Day 7: Backpacking with our kids on our 200 mile summer – research that tells us to get our kids outside

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Day 7: Rock creek Trailhead to Trail lake, over Mono pass (12,000 ft).  6 miles and 3200 feet of elevation change  First day back in after a few 0 days in our trailer.
Today begins the longest stretch I’ve ever spent on the trail.  Depending on how slow or fast we move, we’ll be out here for 16 to 19 days.  As we can only carry 5 to 6 days of food, we had to send food in the mail in orange Home Depot buckets to 2 different drop spots along our path. 
The massive peaks that towered over the trailhead and rushing stream that flowed beside the parking lot briefly made me wonder if it was that necessary to leave the parking lot.  Can’t we just download the peace and biophilia while sitting on our tailgate eating organic berries?  Researchers out of Uppsala University in Gavle, Sweden have actually found that, no, we have to work a little harder than that to get that prized focused, clear headed buzz.  In comparing three groups of avid backpackers they found that the group who went on an urban vacation or took no vacation at all showed no improvement in their proofreading performance when compared to the third group who went on a wilderness-backpacking trip.  As for the impact on children, Nancy Wells, assistant professor at the New York State college of Human Ecology wrote that being close to nature, in general, helps boost a child’s attention span.  Coming out of the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, is some of the most important work in this area: outdoor green spaces foster creative play, increase children’s positive adult interactions and even relieves the symptoms of ADHD. 
So back in we went with high hopes, full packs, and fresh legs.  Today we climbed over Mono pass, passing at least 40-day hikers in the first few stunning miles.  Each pass of another hiker brought huge smiles as they saw two young kids with backpacks bouncing up the trail.  A few brief comments of, “I love to see kids out here” from some of the older hikers caused a desire in me to stop and ask them to tell me more.  Why does it bring such huge smiles and surprised expressions to these older hikers?  Aren’t there lots of other kids further up the trail, doing exactly what we are doing?  We’d actually find out as we walked through this wilderness, that if we, a family with young kids backpacking out here were a species, we’d be on the rare and endangered list.  We would never pass a single kid on our entire journey.  But I am getting ahead of myself here. 
Maybe they’ve noticed, what the research has found, that active kids out in nature are slowly waning.  Busy families, video games, and the easy lure of the couch seem to be winning out in the fight for people’s time.  With the crazy pace the American family leads, vacations tend to be speed-window-sightseeing of beautiful places.
So why fight so hard to just sit in nature?  There is no economic profit.  No easy obvious gains.  There is no guarantee that nature will even cooperate.  With one to two weeks to get away, maybe Mickey Mouse and his guaranteed clean, predictable, colorful world is the best use of time (and occasionally, it probably is!), but I’d like to argue that for a real deep down, cleansing sense that the “got away” feeling was achieved, we might need a touch of the unpredictability of nature.
As challenging as lacking oxygen felt today as we all listlessly clawed our way to 12,000 feet to summit Mono Pass, as we sit at camp tonight watching the sun set, and the quiet penetrate, I am deeply glad we did not window-speed-sight-see at the trailhead but instead, took the harder road, donned our packs, and headed in.
So back to the encouraging smiles and atta boys we heard so much of from the older day hikers today. I think they’d have said, if we were willing to stop and ask, that if parents don’t pass on the love for our wild lands to their kids, then we risk them never discovering it for themselves.  How nice it must be to this wise generation who grew up closer to nature then we modern aged generations have, to see kids learning and enjoying the outdoors.  In an era where more and more people are experiencing life 2ndhand through the internet and TV, older generations must love to see kids being raised to get out and experience their world, like they did, directly.  They love seeing young kids that are not experiencing nature through pictures on line or on TV, but instead are sitting by streams and listening to them gurgle, sitting on rocks and watching the sunset and feeling the nip in the air, and listening to birds as they greet the day.  They are having a genuine, “primary experience”. 
I am sure that’s why we got such cheers as we started today’s hike.  They get it and want to see the next generations get it.  Our 200-mile summer is about discovering what these older Americans already know.  We won’t fight for something we don’t know exists, a very real threat to our natural lands if our kids don’t have at least the chance to fall in love with them.  The alternative is getting duped into believing we are self-sufficient in the computer age.  As long as we are plugged in we can turn a blind eye to the truth of our complete interconnectedness with a healthy planet.
And if a healthy planet is too obscure and Gore/Granola-ey for you, maybe a healthy body is closer to home.  New studies have found that getting into nature actually does make us healthier.  Depression and stress are drastically reduced and don’t stand a chance when a consistent dose of nature is poured on the soul. And exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder as well as increase resistance to depression and stress in children.  As a parent and a teacher, that’s all I need to know to keep wilderness time a priority for our children.
A catchy jingle about nature therapy does not stand a fighting chance over the latest antidepressant pharmaceuticals. The Psychiatric Services journal published their findings in 2003, stating that the rate at which American children are prescribed antidepressants almost doubled in five years.  For the first time, spending on psychotropic drugs – benzodiasepines, antipsychotics, and antidepressants – surpassed spending on antibiotics and asthma medications for children.  And yet, Peter Kahn in The Human Relationship With Nature, summarizes the findings of over one hundred studies that stress reduction is one of the main benefits of spending time in nature.  Clearly, not just adults, but our children need this. 
I have not walked the miles of trails that the smiling seniors that passed us today most likely have, so I do not yet totally grasp the pure joy I saw in their eyes when they witnessed us out here.  I am sure that our extensive time on the trail this summer will bring me closer to understanding.

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