Cindy's story begins in the Rocky Mountain wilderness on a unique and extraordinary journey: two parents leading their young children 3,100 miles on the backs of llamas.
by Jim Schmid
Long-distance hiker Cindy Ross is on a mission and she’s not alone. In the last ten years or so there’s been a flood of books reminding us how wonderful it is to step outside and get into nature. You’ve heard of the nature fix, nature deficit disorder, nature principle, vitamin N, forest bathing, adventure travel, edventure, outdoor adventuring, outdoor education, free-range kids, and many more.
With her new book Ross has joined these recent voices that sing the praises of nature, travel, and outdoor schooling, and she wants everyone to know there is a strong movement to not only get outdoors but especially to get our kids outdoors. Her passion is spreading the word on how important the natural world and travel plays in educating children. If the proliferation of books and blogs by families traveling is anything to go by, more families than ever are taking long-term trips where their children learn while on the road or trail. Instead of homeschooling they call it roadschooling or trailschooling.
In 1982 Ross published her first book, A Woman’s Journey, the story of her solo through-hike of the Appalachian Trail split across two years in the late 1970s. Since then she has written about other long distance hikes she’s taken solo and trips with her husband, Todd Gladfelter. In the 1990s when they had a family they didn’t want to give up backpacking. They tried carrying their two toddlers on their backs and soon tired of that. They were fortunate to meet a man who happened to train llamas and he got them in touch with the Rocky Mountain Llama Association in Colorado. After hiking the 500-mile Colorado Trail using llamas they were hooked and bought their own llamas to use on future family hikes.
From 1993 to 1998, Ross, her husband, and their two toddlers, Sierra and Bryce traveled together on the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail that runs from Canada to Mexico. During the first four summers they hiked segments using the llamas as kid-carriers and packers. On the fifth and final summer they covered the last 700 miles on tandem mountain bikes. Scraping Heaven: A Family's Journey Along the Continental Divide Trail Ross’s 2002 book about their trip offers reflections on marriage, family, and children. This multi-year trek illustrated to Cindy and her husband what experiential education can do. Inspired by the experience, they went on to create a new way of supplementing their children’s education by focusing on the natural world and travel.
In The World is Our Classroom: How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education Ross offers a love letter to her two grown children as she reflects on the past twenty-five years of their shared outdoor experiences. She wanted to show them the world and help them understand it. You can sense her pride and love as she watched her children grow and forge their own path forward while encompassing the same values of stewardship and adventure that she and her husband hold dear.
In the Preface Ross states “Experiential learning is better than a book, better than a school building, better than a computer program. This kind of learning was creating a life for our children filled with abundance, passion, purpose and gratitude, and it would stay with them for the rest of their lives, because they have lived it.” To this end Ross orchestrated learning opportunities as the family traveled the world on foot and bicycle as well as opportunities for learning closer to home.
Each chapter heading starts with the word “Learning” and they cover Learning from Play, History, International Travel, Values and Priorities, Wild Animals, Other Faith Cultures, Independent Travel, Our Ancestors, Self-Propelled Travel, Pushing Past Your Comfort Zone, and the last chapter covers Learning to Blaze Your Own Trail. Each chapter ends with a “Nuts and Bolts” section where Ross shares information on how parents can get their families outdoors and more important she shares how to take a more active part in the education of their children.
To learn more about getting your family outdoors I’d recommend finding a copy of Ross’s 1995 Kids in the Wild: A Family Guide to Outdoor Recreation where she provides practical information for introducing children to wilderness adventures, nature activities, and children’s gear and safety issues. Even though it’s an older book it has lots of good information. And for more current ideas of getting families outdoors find a copy of the Jennifer Pharr Davis and Brew Davis Families on Foot: Urban Hikes to Backyard Treks and National Park Adventures published in 2017, which offers practical advice and engaging activities to make hiking even more fun for families. They offer ideas to using smartphone apps and GPS to engage children with nature. Their book is for the beginner to intermediate hiker.
Ross’s book spans twenty-five years of adventures with her family and after relating so many trips you can feel her sadness and at the same time hope when toward the end of her book she writes “There were never any families on any of our long self-propelled adventures, but my intent is to change that with the help of this book.” Ross aims to empower parents to believe they can be their children's best and most important educators. For those of us who love nature and the outdoors, especially if you have children, this is a book that will show you just what is possible. Because the truth is, nature is available for all of us. Consider taking a single step outside of your comfort zone and take your family along. See what it leads to and perhaps on your next adventure you’ll meet Ross and her family on the trail.
To learn more about Ross and her mission to get families outdoors check out her website at cindyrosstravler.com.