Next Child in the Woods

What world are we showing our kids? What world will they learn to love? In this article, Craig Romano talks about how he is raising his son to appreciate and love our natural world.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Guidebook Author, Mountaineers Books
August 09, 2016
Next Child in the Woods

At age 18, I rode a bicycle around the United States. At 20, I road a bicycle across the country once again — and half-way across Canada. I then spent the next three decades hiking and backpacking all over North America — South America too — then off to Europe and a little of Asia as well. I worked in the Pyrenees as a guide, the White Mountains as a backcountry ranger, and a ski bum back east and out west — ran marathons and ultras including Boston and the White River 50-Mile — which I did to celebrate my 50th birthday. I hiked more than 25,000 miles in some spectacular settings — the Grand Canyon, Lost Coast, Iceline, Chic Chocs, Kluane, Torres del Paine, Breche de Roland, Stromboli, St. Helens, and Suraksan. Happily married and living life to its fullest — there was still something missing. And it was a big void.

I became a dad in my 50s. After a couple years of heavy self-reflection and soul searching — spending miles on the trail alone will do that to you — I realized I didn’t want to go through life without this amazing life stage: parenthood. And now, not even two years into this stage, I can’t imagine life without my son. 

I can’t believe I almost chose a path that didn’t include him. And I can’t believe that despite all of my past adventures and achievements, my life now contains so much more wonderment, contentment — and challenges. And one of the biggest challenges that my wife, Heather and I have accepted is to make sure that our son Giovanni will not be, with respect to Richard Louv, “the Last Child in the Woods.”

I have my mother to thank for introducing me to the woods. I spent my first eight years in Bridgeport, Connecticut — an industrial city 50 miles outside of New York City. In those early years, my mother enrolled me in a nature program at a science center just outside the city. My parents took me to state parks and nature preserves too, where I bonded with the natural world. I quickly grew fond of the outdoors and yearned for a life in the wild rather than in an urban jungle. When I was 8, my parents moved us to a small town of 3,000 in New Hampshire surrounded by woods to explore. I had found heaven! 

I quickly adapted to the lifestyle I yearned for — nature boy. You couldn’t get me out of the swamps and the woods — and there was no parental supervision either. It was just me and my free spirit blazing trails and heading deep into the New England wilderness. Or at least that’s what it felt like to a young boy with an insatiable wanderlust. No one to protect me from yellow jackets, water snakes, snapping turtles, poison ivy and poison oak. Nope, I learned about them all the hard way — and my love for the outdoors continued to grow. I learned about the birds and the bees by catching copulating toads. I learned about life and death observing the beauties and harshness of nature. I learned that the natural world made sense — the human world often did not.

Unlike so many kids today, you couldn’t get me to play indoors — no matter the weather and time of year. My small-town life in rural New Hampshire made all of the difference to who I am today and to the path in life I chose to follow. And I want my son to have the same outdoor opportunities I had — and to live a life that I believe is far more fulfilling, meaningful and spiritual than one achieved in the city and through materialism. I know I am up against great odds as our population continues to grow ever more urban, sedentary and wired. And the last one worries me the most. 

Today’s youth, with their copious gadgets, may be connected to the world — but they’re often disconnected to the community around them. They might explore the Amazon rainforest in a virtual setting, but the not the park just down the street in the flesh. They may know a lot about deforestation, but have never stepped foot in an actual forest. They know all about global climate change and its effects on the polar icecaps, but so little about the ecosystems in their own backyards and how to make the community around them a better place. 

Our son is not being exposed to any screen time during these formative years in his life. But we are over-stimulating him with nature, outdoor activities and a healthy lifestyle. I have taken him on close to 100 hikes so far. On my back we have explored alpine meadows in Mount Rainier National Park, desert landscapes in Joshua Tree National Park, and dramatic shorelines in Acadia National Park. We have not watched one cartoon together, but we have watched countless deer, eagles, rabbits, herons, frogs, and a myriad of other critters — even a bear — during our outdoor excursions. We haven’t been to Disneyland, but we’ve been to four national parks, and countless national forests, national wildlife refuges, state parks and nature preserves. We want our son to grow up with a love for the outdoors and a healthy lifestyle. We want activities like running, hiking, and camping to be normal to him — how life should be lived. 

Of course there are no guarantees on how our little bundle of joy will turnout as an adult. But we know that we must constantly model the lifestyle we would like him to pursue and to reinforce the conservation values and wilderness ethics we would like him to have. We know it’s done through discovery and play and a little bit (OK, a lot of) guidance. And all of that discovery and play has helped me to once again see the natural world through the eyes of a child. A time when every new revelation — no matter how common and banal we may have come to think of them now — is special, enlightening and life-changing. There’s nothing like seeing the ocean again for the first time, or noticing once again for the first time the intricacies in a tree’s bark, or hearing yet once more for the first time the piercing whistle of a marmot. It does a soul good to be in touch with his inner child. And it does the world good to bring up the next child in the woods. 

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2016 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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Anita Elder
Anita Elder says:
Aug 11, 2016 09:51 AM

When I was growing up, my family didn't have much money, so our vacations were always camping at some park. When I had my own children, I was in the Air Force and money was tight, so I continued the tradition of taking them camping and hiking. I started them as toddlers and still remember my youngest, at 2 years old, hiking to the top of Pinnacle Mountain in Arkansas....he would hike up, but I would end up carrying him back down.

My kids are grown now and they still love the outdoors. My youngest has a family and has continued the tradition of hiking and camping with his children. It really warms my heart to see photos of their adventures.