Exploring Local Creeks, First-Time Campouts, Long-Distance Treks, and Trail Maintenance—Four Families Share How They Go Outside and Play Together in the Midst of the Pandemic
Looking out at the rise and fall of the mountains and valleys from Roan Mountain, Cliford Mervil heard his nephews say that “watching the sunrise was way better than playing video games.” In that moment, all the stress of camping with two kids was worth it.
The Cool Uncle
Before moving to western North Carolina in 2018, Mervil lived about an hour from his sister and her kids in Florida. He visited with his nephews and niece often to share meals and babysit. So when his nephews visited his new home for the first time last summer, Mervil, an outdoor and adventure photographer, knew he wanted to take them camping.
“I figured the best way to introduce them to the outdoors was to take them out there myself and share my passion with them,” he said.
Mervil, who often goes camping alone or with friends, spent a lot of prep time choosing the perfect spot, making sure he had the right gear, and double checking the weather. “I know what I like to do and I know what my friends like to do,” he said. “I know how we camp, but what would make it easier for them?”
He eventually decided on Tennessee’s Roan Mountain because it’s a short, easier hike with stunning views. It’s also the first place he camped, so there was an air of sentimentality in sharing that experience with his nephews. “Not seeing them and hanging out with them as much as I used to, I wanted to make it a little special for them to enjoy what I am seeing now,” Mervil said.
Once at their campsite, Mervil showed the boys how to set up their tent before an evening of roasting marshmallows and running around with blankets tied as superhero capes. Twins Prince and Kerwin, 11, rated the trip as an “11/10,” even though the hike was tiring and it was cooler on the mountaintop than they were expecting.
Since it was his first trip with kids, Mervil said he overpacked in terms of food and gear to make the night more comfortable for everyone. As they take more trips together, he’s hoping to work up to multi-day outings and incorporate more activities like paddling and biking while cutting down on gear. Despite having to carry most of the equipment back to the car the next day by himself, Mervil is already planning another trip for this summer. This time, his niece wants to join in on the fun.
Four Kids, 40 Hikes
Although they had a vague notion of what the Mountains-to-Sea Trail was, it wasn’t until Hussein El-Genk and Nashua Oraby started taking walks with their four children at the beginning of the pandemic that they learned about the 40 Hike Challenge.
Stretching from Clingman’s Dome to the Outer Banks, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs 1,175 miles across North Carolina. The challenge highlights some of the best spots as the trail winds its way through towns, parks, and historic sites. From May to December of last year, the family checked off each hike, becoming the first six people to finish the challenge.
Every hike offered a new experience with a variety of terrain, geology, history, and views. “I think we were in the mentality that going on vacation means going out of the state,” El-Genk said. “From the mountains to the ocean, there’s really so much in our state. We didn’t really realize it until we did the challenge.”
Their four kids—Zakariyya, 12, Ayyub, 10, Kareema, 8, and Rasheed, 6—looked forward to the different experiences each trail provided, from swimming at Skinny Dip Falls to watching thousands of birds migrating at Cape Hatteras and seeing the salamanders at Stone Mountain.
To prepare for each outing, El-Genk and Oraby made sure the kids knew what to expect from the trail. They listened to season four of Our State’s podcast on their drives, which delved into the history and stories of the MST. It also helped that the family did their most challenging hike, about 17 miles out and back in Linville Gorge, early on in the summer.
“Anytime we had a hike, we’d always say it’s easier than the Linville Gorge hike and that kept them motivated,” El-Genk said.
Although some days it was tough to get everyone out the door on time, the family kept at it, setting goals together. “When hike 27 rolled through, I was like, that’s it, we are going to get this done,” Oraby said. As they finished their 40th hike at Falls Lake, the family reflected on the experience. Although they finished what they set out to do, the most important thing was that they got outside together and gained a deeper appreciation for the world around them.
“If you keep at it, consistency leads to growth,” El-Genk said. “The first family walk we did was six miles, and we had to take four or five breaks. There was whining, and it was really tough, especially for our little ones.” On the last hike, they walked 4.5 miles out and then ran it back to reach the car before sunset. The family was amazed at how strong they had gotten over the course of the challenge.
Now that they are done with the 40 hikes, the family is looking forward to returning to their favorite spots and exploring more in depth. Once their youngest is ready, they’re also thinking about paddling the alternate MST route on the Neuse River.
Engagement On and Off Line
Zenovia Stephens always had an interest in blogging but wasn’t sure what she wanted to write about. On January 1, 2020, in the middle of washing dishes, inspiration struck and Stephens jumped on Instagram to claim the name Black Adventure Crew. “God laid on my heart to create a page where I could inspire other Black families to do all kinds of different things,” she said.
