“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 says, “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.” (Editor’s note: In fact, this paper published a story with almost that exact title, on this very topic, Sept. 18, 2008.) 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.