by Abby Quillen
I grew up in Central Colorado, and most weekends my family piled into a canary-yellow 1975 Chevy pickup and pitched down rutted-out, rock-strewn roads to hike, explore, or cross-country ski at places with names like Mosquito Pass, Missouri Gulch, and Cochetopa Creek.
By the time my sister and I were 18, we’d both sucked in the thin air on top of a 14,000 foot mountain, run across high-mountain meadows, visited too many ghost towns to list, waded barefoot in ice-cold streams, and spent countless nights sleeping with only a tent and a sleeping bag between our bodies and the hard, cold ground.
Like any wilderness adventures, our outings weren’t always predictable or safe. My dad delighted in driving down twisting and switch-backed mountain roads, often with precipitous drop offs on one side. My mom spent most of our rides clutching the truck’s dashboard, taking in sharp intakes of air through her teeth. “Slow down, Ed,” she’d hiss. “Watch the road.”
Despite my mom’s careful backseat driving, my dad managed to get our truck stuck in some precarious places, notably on a ledge on Mount Princeton and another time in the mud up the North Fork.
Both my sister and I have scars to remember our excursions. When Columbine was nine, she talked my dad into letting her skip school and accompany him and a friend on a cross-country ski trip over Old Monarch Pass. They ended up stranded for several hours after nightfall, and my sister got frostbite on one of her feet.
A few years later, when I was eight, I raced my cousins down a steep section of the Colorado Trail during a family camping trip. I tripped and gashed my upper lip, scraped my chin, and more permanently, chipped my front tooth.
Today my own son is almost two, so I reflect on my childhood quite a bit. When my husband and I aren’t changing diapers or trying to serve a balanced diet to someone who spurns vegetables, we converse about how we might not ruin the little fellow.
We live in Eugene, Oregon, and there’s plenty of wilderness to explore around here. But we mostly amble down sidewalks, explore city parks, and bike down paved paths.
While I delighted in marmot and pica sightings as a kid, my son is more familiar with city creatures – the gray squirrels who run along our fence and taunt our cats, the ducks and nutrias who swim around the litter in the canal by our house, and the seagulls who dive for trash in the grocery store parking lot.
My husband and I want to get out in the wilderness more. But we tend to gravitate toward activities that fit into our son’s nap schedule and where there’s no danger he’ll toddle off a cliff face.
I don’t think we’re alone. In the 30 years between my second birthday and my son’s, everyone’s gotten more concerned about safety. We’re supposed to strap my son into a car seat until he’s seven. And according to Oregon law, he should wear a helmet when he’s riding his Strider bike, which doesn’t even have pedals.
Lately some folks are decrying the increased restrictions on children. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, warns against something called nature deficit disorder. And movements with names like Free-Range Parenting are cropping up.
Of course I don’t want my son to be deficient in anything, especially something as integral to my childhood as being outdoors. So last weekend my husband and I decided it was time to introduce my son to the wilderness. We were heading across the Cascades to visit my sister in Bend, and nothing says nature like crisp, high-desert air, windswept expanses and snow-capped mountains.
But on our first day in Bend, after my son took his nap and we were all ready for an afternoon hike, the sky turned black and rain started pelting from the sky. We decided to head to a pub for an early dinner instead.
The next day we’d planned a visit to the High Desert Museum, but afterward we stopped for a hike at the nearby Newberry Volcano. It was a scenic jaunt to the caldera, and my son managed the two miles mostly by himself. But the trail was paved, so it didn’t exactly feel like a wilderness excursion.
No problem, my husband and I thought. We’d just stop for a hike on our way back to Eugene the next day. The drive is beautiful, with dense Douglas fir forests and breathtaking views of Mount Jefferson and Three Fingered Jack. There would be numerous places to stop for a hike.
When we saw the sign for the Headwaters of the Metolius, I told my husband, “This is it. I’ve heard it’s beautiful.” So we followed the signs, parked, and started walking … on an asphalt path. It’s well worth the short walk to see the wide, sparkling Metolius River bubble out of an underground spring. But a hike it is not.
“We’ll just stop somewhere else,” my husband assured me as we got back in the car. But my son had other ideas. By the time we turned back onto Highway 126 he was fast asleep.
We’ll have to save my son’s introduction to the wilderness for another day. I’m hoping maybe my parents will be up for a hike when we visit Colorado this summer. Will it really hurt anything if my son wears a helmet on the outing?Abby Quillen is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene, Oregon with her husband, son, two cats, and four chickens. She blogs at newurbanhabitat.com.