I was swimming in a pool on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park when it hit me: I like swimming in pools. Especially when I go camping. I was spending two days camping with the kids at Jellystone Park—one of those Yogi Bear themed park campgrounds complete with swimming pool and a putt putt course. This is not how my outdoor adventures typically go.
Picture a heavily bearded dude bleeding his way through a thicket of rhododendron. Or sleeping in the trunk of a car at a remote trailhead. Or getting frostbite in a rare Southern snowstorm a mile above sea level. Or not sleeping at all—just pushing through the night hoping to get home before dawn when his wife would certainly call in a rescue.
This was life in the outdoors before kids. Roughing it in an ultra-light bivy, wishing I had packed a pillow and something other than bars to eat.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve got four-year-old twins. Now picture my wife and me doing everything we can to ingrain a sense of outdoor adventure into our children. Ski trips, impromptu hiking excursions, obligatory camping trips, tracking elk in the Smokies, rock climbing lessons, canoe trips, slacklines, road trips linking national parks together…I probably spend as much time in the outdoors now as a parent as I ever did as a solo dirt bag, but the two lives could not be more different. Like, tortoise and hare different.
Our culture spends a lot of time focusing on badass accomplishments in the outdoor industry. Fastest Known Time. Toughest route on the wall. Steepest black diamond. That obsessive sense of extraordinary accomplishment tends to trickle down to perfectly ordinary adventurers like myself. The only Fastest Known Time I have is the FKT for sprinting to the beer cooler after the weekly ride. But even in my own slack-ass adventures that warrant no records or media attention, I tend to push myself. I track every run and ride with a GPS, just to see if I’m getting enough vert. Enough distance. Enough speed.
On a very core level, I’ve always been overly concerned with the difficulty of any given adventure. Is that mountain bike trail technical enough? Is that trail run long enough?
I’ve lived next to the Smokies for 10 years, but have spent more time bushwhacking inside the park than hiking designated trails, because I thought those designated trails weren’t tough enough. “You mean there’s a trail to that overlook? With people? And blazes? Lame. I’ll take this alternate route over here through these briar fields and rattlesnake den.”
But then, kids entered the picture. And here’s the beauty of having kids—it gives you an excuse to take it easy. To eschew long miles for short nature trails with killer views. To find rivers without waterfalls to paddle. To bike the gravel roads instead of the gnarly singletrack. To join the smiling crowds on the .7-mile paved nature trail.
There may have been no stopping to smell the roses before (why bother? They just smell like roses—and manure), but if you’ve got kids in the outdoors, you’ve got to smell the roses. It’s not optional. Chances are, you’ve got to collect the dead rose petals and make a necklace out of them. Right there on the trail. While eating Goldfish crackers.
And here’s what I never realized until I had kids: Taking it easy is awesome. Those nature trails and drive-thru overlooks: gorgeous. Spending an hour in the creek at the campground looking for salamanders instead of bushwhacking to the creek’s source: awesome. Spending an afternoon swinging in a hammock instead of pushing it to the tallest summit in the park: awesome.
Do you know why that .7-mile nature trail to the top of Clingman’s Dome is crowded? Because the view is incredible. Arguably better than any view I’ve bushwhacked to reach. They put that crazy spaceship observation tower in that spot for a reason.
Don’t get me wrong–there’s nothing wrong with pushing yourself, or choosing the hardest route to the peak. I’ll never completely give up the pursuit of truly epic adventure. But traveling with my kids allows me to see a whole different side of the Great Outdoors. A side with ice cream. And naps. And the occasional swimming pool