It begins with Olympic level whining.
“Is there anyone else in the world that actually does this? Like, puts on a backpack and walks 10,000 miles?”
And since there are two oversized boys lined up for the event, hyperbole inevitably follows.
“This is the worst — you’re the worst for making us do this. It’s way too far and I’m way too tired. We won’t even have Wi-Fi!”
Driving to the trailhead elicits the worst whining — anticipation wreaks havoc on the tween brain. And though they’ve been hiking for the better part of a decade, the prospect of an overnight backpack horrifies my boys. That is until they stagger a few yards up the trail.
It’s like magic. We walk in the dirt for a quarter mile and their curated, tech-savvy brains start to melt. They smile more, crack jokes and play trail games. When we stop for water, I watch as their pre-YouTube brains reemerge; wonder returns — we all slow up just enough. By the time we make camp, the teenager even apologizes for the whining.
By now we all know about the need to unplug. We’ve learned about how the internet and smartphones change our brains: we scan instead of read, we feel the immediacy of the World Wide Web shrinking our attention spans, and we battle FOMO (‘fear-of-missing-out’). In Wyoming, legions of us run to the mountains to escape the heat and the tourists, shedding our electronic tethers in the process. It is one of the best reasons to take kids into the backcountry: no screens.
But my other favorite reason for summertime forced marches may be less familiar: I want my kids to learn “expedition behavior.”
Expedition behavior, EB for short, is a principal tenet of Wyoming’s National Outdoor Leadership School. NOLS founder Paul Petzoldt wrote about EB in his 1974 Wilderness Handbook defining it as “an awareness and attention to all relationships that influence an outdoor experience.” In the intervening years, expedition behavior has become a cornerstone of NOLS behavior on and off of the trail.
Time in the wilderness makes understanding EB easy — it means carrying your fair share, filling your hiking partner’s water bottle, remaining positive when the mosquitos are the size of military helicopters. It looks a bit like teamwork, a lot like manners, and when one learns it, EB can make grumpy teenagers into thoughtful grownups. Petzoldt’s basic concepts translate from backcountry to frontcountry easily — they have the potential to transform an office space just as easily as a mountaineering expedition.
In 1996 the NOLS Leadership Education project clarified expedition behavior with the following specifics:
• Serve the mission and goals of the group.
• Be as concerned for others as you are for yourself.
• Treat everyone with dignity and respect.
• Support leadership and growth in everyone.
• Respect the cultures you contact.
• Be kind and open-hearted.
• Do your share and stay organized.
• Help others, but don’t routinely do their work.
• Model integrity by being honest and accountable.
• Admit and correct your mistakes.
For my kids, hiking and backpacking has been the best classroom for modeling these ideas. Mr. Petzold’s concepts serve as touchstones for talking about responsible behavior; they point to what kind of parent I’d like to be and what kind of kids I hope to send into the world.
And in Sheridan, we are lucky. Getting out into the wild doesn’t always require gear or special training — we have trails like Soldier Ridge and Red Grade right here in our community. We can also walk into the Cloud Peak Wilderness in just a few hours. And (at least at my house) the whining only lasts on the short drive to the mountains.
The ideas prevalent in EB are not new; many parents credit team sports and academic pursuits with providing the same lessons. But the wilderness in our backyard is especially well suited to teaching us. It is accessible and unpredictable and beautiful — it is a resource we should rejoice in and protect, never taking it for granted. It gives us the opportunity to leave our devices behind, slow down, and watch our children grow.
Sarah Heuck Sinclair is a board member of the Sheridan Community Land Trust and an English instructor at Sheridan College.