A Personal History of Playing Outside: How I Learned to Love Outdoor Adventure

One of my favorite places in the world, the Cornell Plantations, circa 2004.
I spent part of today watching a live streaming of the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors

One panel was moderated by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and featured, among others, William Cronon and Ernesto Pepito of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Over the course of the discussion, one concept Ernesto mentioned really resonated with me. Ernesto discussed the importance of the involvement of children in the protection and conservation of natural landscapes. 

He asserted that we've got to give kids a chance to do something meaningful, to connect them to the outdoors in a way that is permanent. And this can't be accomplished with a single day school field trip, or a day in the park. It has to be a long term cultivated relationship. We can't just give them a day, we have to give them enough to provoke passion that will last a lifetime; a passion that will make them advocates and stewards of nature and the environment. All of this got me thinking about how I spent my formative years, and how the experiences I had as a child with the outdoors influenced me.

The Best Stories

My mother made sure my brother and I did plenty of reading as kids I clearly remember being drawn to stories and books about animals and the wilderness, even at an early age, and reading them with her before bedtime. My favorite book as a child was A Friend for Oscar Mouse. I was captivated by the vibrant illustrations of the world from a mouse's perspective.

I graduated to books like Julie of the Wolves, On the Far Side of the Mountain, and arguably the most influential book at that time in my life, Cry of the Crow. Jean Craighead George's novel follows a young girl as she rescues a baby crow, cares for him, and begins to understand the complexity of both her world and the animal kingdom. I wanted to be her. So badly.

The Most Wonderful Games

I didn't grow up in the foothills of the Sierras, climbing in Yosemite, or hiking in Colorado. I grew up in a small town that just happens to have some of the most awe-inspiring scenery on the east coast. My neighborhood was safe, full of kids my age, and provided the perfect balance of wooded areas and big backyards.

The rocky shores of the St. Lawrence River.

We all played games as children, and as adolescents, immersing ourselves in worlds we could only hope actually existed. One of my best friends in elementary and middle school, Tara, and I would make up some incredible stories, most involving being explorers and archaeologists. We'd run around the creek near her house, building imaginary fire pits and making "food" out of leaves and berries in leftover Fancy Feast cat food cans. We'd pretend we were completely isolated, on our own, and incredibly self sufficient. We'd climb into a giant pine tree near my house, what seemed like hundreds of feet up, and pretend we lived in it. We'd jump on our bikes and imagine we were long distance racers, traveling through the wilderness at impossible speeds along dirt trails over giant fallen logs.

As we grew up, the games got a little more specific. We were archaeologists in Egypt, exploring lost tombs and pyramids hidden from the world, from all but us. We concurrently, and not in Egypt, ran our own hotel, the Pengeo, and collected reservations in a little box. I spent time at my family's cottage on the St. Lawrence River with my incredibly patient and wonderful cousin Elizabeth drawing maps of the shoreline, naming each peninsula and dip in the rock.

The Here and Now

Although we're not in touch much anymore, I know Tara currently lives out west after graduating from Cornell with a BS in Archaeology, and has worked as an archaeologist for the National Park Service. Elizabeth is now a teacher, a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club, a seasoned paddler with her own canoe, and is scheming about building a log cabin in the woods like Anne Labastille. I went to Cornell to study business with a hospitality twist, and my work history involves a company that manages hotels and resorts in National Parks. And of course, I do as much hiking, backpacking, climbing, reading, learning, and exploring as I can.

Our experiences as children have, in my humble opinion, an incredible impact on how we see nature. One of my favorite books as an adult is Last Child in the Woods, which a former boss at my job in Philadelphia gave me. The book links an absence of nature in childrens' lives to a number of sad, depressing trends. Although it doesn't necessarily prove causation, the concepts are very important. These kids are the next generation of advocates for our planet.

A significant portion of why I believe SO strongly in Big City Mountaineers is because I know firsthand what the connection I feel to outdoor places, and to who I am in those places, has done for me. And I think it's incredible how it seems being outdoors has had a strong influence on how I view the world, an influence that started when I was very, very young. I'm excited about the chance to actually do something about my passion for getting kids outside with Big City Mountaineers.

I'd love to hear your stories about the outdoors as an influence on you!