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How spending time in nature as a kid changed me as an adult

Posted June 22

Kids, I want to tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I was also a kid. I had a lot of time on my hands. I had access to a TV that required the proper adjustment of its rabbit ears — that’s what we called the antenna — and it had a knob that changed the channels. There was no remote.

We didn’t have a computer. Or cellphone. Or internet. Or tablet. Or hand-held gaming device. It was just that one big, glass television in my parents’ bedroom that played my favorite cartoons in color, which was better than the little TV in the kitchen that only played things in black and white.

So, I had a lot of time on my hands, and I was mostly on my own filling that time with things to do. I watched a lot of cartoons. I stole fruit roll-ups out of the pantry. I rode my bike all over the neighborhood, and I wrote.

I took a notebook to the woods for inspiration, and I wrote stories about what I saw.

Looking back, I can see that those moments shaped me.

I didn’t grow up camping, hiking or boating, but I did grow up with a wild backyard perched over the Arkansas River in Oklahoma. I let myself get lost in the darkness of the forest around me. I spent hours watching the water far below. I listened to the birds and the crickets and the sound of the trees. I let the leaves and branches over my head catch the rain as the thunder cracked and rolled away. I let the light of day nearly disappear before I sprinted home, alone. Alone, alone.

I can see that you don’t have as much time on your hands. You have so many things to do. You have remote controls, computers, televisions, tablets and technology everywhere. Every day I have to wrestle with you to claim my place in your world that is so full of energy and noise. I hide the devices you hold in your hands, even though I am the one who bought them, and I let the batteries die because I want you to be educated, but I don’t want you to let yourself get lost in something that isn’t real. Where is your wild forest? Where is your shining lake?

Recently, I took you down to Kodachrome State Park in Utah, and we slept at the base of red-dirt spires that reached up to the skies. We left the rain fly off of the tent so we could see the banner of stars above us. We tiptoed in the darkness to brush our teeth in the bathroom with 50 other travelers. We hunted for scorpions and we barely made it back to our quiet camp before we fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. We let ourselves be scared of things — bugs, ants, dirt, predators — and we let ourselves be brave because we didn’t run away.

But I’ll be honest, there were a few times I wondered why we were there.

Every jaunt into the desert requires some adjusting. And during my adjustment, I cursed the gnats that would not leave my face alone. I blamed the park for the army of ants that marched through our site. The smoke from our fire bugged me. In the afternoon, I was hot. I was worried our ice would melt too quickly and the food would spoil. I yelled at you for not taking your shoes off when you got in the tent.

You loved the red rocks but hated the bugs. You could have lived in that winding slot canyon, but you balked at the sunscreen. You couldn’t believe how far we could see on top of that small mountain, but you threatened to fall off the side if you didn’t get something to eat soon.

Camping is a lot of work, but it is also a reward.

Wallace Stegner once said, “Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterwards.”

I want your filter to be the stuff of starry skies, rocks that glow in the sunset, the taste of marshmallows roasted over a fire and the closeness of sleeping in a tent. I want you to think back and remember feeling brave — smaller than the hoodoos and spires around you but bigger than a house because you are a part of this magnificent and complicated universe. I want you to have some time on your hands.

I want for you what Edward Abbey wanted for his readers, and I echo his words: “May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end … beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”

Gnats, heat, smoke and all — I’m ready. Let’s go.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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