Ten years ago, when our kids were 4 and 2 years old, my wife, Sarah, and I bought a simple 5-by-8-inch artist sketchbook. It’s the kind you find in art supply stores, with the hard black cover and stiff paper inside. It is a good, sturdy little book, and we decided to make it a family trip journal that we would all write in during family adventures.
We got the idea for keeping a group trip journal when we led trail crews for the Student Conservation Association (SCA). One of the defining parts of SCA was that the crew leaders—us—would provide a journal in which the teenage crew would write during the 30-day trail-work hitch. Journal writing was part of the daily rotation of chores, along with getting drinking water, packing up our trail lunches, and doing dishes in camp.
The journals were filled with daily impressions from all of the crew, as well as drawings, maps, inside jokes, lists of books to read, bands to get into, and places to go. When the experience was over and everyone was safely back home, we would make a copy of the journal and send it to all of the crew members as a holiday gift. We treasured our SCA trip journals, so once we had kids of our own (our own little trail crew), we decided to continue the tradition by starting a family trip journal.
Now, that little sketchbook we bought 10 years ago has some stories to tell. It has worn in and softened after years of paddling and backpacking trips, getting dropped in Central American markets and on countless beaches, toted along on bike trips in Maine and North Carolina. The edges are frayed; there are more than a couple of coffee stains; and the binding has started to come loose. But the memories contained within are rock solid.
Here’s a little gem of an entry from our son, Jackson, then 13. It was the first night of our family’s first bike touring trip in Maine. My memories of that day have been a little whitewashed, as I only remember the rocky outcroppings, the blue water, the abundant sunshine, and the sense of freedom of being on the road under our own power. Jackson’s realism brings me back down to earth.
Starting from the parking lot of the carwash yesterday I felt excited to start our trip. It took Papa and Tasha a while to find a parking spot where they could leave the van for five days, but they asked around and we parked behind a dumpy carwash, one of the only places we were allowed to park. It took us a while to get going due to some crying and grumpy attitudes. Once we got going though, everybody had smiles on their faces.
I thumb through the journal on this cold and blustery November day, and my heart is warmed with memories of time spent outdoors with my family: impressions of a loon calling out over our campsite onUmbagog Lake; a timeline of our hectic first three days travelling through Nicaragua; long lists of foods tasted in Peru; hand-drawn maps of islands we camped on in Maine; lyrics from songs we wrote together while deliriously passing the time on bike touring trips; jokes we told around countless campfires. There are packing lists, menus, card game scores, pressed leaves, and lists of things to do. There are travel itineraries, bus and ferry tickets, and scavenger hunts.
Which brings me to today. As Thanksgiving and the holidays approach, we’re all planning trips to the store to stock up on provisions and packing our bags to see friends and family. Soon we’ll be gathered together to celebrate the holiday season. It’s a nostalgic time, when we pause life’s hectic pace to name what we’re thankful for and what matters to us, to pull close the ones we love.
Beyond this usual season of reminiscence, I’ve found myself a little more nostalgic lately. As I turn 40 this month, I’m taking stock of my first 40 years and making plans for my next 40. You reach this arbitrary, yet symbolic, halfway point in life and you can’t help but begin to ponder the big things, the connections between us, the goals accomplished, the dreams yet to come, the things you’ve been meaning to do, the meaning of it all. I don’t have any answers to the big questions of life, but there is one thing I do know: The memories in this little journal are the most valuable and prized possessions I could ever ask for.
Your family’s own trip journal doesn’t have to be anything fancy—just a simple, sturdy book that will travel well. Write with a good pen; keep it in a ziplock bag when you’re outside; similar to cats and fire, journals don’t like water.
Most importantly, have the kids write in it, even if they don’t want to. Have them draw a map to their favorite swimming hole or write down the funny thing Mom said at the campfire. Make a list of the foods you taste on a trip. Write down your accidental-but-awesome backcountry recipe. Make a list of the hikes and the paddles and the climbs you want to do together—then go check them off. Later, when the kids are older and Thanksgiving comes around again, you’ll have much to be thankful for.
Our own well-loved journal is thick, filled with ten years of memories. I feel its heft in my hand, the weight of something solid I’d like to keep with me. I flip through the pages again. The writing and drawings and maps take up the first three-quarters of the book, but the last quarter is blank. These just might be my favorite pages: unwritten, ready, and waiting for the adventures yet to come.