This past weekend I had the opportunity to connect with my wife's family and friends near Cougar, Washington for a family camping trip. My wife has been going with her family to the same campsite for nearly 25 years with the same family friends. I was struck by the history of their camping trips and noted their level of closeness around the campfire, on the water, and in the forest. Although I know these two families to be close, I have always noted the level of community between them on the camping trips. This level of Community Connectedness that people experience together in nature has been found previously in the scientific literature, both through quantitative and qualitative measures, but I am always struck by the level of closeness I observe and experience while in natural settings.
As part of their family camping trip, my wife's family has always gone on a 4 hour hike that includes visiting a natural spring at the headwaters of a creek. What makes this hike even more special is the memory of a specific family friend that used to love the hike, but is no longer with us. In his absence each year, the families have found several rocks at the natural springs to add to a cairn (i.e., a stack of rocks) to mark the beginning of the trail.
Typically, my wife's father leads the trip. This year, he was unable to go, which meant that several of us would have to find it on our own. The directions included "go up two hills and two flat sections on the old logging road; the first trail will be off to the right; and, if you get to the end you've gone too far but if you do that, cut straight through the trees to the right." The second set of directions included, "Once you are on the trail you'll go about 200 yards. On the left you'll find a cairn and you'll take that trail, which will get you to the creek bed that leads to the springs." [How about those directions?!]
All 6 or so of us went over the directions to make sure we were on the same page. Once we agreed on one or two interpretations of the directions, we hit the old logging road and went up and over three hills and three flat sections, not seeing our trail. My wife, who had been on the trail over a dozen times, was convinced that we had not hit the trail yet. So, despite the directions, as a group we decided to keep going. Sure enough, after one more hill and a curve in the road, we found the trail! That felt good. So, we hit the trail and after about a quarter mile we found a few toppled over rocks (figuring the cairn had fallen over since last year) and a trail on the left. Thinking we had already gone too far, we took the trail. After going a ways, several of us had the hunch that we had taken the wrong trail. After a bit of talking, we collectively decided to turn around. So, we headed back to the second portion of the trail. We decided we had gone too far, so we began heading back, this time walking slowly, keeping a close eye out for the cairn. Sure enough, after a 100 yards or so, we found the cairn! We took the trail, found the creek bed, took in the sights, and eventually found the spring gushing from the ground. After drinking some ice cold spring water, we filled our bottles, hand-selected several rocks to add to the cairn, and began the trek back. Once we got back up the hill, we added the rocks to the cairn. At that point, I experienced a great sense of closeness with my friends, our family, and to the dearly missed friend who I had never met.
Setting out and finding the trail that had been part of the family tradition for a quarter century was special for all of us. We accomplished something as a group and we connected over finding the trails, getting a touch lost, trusting each other enough to openly communicate in those moments, and add rocks to the cairn. I was touched by the level of closeness we each felt to one another and to the family's old friend on the trip. We also experienced a greater sense of community with the landscape, the trees, and a giant old growth Hemlock tree, not to mention several of the family members that could not make the trip. Upon returning to the camp, we were eager to share some of the ice cold spring water and a picture we took in front of the cairn. To me, the photo represented family, interconnectedness, and harmony.
Each family or group of friends is different. Accordingly, each experience in a natural environment will be different. The next time you go on a group hike, be clear about your expectations. Where are you going? About how many miles? How long will it take? Who is carrying the water? The snacks? If you get a little lost, slow down and talk about it. View such a moment as a way to enhance your communication, your friendship, and your commitment to one another. Be supportive and nurturing of one another, and take your time. It's not a race to the top; nature is something to experience together to deepen your sense of closeness to each other.
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