While reading Michael Lanza's fascinating book, Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks, I couldn't help but keep thinking about the word "impact." Not only did this family's journey into some of the most beautiful and wild places in the United States highlight the impact of man on nature, but it also highlighted the impact of nature on man...and child. As a nature lover, it was devastating to read the facts and perspectives of the impact of humans on the world. As a parent, it was inspiring to read about this family, with two young children, trekking across the world on an expedition to explore, learn and have fun.
We highly encourage anyone to read this book, but especially those of you with children and those of you who are searching for some unique snapshots of environmental challenges. The book is less than 200 pages, but we assure that it is filled from beginning to end with beautifully written stories and insights. For example, here is the very first sentence:
"The wind above ten thousand feet sweeps down from the cliffs, the August snowfields, and the jagged mountaintops high above us in gusts powerful enough to push around two hikers who each weigh less than my loaded pack."
Again, we can't encourage you enough to read the whole book. We spent a lot of time reading, thinking about it, and being impacted by it. We feel fortunate to be involved in Michael's blog tour for this book release. It gave us the opportunity to ask questions about some things we were really curious about. You'll see those questions and Michael's responses below. We cannot thank him enough.
Michael Lanza is a veteran freelance outdoors writer and photographer. He is the northwest editor of Backpacker magazine, where his articles about the impacts of climate change on Montana's Glacier National Park and other wild lands helped Backpacker win a National Magazine Award. He runs the website TheBigOutside.
Q: You beautifully describe the national parks you visited with your children. As vivid and awarding as that imagery was, we found the most beauty in the book came when you would describe your children. You wrote about all the little things that make them interesting, fun and remarkable. What do they think of the book?
A: Nate and Alex have each read the book twice already; they’re both voracious readers, I think they each plowed through it the first time in a couple of days. I gave each of them their own copy with a personal note from me inside. They recite aloud to me their favorite passages from it—always anecdotes about them, of course—as if I haven’t yet read those parts! They are my two biggest fans—or smallest, I suppose.
Q: All the national parks you visited are facing some degree of environmental danger. Your writing in this book reflects a nice balance between enjoying the beauty of the country's most beautiful places and presenting educational opportunities about the human effect on the environment. By the end of the book, it is clear that your children gained many great experiences, and a strong foundation for further educational growth with regards to the environment. Are there any key ideas that you would recommend parents apply to their outdoor adventures to help strike this balance between fun and education?
A: Great question. During our trips, I would occasionally explain to my kids some climate-change nugget about the park we were in at that time—not often, though, because I didn’t want to force-feed them lessons. Sometimes they wouldn’t take the bait, and I’d drop it and wait for another opportunity. Sometimes they’d leap into a conversation about it with great interest. And sometimes they would bring up the topic of climate change unprompted by me, partly because they knew that was part of the inspiration for me wanting to bring them on all of these adventures.
So in short, I let them determine the best times to try to introduce a learning element to our travels. I found that they were very curious and willing to learn when they were ready and it occurred at their pace.
Q: This book addresses several frightening realities facing some of the most beautiful parts of our country. We read our 2-year-old The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. She is obviously much younger than your children, but certainly seemed to have an emotional response to the subject matter. We were recently hiking in Linville Gorge in North Carolina and ran across a few trees that were cut down. She said, "The Lorax is sad”; she then became sad herself. We tried to explain why these trees probably needed to be cut down, but her 2-year-old mind only knew that they were gone. As a parent setting out to educate your children about the significant environmental issues you address in this book, was there ever a point where you thought, "Wow, this is pretty intense...maybe, it's too much?" We think you did a fantastic job, by the way, and certainly agree with your perspective and approach. It is a scary topic for many adults and kids, though. So, building off of the previous question, how did you approach the balance between reality, education, and emotion (maybe you had to deal with this more for yourself than for your children)?
A: The Lorax is one of my favorite children’s books. I read it to my kids so many times when they were preschoolers that I had many passages memorized.
There were times during our trips that I would think about how climate change was affecting the particular park we were in, but decided against raising the subject with my kids because I just didn’t want to distract from an enjoyable moment we were sharing. And whenever I talked about it with them, I’d try to explain it in a way that a nine-year-old or seven-year-old could comprehend it.
That said, I honestly never thought the subject was too intense or scary for them. I don’t think it ever felt directly threatening to them. When they wanted to talk about it, they were intensely curious and often surprised me with their retention of what I told them. I think that’s partly because they associated the subject of climate change with these very visceral, inspirational, and memorable experiences. I believe it always will have that association for them—that while the impacts of climate change are frightening, their interest in the subject is cemented by learning about it in such stimulating environments.
