Straying from the Trail

One benefit of being the offspring of educators was seemingly limitless time each summer for family excursions and bonding. My parents, who still travel so avidly and extensively that I can’t always keep track of their coordinates, loaded my brother and I into the Family Truckster each June. I saw free-roaming bison herds in North Dakota’s Badlands, splashed in clear, icy Rocky Mountain creeks, and stepped gingerly to avoid contact with a Prickly Pear Cactus’ spines in New Mexico.

Was I smart enough then to appreciate the enrichment and allow the natural world’s miracles and wild beauty to saturate an impressionable brain? 

Killens Pond Trail near Dover DE

Absolutely not. 

A sedentary kid who loved to read, write, daydream, and draw, my idea of enjoying the outdoors involved a motel that had a swimming pool. I’m pretty sure I was bribed into joining family hikes more than once.

Miraculously that fresh air settled in my subconscious, staying dormant for about a decade. In high school and college I began getting out with friends for car camping, hiking, and paddling. One of my favorite undergraduate professors taught landscape and documentary photography, introducing students to their surroundings through a long lens. Some of my earliest runs were on northern Minnesota’s pine-needled paths, not because I particularly wanted to run, but because the setting moved me so much that I couldn’t just stroll through it.

Bribery-free outdoor time w/mom & dad

Ironically, this infrequent TV viewer learned from a recent broadcast news report that far fewer kids are meeting the world through the interpretive hikes and park ranger presentations I “endured” during those Griswald-esque summers. The story was based on a study published this week in the journal Proceedings in the National Academy of Sciences reports 18 to 25 percent declines in nature-based recreation worldwide. The research authors looked at several decades of parkland use, camping activity, and game permits in the U.S., Japan, and Spain and proclaimed “an ongoing and fundamental shift away from nature-based recreation.”

Ledges Trail Cuyohoga Valley NP

When I let myself, I worry how this will impact conservation and environmental practices in a few generations’ time. Right now “green” is a hip buzzword. I believe many positive habits are catching on, but if young people don’t get to stray off the beaten path, will they still have the opportunity to fall in love with the natural world enough to fight for it?

As a health educator I don’t need to speculate about the increased personal detriments from less outdoor recreation, which I’d hypothesize is directly replaced by a video screen of some kind. Sedentary kids are unhealthy kids, with higher risks for and rates of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and more. No doubt this will diminish individual quality of life and harm the future in large-scale ways. For the first time in the modern era, babies now enter the world with a shorter average life expectancy than that of their new moms and dads.

I can ruminate about it all, but do I have a comprehensive solution? Absolutely not.

With a decade of mostly road running under my calloused feet, the trails are luring me back. I can no longer ignore their rocky, rutted siren song. After the Boston Marathon, I aim to steeply elevate my off-road explorations. My hope is the inspiration and discovery I’ll surely be enriched with out there will include ideas about incorporating fresh air into what I consider my professional mission: introducing people to their own power to create their highest levels of physical well-being.

No nature lover wants a crowded path, but it appears there’s plenty of room for more little feet to step onto the trails and follow into the future.

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