Dear all you parents and maybe someday parents out there: I am standing before you as indisputable proof that children become a product of what you expose them to and the passions you ignite in them. My parents instilled in my sister and me the value of the great outdoors at an early age. Time in nature was family time. Respect for wildlife was a fundamental lesson. Any day spent outside was a good day. Different cultures, cuisines, and perspectives were to be explored and embraced.
We were allowed to be dirty, to climb trees, to dig for worms. We were encouraged to be independent and silly. We were trained to be good campers who picked up after themselves and always made sure the fire was completely out before leaving. We grew up road-tripping in a big blue van mostly overnighting in KOA campgrounds or their superbly eclectic equivalents that could themselves be considered roadside attractions with menageries of odd offerings and novel-worthy characters. We sat by fires with strangers and broke bread, chopped wood, and shared road stories. Animals were revered and the land was a gift.
The childhood memories I hold most dear are of my dad desperately digging ditches around our tent to funnel water away in a Florida downpour…it wasn’t enough to keep the torrents at bay and we slept in the van that night waking up to a tent shredded by wind; raccoons dropping down from Spanish moss-covered trees onto our tent in the middle of night and opening zippers with their handy little fingers. I remember waking up to that masked little face at the foot of my sleeping bag and the characteristic chirping as the furry bandit scurried back outside, I remember a large black bear foraging our campsite in Michigan and my dad jumping in our van to warn other campers, yelling (with a Polish accent), “There is a big bad black bear” as he circled. The Griswolds had nothing on the string of comedy that befell us in the most marvelous and entertaining ways on our cross-country adventures. Cameras left on car roofs and not remembered till a hundred miles later, stumbles into cactus patches and hours of meticulous glochid removal courtesy of my mom’s duct tape ingenuity, bug bites to equal the most vicious case of chicken pox, flat tires, car fires, wrong turns and gas station sandwiches with questionable ingredients and expiration dates.
We saved turtles, snakes, and tarantulas that found themselves on roadways and we nursed back to health baby birds and tiny squirrels that fell from their nests. Recently, despite being in a hurry, I pulled over to rescue a rattlesnake from a busy road because that’s the muscle memory of the formative years…it’s just what you do when an animal is in need. Proof that those lessons last a lifetime.
Scrapes, bruises, and splinters were par for the course and tree houses and rope swings were our playground. I write this with a patch of poison oak on my forehead dirty nails, and a dozen scrapes on my legs from romping through the brush. My hair still smells like campfire and my counter is littered with the remnants of s’mores I have yet to put away.
We didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t need it because it was clear that cash was not a factor in having a good time. Nearly all my toys, clothing, and camp essentials came from Saturday morning garage sales found and circled in the corresponding section of our local newspaper. These days I buy my adventure gear on Ebay, Goodwill, and Craigslist…and campsites are still preferred over fancy hotels…even better is boondocking on public lands with nothing but stars overhead and the crackling of your own fire as a soundtrack. The smell of canvas from our old tent is pure nostalgic magic, replaced these days by ultralight materials for multi-day backcountry treks.
We attended Native American Pow Wows in fields full of fireflies with the smell of fry bread hanging in the humid Oklahoma air and distant lightning on the horizon. We were honored to be ceremoniously smudged by chiefs and asked to dance in tribal formation surrounded by regalia-clad men and women of local tribes. The chanting and rhythmic drum beats of tribal elders is still one of my favorite sounds in the world.
Today I have my own smudging items…sage I pick and dry from my local hike, a hawk feather I found in the Alaskan wilderness, and an abalone shell I dived for off Catalina.
My sis and I laugh that we were the OG hipsters: road trips in a van, check. Native American Pow Wows and hanging out in tee-pees, check. Old school VW beetle, check. Camping vacations, check. Bison, check. Fondness for national parks, check. Copious amounts of turquoise jewelry, check.
When we first arrived in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, as Polish immigrants, we were invited to a Southern Baptist Sunday service. We sang and danced with the congregation and joined afterwards for the best Southern food you can imagine. We were the only Caucasian family in a church of over a hundred people and were so loved upon and welcomed. Our best family friends were from India, Iran, and Romania. We spent traditional holidays with them enjoying their food, company, and celebrations. On a recent trip to Tennessee we were invited to a Southern Baptist church and I couldn’t have been more at home and happy. Cultural immersion, even in our own country, is the cornerstone of my travels…and, man, do I miss good homemade Indian food.
We toured museums like they were theme parks and picnicked more than we ate inside. Still today, any meal eaten outdoors just tastes better…a few grains of sand or a fly in my soup are not a problem.
My bedroom walls were covered with posters of animals gathered from ranger stations…and national parks were the holy grail of good times.
These days, my furniture is artistically decorated with vintage National Geographic covers, my road atlas sits by my bed, I’m still drawn to ranger stations like a moth to flame, and I proudly carry the annual America the Beautiful national parks pass in my wallet.
Gifts I wanted were rock tumblers (my dad is a geologist) and microscopes so I could make my own slides and examine everything from butterfly wings to flower petals and record my findings in a notebook. I amused myself by playing travel agent and scientist in the backyard. When I got a little older (we’re talking high school) I would drive my friends to state parks around our home town and insist we reenact the Lewis and Clark expedition by swimming across rivers, exploring meadows, and pretending we were documenting the region for the first time.
These days, I tear apart owl pellets to examine their contents and carefully inspect bear poop, curious of their diet. I’ve even been known to take selfies with scat. I still make my friends pretend we’re on expeditions. Sometimes we actually are.
When I was around 10, I wrote to National Geographic telling them how much I wanted to work for them one day. They wrote back suggesting I follow a scientific path in college. I got a journalism degree instead but it all worked out in the end when I hosted a show for them in 2012, America’s Lost Treasures. Getting my publicity shot taken in that yellow rectangle made me cry and is still one of my career highlights.
Recently, my dad just updated my National Geographic magazine subscription as a gift to go along with the Scientific American he got me for my birthday. So, if you ever question whether your actions, words, deeds, passions, and guidance affect your kids…I assure you that they do. I’m living proof.
For a little more on raising a wild child, check out, well,How To Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature