Do you remember the last sunset you watched? Did you stay long enough to watch the color gradient fade to black and the stars begin to show themselves?
I love sunsets. They tug at my heartstrings. And the other day those strings were vibrating. I needed to see a sunset in the wild; unobstructed and full of splendor. We had an unseasonably cool day last week. I had spent the majority of the day organizing our home library and our school room. The kids spent the majority of the day outside, as they often do, on our unstructured days. The clear blue sky with perfect puffy clouds led me to believe that it would be an ideal night to watch the sunset. Around three o’ clock I gathered the kids inside for a family meeting. My question about watching the sunset with a picnic on the beach was met with a resounding and enthusiastic “YES!” They rushed off to put on swim suits and gather a few beach toys. I scrounged around in our kitchen to put together a quick dinner; knowing full well that I might as well just bring a charcuterie of unhealthy snacks. I settled on sandwiches, fruit, crackers, and some store bought, sugar laden puppy chow. We use stainless steel lunchboxes, that are very similar to a bento box, and make packing up food in a hurry a breeze. After a quick run around the house, we had everything ready to load in the car. I packed the kids pajamas to change into and pillows, because I intended to stay late enough to stargaze (and hopefully catch sight of Mars). Snacks, plenty of water, sticker book, tablets and kids in the backseat. My camera, the tripod, backpack with change of clothes, and our dinners were loaded into the back of our Subaru. Within thirty minutes, we were rocking on down the road.
- Car Charger
- Luckey Wander Journal
- Pencils or pens
- Dinner – non messy
- A treat for their ride home
- Caffeine for your drive
- Water shoes
- Swim suits
- Change of clothes
- Chairs or blanket
- Beach toys
Our destination, DeGray Lake State Park, is located just north of Arkadelphia, in Arkansas. It is a bit over a hour drive, which is “super short” in my kids’ dictionary of drive times. The manmade reservoir was completed in 1972 when a dam was built across the Caddo River; creating a 13,400 acre lake. The lake hosts a plethora of outdoor pursuits, including fishing, boating, a few beaches, hiking trails on the shores, and I believe even scuba diving. It is one of my favorite places to get in a long open water swim, and also one of our favorite places to hang out. The water is cool and clear, and there are islands on the lake that offer a bit of intrigue. Also, no alligators. The Caddo Bend beach is where we were headed, within the bounds of the state park. It is a beach on a peninsula in the island, with a sandy shore on one side and a rock embankment on the other. There is a sand extension on the point of the peninsula that we discovered a few years ago, which is lined up just right for sunsets. All year round.
I had barely put the car in park and the kids were out the door and tearing down for the beach.They asked first, they’re good kids and generally listen well. Though I had hoped we would have the beach to ourselves, I was glad to see a few other families out enjoying the beautiful day. Unloading only what I needed at first, I took our blanket, towels, water, and my current book. Always take a book. Even if you don’t get a chance to read it, it’s always better to have it just in case. The sun warmed sand felt comforting on my bare feet, rather than the burning hot coals I was expecting. I settled down with my book, reading a few sentences at a time before pausing to watch the kids play. Their favorite game was face planting into the waves anytime a boat large enough to leave a wake went by. A few speedboats blazed by towing intertubes, the state park pontoon meandered along the shore, and jetskis buzzed around breaking up the pleasant silence of the afternoon.
"Always take a book, even if you don't get a chance to read it. "
The sun began it’s slow descent just as the kids were getting hungry. I set up our picnic on a park picnic table nearby. We first tried eating on our blanket on the sand; but the kids kept getting sand on their hands and food so we moved over. Right after the move they lost interest in eating and I got antsy to snap some sunset photos. Leaving our toys strewn about the beach, I gathered the majority of our things and put them in the locked car, leaving out my camera and my phone. Walking down the road toward the point, we came upon a family taking a family photo in the sunset. I offered to help and did my best photographer impersonation as I tried to get a decent snap of their family. Five or so pictures later I handed the phone back; when their kids stopped smiling. The kids were well ahead of me, already walking toward the point. My son stopped short and ran back to report that the group who had sent up a tent were still there. Un-phased, I was determined to march past them and claim our stake in the sunset landscape. A short rock scramble, being careful to watch for snakes, and we were on open sand, pleasantly devoid of any other people. Though we could still hear the thumping beats coming from the radio under the tent nearby.
Our eyes and attention were quickly drawn from the dramatic sunset to the large, dead, turtle on the shoreline. It was nearly dried out and in a deep state of decay. It was impressively large, at over 12 inches long. I’m still not entirely sure what kind of turtle it was. My best guess is a female River Cooter turtle? The kids begged me to bring it home so we could clean and keep the shell. I seriously considered it for a moment, due it the huge size, but didn’t’ have any way to transport it home (large plastic bag) without getting dead turtle brushing against my car. The kids spent a while looking at it and commenting on what they noticed. My son noted it was not a snapping turtle because of the shape of (what was left of) the head. My daughter noticed it’s long claws. We were all a little sad to see such a beautiful creature in decay, but it was a powerful visual for a lesson that they need to learn.
"We were all a little sad to see such a beautiful creature in decay, but it was a powerful visual for a lesson that they need to learn. "
My eyes returned to the setting sun. Alternating between my phone and my camera, I snapped in rapid succession, attempting to capture the vivid beauty of the color gradient in the sky. The kids willingly paused long enough for me to grab a few longer exposures (they’re well used to my requests for photos). Then, I put it all down, and put it away. We sat, my kids and I, side by side, completely immersed in the moment. They fiddled with the broken shale rock around us, creating small tools and weapons. We sat until the sun slipped entirely below the hills in the distance. The sky morphed into the most enchanting shades of pinks and purples. Walking back toward our place on the beach, our spirits soared with joy at what we had witnessed.
"Walking back toward our place on the beach, our spirits soared with joy at what we had witnessed."
I cleaned up the rest of our things, gathering the toys and blanket. My son started a new game of racing full speed down the slight incline of the beach and body slamming the water. My daughter soon joined in. I made a mental note of congrats to myself for remembering their water shoes. As I stood watching them hit the water at full force, my breath caught up for a moment when I saw a faintly red star glowing on the eastern horizon. That was no star. It was Mars, and glowing so brightly that it was clearly discernible. My son noticed it at the same moment and loudly shouted out his discovery. Things stopped for moment, as time seemed to pause. My kids and I stood on the beach, mouths hanging open, staring at a planet 225 million kilometers away. That we could see clearly, with our own eyes. What a thrill.
Soon it was too dark to be in the water, and way past bedtime. We trudged up the road to the bathrooms to attempt to wash off all of the sand and change in pajamas for the hour ride home. On the way back to the car I was pleased to discover we were the last ones on the beach, and chose to walk slowly back down the middle of the road; my gaze fixed upwards. Out there on the lake, the light pollution was at a minimum and the stars were showing up by the thousands. My daughter squeezed my hand tight, announcing that she was scared and we had a conversation about the woods at night, and there was nothing to fear. Back at the car, I held both of my children tight and thanked them for the adventurous spirits, and willingness to go. They hugged me back and said that it was the best night ever. And that, right there, is why we go. Richard Louv wrote this sentiment so well in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder: “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature, will always exist. ”