The woods are my home. I drive down windy lanes in search of a new spot. Anticipating breathtaking scenery, animal encounters, and the chance to forget what year it is as my family rides along. I know there will be ticks and mosquitoes. This is their land. No matter how we carve up the earth, all the creatures inhabiting it are relentless.
Our latest couple of trips were linked together. An avid reader and a bit of a writer myself, I am fond of Mark Twain and eager to explore his legacy. As a Missouri Native I live between the most famous parks in his honor. About three hours north of Saint Louis is Mark Twain State Park. Just over three hours south is Mark Twain National Forest. Last summer my husband and children graciously accompanied me to both.
We first camped in a compact cabin at the State Park. We drove away from civilization. Past a few small towns. My internal compass played tricks on me and I got us lost for a stretch of vaporous road, but once we reached our destination I was free.
Our cabin held one bedroom and a living room complete with a small dining area, table, couch, and attic room for the children to sleep in.
Once upon a time my husband and I journeyed on these adventures by ourselves. We enjoyed the solitude of getaways, but with having children comes a desire to impart your interests on them.
Taking my kids swimming in rivers and lakes as the water ripples sparkle against ocean blue skies is about as good as it gets for me. My husband likes sitting by a fire and listening to the night creatures. The morning after our first night on this particular trip I took the little kids on a hike through the forest. We found bird’s feathers, lizards, and rocks shaped like people.
Deer tracks lay fresh in the mud between patches of scraggly grass and shady moss carpeting. I bent down to show the kids which direction the animal was going. Then I explained why we keep our distance from wild animals. “It’s fun seeing them. But they are territorial. We need to always proceed with caution because this is their home. We are guests here. ”
“What if we find an injured animal?” My eldest asked.
“Or if I catch a bunny and it wants a hug?” My middle child grinned at the idea.
I giggled to myself as my one year old grabbed a stick and slapped the path in front of us. “There are times when we might need to help, but they’re rare. And if you find any cartoon bunnies hopping around here, you can hug it, but the real ones need their space to eat and take care of their families.”
We turned back and took another trail. This one led to the water’s edge and we sat on a rocky hill overlooking it. We tossed stones in for fun. Something shined in the corner of my eye. I glanced over and couldn’t ignore the glint of a beer can. It lay fallen over and half crushed like it had a rough night.
“Eww.” My middle child bunched up her face.
My eldest asked, “Why do people litter?”
“Not everyone cares. Sometimes people mean to grab their trash and miss a piece. I got up and grabbed the can. “It doesn’t matter how this got here. All that matters is that we care and we do something about it.”
Every trip answers more of my children’s life questions. They gift me the escape I need to be in my own head for a while and philosophize.
The rest of the trip presented no issues.
Our stay at the Mark Twain State park offered fresh air, sunshine, and a deeper connection with nature and a legendary author whom I respect, so when I got the opportunity to pack everyone up and head out for Mark Twain National Forest a couple of months later, I nearly exploded with excitement.
Its vast expanses left a lot to be explored. Just getting to the northern area in Huzza was a trip for us. Snaking down the two-lane highway into the forest, blackened trunks and dusty bark stared out from areas where wildfires had breathed their flaming course, but greenery thrived. More leaves than anyone could count waved with a light breeze.
Another clear skied day let the sun beam down.
For me, getting there is an experience. I don’t mind losing our way. It’s the easiest method to finding strange towns with old shops and homey restaurants, but most everywhere we go has some kind of signage that guides us where we need to be eventually.
This day-trip grew longer than intended when I realized I’d left my road map at home and the GPS kept going offline thanks to a lack of phone signals. My husband grew annoyed, but I just breathed deep and rested my hand out the window. “We’ll find an entrance eventually.”
This is my take on travel. No matter how lost I have been, or how turned around we get, we always find our bearings. Time could tick forever. I didn’t have any appointments or work to do. It was my day off. Getting lost in nature held a timeless charm.
We drove and we drove. The trees thinned for gravel roads to the right and left at random intervals. Some led to houses, some twisted into emerald seas.
“Why aren’t there any signs?” I asked.
My husband shook his head. “Because it’s a National Forest…”
I laughed. “Whatever.” We eventually found a small wood sign for a fishing pond. Where there was fishing, there would be hiking trails I was sure.
We pulled into the small parking area and got out.
“Just lovely.” My husband gawked at the trash surrounding our car. Plastic bottles, bags, wrappers, and more junk littered the grass.
“Maybe Someone accidentally dropped a bag of trash on their way out?” I shrugged.
We got the kids out of the car. After the long drive they itched to run ahead and find new hidden wonders. There was a single path leading toward the pond. A few trees shade it. We went under them as if entering a new world. I scanned the trees and marveled at the contrast of green and blue over my head.
