Mileposts Episode 4: Little Explorers Club

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“Tommy grew up in Estes, but you notice that so many families and so many kids just don’t go into the National Park,” says Becca Caldwell. While Rocky Mountain National Park is just a short drive from Estes Park, CO., Becca found parents gravitated to the local playground or coffee shops for playdates. “Why aren’t we going out on the trails and letting the kids run loose? How can we change that for my son’s generation?” she asked. It’s a question that many experts have been asking too.

Today, for the fourth episode of our Mileposts series, we hike with the Little Explorers in Rocky Mountain National Park, and see how Becca’s simple act is forming a community of kids and parents out on the trails.

Transcript

Announcer Fitz: To unlock new experiences, you have to go past the parking lot, past the ranger station, past the places you know. Our national parks are our national treasure: places ancient, epic and wild. Where moments are simple and friendships come alive. To celebrate the centennial of our national parks, our team at REI wants to help you to go deeper and explore our nation’s most inspiring places. REI: A life outdoors is a life well-lived.

Becca Cahall: You’re listening to the Dirtbag Diaries, a production of Duct Tape, Then Beer, with additional support from Patagonia, Kuat Racks, and Fireside Provisions.

Tommy: We’re actually standing right in front of our bedroom door right now, which is like a big glass double door, so every morning when we wake up, we just roll over in bed and look at Longs Peak, which is, in my biased opinion, the coolest mountain in Colorado, for sure. Our house faces directly at the Diamond face, which is a 2,000-foot big wall that tops out at 14,000 feet. It’s a pretty cool view for a climber to have right from their bed.

Becca Cahall: This is Tommy Caldwell. He and his wife Becca and their two kids, Fitz and Ingrid, live in Estes Park, Colorado. Walk 20 feet out their back door, and you cross the boundary of Rocky Mountain National Park. Here’s Becca.

Becca Caldwell: I was even telling Tommy last night, we were outside and you could smell the trees, and I was like, “I remember as a kid coming out here and just smelling that smell.” I think I just always had a heart for the mountains.

Becca Cahall: Both Becca and Tommy feel a strong connection to the park, which, it turns out, is somewhat unique for young people who spent time in Estes during their formative years.

Tommy: I feel really lucky to be from a place that’s just so fun as a kid, which is really interesting, because none of the other kids embraced the mountains in that way. All my friends growing up, they knew the national park was there, but it was almost like they knew the television was there. You could go and look at it and it was pretty, but they didn’t really know how to use it.

Becca Cahall: Kids and the outdoors. For the last decade, it’s been a hot topic. Bestselling books like Last Child in the Woods or Barefoot and Balanced lament the loss of children’s physical connection to nature. Decreased time outdoors is linked to rising obesity rates, increased ADHD, myopian kids. Experts worry that the outdoors can’t compete with an iPhone, video games or social media networks.

When it comes to our nation’s best idea, the data suggest that there may be something to worry about. The average age of a visitor to Rocky Mountain National Park? 46. Not bad. Yellowstone? 54. Denali? 57. In the last two decades, the average age of a visitor keeps increasing. Maybe that’s understandable, with the Baby Boomers hitting retirement age. What’s not, though, is that the number of visitors under the age of 15 has decreased by half since 2005. Let me repeat that. In the last ten years, visitation by kids to parks has fallen by half.

That leads us to a troubling question: If the next generation doesn’t get outside or use the natural world, how can we expect them to conserve and care for it? How do we alter the course of that trend before we end up with a generation of kids without a connection to our landscape? The Caldwells, well, they may have found a way. It’s pretty simple, really. Today, we are headed to Rocky Mountain National Park for the next installment of Mileposts, our ongoing exploration of the intersection of people and parks. I’m Becca Cahall, and you’re listening to the Dirtbag Diaries.

Mike: When he was 3, I bribed him into climbing Twin Owls with me here in Estes Park because we’d given him a Spiderman kite. The idea was to get on top of Twin Owls, and we were going to fly the kite.

Becca Cahall: This is Mike Caldwell, Tommy’s dad. An avid climber and skier, Mike and Tommy’s mom, Terry, happily integrated two kids into their love of the outdoors.

Mike: Roped him up and took him up there. Windy day, but we got the kite up and flew it for about a half hour, and then the kite string broke and away the kite went, but Tommy was okay with that. I think he was just completely satisfied with that day.

Becca Cahall: Do you remember that?

