I’m quickly losing my kids to adulthood. In a very small way I’m looking to the freedom an empty-nester has, but the other 98 percent of my thinking tells me I’m exiting one of the best times of my life. I can say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every year I’ve had as the father of two children. They’ve given me and their mother joy, excitement, surprise and amazement, and lots and lots of laughs. I sometimes wonder what I’ve given them back.
Anyone who has ever been a parent knows it’s hard to find the balance between being the mature adult and sharing fun times with your children. You want to have laughs and fun and share in the lighthearted times … but trying to be just their friend without also being “the parent” is akin to letting the inmates run the asylum. When it comes time to enforce parameters and guidelines they often don’t want to listen to their “friend”.
But I’ve never wanted to just be the parent, either. I’m afraid that despite my best efforts I’ve spent too many days and in too many situations I’ve held strong to the parent role without also being a confidant. Several years ago we weren’t in a position to fly to vacation destinations, so that meant we drove to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, wherever we went. Driving long distances from home always made me nervous. Knowing how an internal combustion engine and other parts of a car works meant I was constantly listening for noises, feeling the grip on the steering wheel for vibrations, and glancing underneath the car at every stop for any signs of leaking fluids. If it broke down three states from home my kids and wife would make the most of sitting it out in a hotel room while I found a towing service, a mechanic, and figured out how to pay for an expensive repair a 1,000 miles from home.
I’m glad to say through nearly 20 years of taking the family on vacations to the ocean many times and other places that we never had as much as a flat tire. On one of our first trips to Florida our car, which had just gone out of warranty a couple weeks earlier, began smelling funky and the passenger side carpet started taking on warm water. Suspecting the heater core (located behind the dash) was leaking, I spent a miserable week of checking the antifreeze every day and knowing the thing was going to break down on us at any moment along the highway in the July heat. It was only after we made it back home safely and I replaced the hard-to-reach part and the problem immediately returned that I discovered a little rubber drain hose had built up a layer of road dirt and plugged, causing condensation to leak onto the carpet. My Florida vacation had been ruined by parental worry, while I tried to not let my concern show to our children … but I suspect they could tell something was awry.
Eventually we opted to fly to our out-of-state vacation destinations and I discovered an entirely new world of worry-free travel. Nowadays I drive to the airport and park in the big parking lot. I leave the transportation up to the airline pilot and crew and never worry once about if the car will break down and I’ll have to get it fixed to get back home. If the airplane breaks down, either 1) the airline can put me on another flight, or 2) it really won’t matter to me afterward, will it! For me, flying on vacations has made it possible to actually enjoy the time away with my wife and children. I can focus my attention on the sights and experiences and being with the people I care about the most. I’m more relaxed, and can focus on making great memories.
To that end, some of the best memory-making vacations and day trips I’ve had with my children have been at state parks and conservation areas close to home. With no travel to worry about, no itineraries to keep, and not feeling guilty about spending too much money, looking back now I see that I was often more relaxed and could just let go and have a good time hiking, playing catch, swimming or fishing, and introducing my children to these beautiful Ozark mountains and valleys, rivers and creeks.
This past Thursday the guest speaker for the monthly Farmington Chamber of Commerce luncheon was Janet Price, a naturalist based at Johnsons Shut-Ins in Reynolds County. She shared a video showcasing the state parks of the region including Johnsons Shut-Ins, Elephant Rocks, Taum Sauk and Sam A. Baker. She talked about Black River, Big Creek and other area landmarks. Having grown up about halfway between Sam A. Baker State Park and Black River, I had been to the majority of trails, swimming holes, historic buildings and landmarks shown in the film. Growing up I also wandered through, over and past countless similar-looking valleys, vistas and waterways held in private ownership, but every bit as majestic.
Price encouraged the attendees at the luncheon to make sure their children were introduced to the rich “antiquity” that is the Ozarks. Her statement made me take a mental inventory of where I had taken my children over the years and if they’ll remember those trips as pleasant and a part of their heritage. It also made me think that someday my job as a grandpa will also include introducing the next generation to the best the Ozarks has to offer. I want this beautiful part of the world to become at least part of their heritage, too.
As a young man, before I became a dad, I foolishly often said I wanted to just skip having kids and move directly on to grandkids. I’m glad my life doesn’t follow my ill-made plans. Some of the best times of my past two decades have been spent outdoors with my children right here at home in the Missouri Ozarks. We truly live in a gem of a region. Make a point to show it to your children and grandchildren. After all, it’s part of their heritage.
Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat. ( … and hates it when he gets so busy he can’t see the forest for the trees.)