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Matters of Life and Steph: “Go Take a Hike”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote “shortcuts make long delays.” Never was that statement truer than on a camping trip when I was ten years old.

One of the beautiful things about childhood is that most kids live from moment to moment. I don’t know about you, but when I was young, my biggest goals were to maximize fun and minimize responsibility. I very rarely worried about the what if’s. That was for grown-ups!

But sometimes, a good situation can quickly turn bad, particularly when you aren’t careful. And if there’s ever a place to be extra careful, it’s when you’re surrounded by nature.

The life lesson I learned on that fateful camping trip when I was ten: when you take shortcuts in life, you might get cut short. While there’s something to be said about finding efficiencies, very rarely does cutting corners pay off.

Here’s my cautionary tale…

Nature’s call

Camping was one of my favorite trips to take when I was little.

The camping spot that we went to the most was called the Esopus Creek in Phoenicia, New York. Having just looked up the correct spelling, I have now realized that the place has nothing to do with soap. It’s just pronounced that way. Whoops.

…Anyway…going to the Esopus Creek typically meant three or four days of fishing, swimming, boating, and sometimes tubing. Camping also meant “roughing it.” A bathing suit could be your outfit for the day. Sometimes a dip in the water counted as a shower. Toothbrushing was allowed outside our campsite to avoid the ick-factor of the spidery bathrooms. Camping was intense. (Or should I say “in tents”? Yes, I had to make that joke.)

Though my dad was a city boy from Brooklyn, thankfully, there had been a New York City chapter of the Boy Scouts. That meant he was an expert outdoorsman. I am grateful that we never had the drama of a leaky tent or a tent that collapsed in the middle of the night. 

My mother, on the other hand, haled from the suburbs of Brookline, Massachusetts. Camping probably wasn’t her top choice for a getaway weekend.  

I can only imagine how annoying it was for my freakishly organized mom to prepare for three days without a full kitchen. (As someone who followed in her overpacking footsteps, I think that’s why adult-me now only like glamping. It’s much more enjoyable when someone else does all the hard work.)

The s’more the merrier

To me, one of the best parts about camping was the food. It was the one time of year when we had corn muffins from a package rather than home baked. Even better, my mom suspended her health consciousness and bought us liquid butter from a squeeze bottle. Thank you, shelf stable butter g-ds.  Those deliciously salty, buttery corn muffins were the ultimate flavor of camping for me. I also didn’t mind the hotdogs and hamburgers, but we already ate those foods at home. To this day, I’m a firm believer that everything automatically tastes better when its cooked outside. 

Another great thing about camping was that we went with other families. My parents go-to social circle, not surprisingly, included children who were close in age to my sister and me. Camping was the most fun when we went with one of our favorite families, the A’s. Their daughter, J, was a year older than my sister. J was like the big sister we never had. Whatever J suggested that we do, we readily agreed. My sister and I were like two puppy dogs. It goes without saying that adventure followed J wherever she went.

There was also another set of kids our own age, A and M. While we enjoyed A and M’s company, no one was as interesting and creative as J was.

One day—the second day of this life lesson camping trip—all the children had gone swimming. After we tired of swimming, J decided that us kids should go back to the campsite and change. Our parents all agreed that we could walk back on our own.

Since it was the early 80s, there was no such thing as having a cell phone. We were truly off the grid.

Ahhh. Freedom felt amazing. What could possibly go wrong?

Snake in the grass

As we trudged along the road, J had a great idea. 

“Let’s take a shortcut over that hill,” she said. She pointed to a small sloping hill that would presumably lead us right to our campsite. All the kids immediately agreed. Who wouldn’t want a shortcut…even though we were in absolutely no rush for anything? We had no idea our shortcut would soon cut short the fun we were all having. 

We followed J as she marched up a leafy hill. I remember the crunching sound the plants and viny underbrush made under our feet. I wasn’t focused on anything else except keeping up with the group. We were having a great time, singing songs both made up and real, and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.

But then, as we neared the top of the hill, A suddenly shouted: “Snake! Snake! There’s a snake!”

