Backpacker|Fall 2020
Does raising an outdoor kid prepare him for the real world?

EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD SCOUT and I are lying in our tent with the cold moon glaring through. I am trying to sleep despite teeth-clenching shivers; Scout is out. His eyes track a dream beneath his lids. Predictable. He is positivity personified. No care or discomfort has ever kept my son from easy sleep.

We shouldn’t be this chilled. Sure, it’s late fall in Death Valley, but we checked the forecast before leaving our home in Colorado. It called for daily highs in the 60s and nightly lows in the 40s. We threw our summer-weight bags and lightweight clothing, visors, and sunscreen into duffels and hopped cheap flights to my parents’ home in Las Vegas, where we borrowed my mom’s SUV and hit the highway to Death Valley for one last mother-son trip before Scout leaves for college.

The drive was windows down, The Black Keys pumping, lemonades on gas station ice, and cotton T-shirts fluttering in the wind. But as we descended into Badwater Basin—282 feet below sea level—a haze cloaked the sun, the temperature dropped, and we closed the windows. By the time we rolled past The Inn at Furnace Creek, I was reaching into the back seat for a flannel. Then, just after 4:30 p.m., the sun dropped beneath the Panamint Range, dusk spread across the basin, and it grew cold enough for thick wool socks and mittens. Hastily, we pitched our floorless tent, threw down our uninsulated sleeping pads, and unfurled our 30°F bags in the sub-freezing desert night.

Now, as Scout sleeps, I study the oldest of my three children. Tufts of ginger hair poke out of his old-school Swix Nordic ski hat. The beard he’s trying to grow only makes his boyish face look dirty. And his body—wiry from years of endurance-sport training—weighs a slight 140 pounds and stretches to just 5’6”. His friends call him “a petite man,” but it doesn’t bother him in the least.

From beside him in the tent, I envy Scout’s comfort. The valve on my pad emits a menacing hiss, as the ground comes up to meet my hips. I flip around like a gasping fish trying to find a comfortable divot, but the more I do, the colder I get. I’m neither passive nor long-suffering so instead of duking it out with the dirt for a second longer, I get up, crawl out of the tent, and scavenge the floor mats from the car.

Sometimes you plan for one thing and something entirely different happens, like prepping for the desert and getting the Arctic. Or like raising your kid to love what you love so he’ll always want to adventure with you, and he does grow to love those things, but not always with you. That’s the hardest part, but isn’t it also the point?

I remember the feeling in my chest the first time my husband Shawn left for work and it was just infant Scout and me alone in our Granby, Colorado, home. Scout was wailing and I was trying not to. I lay him on my bed in a ring of pillows and tore through the place seeking his carrier. I’d only put him in it a few times without someone else’s help. As soon I pulled him and the pack to my chest and I felt the warmth of his baby breath, my tears stopped, as did his. The road from our home led to a burbling creek. I walked there with Scout and felt the world expand beneath our feet.

It amazed—then thrilled—me to learn that he could nurse while we hiked. If he still fussed in the pack, I’d take him out, cradle him in my lap, and tickle his feet with wildflowers. In this manner we wiled away the hours of our first summer together. More often than not, he’d snooze on our walks, and I dreamed of all of the dayhikes, backpacking trips, mountain bike rides, and ski tours we’d take as he grew into the person I hoped he would, the person Shawn and I would help him become.

My willful toddler soon became my willful little kid, who to my delight, rejected the various organized sports our small mountain town offered. Scout mirrored me as someone who feels more comfortable outdoors than anywhere else. He grew to love trail running—like me!—and Nordic skiing—like me!—so I found myself sharing more of these adventures, teaching him, splitting the parenting work with Shawn and the wilds.

Pretty soon, outdoor adventures eclipsed all of Scout’s other interests, and Shawn and I fed our budding outdoorsman a steady diet of opportunities. There was the Outward Bound course in Oregon’s Three Sisters Wilderness when he was 15 (on which, his instructors say, he clandestinely carried more group gear than he was supposed to); the three different multiday, multisport, front-door-to-side country trips he led for his friends (at 14, 15, and 16); and countless half-day trail runs, all-day speed hikes, Nordic ski days, and mountain bike rides he and I took together.

I watched my son grow spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Along the way, he became adept at everything from winter camping to class 3 scrambling to backcountry skiing. Then he turned 18, graduated high school, and got into college, which I’d more or less prepared myself for.


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Fall 2020