The path less traveled

Quality family time on a Sunday nature walk

I proposed the idea for a longish family walk Sunday morning to Radek. As a caveat, he suggested that after our outdoor family time we squeeze in our own workouts. On the weekends we usually alternate, with one of us biking or running while the other watches the kids then we swap. Afterward, we do something together with the children – a family lunch, a trip to an indoor water park or ice-skating at one of the local hockey stadiums. But I was missing a good dose of relaxed outdoor time with my children, the emphasis decidedly on the word relaxed.

Czech culture highly values sport activities. Elementary schools offer annual week long overnight ski courses, often from the 1st grade; in and around Prague bikers commute to work even in the winter; hockey stadiums have open skating hours on the weekend; and, when the weather is below freezing, there are also plenty of outdoor ice skating rinks and local ponds. As long as there’s snow in the mountains, Czech ski resorts are packed with Czech families and their miniature ski prodigies.

From my perspective, Czech parents rarely look daunted as they pass on their winter sports know-how to the next generation of budding athletes. However, in difference to their parents’ calm and cool “now, isn’t this fun?” smiles, I’ve seen Czech children, my own included, looking stressed as they try to carve smoothly or push themselves up from the ice after a fall.  Nonetheless, it’s not uncommon to see parents toting aspiring pint-size skiers down the mountains in backpacks when their toddler’s little legs (or their parents’ patience) have given out. I often wonder who is having more fun.

While my family isn’t prone to such extremes, the physically active Czech lifestyle fits in with our idea of what families are supposed to do together in their leisure time. However, convincing our children is often a different story.

Which is why, more often than not, Radek and I choose to get our own exercise done first on weekend mornings and then do something together as a family. Although I feel a twinge of guilt when I pass another family walking together along the same path that I’m cruising on solo, Radek reminds me that our kids get exercise and stimulation in their weekday after school sports activities. They’re happy to relax on the weekend. In fact, they would prefer to stay at home and play with their toys or watch a movie. When we go ice skating or skiing, usually we have to persuade them that it’s going to be worth their time. Yet, once we get into the groove of skiing, skating or biking, they, too, have fun.

On this particular Sunday morning, I wanted a chance to be outside together without the distractions of housework, phone calls, meal preparations or to-do lists. We’d been playing catch-up for weeks, trying to get back into the rhythm of Czech life after our trip to the US. I wanted to relax.

But as the kids dragged their scooters up the grassy incline, I wondered if it had been a good idea after all. Our boots and pants legs were caked with thick, dark mud, and the wheels and running boards of the scooters were coated with a muddy goo that made their feet keep slipping off when they tried to ride. It was mid-January, but in spite of a few snowflakes in the air, the ground was not frozen, only wet. We’d been forewarned by a neighbor who’d been out for an early morning run that the path from Statenice to Roztoky had turned into a muddy mess. Unwilling to give up my vision of a relaxed family day walking outdoors, we stuck with our plan, with only a slight alteration in the route.

At Radek’s discretion, we opted for an out-of-the-ordinary route in hopes of avoiding the worst of the mud. Walking up the hill past our house, we intersected a newly-cut path that took us through the fields along the cliff line above our normal route. The children were excited to be on the new path, especially when they spotted young trees with hand-lettered name tags like “Hedwig,” “Andulinka” or “Pan Jablko.” There was even a “Magic Strom” and an “Abraham Lincoln.” We passed a picnic table and benches and a communal fire pit. The kids wanted to stop for a snack, but we persuaded them to keep moving. When the path turned and headed uphill, they became less enthusiastic. I was saddled with pushing Oliver’s scooter while Radek carried Samuel’s motorcycle and simultaneously rode on Anna’s scooter. The children said they could manage walking, but that was it.

Our five-kilometer half-way point was a well-known family-run pub at the edge of Tiché Údolí  (quiet valley) in Roztoky. It was called Zvířátka (little animal) and served Czech pub specialties, including langoš (deep fried dough patties), tasty homemade soups, lamb sausages and pork ribs from the grill and a seasonal fruit kolač for dessert. Zvířátka had an outdoor garden with a rabbit hut, a children’s sandbox and a space to park bikes. During the colder months, you could sit inside and get warm by their wood fire, listen to classic American rock n’ roll hits and read the cheeky, retro signs lining the pubs’ walls. If you were patient enough, you could pet the pub cat. I encouraged the kids to keep walking so we could get to Zvířátka and treat ourselves to something delicious.