Tommy: No. I have these vague flashes. I don’t remember the Twin Owls one at all, but I do remember, I have this very vague flash of around that same time in my life of sleeping in a snow cave up in the mountains here, and having this mouse come in all night long, and my dad clonking it with a shovel. I don’t remember that there was a blizzard going on, but of course, my parents tell the story that way. My mom was at home, and my dad was out with me and my sister. I was 3 and she was 5.

Becca Caldwell: The memories from my childhood, I’m always playing outside in our yard. I remember we would spend time camping and doing all those things. Then my great-aunt lived out here in Estes Park, and so we would come to Rocky Mountain National Park most summers and spend a week and soak in the mountains. I feel like something clicked in those trips that kept, gave me a heart for the outdoors.

Tommy: Most of my early memories are all cross-country skiing, like touring in the park.

Mike: We would do crazy long stuff, like the Shrine Pass by Vail and the Sourdough Trail up here. He had a great little snowsuit that was pretty weatherproof, and we’d get out in some awful conditions, and it never seemed to bother him. Life is about contrasts. You don’t appreciate being warm unless you’ve been really cold. You don’t appreciate a great meal nearly as much unless you’ve been really hungry. Most people don’t experience the hardships, and I think the hardships are really essential to being joyful about the joys.

Becca Cahall: When you had kids, did you think your climbing or your interest in climbing would change?

Mike: You know, I thought it would slow me down. It sped me up.

Tommy: I climbed to the top of Longs Peak for the first time for my 7th birthday. Apparently that’s all I wanted to do for my 7th birthday was hike, you know, seven miles each way up to 14,000 feet, so it was, like, a 15-hour day or something. Pretty real. Then, we climbed the Diamond for the first time when I was 12.

That day, there was this ice coming out of this chimney on top of the wall and falling down. On a big wall like that, it looks like it’s falling slow until it comes back by you and it whizzes by. Then we got in a crazy thunderstorm on top and ran down in the heat. Just a full-on adventure for a 12-year-old.

That’s when it started to click for me, like, “This is a really interesting, engaging world to be in, and pretty scary,” but it made me almost like the fear, in a weird way.

Becca Caldwell: These three pine trees in our backyard were my pretend horses, and we had these big lilac bushes and we made forts. I think there was just something with the imagination and getting lost in this other world.

Becca Cahall: Though their experiences differ, both Becca and Tommy feel at home outdoors and connected to Estes Park in particular. It’s where they met, and where they’ve chosen to raise their family. Fitz Caldwell was born three years ago. They welcomed Ingrid three months ago. Like any new parents, Tommy and Becca considered how a child might change their life, particularly getting outdoors.

Becca Caldwell: You know, before having a kid, you have this vision of what your family’s going to be like and what you’re going to do. Tommy and I, we talked about, “We want to get our kids out and explore and do all these fun things and expose them to cool experiences.” I think we just kind of went for it.

Tommy: I was a little bit worried about whether it would just complicate things so much and it would drop down on the priority list a little bit, I suppose. We overcompensated for the first couple years. We were out all the time, which I feel like was great.

Becca Cahall: Fitz’s passport definitely has more stamps than mine. The Caldwells traveled to Patagonia and Chamonix, Sicily and the Czech Republic. When they were stateside, Yosemite was like a home away from home. After Tommy’s success on the Dawn Wall, daily life shifted. Instead of traveling for climbing, Tommy was on the road doing speaking events like Google Zeitgeist and TED-X, film festivals, and doing a lot of interviews. He started writing a book. While Fitz and Becca still went on trips, they were in Estes more than they had been previously, and Becca noticed a trend.

Becca Caldwell: So many families and so many kids and people, they just don’t go into the national park. Being in the mom zone, too, everyone’s talking about, “Let’s go on play dates and we’ll go to this playground, or we’ll go to this coffee shop or this zone.” I was like, “What? Why aren’t we going out on the trails and letting the kids run loose?” How can we change that? How can we change that for Fitz’s generation and encourage people to get out? I was just like, “How can I make an impact with this community even if it doesn’t end up being a huge level?” I came up with this Little Explorers idea: basically, “We’re getting out, who wants to come with us?”

The Little Explorers, basically it’s just kind of a meet-up where we pick a trail and pick a time and we get together and we let the kids do their thing. Our goal was to have it be child-led, where basically, if the kids want to take off, they take off, and if they want to make it 30 feet away from the trailhead and they just sit and hunker down and are throwing rocks or playing with sticks, whatever. Basically, we just want them to feel comfortable.

