Three Generations Outside: A Love Letter to my Sons and Granddaughters

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Anita Elder discusses the importance of getting outside, what it means to 'look the part', and how she has helped her granddaughters develop a love of nature.
Anita Elder Anita Elder
Hike Leader and Photography Committee Chair
April 13, 2019
Three Generations Outside: A Love Letter to my Sons and Granddaughters

Our small town in rural Pennsylvania didn’t have a community center. Or a swimming pool. The only thing for us children to do when we weren’t in school was hike the surrounding hills and mountains. My family was poor, so we never went on vacations that didn’t involve a tent or camper. My strongest and most vivid memories growing up are from experiences in the outdoors. Spending time in the forests and mountains is as natural to me as breathing.

After graduating from high school in 1977, I entered the Air Force, where I spent the next 15 years. I joined the Air Force to get away from my small town where my choices were to marry a farmer or a drunk (or both).

While in the Air Force, I started my own family and continued the tradition of camping and hiking. It was something I could do with them that was inexpensive, yet very liberating.

My (ex)husband wasn’t an outdoor person, so it was just me and my two boys. When they were only two and four, they’d hike to the top of Pinnacle Mountain in Arkansas. When we lived in Germany (for a total of six years in the 1980s), they’d hike 10K Voksmarches through vineyards and forests. (A Voksmarche, which stand for people’s march, is a noncompetitive walk in Europe.) When we were stationed in southern California, we’d meet my brother at Zion National Park to camp and hike the many trails.

One of my favorite memories was taking a neighbor and her son along to Zion. They’d never been camping or hiking and originally came from Compton, California. They had so much fun they couldn’t stop talking about it and soon bought equipment to go on trips of their own. That trip has fond memories for me. We found the rendezvous site of Butch Cassidy on one of our hikes, and the boys spent hours chasing lizards around the old school house. My oldest found a horse grazing nearby and hopped on its back before I could blink, galloping away, bareback, with the biggest smile on his face (before I caught up and halted his fun). At the end of the day, a German family camping next to us shared their bounty of fresh corn. We all ate around the campfire, enjoying good food and new friends.

Just about every weekend in the summer, we were off camping and hiking somewhere.

I know these were special times for my boys. When my youngest son graduated high school, he thanked me for these childhood memories in a Mother’s Day card. I still have it.

Mag to blog three generations outside tree.jpgAmiyah shows how big the broken tree is. Photo by Anita Elder.

Looking the part

I never really thought about it at the time or noticed that my children, who are biracial, looked different than the average camper and hiker. It wasn’t until I was much older and a Mountaineers member that I became aware that there isn’t much racial diversity on the trails. We just enjoyed the outdoors and made it a point to hike and camp as much as possible… except for when we lived in Texas.

We moved to the Lone Star State in the early 1990s, and for the first time, we felt blatant hatred and bigotry. People in east Texas were always staring at us. We were once refused service at a restaurant. They didn’t come right out and say anything, but after 30 minutes of them completely ignoring us, we knew. I even lost a job when the owner discovered I was married to a black man (and only a week after I had received my third raise in three months for great work). Seeing such hatred directed at my family, I wasn’t as comfortable taking the boys hiking or camping. We still went to the lake to swim, but I don’t believe we ever went on an overnight trip in the Texas.

Discovering The Mountaineers

I moved to Puget Sound in 1996 and got a divorce later that year. My boys were teens by this time and opted to stay in Texas to finish school and stay with their friends.

As I got older, I wasn’t able to hike like I used to due to severe arthritis in both knees. I tried not to let it stop me from enjoying the outdoors. And, since my new husband didn’t really hike, I would often go on my own. At first, I joined a local Volksmarching club and did 5K and 10K walks on the east side of Lake Washington.

I didn’t discover The Mountaineers until 2007 when I took a photography class elsewhere, and the instructor recommended The Mountaineers Photography Committee. My first event with The Mountaineers was at Discovery Park taking photos of mushrooms. I ended up taking the Basic Photography Course later the next year. In 2017, I became chair of the Photography Committee. Over the years, I’ve led Mountaineers trips to Crater Lake, Ebey’s Landing, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, and dozens more. I love hiking with a camera in hand, and introducing others to one of my favorite activities. Photography offers you opportunities to explore the same place in new and different ways, and to appreciate all of the perspectives available if you take a few extra moments to look for them.

Introducing another generation to the outdoors

Two years ago, my youngest son Marcus’ family moved back to the Pacific Northwest.

His daughters, Amiyah, age 12 and Avenleigh, age 7, developed a love for water during their younger years in Hawaii. But hiking through the woods is new for them. Marcus took them camping a few times on the beach, but as a member of the Navy, he’s often out at sea. His (ex)wife wasn’t raised with camping or hiking, so she never thought to do that with the kids. Excited to have my granddaughters so close again, I was eager to introduce them to the outdoors.

