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Fostering the Adventurous Spirit At Home (In No Particular Order)

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]On a recent visit to Shelly’s Back Room in downtown DC with a friend and colleague, we exchanged a variety of ideas for the school, and at one point, he gently reminded me that we can’t really do everything. While we attempt to push the boundaries of possible when we can at school—such as flaming arrows in the Valley, Crescite trips across the globe, and summer expeditions to Minnesota and Montana—we are mere partners in the grand venture of raising boys into men. It is the parents with whom the primary responsibility lies, and in that vein, I share a baker’s dozen of suggestions to foster an adventurous spirit on the home-front.

1. Start Young (Though It’s Never Too Late to Start)

I remember a friend lamenting his lost youth after he got married. It was not that he was unhappy in his marriage; rather, he felt that he could no longer answer the call of the wild. Yet this is the most opportune time to scratch that itch because we are now prepared to share our love of the mountains and rivers and oceans (and, yes, cities too!) with our boys and girls.

My wife and I took our now-nine-month-old daughter camping for the first time when she was four months old and had such a good time, we did it again the next month. Our oldest won’t remember these early trips into the wild, but we’re laying the groundwork for ourselves too: if we can do it with one baby, it’s not as big of a hurdle doing it with two this coming summer.

If you’re well past one or two, don’t despair! Just start small rather than with an overnight adventure (unless you’re hoping for a good story to share on Monday morning).

2. Unstructured Free-Play

I read recently that the average inmate spends more time outside than the average child by nearly two hours a day. But far-off trails need not be tread for children to have adventures. They can happen in our own backyard—we don’t even need copious acres with a creek running through them for these to occur. Unstructured free play, far from only an opportunity to “get out energy,” is a wonderful way to foster creativity and an active imagination. 

A game that we used to play as children was called “The Father Game.” I was the father defending the cabin and my family (younger sisters) from attacking Natives (one of my older brothers). Inevitably, I always died, the Indians vanquished our cabin in flames, and in my last croaking breath, I handed off my love and my rifle (whiffle ball bat) to my distressed children. We may have been on a third of an acre lot in a Northern Virginia suburb, but in our minds, we were on the wide open prairie of the American frontier.

3. Dirty Is Fun

With boys in the Valley, many of us have moved past the gut reaction of “I paid X amount of money to clothe you and you come back covered in mud?!” Some of this is solved by dressing properly, but the rest is solved by simply letting go. Getting dirty (or shall we say, “embracing the grunge”) is something we can all get behind—not only does it boost our immune system, but it also makes us more human. We’re not meant to be cooped up in climate-controlled settings. And once you get dirty, getting cleaned up is worth the fight: a true gentleman should be able to chop logs in the morning and attend a cocktail party in the evening.

4. Read Good Books

…I was nervous and timid. Yet from reading of the people I admired—ranging from the soldiers of Valley Forge, and Morgan’s riflemen, to the heroes of my favorite stories—and from hearing of the feats performed by my Southern forefathers and kinsfolk, and from knowing my father, I felt a great admiration for men who were fearless and could hold their own in the world, and I had a great desire to be like them.  Theodore Roosevelt

Good reading stimulates the active imagination in a way that passive scrolling does not. If boys don’t enjoy reading, graphic novels like Tintin or Lucky Luke will suffice to grease the reading cogs for greater ventures into the written word. 

Many years ago, my mother packed up several of us kids into our Ford Econoline van and took us out for a hike. The younger ones were not stoked at the prospect of going for a hike in the winter, but we turned it into a game, referring to the trail blazes as “the sign of the beaver” (from Elizabeth George Speare’s novel) and handing out Native names to each sibling. Soon enough, laughter echoed through the trees and the cold became a distant memory. To this day, hiking East Coast trails on early morning or foggy treks, I still think of that book whenever I find the next blaze.

5. Eat Well

Enjoying a solo venture on a mountain many years ago, I found myself feeling somewhat lightheaded as I was cresting the tree-line. A brisk wind was blowing and snow had begun to fall, and each succeeding step seemed to carry me further into exhaustion. I was traveling light (i.e., no water or food) and it seemed that all was hopeless. In seeming desperation, I whispered a prayer to my guardian angel and stumbled forward. On my very next step, nestled between a triumvirate of rocks, I found a handful of peanut M&Ms lying on the ground, no wrapper or hiker in sight. I eagerly gobbled them up and order was restored within my anatomical system. Not one to count on miracles, ever since, I depart for day hikes with enough snacks to get me through an apocalypse (and never get around to eating them).

More than snacks, however, good meals make everything better. If you’ve got it into your mind to head for the hills, packing a scrumptious picnic will add a little zest to your day. On the flipside, planning a hearty hamburger feast to the end of an arduous trek will keep you going when the going gets tough and erase any memory of misery once you sink your teeth into it.

6. Dress Properly

In my time working as a snow coach/snowmobile guide in northwestern Wyoming, we experienced numerous days when the ambient temperature was 30 degrees below zero. Dressing poorly would have been disastrous, but dressing properly allowed one to feel as if cold was conquerable. There is a certain thrill to being able to thrive in such temperatures, and with it comes a comfortability that makes such a challenge thoroughly enjoyable.

Dressing properly—layering up (and layering down) in the mountains, comfortable walking shoes in the city, etc.—make or break a trip. On a bachelor party hike a couple years ago in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, we planned for lunch on the summit of our third peak. It was May and in the 70s at the bottom when we started out, but at the top, it was still March and in the 40s. Needless to say, with all the groomsmen in shorts and t-shirts, we skipped the summit lunch. No matter the view, it’s just not fun to be cold.