Fitz Caldwell: I can’t. I want to go there.

Tommy: You want to go to there?

Becca Caldwell: We’ve got to wear a hat because the sun’s really bright.

Becca Cahall: Do you remember where Lily Lake is?

Becca Caldwell: And, we’re going to put sunscreen on.

Becca Cahall: Mm-hmm.

Fitz Caldwell: I’m okay.

Becca Cahall: You’re okay!

Becca Caldwell: Hey look, we have lots of friends here today.

Tommy: Should I put Ingrid in this?

Becca Caldwell: Yeah. I’ll put her in the Ergo. Or you can, whatever.

Tommy: Whatever.

Becca Caldwell: I’ll put her in the Ergo and you can carry the backpack. Let’s go see who’s here, Fitz.

Becca Cahall: Just six miles from Estes and inside the park boundary, a mile-long trail encircles Lily Lake. Nearly a dozen kids, ranging in age from one to five, gathered, amusing themselves by throwing sticks in the lake, scrabbling in the dirt, or hanging tight with their parent.

Tommy: I’m Fitz’s dad.

Becca Caldwell: Do you want to go see if Rine has caught any fish yet?

Speaker 7: Yeah, that’s Fitz’s daddy.

Becca Cahall: The parents chat easily. Welcome to Little Explorers. Then, as if someone dropped the race flag, the kids set off on the trail.

Becca Caldwell: Some days, we actually hike, but a lot of the time, it’s like a little hike and then a lot of playing.

Becca Cahall: The Little Explorers make their first stop about 200 yards down the trail at the water’s edge.

Speaker 7: You can take your shoes off.

Tommy: Daddy will walk in the water with you. Want me to walk in the water with you?

Becca Cahall: Shoes come off, pants get rolled up, or not, and kids and a few parents get in the water. It may seem chaotic, disorganized, or better known as fun.

Speaker 7: Bumpy! Look at this!

Speaker 8: I think that having other kids to watch and bounce ideas off of … Because they’ll challenge each other to try things that may not happen organically without a group. I love it, and I’m like, “I’m going to prioritize this pretty much as much as I can every week to be here,” because I just think it’s so good for them. It’s one of the best things that we do.

Speaker 9: You see all the birdies, Hannah? Flap their wings?

Hannah: Oh!

Becca Cahall: What’s it feel like?

Hannah: Let’s all go step on that rock.

Becca Caldwell: I think I went into it with very low expectations, “We’re going to do this anyways, and if people can come, that’s awesome,” and I think it was welcome. People were excited about it and just glad to have someone else to get their kids out with.

Tommy: Think you can walk across without getting wet?

Fitz Caldwell: I’ll get wet.

Becca Cahall: Now what do you see?

Becca Caldwell: I think it’s held me accountable, too, because there are some days where it’s cold and windy, and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to go, I don’t know if I want to rally and deal with this.” Every person has those days, and even if it’s for 40 minutes that we’re outside or even shorter than that.

Fitz Caldwell: I felt a raindrop … I felt a raindrop and I think it’s raining.

Becca Cahall: You do?

Fitz Caldwell: Yeah!

Becca Cahall: Wow!

Becca Caldwell: The kids are at a point … We’ve been doing this for a year now, so they’re comfortable with each other and they’re comfortable with getting outside and just the whole program. Kids are scrambling up rocks and they’re playing in this mud river and doing all these things and throwing rocks in the water. They’re so at home outside and just in their zone doing their thing. I just sat there and watched all of this unfolding in front of my eyes. I was like, “This is what I envisioned.” This is what I wanted, seeing kids psyched to be outside playing and interacting with nature. One of the days where I’m like, “This was my vision,” and it fully unfolded in front of me.

Tommy: I mean, I know that having these very memorable experiences outside, like getting in crazy thunderstorms when I was 10, these things, I’m pretty sure they shaped me in a way that wouldn’t have happened otherwise because I crave that kind of stuff. I crave that stimulation. I want to feel the power of nature. I love going out when it’s crazy windy outside, because I have these memories of it as a child. I feel like it does make it so that we see a lot of really cool stuff.

One of my big flaws is I’m always too go-for-it, and with a 3-year-old, that’s not always a good thing. When I go out hiking with the family, I’m like, “We have to summit a mountain!” I look at Little Explorers, and I’m like, this is actually really good for me, to just let the children dictate what you do, and slow down. It’s something that I know I need to develop within myself that’s going to be better for the kids.