At first the girls whined about how far we were going: their feet hurt; they were cold, etc. I was determined to “toughen them up.” Plus, I felt they needed to get outside in the fresh air instead of sitting around playing computer games all day. As Jim Whittaker is fond of saying, “They need more green time and less screen time.” 

To better prepare myself, I picked up a few books like Susan Elderkin’s Best Hikes With Kids: Western Washington, published by Mountaineers Books. I also read articles from the Washington Trails Association, especially the Tips and Tricks section.

One of the great tips I learned was: Find ways to keep kids engaged while they’re hiking. The next time we hit the trails at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island, I gave each of the girls a point and shoot digital camera. The camera gave them something to do and somewhere to focus their energy. Soon, they forgot about how far we were hiking or when we were leaving. Their complaints transformed into lively discussions about the names of plants, trees, and small animals.

On our next hike to Franklin Falls, their mother came along and the girls were eager to show off their newfound knowledge, grabbing their mom by the hand and telling her the names of things they’d learned. They knew what a sword fern looked like, and they could tell the difference between a ground squirrel and a chipmunk. But, they still complained about their feet being cold. Our next step was to get them decent hiking boots and socks. I know from experience that wool socks and comfortable boots make all the difference in the world!

A summer of fun

Because The Mountaineers helped me over the years, introducing me to new locations and learning new skills, I wanted Amiyah and Avenleigh to experience The Mountaineers Summer Camp. I’ll admit to having an ulterior motive: I wanted them to learn that the color of their skin shouldn’t stop them from enjoying what this world has to offer. I wanted them to have experiences that would make them strong adults.

Avenleigh - Goggles (1).jpgAvenleigh wears her signature googles at Mountaineers Summer Camp. Courtesy of The Mountaineers.

Since the girls live in Everett, they spent the week with me so I could ferry them to and from the Seattle Program Center each day. They always love spending time with me and I look forward to their visits. That said, it had been a long time since I had young kids underfoot for an extended period of time.

On the first day of camp they were nervous. They’d never climbed a wall or kayaked on a lake; plus, they didn’t know anyone. These are all very normal kid (and adult!) anxieties. I reassured my granddaughters that they’d have fun, then left them in the care of the competent camp staff. What a change a day can make! Picking the girls up at the end of the day, they were so excited. They kept talking over each other – competing for my attention – to tell me what they did and how much fun it had been.

Over the next week, the girls made new friends and one mom even asked for a play date. They learned to make survival huts after a field trip to Monroe. They swam and hiked and kayaked and played. Avenleigh wore her swim goggles all day on the second day. By the end of the week, Amiyah loved the kayaking the most; Avenleigh loved climbing the wall. Both exclaimed that they couldn’t wait for next summer so they could go to camp again. Since I wasn’t there during the day, I really loved looking through the photos that The Mountaineers posted at the end of the week.

New family traditions

My son Marcus wasn’t able to move back with his family right away due to military obligations, but when he finally settled back in Everett we went on a family camping trip over Labor Day weekend to celebrate. I made reservations to tent camp at Lake Easton State Park, just past Snoqualmie Pass. The water was too cold for swimming, so we found some hikes around the state park. We drove to Hyak and hiked the Snoqualmie Train Tunnel Trail. Even though the tunnel and return are rather long for young kids, I didn’t hear any complaints. Later that evening, we toasted marshmallows over a propane stove (since a burn ban was in place), giggles filling the air around our non-campfire. I’d wanted to tell ghost stories before bed, but the girls were exhausted from a full day of activities and fell asleep quickly, bellies full of marshmallows.

We also took a road trip to Winthrop on Hwy 20, making frequent stops for short hikes, mostly in the Newhalem area. Mushrooms were plentiful, so I pointed out the names of different species to the girls (from what I could remember from Mushroom Weekend at Meany Lodge). We also walked the short trail at the Washington Pass Lookout, where we saw great views of the mountains, along with a lot of golden larches. Marcus was amazed at the beauty our state has to offer!

These days, my granddaughters ask when we are going on another hike or going camping. It’s harder with school and the colder weather, but we were back on the trail in January when I led a family hike at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

I really loved sharing the outdoors with my children and now I enjoy sharing that love with my granddaughters. I also know that by spending time as a family and continuing to explore trails in the Pacific Northwest, my granddaughters will grow up and pass this love on to their own children… And they won’t let the color of their skin stop them!

Mag to blog three generations outside.jpgMarcus and his daughters at Discovery Park. Photo by Anita Elder.

This article originally appeared in our Spring 2019 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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