Growing Up Outside

I can still feel the scratches on my legs from running through a freshly cut field of hay, the little stubs sticking up out of the soft dirt, just ankle height, and sharp enough to drag through the skin. I still smell the garden soil, turned up from my dad running the tiller through it. I can hear my elementary school friends running and yelling up and down the hills we used to hike in my hometown of Strawn, Texas, which is coincidentally where I’m raising my family today. I grew up in the rural town, with a population barely breaking 600 people. I would say that I grew up “outdoorsy” but that’s not really the truth. I just grew up outside. Gardening, farming, riding bikes, hiking, raising animals, camping, fishing and even the very occasional varmint hunt. I grew up outside. I never gave a thought to whether or not these activities were traditional outdoor hobbies, they were just how I lived my life. I grew up around rough and tumble men who lived of the land in every sense of the word. They made livings farming, cutting cedar and working with their hands. They taught me how to process animals and clean fish and how to respect the land and resources I was dealing with.

Two young children in a corn field with a black dog Heather spending time outside as a kid

As I got older and we took trips with my parents, we made it a point to visit state and national parks. We hiked all over Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, and New Mexico. Later, we had a pop-up camper and we traveled around Texas. My dad was an avid cyclist and my mom a distance walker so we stayed in parks with plenty of trails and scenery. One of my favorite memories from childhood is sitting around a fire pit, eating dinner and listening to the Dallas Mavericks defeat the Houston Rockets in the playoffs. When I watch the highlights of that game, I have sense memory of campfire in my nose and swatting mosquitoes.

Two young children, one wearing a bike helmet, standing next to an adult wearing a bike helmet Heather & family spending time outside together

This past week I stood with my mom on the very same piece of property we cultivated when I was a child and drove stakes into the ground to mark rows and walkways, while my dad dumped homemade compost and mulch into the appropriate areas. I mentioned to my mom that the smell of the soil and the soft earth beneath my feet ground me and bring me back to peace. The experiences I had growing up have impacted me to the point that smelling fresh air, getting dirt under my fingernails and feeling sunshine on my skin are what brings me peace today. I want my boys to have the same connection to the outdoors that I have and that’s why I’m cultivating a spirit of “growing up outside” rather than being outdoorsy.

Two adults and two children sitting on a front porch with a dog The Dawes Family - Bill Murray included

Growing up outside for my sons looks like picnics on the front porch and neighborhood walks where we get to know our neighbors. It also looks like family hiking and fly-fishing excursions with their dad, Jahmicah. It looks like learning about gardening from their grandparents. It looks like playing outside anytime the weather permits and having back yard campouts. My husband owns Slim Pickins Outfitters, the first Black-Owned outfitter in the nation(Opens in a new window), so growing up in the outdoor industry, people assume that our boys go on all kinds of outrageous adventures. And there is a little bit of that. However, the truth is, we are just like anyone else, and there are not always the resources for long, extravagant trips. Growing up outside means that we make the commitment to exposing the boys to the outdoors by any means we have and any time we have, which sometimes means my oldest and I take a jar of pickles outside while his brother naps and have a snack while we lay and look at the clouds. The boys are both learning how to skate as well, which requires lots of outdoor time, however my lack of coordination disqualifies me from the skateboard adventures, so dad takes the reigns there, as that has been a passion of his from a young age.

A young boy wearing a green striped shirt and tan pants smiling in a field of grass The Dawes Family is all smiles when they get to play outside

 

An outdoor experience that was really special to Jahmicah and me in our respective childhoods were trips to the Texas Coast and getting in that sandy brown water with our parents and siblings. It was important to us to recreate that for our boys and see the magic of the ocean through their eyes. On our first trip as a family, they were 1 and 3 years old. As we pulled up, their excitement and energy grew, and I felt the adult excitement and energy start to grow as well. We pulled up on the sand, got the boys out and as if there was a magnetism pulling us to the water, we all four started to run. When the boys hit the ocean for the first time and started to laugh, I will never forget the joy I felt beating in my chest as I saw their tiny bodies against the expanse of the sky and ocean.

 

 

These memories can make it sound like we have it all together all the time, but frankly, it is a daily commitment to enjoy the outdoors and sometimes in the craziness of life, we miss the mark. Entrepreneurship can, at times, sell you the lie that if you just work a little bit harder and few more hours that you will “make it”. How comical that in the outdoor industry we can convince ourselves that we do not have the time to go outdoors. We have implemented office hours, even though we both typically work from home, to allow for more time in the evenings to enjoy our surroundings and what we’ve learned is that the shop didn’t fall apart and the world did not cease to spin if we left an email unanswered until the morning, but that the benefits to our mental health were invaluable. I see our sons recognizing that being outside contributes to their happiness. While their world view is limited at this point and they are not fully articulating that thought, on a day where emotions are running high or things have not gone fully their way, they ask for time outside. By helping them grow up outside, I hope we are instilling the pattern and the idea of seeking refuge from what ails them in the fresh air.

A trip to Big Bend is on the docket for the year to us. Surprisingly, living in Texas, neither of the adults in our house have ever been, so we will all experience the beauty together for the first time, and I am looking forward to that moment. To prepare for this we have done lots of test runs with tent, trailer, camp stove, sleeping pads, and prepping the boys on what it will look like. These test runs have taken place in our back yard and for short stents on the road. Do not be afraid to start small. Just like you cannot step outside and run a marathon with no prior training, you cannot take your kids on a major camping excursion with no preparation. Try the back yard, set your tent up in your living room, cook a camp meal and try your sleeping bag, all in your own neighborhood before taking it out into the world. You can be the most skilled outdoorsperson but the wrinkle of throwing in your kids can seem like too much to sort out. There’s no shame in backing up and deciding that you need to take it all the way back to the basics to learn how to adventure with your littles in tow.  I would venture to say that many of the memories your children will hold dear will be from these preparations. I know that because I often camped on a flatbed trailer with an air mattress on land less than 3 miles from my home. My parents got me outdoors by the means that were available to them and I will forever be grateful for those campouts and how they impacted me.

 

 

And here’s the thing: your ultimate goal does not have to be camping or hiking. Your goal can simply be to increase the time you and your family spend outside. Fresh air and sunlight are just as beneficial in consistent and short doses. We’ve started the tradition of a Weird. Walk. We all four go outside and walk until each of us sees something we deem weird. This is not a ground breaking practice, but it leaves us all feeling refreshed. In our rural town of 600 people, the mixed-race family and their Basset Hound named Bill Murray going for a walk is sometimes the weird thing but you know what, we are totally okay with that. If all of this sounds counter cultural to you, that’s okay. Just start by being the weird thing in your own neighborhood.