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In Our Own Backyard...Walking through the woods of my childhood

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My husband and I went to visit my mom last weekend. It’s something we’ve done hundreds, probably thousands, of times before. But every time we do, it seems important to me to try to get out and walk the same trails I did as a youngster growing up there.

We moved to that house when I was about to start kindergarten, and I lived there until I went away to college. The woods and trails around our rural family home became dearly familiar to me over those many years — and have remained even more so since I left. They hold a lot of memories, and each spring, summer, fall and winter I look forward to seeing the changing of the seasons along those same trails I hiked as a youngster.

There is one special trail that winds through the woods and eventually ends up at a scenic, rocky point overlooking the river. When I was very young I can recall my parents planning a surprise picnic there for a group of their friends. When the friends arrived at their house for dinner, no one was at the house. Instead, there was a clue, telling them to go across the road to the dam on the river and look in a certain spot for the next clue. That clue led them across the dam to another spot on the opposite side, where the next clue was hidden. The clues led them down the shady path through the woods, through a lush setting of ferns and wildflowers, and eventually to the rocky point above the river. There, my mom and dad had set up the picnic dinner. It was fun to watch each of the invited guests finally make their way through the woods to the final destination, with looks of both consternation and excitement on their faces, and it became a memorable experience that all of us talked about for a long time to come.

My dad taught me about the plants and trees that grew along that path, and my mom taught me about the birds that filled the treetops and how to recognize them by their songs.

I brought friends (and even a boyfriend or two) there as a teenager, and I once rode my horse out to the point as well.

I can also remember going to that same scenic overlook the day our dog died to spend time alone dealing with my grief.

And, that special spot was the last place I hiked the day before I went away to college, leaving home for the first time and heading to the big city of Minneapolis all on my own. That is also the place I have always returned to on subsequent visits home, eventually bringing my own children there to discover its magic.

It has always been important to me to take that hike as often as I can when we return home to visit my mom. In the fall, I go there to see the autumn color and walk through the fallen leaves. In the spring, that’s where I hunt for the first wildflowers. In the summer, I watch the loons and ducks in the river and photograph the dragonflies and butterflies as they flit through the forest. In the winter, my husband and I go there on our cross country skis.

The last time I had been there earlier this spring, there were still traces of snow in the woods and the landscape was barren and brown. It was fun to thread my way through the woods during last weekend’s warm, sunny weather and photograph the first birds and flowers of springtime. When I arrived at the rocky point above the river, I discovered that some other hiker had left a burned out campfire and built a makeshift bench out of notched logs that hadn’t been there before. Someone else had carelessly tossed an empty water bottle on the ground and left it behind. And though I knew it was a public trail, I instantly felt resentful that someone else was treading on “my” private space. I picked up the water bottle and tucked it into my camera case to throw away after I got back, and I spent a few minutes staring out over the river watching the mallards move about and a beaver swim to the other side with just the tip of its nose sticking out of the water.

I realized that my parents had instilled a very precious gift in me — a love and appreciation of the outdoors and all of the special enjoyment that goes along with it. I hope that we’ve succeeded in passing that special gift along to our own grandchildren. I know for a fact that their memories of visits to our house won’t be filled with exciting competitions on the Wii or Xbox, since we don’t own either. They won’t likely remember us for trips to the mall or afternoons at the movies, since we live too far out of town to conveniently go to either.

I hope instead they’ll remember the times they’ve spent at our house digging worms in the garden for fishing, collecting monarch butterfly caterpillars on the milkweed, building fairy houses in stumps and the bases of tree trunks, and creating sand castles supported by buttresses of twigs and circled by moats of dandelions.

I hope they’ll remember the special fishing hole at the other end of the lake, the “sweet spot” at the end of the dock where they can jump in without touching bottom and the trail through the woods where they once spied a “brown wolf” (which of course turned out to be a deer).

The trails we travel throughout our lifetime take us off in many different directions. But the trails we learn to love during our childhood will remain forever special in our hearts and minds.