Take a hike!


"I thought we'd go for a hike," I told the boy I'm mentoring.  "You know, look at stuff."

"How about we go to a movie?" he parried.  "Or we could play electronic poker."

He's not an unusual kid. There has been a major swing in his generation away from all things outdoors.  The National Academy of Sciences said, "All major lines of evidence point to an ongoing and fundamental shift away from nature-based activity."

When I was a kid, you couldn't keep me inside a building. This was long before iPods, Xboxes or computers and the Internet. We were so poor we didn't have a television set until I was in high school.

Outside was another story. There were no adults watching what you did, there were semi-feral kids to run with, neat things to poke and whack with a stick, trees to climb and places to start a fire. We didn't worry about Lyme disease from ticks, West Nile from mosquitoes, and we thought bugs were fun to play with. Parents didn't worry about stranger-danger, residential restrictions and unsupervised games. If we did get in trouble, it was our fault and we should have known better.

"If you get a broken leg, don't come crying to me," my mother would say. 

To this day, mountains are a wonderland and refuge for me. Yellowstone National Park Supervisor Suzanne Lewis agrees. She tries to lure children to national parks, telling parents about the fun of "No Child Left Indoors." She said television has caused kids to fear nature because it shows mountains full of predators, poisonous snakes and rabid bats. Filmmakers spend years waiting for animals to do something ferocious, so they can manhandle or wrestle them into higher ratings. The truth is, when you clomp along a trail, your chance of seeing any animal is small.

In all the years I've spent hiking the mountains, I have seen only two bears. Both of them ran away from me. I might have glimpsed a mountain lion. I have seen more deer, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, skunks and, yes, mountain lions in the city of Boulder than I have in the mountains.  The mountains are boring, if you expect them to be like what you see on television or in the movies.

At the same time, advertising has encouraged us to remove smells except for flowers or citrus and to avoid germs and dirt of all kinds. There are plenty of city people who shudder at the thought of sleeping in a tent, pooping in the woods and not taking a shower for days.  As one juvenile said with disdain as he watched me stuffing my backpack, "You're going to grub in dirt again, huh?"

Dirt is not all bad.  I read somewhere that a too-clean house can lead to more illness than a sloppy one. Our immune systems need to be challenged by sub-acute doses of antigens so they can fight off bigger, disease-causing amounts. Living in a slightly dirty house may actually be good for you. Grubbing in the dirt is probably a healthful activity.

I can hear the doors slamming on that argument.

The good news is that Western states lead the nation when it comes to participation in hunting and fishing -- for people aged 16 and older. The West probably also leads the rest of the country in kids just messing around outdoors, thanks to our vast amounts of easily reached public land. Nonetheless, young people from 8 to 18 spend an average of six hours a day involved with electronic media, including three hours of television. They spend less than a half-hour of the day outside.

How do you get a boy or girl to like the outdoors? I suppose if you started them really young and took them outside, perhaps using bribery or sheer force, you might eventually get them to like it. To me, it's a no-brainer: Swinging on trees, plotching around in water, getting dirty and not caring, building a fire and camping, is pure delight.

So it's frustrating and discouraging to me as I look out across the foothills. I hear their "Bali Hai" calling song, and I want to get outside and hike in the open air.

How is it possible youngsters can't hear that?  How can they not like what I love?

Rob Pudim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and hikes in Boulder, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Take a hike ...
On Da Road
On Da Road
Oct 20, 2008 09:34 PM
Great story, not sure of an answer though. I took my 18 year old brother hiking a few years back to try and help him fall in the love with mountains and the backcountry. He 'held it' for 3 days then ran down the mountain to the campground potty. He didn't get the joy of nature. He camps with his son in the backyard so he can not miss his favorite tv shows!

On Da Road http://www.unpavedroadslesstraveled.com
Take a hike
Bill Pudim
Bill Pudim
Oct 27, 2008 08:09 AM
Like my uncle, I grew up in a semi-urban environment, meaning that we lived in a residential area but, there was a nearby "woods". My pals and I would spend countless hours doing all of those same activities, as well as playing "army" building forts shooting at each other with pretend guns, and all sorts of politically incorrect games unimaginable in today's America. I think we all turned out okay.
Damn kids!
Oct 27, 2008 09:42 PM
Like the author, I live for the out-of-doors. Hiking, climbing, skiing, boating, cycling...you name it. I continually try to keep my two sons, now ages 13 and 7, involved but it's an uphill battle. They'd rather play video games than do anything. I practically have to bribe them to go skiing! I have no idea what to do about it except to keep trying.
Gone for good?
Dec 03, 2008 05:31 PM
This subject is one that disturbs me greatly. Having grown up outside LA but being exposed by my father (who worked in Hollywood) to the joys of being in the outdoors I was forever changed and have spent much of my life enjoying the great outdoors of the West. I'm saddened by what I see happening to the youngest generation. Each new technological advance seems to move them one more step away from face-to-face social interaction and outdoor recreation. I think the loss is monumental. I'm currently writing a screenplay based on true events where 3 guys 19, 20 and 25 rode horseback 2000 miles across the west 35 years ago. Know any young people who would do that today? Many guys I know that age can't even change a flat tire. I hope my story inspires the youth of our nation to get off their butts, get outside and attempt something extraordinary.