It was the miniest of minivans, just about as small as any you might find in Europe. Only this one was mine, and it raced along the curving roads of Northern California’s Highway 49 toward Cronan Ranch. It chauffeured my wife, my sister-in-law, and my three kids as well as a nearly carsick golden retriever in hopes that we’d reach the trailhead soon. I wasn’t sure how much longer any of us could last in our mobile sardine can.
Thankfully, this van got us to Cronan Ranch Regional Trails Park with sunlight to spare. Which was great, since my passengers were on a mission to hike into the hills and capture some sunsets on camera. I had my camera, and my wife had hers as well. We had invited my sis-in-law Michele to bring her newly acquired camera along as well to get her feet wet with landscape photography—literally, as it would turn out. We looked like a promotional poster for Nikon cameras.
My daughter was in on the photographic fun too. She lugged the camcorder she got for Christmas along on this hike. Though the boys and Hunter the dog were along for less artistic reasons. Their missions were to play in the mud, play in the mud, and play in the mud respectively. I’m guessing that Ansel Adams didn’t bring his kids to work all that often.
It began simply enough, walking the wide, simple trail and gasping at parasailers gliding overhead. We stopped to watch graceful horses and their riders. We soaked up the landscapes turned green by the rain our parched state has missed for several years. Sure, it was fun to snap photos of the scenes playing out in front of us. But most of the fun was taking it all in through the eyes of the kids.
Then the trail started to climb upward—and grew ever muddier. Little feet began to have trouble keeping up. Complaining. Little boys’ fists began to fly. Screaming. An old dog transformed to his younger self darted ahead, pulling one little boy face first into a mud puddle. Crying. A little lady started handing off everything she carried to her mom. Whining. And in the midst of it all, we found plenty of great moments to photograph. This may have been the rowdiest band of landscape photographers this park had seen.
And despite our struggle, we reached the crest of a hill that looked like a prime spot to take in the winter sunset. We pulled out tripods, and sought out angles and perspectives that might capture some of this beauty. Meanwhile, we asked the impossible of our kids: “Stay where we can see you”.
After each time I shot a photo, I turned around to see where my three kids and the dog might be. Each time I looked *snap*, my daughter Kali was higher up a hill, putting more distance between she and her two younger brothers. My youngest boy finally sat down and cried when he couldn’t keep up. Meanwhile, my dog was off in a hundred different directions the way that dogs are made to do.
I doubt that any of us photographers reached that zen moment there at Cronan Ranch. While we were trying to lose ourselves in the landscape, we were far more effective at losing the kids. So when the purple skies faded tor dusky blue and the mists rolled in, we figured it was time to go hike the mile and a half back to the van.
For all the unpredictability of kids spreading out over acres of God’s creation at Cronan Ranch, I was having the time of my life. It was worth seeing my kids explore these hills with a freedom they rarely experience, despite the dirt we would have to scrape out from under their little fingernails at bath time. fording little creeks and taking little tumbles so obviously blessed their souls, and mine too.
I’ve got no doubt that my emboldened kids are ready for the next adventure. Let’s just hope that frayed nerves don’t keep my fellow photographers from venturing out with me again!
Where do you go when you need to forget the city and photograph the great outdoors? Sound off in the comments!