When I was a girl growing up in Houston- flat, hot, and humid for those of you who have never been- my family had a tendency to pile in the car and drive through the mountains of Tennessee and Virginia. Some of the best memories of my childhood involved looking out the big windows of our Ram eight-passenger as we passed Waffle Houses and uncountable big rigs, eventually giving way to rolling foothills and the breathtaking views of Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah Valley. Listening to Rich Mullins sing about the ways we know and experience our Creator through His creation gave me a deeper spiritual filling than most of what I got from church youth group, and I found myself transformed, as so many of us are, by the beauty I encountered.
But that was the 80’s and 90’s. It was, in a way, the end of an era of humankind, before "The Screens" overcame us. I don’t use that phrasing lightly. The internet has connected us, and informed us, and changed so much of the details in how we live our daily lives; it’s made so many things easier, hasn’t it? But the dreadful thing is that it promises to entertain us, occupy our eyes, and minds, and hearts, unceasingly for all time - evermore. We definitely aren’t equipped for this as a species, in the same way we’re not designed to live with easy limitless access to calorie dense foods, or live in a sea of antibacterial products, or have so many choices on Amazon Prime, for that matter. We are paralyzed and hypnotized and torpefied in the environment of our own making. I live every day trying to break free.
I wish I could write to report that these four precious treasures with which I’ve been entrusted have been carefully sheltered and shielded away with the thoughtful and consistent limits that “good” moms talk about. I wish that I wasn’t so overwhelmed by conversations about internet screening devices, and timers, and passwords, and monitoring services. I wish that I had my act together enough to spout off some brilliant master plan for four kids that like to fight over devices and shows. But I am not that mom. If you saw my trash mini-van or the state of my laundry room, you would quickly lose any doubts regarding my inability to “get it together” on any number of domestic fronts, screen time included.
The upshot of all this, is that in 2021, visiting Shenandoah National Park with my own kids proved to be… different. Andrew Peterson IS available on Spotify, and my husband’s new-ish Bluetooth enabled car let us enjoy a few random-order songs until we lost the signal. But my 13-year-old preferred her own playlist on her own laptop, shielded from the indignities of family life by a quality set of headphones. The disconnect isn’t new, in a way, I listened to Rich Mullins with my parents on the communal speakers, but it’s not like we actually talked to each other when I was that age. Still, I sensed from my oldest daughter Madelaine’s questions that the planned trip - a quaint local motel! A picnic! A short hike! didn’t quite compute in her native calculus of activities that constitute pleasurable human behavior.
“What are we DOING, exactly?” she kept asking. At the verge of adolescence, she’s witty and fun and more world-wise than I care to admit, always having been an old soul living life beyond her years. The old-school glory of time in a national park is an iffy proposition for her these days. (What will she tell her Tumblr followers…?) I have to admit, even in my own experience, stopping at the frequent overlooks along Skyline Drive didn’t seem to produce quite the “Wow!” factor they did when I was a kid. Maybe I can blame my year of living in Colorado, and being spoiled on the comparative height and majesty of the Rockies- a more benign interpretation than the likely truth, that my brain, too, has been rotted on years of endless shopping, endless scrolling. Shenandoah offers a stillness, a quieting, a simplicity that doesn’t seek to compete with modern frenzy; it doesn’t vie for our attention, instead presenting itself in silence- in peaceful indifference, even. It is passive, and therefore, we cannot be.
It was time to take our short, carefully selected, kid-friendly hike. Just as we pulled into the parking area, the first clap of thunder sounded. We’d been aware of the coming rain, but couldn’t quite time our journey to avoid it. Thankfully, to circumvent the ultimate horror of being bored, we were prepared with a great 18 minute podcast, something rather technical about the science of sound and speaking vs singing, and the hypothesis that early exposure to tonal languages could foster children’s music ability. We didn’t have podcasts in the 80’s; at one point on the trip, my daughter asked how we found information when we were kids. How did we look things up? I tried to explain World Book Encyclopedia. “That seems so limited,” she said.
The thunderstorms passed, leaving strong breezes, ambivalent clouds, and dripping trees that my kids interpreted as possible threats. We have dry clothes in the car, we reassured them. Amazingly, humans do not dissolve in water. We asked the questions that nature-loving parents intuitively think of: What do you hear and see? What do you smell? What do you think that bird is trying to communicate? Genevieve, my 6-year-old, narrowed in on one of the questions from her Junior Ranger booklet: “Do you see any places that might be a bear den?” Every bear-sized stretch of rocks was loudly proclaimed a bear hibernation site, her thinking primed, no doubt, by the talk on bears we had attended that morning. My oldest daughter tromped along in her typical compliance, her only complaint that she shouldn’t have used her inhaler so early in the day, having been misinformed that our hike would be close to breakfast time.
The promised rocky vista eventually materialized, thanks exclusively to my husband’s ability to follow simple trail directions. He and I both know that if it were up to me, we should surely perish wandering the woods in circles. A lovely group of young adults were at the lookout point just ahead of us (After reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s books about the Indian-American immigrant experience, I can’t help but smile inside every time I see Indian-American or Middle Eastern families enjoying our national and state parks. They’re doing this right, I think. It’s totally irrational but it just makes me happy to see women hiking in hijab.) Of course I pulled the oldest trick in the book: offer, unsolicited, to take a picture of their whole group, so that they would offer to take ours. The pictures of all six of us have been too few and far between over the years: a kid is always grumpy or crying, we can’t seem to manage to hold still and look at the camera all at once. I must mention, in passing, a family with which I am distantly acquainted on Facebook, whose SIX children have appeared in perfectly posed pictures with coordinated outfits consistently over many years. Their hair is styled, their radiant smiles revealing nothing but domestic bliss. (I assume the use of controlled substances.)
I snapped the picture of the young adults quickly, and Nate handed his phone to them, but then the real trouble began: Alden, age 8, began to struggle with the mind games of feeling insecure on the blustery, rocky cliff. There was plenty of solid footing available, and I was simultaneously irritated that we were holding up our patient photographer, and sympathetic to his panic. I, too, have found myself irrationally unsure of footing. Later on the path, he confided that he thought the wind would literally blow him off the mountain. He’s huge for his age, tall and at least 80 lbs. Kids grow large and sturdy and strong before their brains catch up, sometimes.
The picture complete, we set off for the trek down. We were happy to be dry and wind-blown and alive, and together, and my patient, skeptical Madelaine asked her Daddy to please send her the pictures. “That was EPIC,” she said, the highest praise a flannel-shirt wearing, guitar-strumming 13 year old can offer. “I loved being in that place, and I want to remember it.” And in that moment, I knew… "The Screens" haven’t quite won yet.