In the Czech Republic, regardless of the season, it is a common weekend pastime for families to take longer walks or treks through the woods, often with a pub or restaurant as a destination. Many of my Czech contemporaries have vivid memories of the treks they took with their parents. One Czech friend, now married to an American, told me that when she was young it was nothing to pack a backpack with a snack lunch and a drink and start out walking with her parents. “We’d go 15 or 20 kilometers,” she told me, “without thinking anything of it. At that time, there wasn’t anything else to do, and we learned quite a lot about nature this way.”

In the Czech Republic, there are some 40,000 kilometers of well-marked hiking trails maintained by the Czech Tourist Club. Some of these paths seem like little more than short-cuts through large expanses of privately or publicly owned property. I am never clear who owns the property as there are often only yellow, red, blue or green hiking signs to give you, at best, a general sense of where you might expect to end up. While there are designated restricted forest areas throughout the Czech Republic; for the most part, walking in nature through unfenced fields still seems to be a popular pastime. For our walks and bike rides near our house, we regularly use paths through fields and woods instead of riding on main roads.

As we approached the top of the knoll, we saw a sign cautioning dog owners to put their pets on leashes. When we crested the hill, there were at least 50 sheep and goats mixed together grazing in the fenced off pasture at the top of the cliffs. The children hurried ahead of me, slipping and sliding across the muddy path to get as close to the electric fence as safety permitted. Suddenly, our walk seemed a bit more interesting. Their attention was hooked as they admired the sheep and the goats, commenting on how much hay they had and wondering why some of the goats had jumped the wire to stand on top of the hay bales. I got out the camera to photograph the kids with the animals in the background.

Radek then began pointing excitedly to a sheep that was lying down relatively close to the fence. She was lying on her side, heavily pregnant. In fact, we had come upon her mid-labor. As we watched, a baby lamb dropped from the mother and down to the ground where it lay bleating. At first, the mother seemed to ignore it, standing up to lick the red placenta blood and taking a few bites of grass. Another sheep or two walked over and sniffed the newborn, then walked away. As we watched, the mother walked back toward her baby. She licked and nudged it until it began bleating louder. Then she walked off to munch on some grass again. She turned her back to us and gave her attention over to another tiny newborn that had been born, we supposed, only moments before we’d arrived. My children huddled as close as they could to the fence and began to barrage us with questions.

Why is the lamb crying? What is the red stuff coming from the mommy’s bottom? Why is she licking it? Why doesn’t the lamb look like a baby lamb, but instead like it’s covered in a bag? Why is the mother eating grass and not going to it? Where is the daddy? Oliver asked this final question, and turned to Radek. As if Radek, being a daddy, should know.

I had the camera out to chronicle the walk, and Radek urged me to take pictures. I don’t know why I didn’t begin snapping away. But in the moment, perhaps remembering how I felt after giving birth myself, I wasn’t sure if it was really appropriate to take pictures. I stood and watched the mother sheep as she watched us, slowly and quizzically. She turned her back to us, but she didn’t seem frightened. The children were as quiet as mice. I decided we might as well stay and watch as long as they wanted to. Once Radek realized that I wasn’t recording the event, he took the camera from me and began snapping shots.

The newly born lamb struggled to get to its feet and Oliver turned to me and said, “Mom, lambs have it better than we do, don’t they?” That little one is already trying to get up by itself.”

After watching a bit longer, we started walking again. The children’s mood had changed. They skipped energetically through more mud, past a mountain bike jumps course and down the woods into Tiché Údolí. At the restaurant, the children ordered greasy langoš and a bright orange fountain soda. When the owner heard me trying to figure out what each child wanted on his or her langoš, she kindly brought them a plate with all the fixings: ketchup, shredded cheese and garlic so they could prepare their own. They each had an ice-cream popsicle (a decidedly non-Czech winter time treat) for dessert.

On the walk home, Anna and Oliver alternated playing “taxi” pushing Sammy on their scooters so he didn’t have to walk, and we’d get there sooner. Even though it was the return trip and we’d been outside most of the day, the children were filled with more energy than they’d had when we started. That night we put pictures of the lamb’s birth on a flash disk so Oliver could show it at school the next day.

In the end, I skipped my bike ride. Our family walk had given me the relaxed exercise I’d expected. And we had fortuitously taken a less traveled path at just the right time to see something quite unexpected. I hope we might have another relaxed family day again soon.

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