Upon later reflection, no one else had actually heard the noise that had triggered A’s alleged snake sighting. But in that moment, we didn’t need to be warned twice. 

Quite a spectacle

“Ruuuuuuunnnnnnn,” J shouted. She booked down the hill. We all followed, running for our lives.

I ran as fast as my ten-year-old legs would take me. As luck would have it, I tripped over a rock. I tumbled down to the ground. Thanks to the momentum of the hill, I rolled over a few times until I eventually came to a stop.

Thankfully, I wasn’t hurt. However, when I sat up, I realized that I’d lost my glasses. And without my glasses, I was basically blind.

For any of you who are glasses wearers, you know that glasses are your lifeline. Particularly if you’re like me and are incredibly nearsighted. My glasses then and now are basically high-powered telescopes. Not those casual “my kid can’t see the board” kind of spectacles. In other words, my field of vision basically extends to about two inches in front of my face.  

I patted the ground around me, hoping that maybe my glasses were nearby. The thick, viny, crunchy sounding underbrush turned out to be the greatest camouflage-r of glasses.

“I lost my glasses!” I yelled to the group. Since I couldn’t see much, I didn’t realize that they’d already gathered around me.

My sister gave me a hand up. J brushed me off. Then, we all spent a good deal of time looking around for my lost glasses. At least ten minutes. 

The search, as you can guess, came up fruitless. My fun was instantly cut short. And now I was basically blind.

Unhappy camper

J, in her infinite wisdom, suggested that we mark the spot for where I’d fallen.

“We can come back later with our parents,” she said. That seemed like a wise idea. I think M volunteered his sock to use as a landmark.

Now, one pair of glasses and one sock lighter, we made our way back to the campsite. This time, we took the road.

The walk back to our tent was gloomy and depressing. And quite blurry.

No matter how hard I squinted, I couldn’t see a darn thing. Thankfully, my sister guided me, dutifully calling out when rocks or sticks were in my path. I was grateful for her help. 

For me, the cost of J’s shortcut was that my carefree weekend of fun had been cut short. My world had suddenly been reduced to colors, sounds, and blobs.

Blind faith

I waited anxiously for my parents to come back to the campsite. I wasn’t eager to tell them I’d lost the one thing my mother hadn’t thought to pack an extra pair of.

It was decided that we’d all go back to the spot to try and locate my missing glasses. I had extremely high hopes that my glasses would be recovered by the older and wiser grown-ups.

But once we returned to the approximate location of our snake sighting, we learned another valuable lesson about missing objects: if you’re going to lose something, it’s best that you don’t lose them in a big cluster of shrubbery.

Not only didn’t we find my glasses, but we also never found M’s placeholder sock. After that, the next few days were a blur. (Sorry, I had to.)

For the next forty-eight hours, I was resigned to basically being blind. An otherwise carefree weekend of fun had been abruptly cut short.

Making a spectacle of oneself

I distinctly recall feeling incredibly lonely without my glasses. I no longer shared what others were seeing. Instead, my camping experiences became about sounds and smells. Temporarily losing my vision had a profound impact on me. I didn’t appreciate how dependent I was on my glasses for more than just vision. My glasses were a vehicle for observing the world and connecting with others.

I’m sure that I felt a surge of gratitude when I got home and put on an old pair of glasses. While I felt fortunate that my vision loss was only temporary, I have never truly shaken that feeling of isolation. Perhaps it was J’s shortcut that made me appreciate how quickly the life that we’re accustomed can be cut short.

In truth, shortcuts are part of human nature. Who wouldn’t want things to be easier, faster, or better? That’s why I haven’t sworn off all shortcuts in life. But it’s important to recognize that you should carefully consider how and why you’re approaching a shortcut, and whether it will likely lead to the desired result. My advice is to follow your instincts. Be smart if you choose a shortcut. That was the tough lesson I learned when I lost my glasses on that camping trip.

I also realized that maybe it was time to try out contact lenses.

Have you ever taken a shortcut that turned out well? How about a shortcut that didn’t? Please share your experiences with me in the comments section.

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