The path opened up and the trees stayed behind as if to say, “No thanks,” and with good reason. All around the pond were blackened remains of camp fires surrounded by garbage. Cigarette butts swam in the water. A soda bottle stuck up in the reeds as if planted there.
“How charming.” My husband’s sarcasm didn’t lighten the mood. “Welcome to a garbage park.”
To my left a quaint wooden bridge sat. On the rail a can of soda rested overlooking torn plastic bags that lie along the slight drop-off below. “Looks like trash pond.” I joked to make myself feel better, but it didn’t work.
My stomach tightened. My chest heaved with remorse.
How could anyone do this?
My children gaped at the mess. “Why do people litter?” My eldest asked again like she had when we found a single piece of trash left behind on our camping trip.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” was all I could say. “I really don’t know.” I was all out of lessons. The amount of litter was more than I’d ever encountered in any kind of park of woodland area. It left me in shock.
To our right a path led around the water and into the surrounding woods. “Maybe it’s better that way.”
“I don’t know.” My husband turned and led us down the narrow footpath.
Tall grasses brushed against my legs, then opened up to a larger campfire area. It too was cluttered with junk. We walked around the garbage, staring in disbelief.
We kept going and the trail led away from the tarnished water. I stepped on a flattened water bottle and cringed. “This is ridiculous.”
The further we went the less trash we found. Another bridge greeted us. We walked across to find another bank. The pond was really a lake that curved around the landscape.
“Huzzah!” My husband smirked.
I spotted the sign he was referring to and rolled my eyes. According to the faded letters, we were at Huzzah Lake. The joke was definitely lost on us. The path got muddier and muddier.
We circled around and headed back in the direction we came as the path looped. In between the trees on either side of us were tissues and plastic bottles. The closer we got to the entrance the worse it got.
“We’re out of bags in the car, aren’t we?” I tried to keep something in the car for cleanup duty, but hadn’t needed it in so long we had nothing.
“Yep.” My husband stomped back to the van.
I imagined it would take a lot of cleaning to get the area back to normal. We were all disappointed, hot, and tired, but the thought of just leaving that mess was heartbreaking.
My daughter spotted a big Duracell battery half buried in the dirt and I clenched my teeth.
She complained about the mess. My husband grumbled to himself. The two little ones didn’t say much.
The trip was a disaster.
We got to the van and strapped the kids in. Their faces mourned the loss of ideological fun.
I was so mad I couldn’t leave. I started picking up whatever trash I could carry, cups, lids, bottle caps, plastic wrappers. Then I found a couple of plastic bags in tact enough to hold the garbage. My husband stared at me knowing I needed to do this alone.
I cleaned up the parking area then marched down the path. I didn’t care if it was the remnants of a party a couple of teenagers had decided to have over the weekend. I didn’t care if it was a selfish fifty year old fisherman who was mad at the system. Their mess became my problem. Blaming whoever left it behind wouldn’t fix anything. Solutions were all I sought.
After twenty minutes of hot-headed cleaning (with an internal dialogue that I’m not proud of), the place looked like a natural area again. I had filled two bags to the brim and was mad enough to give twenty-five school lectures.
Instead I walked back to the van, put the trash in the trunk, and got us out of there. I clutched the wheel ready to flee home.
“Are you okay?” my husband asked.
It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my day being ruined, or my children missing out on something I had wished to share with them. It was about the wildlife affected by careless acts. It was the plants that grew around trash and my children’s perception of the world they live in.
My anger cooled when my daughters told me they wanted to help pick up the trash. The one year old cooed as if agreeing.
“I want you kids to understand that no matter what other people do, we have to protect these areas. Sometimes that means picking up after others. It sucks and it’s not right. Unfortunately that is the world we live in right now.”
My husband patted my shoulder. “And you made it a little better today.”
I forced out a smile but my entire body stuck to my seat as if it were weighted down. I wondered if the people who trashed that area were one group or numerous individuals. That made me question what kinds of lives they led and if they themselves had children.
Our actions are the loudest messages we send to future generations. The entire reason I bring my children with me on trips to city, state, and national parks is so they understand how connected the world truly is. I originally envisioned going both the Mark Twain State Park and the National Forest to find pristine woodland areas traversed by conservationists and nature lovers like myself. Reality reminded me of why teaching my children about caring for the planet isn’t just about adventure, but a necessity.
Looking back now, I can’t say I am glad for the different experiences, but I do see the value in these contrasting visits.
Our camping trip held all the joys most people think of when speaking about family road trips. It offered a perfect setting for education outside of the classroom.
The painful lessons displayed by the grungy day-trip were harsh, but have a lasting impact. They are a perfect example of our immediate effects on the habitats we inhabit.
My family knows the world is not perfect. They see evidence of that fact every day. No matter what we come across, our goal is always to be respectful visitors and do what we can to make sure that these areas remain beautiful and wild.
We cannot control what others do, but we can act as needed. It’s a never ending assignment with one mission: to raise a healthy planet.