Michael Lanza and Family Spent a Year Backpacking Through The National Parks — Here's Why
Play the 1:51 video to hear the author read an excerpt and to see video footage from the adventures
I have a dream — no, actually a goal — to take my daughter down to Havasu Falls. I haven't been there in 9 years. We'll both strap on our backpacks, hike the 10 miles down Grand Canyon and along its sandy floor to camp, relax and play in the sapphire waters that flow through the canyon, where said waters create dreamlike pools in the rock and form Arizona's most recognizable natural waterfall. Maybe we'll day-trip it from the campground all the way down past Beaver Falls to the Colorado River, 8 miles one way, and back up to camp in a day. Maybe. Maybe we'll swing from a rope swing or two and splash into the chilly pools along the way.
I sometimes ache when, for instance, I see my daughter doing things like spelling words or adopting little mannerisms that she didn't know just weeks or months earlier. My stomach drops and I think My God, look at how fast you're growing up on me. I tally up all the things I need to do before she's gone . . . before I'm gone.
I'm not deluded into thinking I'm all that unique, as many of my friends look forward to the day their children turn 6 or 7 or so and have the endurance to carry their own pack for a mile or two into some rugged and beautiful place only accessible by foot. And thousands of others have already done so with their kids. Like Michael Lanza. He's the Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine and the creator of TheBigOutside.com, where he shares his stories and images from his outdoor adventures, many of them with his family, in the U.S. and around the world. His book Before They’re Gone—A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks (Beacon Press), traces his journey to show his kids iconic national parks that could be altered forever by climate change.
Wait, stick with me for just one more minute. His family's adventure struck me because it's so many things at once: a family vacation, time outside, a big adventure, a straightforward factual look into the effects of climate change upon our national treasures, but mostly because the story is told from the perspective of a father I identify with. Though Lanza and I have never clinked beer bottles at a campfire to toast the sore muscles of the good life, he's written words that could have been lifted from my very thoughts. Just a matter of paragraphs into the introduction of his book he writes, "Only out here [outside] do I spend hours a day just talking with my wife and kids." So I took a gamble and figured he must feel the way I do some days. I reached out to him, extended a virtual handshake and got a few questions answered.
I'm picking up multiple meanings in the title "Before They're Gone." Yes, the natural wonders of the Parks you explored are going away or being altered forever, but perhaps that also means your children? One day they'll grow up and move out, right?
The title’s double entendre was intended—yes, I realize that my time to share these experiences with my kids is limited, at least when you look at the big picture. My son is now 11 and my daughter is 9; in seven years, he’ll be off to school, and she’ll be gone in nine. When the day arrives that both of them have left home, I know it will seem like it passed quickly. I have many adventures in mind to accomplish between now and then.
So is it part of a father's responsibility to get his kids to care about what will happen to the planet?
As parents, we assume many responsibilities that are basic and unavoidable: feeding and caring for our kids, making sure they get their homework done, keeping them safe. I believe part of that mission should be getting them to think about their world, its problems and their personal responsibility to help solve those problems—or at least not make them worse. As parents, we’re in the best position to affect the type of citizen our children grow up to be—either apathetic and oblivious, or engaged, concerned, and informed.
We stimulate their minds and imagination when we discuss big topics with them—we get them to think. I also believe that if we do not raise our kids to be curious, we’ve failed as a parent.
About climate change, you write about some mighty alarming affects that we can already witness today and tell us, "These events are not freak occurrences; they are bellwethers of the tectonic shifts tearing through the natural world, wrought by forces we have set in motion but which now possess a momentum of their own." Freaky. Can the impacts of climate change be halted at this point, or is it too far along?
Good question, and one that is really central to the whole conversation about climate change. I think that we as people prefer to look at a problem in terms as simple as possible, and to believe there’s a solution that remedies the situation completely. Addressing climate change is daunting and depressing in part because of its complexity and the easy perception that the situation is hopeless.
Of course, if one of our children faced an unavoidable dilemma that seemed insurmountable to him or her, we wouldn’t say, “You’ll never be able to find a solution to that, it’s hopeless, so just forget about it.” We’d try to help that child figure it out.
So true. Good point.
Our climate dilemma is bigger than anything we’ve ever faced, but many good ideas for addressing it have been put on the table by many smart people. Global warming will not go away, but it will continue to worsen if we ignore it. We can choose to act to mitigate it and avoid the worst impacts—and by “worst impacts” we really are talking about fallout that could destabilize civilization. That’s the scenario we have to consider and avoid.
As I wrote in my book, “In spite of the overwhelming weight of science, we’ve failed to gather the momentum of honesty required to do what is necessary and right.” We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do much better than that.
What is the value in taking our kids to National Parks, or any wilderness, if they're going to grow up witnessing some of the most dramatic (and likely unstoppable) changes to these places?
If there was an amusement park or baseball stadium you grew up attending and you found out it was going to be torn down, you would probably want to take your kids to see it before it was gone. Of course, our parks won’t actually disappear completely; they will very likely go through some dramatic changes, but they will endure. What USGS biologist Dan Fagre said to me about Glacier National Park rings true of all these places: “It’s still going to be a beautiful park. The notion that it’s being changed ultimately by human activities is something people have to take responsibility for. These are really good things for people to be thinking about.”
In other words: There are big lessons to be drawn from understanding and teaching our children what’s happening to our natural world because of the activities of humans—lessons that will help them in life.
But on a more personal level, I take my kids on outdoor adventures in parks and wilderness mostly because we enjoy ourselves so much, and these experiences are unique and incomparable and bring us closer as a family. As I wrote in my book, we do it “for joy, curiosity, and wonder.”
Lanza's book is available for Kindle and Nook. If you want a hardcopy, I urge you to buy at your nearest locally owned bookstore. If you insist on buying online, I recommend Changing Hands Bookstore.