Unsophisticated readers have unfailingly accused this gentle author of pining for a representation of our country’s history that did not ever, in fact, exist. You envision a romantic epoch on the prairie a hundred fifty years ago when family game night was a thing. You think generations living together was about open, honest communication and shared purpose. You believe people were content to scrub floors or plow rocky fields 14 hours a day. You imagine endless work and privation were dreamy and fulfilling rather than prosaic and dangerous. You leave out the part about how the nearest doctor was a two-day journey away and antibiotics were a hundred years off.
Before I can grumble that I occasionally conflate the peace, love, ten-speed, hearts and flowers, knitting granola, barefoot era of the nineteen sixties with the unimaginable wretchedness of getting through the day without dying in the eighteen sixties, these same unenlightened assailants suggest that I wouldn’t be so sanguine if I had to exist without air conditioning for several consecutive minutes. Somebody threatens to disconnect your email and you would tell them where the treasure is buried, they glaringly remind me.
Okay, so maybe life was impossibly hard back in the day. Babies and their mothers routinely died in childbirth. Medicine was leeches. President William Henry Harrison kicked the bucket because the best science of the day suggested that he had too much blood. Note to 19th century doctors: applying heated suction cups is a bad plan. A treatment involving “ipecac, Castor oil, [and] calomel” isn’t much better and hold the “boiled mixture of crude petroleum and Virginia snakeroot” if you please. I’m as big a fan of the Old Dominion State as the next man, but I am not drinking a mixture of crude petroleum and snakeroot no matter where it’s from.
My misguided predilection for times that didn’t happen notwithstanding, some aspects of our brutal past were better than our microwaved culture. For one thing, at least children went outside. The outside may have been populated with large mammals who considered your offspring appetizers, but at least the sun was shining and getting cancer from a tanning bed wasn’t a thing. Here’s what Jason Blevins had to say in the Colorado Sun: While the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report showed that while a bit more than half of Americans went outside to play at least once in 2018, nearly half did not go outside for recreation at all.
In 2018, nearly half the children in our country didn’t go outside to play even once? That can’t be good.
Watching a video of a fire isn’t the same as sitting by a campfire any more than watching videos of people tossing a Frisbee is the same as tossing a Frisbee. “What’s the difference between an elephant and a grape?” If you don’t know then I’m not sending you to the store for grapes. Similarly, I can’t efficiently articulate the exact difference between throwing a Frisbee with your child and talking about throwing a Frisbee with your child or watching a video of a parent throwing a Frisbee with their child, but I know there is one.
I know how hard you work; I know how tired you are when you get home from your job; I know you need the paycheck to pay your absurdly high rent; I know your ex-spouse is four months behind on child support; I know that the neighborhood park has broken glass among other imperfections; I know that the nearest decent park is an annoying drive from your house; I know that on a given day—pretty much every day—your child would rather connect with friends on social media or play League of Legends rather than go with you to some stupid park and thrown a stupid Frisbee. I know how bad the mosquitos are in your neighborhood, that two of them are big enough to carry off a small dog and that three of them are polling well in the election. I know that the outdoors still provides hiding places for large mammals that consider your children hors d’oeuvres.
I know that my unrealistic view of the glories of the outdoors may be right up there with my misguided perception of happy families in the 1800s. But you have to be in it to win it and you just might find something equally magical and unanticipated in the outdoors. Nobody on a deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent less time with my children” or “I wish I had been indoors more in my lifetime.” Give the outdoors a try. The memories—sunsets, wild life, vistas, solitude—might last a lifetime. If something bad does happen, I promise not to treat you with a mixture of crude petroleum and snakeroot when you get back.