Q: You write, "We can only expose children to experiences that etch lasting memories; they will chart the journey of learning from there." With even more time to reflect since you finished writing this book, are there any developing and lasting effects of this trip in the way your children approach the world?
A: Oh, my gosh, it would be impossible to list how much our outdoor adventures have affected how our kids view and interact with their world. Their vocabularies are rich with words related to climate, outdoor skills, and the names of national parks that I never knew at their age. Their made-up games and stories and school essays reflect a knowledge of the natural world that’s unusual for their ages. They read books and magazine articles on complex topics of science and other subjects with a depth of understanding that I know is amplified by their personal experiences.
I also see them gleaning larger lessons about life from our adventures. One example: We recently spent a week in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. One day, we made a technical descent of a very narrow slot canyon that involved four rappels—two of them 100 feet long—and squeezing through a long, chimney-like stretch that was about a foot and a half wide and strenuous. They both handled it supremely well and were proud that we considered them big enough to do it.
Afterward, I told Nate I was impressed with how skillfully and calmly he handled it. He told me, “Well, I thought about the risks involved, and whether I could manage them, and the consequences if I made any mistake, and decided that it was safe for me to do it.”
Of course, he was repeating something I’ve drummed into him many times. But the lesson has stuck. I believe that attitude toward risk and consequences will serve him well in many decisions he’ll make throughout his life.
Q: Was there something specific that you learned about yourself as a parent on this journey that surprised you? If so, how have you been able to apply that in other ways, personally and/or professionally?
A: This journey reinforced the biggest lesson I’ve relearned repeatedly since becoming a parent, and which inspired the last line in my book’s dedication: “… to Nate and Alex, for teaching me.” I didn’t become a parent until my late 30s; before that, being single for a long time, I had led a pretty self-focused life. And as much as that sounds selfish, it’s also quite enjoyable. I think many parents miss some aspects of their lifestyle before children, right?
But my kids taught me something that came as a surprise to me: that it’s actually more satisfying to put other people who need you ahead of yourself. This may sound kind of syrupy, and I certainly get as frustrated at times as any parent, but I mean it sincerely: Becoming a father gave me the ability to look outside myself, and I believe that has made me a better person. These trips reinforced that lesson, in that I had to constantly focus my attention not only on my kids’ basic needs—food, conversation with me on the trail, making sure they were hydrated and doing well—but also on their safety in many circumstances.
I think this personal growth has helped me grow as a writer, too, by expanding my perspective as well as opening up for me this world of prospective stories that offer an unusual take on a role that many people can identify with: raising children.
Q: What do you recommend to families that will read this book and think, "I could never do this with my kids?" Maybe there are good reasons they cannot, but what would you recommend as a starting point in terms of finding adventure and building environmental awareness with kids?
A: Don’t think about whether you can undertake the specific adventures we did in my book; think about what you can do as a family that’s within your physical abilities, skills, and mental comfort zone. Many state and national parks are set up for inexperienced people, with abundant information on hikes of all lengths and difficulty levels, and trails that are well marked. I tell parents I know who have little hiking or outdoor experience, many of whom have never visited a national park, to take their kids to Yellowstone, because so many of its thermal features and other attractions require walking only 20 to 30 minutes from a parking lot. But many national parks are equally accessible to anyone.
Many communities have hiking trails, parks, a nature center, or other place where parents can take kids for an entry-level outdoor experience. Parents can find local outdoor clubs, conservation organizations, school-based groups, and gear retailers that offer clinics, organized hikes, and other events where you can meet other families. There may be a local family hiking club with a page on Facebook.
Learning is a process. Parents shouldn’t feel that they have to figure out all the answers before they try something. As they spend more time doing this stuff, they’ll grow more comfortable and independent, and have experiences that are all the more rewarding. Tackling something new can seem daunting to an adult, but it’s what kids do all the time. Take a cue from them, and take chances. It’s very rewarding.
Q: What's next for you and your children?
A: For this summer, we have some trips planned: rock climbing in Idaho, hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, backpacking or rafting in Wyoming or Idaho (still working out those details), and a nine-day hut trek in Norway. We’ll squeeze in other day or weekend outings. On a longer horizon, I hope to involve them somehow in my next book project, whatever it may be; I’m working on some ideas. Meanwhile, we’re mostly just cruising through regular life: work, school, soccer, and occasionally a little unstructured free time at home!
You can read more from Micahel Lanza's blog tour for Before They're Gone: A Family's Year-Long Quest to Explore America's Most Endangered National Parks at these awesome sites:
Thanks again, Michael, and happy exploring to you all!
Pablo and Nea
Note: An advanced copy of the book was provided to us by Beacon Press, however that did not impact our review or interview in any way.