The columnist's family on vacation (Photo/Julie Levine)
The columnist's family on vacation (Photo/Julie Levine)

With my family, in nature, I find a special balance

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Samuel and I used to walk in the Presidio a couple of days a week after preschool. We’d find trees that had fallen, and we’d sit by their roots. We’d find the best bugs by the roots and the most interesting dirt and small pine cones that we’d bring back home.

When the kids were 4 and 6, we visited Yosemite National Park. We meandered through some trails, strolled through the easiest walks closest to the entrance to the park. The kids’ little hands fit into the palms of ours, and we held on to them as they admired the beauty around them.

A few years forward, we are at the Grand Teton National Park with our 6- and 8-year-old. There, along Jenny Lake, formed 12,000 years ago by glaciers, we took our first “official” family hike. We played word games to pass the time. Made up silly songs. Ate our homemade trail mix and wolfed down our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

On that same trip in Yellowstone National Park, we saw Old Faithful shoot high. We saw bison, moose and even a few bears. A beaver dam fascinated all of us. We marveled at the colorful hot springs.

In Glacier National Park we learned about the impact of global warming on the glaciers, something Sophie still talks about today. The kids got their junior ranger badges (thrilling!). We also drove the Going to the Sun Road teetering on the edge as we climbed. We saw bighorn sheep that looked like something from one of the kids’ old picture books. Once at the top we were surrounded by 15 feet of snow and blazing sunshine. It was June. We threw snowballs at each other while laughing, full belly laughs.

When the kids were 8 and 10, we hiked Observation Point Trail in Zion National Park — a strenuous, eight-mile climb that took half the day. The orange-red rocks matched our fiery determination to make it to the top. And at the 2,100 feet summit, we felt victorious.

And this past July, with our two high schoolers, we spent time in Acadia National Park. We climbed Dor Mountain, with its narrow cliffs. The rocks were slippery from a morning rain. It was a tricky climb in parts, but Samuel steadied me, grabbing my hand, his bigger than mine now, to pull me up. At the 1,100-foot peak, the views were incredible.

Wallace Stegner, the great American writer and environmentalist, said, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Our visits to the national parks have always been our favorite vacations. Spending quality time in nature puts us back together again. It restores us. Our cellphones stay in our daypacks; We don’t check our email, Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook.

There’s no place for politics on these hikes; there are no schedules or endless to-do lists to worry about. And, thankfully, there’s nothing for me to nag the kids about. The daily grind of moving ahead or falling behind does not exist here. Being in the moment and connecting to each other and the natural world take center stage. Everything else falls away.

I’m still thinking about how to think about God in my life, but I know on these visits I feel God’s presence — in the pine cones and the roots, in the summit views and the slippery rocks, in the bighorn sheep, and a beaver dam, and in tiny hands that once fit in mine now suddenly pulling me up a rocky trail.

Anne Frank wrote, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. And I firmly believe that nature brings solace in all troubles.”

Sometimes resetting the balance in our lives isn’t so complicated.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.