full of sadness and loss, do you find gratitude in what you have?

Thanks to the road trip, we had learned that life will have frustrating and disappointing moments, but we need to lean in to the experience and rely on one another every step of the way. Because of what we went through over the course of those weeks together, I knew we could get through our hardest time as a family.

And we did.

Nothing in life is certain. And this spring, when confronted with another challenge—the COVID-19 pandemic—I was dumbfounded by what my kids, niece, and nephew were having to face and miss out on. Graduations, basketball tournaments, Junior Olympics in water polo, and so much more. Our schedules and living conditions were turned upside down. Grace lived with us for seven weeks after her study abroad program in Spain abruptly ended.

Again, we redefined what a nuclear family looks like and realized that what’s important are the people who love and support us. With anxiety and pressure during these unpredictable days, I found it more vital than ever to infuse nature and old-school simplicity back into these young people’s lives. While following social distancing guidelines, we’ve found awe on hiking trails that remain open, including summiting the tallest peak in Southern California. We dug out the same games we used in 2011 and road tripped to poppy fields not far from home. And though my son had to give up water polo spring training with USC, we swam and stand-up paddleboarded with bioluminescents in the Pacific Ocean.

Society is pulling away from the very place—nature—where we “feel ultimately alive,” according to Louv. Many things in life we cannot control, but thankfully, we can always choose how we respond to what is handed to us.

During stress-filled times, let’s remember to get our kids into nature so they, too, can find peace, clarity, and simplicity—and be reminded what it is to live.

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