7. Scale Up

One’s first adventure into the wild world beyond should never be a week-long backpacking trip, nor trying to survive in the big city without knowing your way around.

Just like drinking a fine Scotch, adventures must be enjoyed and savored—sipped, you might even say. For example, if you’re new to going into the city, attempting to enter the Natural History Museum on a summer Sunday is a recipe for disaster. Find an off-day and don’t spend more than an hour inside the museum (this goes too for the best Smithsonian museum, the National Gallery of Art—don’t be bashful, bring your children, but don’t push beyond an exhibit or two and find something that they will enjoy!). Plan ahead and find a gelato shop nearby, or better yet, pack a picnic to enjoy down the street in the National Gallery of Art sculpture garden or on the mall. 

8. Do It Frequently (or at Least Regularly)

Adventuring, like any good thing, is a habit; it is easy to become complacent in the comfortable luxuries of central air or radiant heat. Setting aside a Sunday a month for a trip into the woods (or the city!) makes a world of difference when it comes to surviving the doldrums of the January to Easter slog. That is not to say to limit your excursions to four months out of the year! On the contrary, climbing into the habit of going on excursions will only whet the appetite to “challenge up.”

9. Challenge Up

Over Christmas break, my colleague Brendan Regan and I lit out for the mountains. With a full day to spare, we naturally decided to leave town at 2 a.m. in order to summit Old Rag before first light. I’d climbed the rocky crag numerous times and while any trip to the hills is worthwhile, it seemed the ideal time to up the ante. While we waited for the sun, we made some hot cocoa at the first sign of light and, as that lovely orb first peaked above the horizon, we poured a tipple of Johnnie Walker to toast her warm embrace.

Adding little manageable challenges (properly rewarded, of course) not only stokes the fire to blaze anew but also leaves us yearning for more, leading us to push constantly onward, and ever upward.

10. If It Rains, Go Anyway (but Don’t Be Afraid to Bail Halfway Through)

Canceling plans because of rain can be a death knell for great adventures down the road. I remember asking a friend to join me to tackle the Billy Goat Trail one morning in the midst of a wintry mix. He declined, but I ran the several-mile loop anyway. Later, one of my sisters, who had at one time expressed an interest in being set up on a date with the young man, lost interest: “If he won’t hike in the rain, he’s not worth my time!”

If it’s truly miserable, deciding to abort can be not only prudent but also save the mind from trying to understand hardship for which we’re unprepared, allowing us to level up from Type III fun to Type II.*

11. Small Jobs (that Are Fun!)

Not long ago, I spent a week kayaking the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon in Utah. Unlike backpacking trips where you can simply bury bodily waste, everything must be carried out with you down the river. Every morning, as we broke camp, a friend and I volunteered to put away the groover (portable toilet) and package the poop. In the backcountry, one quickly learns that discomfort becomes impotent—even enjoyable—with laughter. What was a seemingly mundane and nasty job became a joy as we laughed our way through the task and took turns being the last to utilize our well-appointed positions. 

Little tasks that fit the skillset of older children—planning the picnic, choosing a hiking route, having a say in where to find a good sandwich—foster a sense of importance and responsibility that will only lead to growth and that necessary sense of being needed.

12. Take the Path Less Traveled

Roadtripping for the holidays can be a daunting task when faced with the traffic of the I-95 corridor, and there is no doubt about the feeling, at times, of a horse racing home to its stable. But if not pressed for time, it can be worth the while to find an alternate route far from the asphalt jungle of eastern New Jersey. Afterall, the backroads of America is where you’ll truly discover our wonderful country and all that it has to offer, such as the World’s Largest Ball of Yarn or the World’s Tallest Corn Cob or a little town that has retained its charm without falling prey to bougie boutiques. 

And while you’re at it, settling into a podunk greasy spoon with a deer head adorned in Christmas lights, newspaper clippings of the town’s 1970s triumph on the gridiron, and a waitress who says, “You must be from out of town,” is always worth the price of a longer drive.

13. Wear a Coonskin Cap

I only really include this to share the following story, but proper headwear makes any trip more enjoyable, whether it is a flat-brimmed trucker hat or a coonskin cap. 

Last month, while enjoying good conversation over a hearty sandwich with another teacher, a clamor arose from the Valley as a group of fifth graders descended upon an unmanned fourth grade fort. Dispatches from the frontlines filtered back to the building, and shortly thereafter a boy burst out of one of the classrooms, his heart filled with righteous indignation. He raced down the hill, a scowl upon his face, a howl upon his lips, and the tail of his coonskin cap sailing in the wind behind. Faced by this pugnacious little man, the fifth graders fled in fright, and once again peace reigned in the Valley.

* Type I Fun: Joy in the moment and an immediate desire to do it again.

Type II Fun: A character-building experience that is only truly enjoyed over a good meal post-event. A desire to do it again comes with hesitation, but grows in earnest over time.

Type III Fun: A character-building experience that is only enjoyed after many good meals and comfort have rectified the misery of the past. There is no desire to do it again. At least for many months or even years.


About the Author

Elias Naegele

Fourth Grade Homeroom

A native Virginian, a lifer, and the third of five Naegele men to graduate from The Heights, Elias first pursued his love for all things wild in Wyoming following his graduation from the University of Virginia.

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