Becca Caldwell: I feel like that’s the important part of getting out with kids, is knowing that some days, it’s going to work out awesome and you’re going to be like, “This is what I envisioned, this is how I thought, we’re going to be outside as a family.” Then, there’s other days where it’s not happening and you just have to be okay with that and then you try again the next day or a couple hours later.

Tommy: I feel like this world for her was pretty new when we first met, and so she has this youthful energy about it and this love of life and being outdoors and nature and travel, and she wants to foster that in the kids probably a lot more than I would, even. She’s really figured out how to bring the community into it, which I feel like is a great balance.

Becca Caldwell: Even with us, it’s easy to get caught up in the emails and work stuff and just be in the zone, and then suddenly you’re like, “What have we done today?” That’s the cool thing about this, is it’s easy and low-key. You can go anywhere. We’re super lucky that we live here and in Rocky Mountain National Park. But, like, one day, we just came in our backyard and we have trees and there’s some green space, and we just kind of wandered around. I don’t think it has to be anything huge and grand and epic … Just being comfortable outside. Then, wherever you go, you’re a little bit familiar.

Becca Cahall: The Park Service is trying to increase the number of young visitors to national parks. They give free passes to the families of 4th graders, which is awesome. But if a parent doesn’t take their kid with a free pass, nothing’s changed.

Tommy: I think it was just my parents’ influence that really got me out there doing it, and it was huge. It totally shaped my life.

Becca Cahall: Getting more kids outdoors and engaged with nature will be solved family by family, parent to parent.

Becca Caldwell: We just went somewhere, and someone was like, “Oh, I heard you have this little kids’ outdoor thing, and I’m pregnant and really excited to be a part of it once my kid gets older, and we can come out and go on adventures.” I was like, “Oh, the word’s spreading! That’s fun.”

Becca Cahall: Hopefully the word will spread to communities far from the borders of our national parks. The green space near your house is just as valuable to your kid’s innate need to explore, to be curious, to understand why bark floats or where the ants go in the winter. It’s a choice and a commitment from the parents, who continue to push themselves as they introduce their kids to life on the trail.

Becca Caldwell: Meltdowns happen everywhere, right?

Becca Cahall: If a meltdown can happen anywhere, why not do it surrounded by sky and dirt, bird songs and waterbugs?

So do I have you inspired to start your own Little Explorers club? Do it. If you post a photo from your outing on Instagram, hashtag it #thelittleexplorersclub. I can see it: a network of moms getting out into the wilds.

Announcer Fitz: Support for Mileposts comes from REI. Check out their national parks app, a crowdsourced guide with beautiful photos and maps of the best trails. Nearly two dozen National Parks are complete, with another three dozen in progress. Go out and find your park. To learn more, visit REI.com/nationalparks. REI: A life outdoors is a life well-lived.

Additional support for the Diaries comes from the good people at Patagonia and from Fireside Provisions, mouthwatering meals for the campfire or cabin, and also from Kuat Racks. A little team of avid cyclists believed that they could build a better bike rack. From the Transfer to the Envy, you’re sure to find one that suits your style. Check out their line-up at kuatracks.com.

And, the Diaries is also made possible by you. Yes, your donations power us. Thank you for that. Seriously. It makes a big difference. It allows us to travel, allows us to cover more stories, hire more people, do all that. Thank you. I’m raising my Dirtbag Diaries coozie to you. “Coozie?” you ask. Yes. You can have one too. To pledge your support, visit dirtbagdiaries.com and click the button in the upper right hand corner and give us what you can. We appreciate it.

Music today from Justin Townes Earle, Publish the Quest, and Amy Stolzenbach. The tracks are courtesy of Free Music Archive and the artists. Jacob composed our theme song, and, as always, you can find the links to the artists at our website, dirtbagdiaries.com.

Thanks to Becca, Tommy, Fitz and Ingrid for letting us spend the day with them and the Little Explorers. Here’s a final word from Tommy.

Tommy: I have a huge amount of pride that I spend 80% of the days of my life, at least part of them, in a national park somewhere. Every year when I buy my National Parks Pass, I’m like, “This is the best money I’ve spent all year long.” I want to have to buy it every month. I love the national parks.

Announcer Fitz: That’s right. Get your park passes. It’s summertime.

This episode of the Diaries was edited by Jacob Baine and written and produced by Becca Cahall and me, Fitz Cahall. You have been listening to The Dirtbag Diaries. Thanks for tuning in.

Listen to more Mileposts episodes.