We headed to Northeast Iowa last Sunday for one of our longest standing fall family traditions. We've been trekking up north for some pretty leaf hunting since we were kids, packed in the back of the gray Dodge mini-van with our walk-mans and cassette tapes of Trisha Yearwood, the Judds and Boyz II Men. Dad would drive through all the same "cool towns" and we'd anxiously look out our windows for all the various points of distinction along the way. Even back then, I'd have my little camera and a fresh roll of film in hand, ready to capture fuzzy pictures of the big red strawberry in Strawberry Point, that pretty little bridge in Fairbank, and the pink elephant in Marquette, signaling we had reached our destination for the day. Mom would pack a picnic, "fancy" sandwiches with lettuce and mayonnaise and red wine vinegar, and we'd run through the piles of leaves, throwing the football around with Dad, and eventually talking them into hiking all the way to the waterfall, even though we knew it wasn't much of a waterfall.
I look back at those days and feel my age, in more ways than one. Walk-mans are long gone and have since been replaced with dual DVD players that entrance our kids and take them away from the scenes outside their windows. GPS on our phone gives us the "fastest route" there, surely eliminating back roads and that pretty bridge in Fairbank. And that big red strawberry in Strawberry Point is definitely not as big as I remember it from my childhood. That adventurous spirit and wonder and delight for the little things, like driving across that big blue suspension bridge over the mighty Mississippi or getting to put red wine vinegar on my sandwich, are what keeps me going back to this tradition each year. As I look into that day with an older, wiser pair of specs, I see so much through them. I see my Dad's love for comfortable adventure, the twinkle in his eye as he pointed out the same old things, like that stuffed polar bear at Starks and those boring barges way down on the river. I see my Mom's effort to make things special for us, as well as her love for the small details, like that bright red maple tree that always stands out against that pretty white church steeple in McGregor. I see characteristics in them I so want my kids to see in me someday. But gosh, in our world as it exists, full of constant distractions and our instagram boxes of pretty, are we over-saturating them? Are we curating so much experience for them that they're unable to distinguish the magic in the mundane? Or are we just filling their lives with so much stuff that they're only getting the chance to barely scratch the surface? My Grandpa Hank's famous line on road trips that we laughed over and used often on our road trip to Georgia was "Look out the window, it's free." But as I think about my kids, staring at their screens with their headphones on, I realize I have some work to do in this department. And that I now sound like an old geezer.
I regained a little hope as we drove through Strawberry Point and Dad took the short detour to show Cruz and Mila the big strawberry. Mila's eyes lit up and she said, "I want to see it again!" We drove by it a second time, and two more times on the way home. I saw the same childlike wonder and delight in her face. I saw it later at Shihata's Orchard as she came face to face with a donkey and watched Grandma feed him grass. I saw it on all the cousins' faces as they perused the big tub of gourds and begged us for a quarter, and later as they squealed and chased each other through the fallen leaves, dirty cheeks and shoes filled with sand. These days and the small moments weaved throughout them are the threads that become our life. And as I sit and snap fuzzy photos like I did when I was a kid, trying to capture the wonder and beauty of it all, I sure hope I'm parenting in a way that enables my kids to see it too.