On the last stop of our 20-park tour, on the last mile of our last hike of the trip, deep in the dark forest of Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, my son Daniel spots it and plucks it.

“A four-leaf clover,” he announces in a surprisingly quiet voice. There is something about the cathedral nature of a redwood grove that causes us—even boisterous teens—to speak in hushed tones. “It’s my lucky day.”

Indeed, the four-leaf clover has just got to be the world’s most recognized good luck symbol.

Daniel, a boy lucky enough to find a four-leaf redwood sorrel and to visit more than 200 California State Parks.
Daniel, a boy lucky enough to find a four-leaf redwood sorrel and to visit more than 200 California State Parks.

“Daniel, you are lucky,” I affirm. “How did you manage to spot a four-leaf one in the middle of all this?”

“After you’ve been hiking around the giant redwoods a lot and looking up, up, up, after a while you start looking down at the ground and you notice things.”

Like a four-leaf sorrel.

Daniel is not the least bit disheartened and, in fact, is delighted to learn that his four-leaf clover is actually a rare four-leaf redwood sorrel, a California perennial that usually has three shamrock-shaped leaves. Redwood sorrel grows in thick mats of green carpet right up to the bases of the towering trees and definitely adds to the magic of the redwood forest.

Daniel wonders at the odds of finding one. I tell him I seem to remember from one of those St. Patrick’s Day news reports that a mutation of the shamrock (a three-leaf clover), happens in about 1 in 10,000 shamrocks. I’d guess the odds are about the same for redwood sorrel: perhaps 1 in 10,000 sorrels is a 4-leaf one, too.

A rare four-leaf redwood sorrel; more typically is has three shamrock-shaped leaves.
A rare four-leaf redwood sorrel; more typically is has three shamrock-shaped leaves.

We briefly kick around the science of this, whether the rare fourth leaflet is caused by a possible recessive gene appearing at low frequency, but our discussion soon stalls because it’s been way too many years since high school Biology for me to remember much and because for Daniel this academic discussion is a downer, a reminder that summer is almost over and he’ll soon be back in the classroom.

“Time to make a wish,” I say, bringing us back from botany to the magic of the moment.

Daniel smiles and twirls his four-leaf prize in his fingers. A single shaft of light beams through the dark redwood forest and illuminates one side of his face. He stands tall and proud and…oh my God, all grown up.

What happened to the little guy that I carried around in a backpack? Just yesterday he was 6 years old, 3 ½ feet tall and weighed about 50 pounds. Now he’s 16, stands 6 feet and weighs in at 180. Just yesterday we were skimming stones across a pond. Now Daniel is an ace outfielder on his high school baseball team and known for his strong throwing arm.

And then it hits me: My son DROVE us into Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, casually placed our annual park pass hangtag on the mirror, chatted with the cute park aide in the entry station, got directions, and drove us to the trailhead for the Hiouchi Trail.

Where did the time go?

On a cosmic level, I have no better idea than any other parent where the time goes.

On a practical level, though, I do have an idea of where some of the time went: Every summer we tour and hike California’s State Parks. We field-check and update my guidebook, “Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks” and spend a week or two hiking, biking, paddling and camping in our state parks. After ten years of touring, Daniel’s “Life List” of State Parks has reached 208 parks, with about 70 more to go before he can claim to have set foot in every park in the system.

What might Daniel wish for over his 4-leaf find?

Something as big and majestic as these redwoods, I hope.

If I’m ever so lucky as to find a 4-leaf clover, uh, sorrel in one of our state parks, I know what I would wish for: that every parent and child have the opportunity to spend time in our state parks to reconnect with nature and with each other. And the more time the better.

We Californians are so lucky to have such a vast and ecologically diverse park system where we can admire nature’s splendors and enjoy quality time with friends and family.

In silence, we walk along the south bank of the jade green Smith River and through the old-growth redwood forest back to the trailhead. Our hike in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park has left us feeling blessed and more than a little bit lucky.