It was a Sunday when my boyfriend met my parents, so as the church bells in town chimed, we got in the car and drove — past the chapels of various denominations — and into the woods. On his first time hiking a trail that my family has trekked down too many times to count, mud got all over his green Vans sneakers.
My family hikes the way other families go to church.
My parents were raised observing religion the normal way, faithfully attending services in drafty old buildings with beautiful stained glass windows. There were ironed shirts and shiny shoes for those mornings.
Only their houses of worship were different. My mom is Christian (her father is a Methodist minister) and my dad is Jewish (his mother was raised Orthodox). After discussing for years whether to take us kids to church or temple, they decided to do neither. Instead they made the great outdoors our place of worship.
For their honeymoon, nearly 30 years ago now, my parents roughed it in tents on a safari and hiked to the peak of Mount Kenya. At first hiking was a hobby, not a way to raise their four kids.
In my early years, my family dabbled in organized religion, occasionally attending services for the most sacred holidays — sermons for the High Holy Days at synagogue with my paternal grandparents and a Christmas Mass with cousins on my mom’s side.
But when I was 12, my parents’ church versus temple debate came to a head. For a couple who didn’t squabble, religion proved to be a sensitive spot triggering conversations about faith and how they should raise us. In theory they wanted a weekly spiritual practice for our family, but where their friends seemed settled at their churches and temples, my parents didn’t feel the connection.
No more, my parents decided. But shunning the physical houses of worship did not mean rejecting spirituality. Both of them believe in God and they explained to us that being in nature was the way they felt most connected. The four of us kids ranged in age from 6 to 12 at the time, old enough to hold our own on a hike without begging for a piggyback ride.
That’s when hiking became ritual. Every Sunday for the past 13 years, rain or shine, my parents have gone for a two-hour hike on the same trail near our house in Connecticut.
For years, until we each went off to college, they dragged the four of us along with them, and like kids faced with obligatory church, we dreaded our mandatory Sunday family hikes. It felt like social suicide at the time: my friends thought it was weird, cellphones were banned, and I wanted to go to the churches and temples where all my friends got to hang out and complain together. While my friends were in religious school learning about Noah and the flood, my siblings and I tramped down muddy dirt trails with my mom instructing us to “breathe deeply.”
My parents treated the weekly hike with the gravitas of a formal worship service. As we each got to high school, my siblings and I tried to make up reasons to be excused, but our parents were relentless. Too much homework? Hiking is a productive break. Feeling under the weather? Fresh air is good for you!
We did the family hike in head-to-toe rain gear, snow boots when blizzards hit New England, and high socks in the summer to avoid Lyme-carrying ticks. Our two dogs joyfully braved the elements to keep us company on the trail. My parents would even take us out of school on all religious holidays, from Good Friday to Yom Kippur — to hike.
For most of my teen years I sulked through the hike every Sunday. The no-cellphone rule, instituted because my parents wanted us to “be present” and not text our friends the entire time, felt like unreasonable punishment. When my mom told us to take a deep breath and smell the fresh air, I’d roll my eyes.
Then I went to college and, after that, moved to New York City and realized how fresh that woodsy air really had smelled. Living in a city where I rarely see two trees within 10 feet of each other, I now have a keen appreciation for how grounding it is to be in nature.
These days the Sunday hikes are no longer a weekly routine for me. But my parents are still out on the trail, rain or shine. Empty nesters now, they hike just the two of them or with whichever of us kids is home for the weekend. My dad says that he could walk the trail blindfolded and I think he really could.
The trail has become an important place to my parents, where for over a decade they have taken time to connect with each other and their children and simply breathe fresh air. It is where, one day far in the future, my parents want their ashes spread — a final resting place more fitting for those two than a traditional cemetery.
It is meaningful to me, too. Now, at 25, the hike that I abhorred as a kid is something I cherish and want to share with the most important people in my life. It’s become legend among my friends, and getting invited along is as coveted as scoring a seat at Passover Seder is in other families. That’s why my boyfriend didn’t complain once as his favorite green sneakers got splattered with mud.
For Christmas, my parents got him his own pair of hiking boots.