Hiking and the Holy Grail

A recent article in The New York Times described an unusual outdoors adventure: a week-long raft trip down the San Juan River in southern Utah undertaken by a group of neuroscientists to debate the effect of spending time “unplugged.” The skeptics in the group didn’t see much value in disconnecting from their electronic devices or from email and the web. Others saw value in stepping away from daily distractions. They wondered if our brains might look or act differently on the river or on a trail. The trip could be called a moving debate on the importance of vacations, especially vacations in the outdoors.

As it happens, I read the article a few days after it was published because we’d just returned from a three-day hiking trip. On the first day of our trip, Jim and the kids and I hiked several miles to a campsite next to a spring-fed lake and set up our tents. The next day, the four of us climbed a small peak; Virgil and I read on the summit while Jim and Ursula traversed to a second peak. Back at the lake, we swam in the cool water. We’d brought a pack of cards with us, and we played card games on a table-sized rock at the campsite. Virgil had finished his book at the summit, so I started reading to him from mine, an adventure story about a Viking set near the end of the first millennium.

It’s worth saying that Jim and I weren’t working, or taking phone calls, or doing chores around the house. When I took my place at the granite card table, my normal mental list, in which each item starts with Remember to ( … put laundry in dryer, call Mom, pay bills, start this, finish that), was gone. In its place was a single thought, not even a command, that I might characterize as Just be here.

During our three backcountry days, I reminded Jim of something our friend Whit once told us. Whit is the father of three daughters and an avid parent and outdoorsman. A few years back, in his pursuit of ever better parenting, he attended a lecture by Mary Pipher, Ph.D., best known for her book Reviving Ophelia. He passed on to us two simple pieces of advice from Pipher for conveying strong family values to children, and staying connected with them through adolescence: One, eat dinners together as a family; two, take family vacations.

Our hiking trip gave evidence to his point, and Pipher’s. We grew closer as a family during our time on the trail and in camp. We shared old stories and developed new ones. We made up dumb jokes and laughed together. Virgil completed his first real backpacking trek without any complaint and basked in our appreciation of his accomplishment. Ursula stepped out, both as a hiker and as a helper around camp. Our second day in, a family — parents, two-year-old daughter, grandmother — took the other campsite on the lake. Ursula walked the toddler back and forth between our two camps while the adults set up camp, giving her full attention to the little girl as she pointed out each pretty wildflower.

The scientists on the river trip were paying attention to the quality of our attention. In the Times article, one of them said, “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” The article mentioned new research on working memory that suggests we should be careful of cluttering it too much, and thereby lose our ability to focus, to pay attention.

When I read that quote, though, I thought of the attention we give our children. Parental attention does seem to me a kind of holy grail. I value our recent hiking trip for many reasons, but one of them is the better, more focused and clear attention I could give my children.

This morning, I went online looking for the advice from Mary Pipher that Whit had passed on to us. I found this in an interview:
“Three things that adults remember with the greatest pleasure from childhood: time outdoors, family meals, and family vacations. So my simplest advice to parents is, if you want your children to have happy memories, spend time outdoors with them, eat family meals together, and take them on vacation. And they'll have good memories of your family.”

From what I’ve seen in our own family, and from what those rafting neuroscientists may determine, good memories probably aren’t the only benefit.

Learn more
- “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” (The New York Times, August 15, 2010)
- Mary Pipher’s books and research on adolescence and family life.
- Virgil and I are still reading The Long Ships, a recently re-issued book by the Swedish author Frans Bengtsson. Read the review in The Christian Science Monitor.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.

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