When the pandemic hit just a few months later, Stephens was already talking about the importance of getting outside locally with her family. With three sons, ages 8, 5, and 2, she had to learn it’s about going with the flow and preparing for all plans to go out the window. “You may look up a trail and plan out everything, but you may only cover a quarter of a mile,” Stephens said. “I had to step back and realize my kids are enjoying themselves, exploring and looking around. Maybe we didn’t cover all of the ground we wanted to cover, but the most important thing is that we got out and enjoyed ourselves.”
The Stephens family tends to choose activities that incorporate creeks and waterfalls since that’s what captivates the boys, helping to keep the energy up during the outing. “Start where you are,” she said. “What my family and I do, that may not work for you. Look for something that will be engaging.”
As she posted about all of her family activities, urging others to think outside of the box, Stephens felt called to do more. “If I really want to see a change in the way that we interact overall with the outdoors and see more Black and brown families out there, I felt like I had to do more than just inspire through pictures and videos,” she said. “I felt like I had to get my feet down on the ground, get into the community, and try to pull people out.”
Inspiration struck again on a trip to Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, Ala. The family spent the weekend reveling in the outdoors in a place without cell reception and technology. “Seeing [the kids] in this environment where everything they love and depend on when they’re in the house removed and how they responded to that really showed us that we’re instilling something great in them,” Stephens said. “It was so impactful for us.”
Wanting to share that same experience with other families, Stephens formed a partnership with the camp to provide a free weekend of camping twice a year. “My hope is that once families go, they will see the value in the experience,” she said.
“It’s about getting as many people out there as possible to change that relationship we currently have with the outdoors, to get more Black children and families out there so that 15 years down the line, these kinds of conversations aren’t being had.”
Through donations and partnerships, she hopes they will one day be able to take between 80 and 100 families camping a year.
In addition to hosting virtual events, leading themed hikes, and co-organizing Black Hikers Week on social media, Stephens is also building up a Family Giveback Program—soliciting donations for specialty hiking gear and shoes that, although not required, can make the experience more comfortable. “I want to be able to provide that for families so they wouldn’t have to choose between the shoe that you need every day, the ones that serve multiple purposes, versus having a specialty pair of shoes or equipment,” Stephens said. “I want to be a resource because a lot of times that is a barrier that prevents people from enjoying outdoor adventures.”
In all that she does, Stephens emphasized that adventure is whatever you make of it. You don’t have to wait for the perfect moment to spend some time in nature, recharging and finding a place in the world.
Caring for the Land
When Kevin Massey offered to help revive the volunteer program for Pisgah National Forest’s Grandfather Ranger District about six years ago, his whole family got involved with trail maintenance and cleanup projects. In rebuilding the program, Massey said the difference was his then teenage twin sons, Jon and Nick, channeling their love of the outdoors into restoring neglected trails, inspiring adults in the community to join the effort. “A community pride type phenomenon started kicking in to where people were picking up trash, taking care of trails,” he said. “The culture around the place has shifted.”
Massey, executive director of environmental nonprofit Wild South, eventually watched his sons take on more difficult roles on the trail crew, like leading a crosscut saw crew as they clear fallen trees in the backcountry. “That’s just about the most dangerous task trail crews undertake,” Massey said.
“But the boys had the risks contained, were mindful of their team’s needs, and were finding everyone an opportunity to contribute. They were modeling this leadership for the all-youth crew, preparing the next generation’s leaders.”
Growing up, Jon and Nick, 20, spent most of their time outside. Since their mom homeschooled them, the woods offered a natural classroom beyond science textbooks and math problems to learn leadership skills. Although they were teenagers when they started volunteering, Nick said he never felt that was an issue. “Trail crews, in my experience, have been incredibly welcoming to people of all abilities and ages,” he said. “In the trail world, you earn respect through your actions, not by your age, appearance, and the like.”
Working side by side, the twins rallied their friends and other outdoor enthusiasts to help take care of the places they loved. “There is nothing more satisfying than the sense of accomplishment that comes with working together to carry a 200-pound tire out of the wilderness or to move a 1,000-pound rock off of the trail,” Jon said. “After over 4,000 hours volunteering on the trails, I’d say we have gotten pretty good at working together.”
The twins share similar interests beyond the trail, from working with local rescue teams to getting involved with wildland firefighting. “It’s good to have a kindred spirit there,” Nick said.
Although the twins are older and looking at seasonal forestry work out west, the Massey family still finds time to share their love of the outdoors and work on big projects together. “If you give them enough space for a while, they’re ready to come back,” Kevin Massey said. “Parenting is nothing but a series of failures and regrets. But every now and then you manage to say, well, I did that sort of right.”
Massey said arranging for nature to be a teacher was a conscious decision, something he wants Nick and Jon to carry with them as they begin to explore different career and life paths. “Place is something that you can build a community around,” Massey said. “I hope that they are able to use that as a glue to build whatever communities that they’re a part of—bring people together and make them stronger as a people by underscoring the place that they share.”
Cover photo: Twins Kerwin, left, and Prince rated their first camping trip with their uncle as an “11/10.” Photo by Cliford Mervil