We were an hour into our hike when he heard the noise. Something was moving in the brush ahead of us. I walked on unphased. My dad froze, only his arm shot out to grab me as I tried to make my way past him. He didn’t looked at me. He didn’t speak. He pointed toward the bushes where we heard the noise. I looked and didn’t see a thing. He dropped down into a catcher’s stance and pointed again. I got down beside him and still didn’t see anything. I tried to get up and walk away. He pulled me back down and whispered, “Look close. You’ll see it.” I stared into that bush for what felt like days until I finally saw the head of a whitetail doe. When the doe walked out from behind the brush I was in awe; not close enough to touch, but close enough to see clearly. We had been in the woods hundreds of times, it was the first time I had seen a deer. I was 5 years old.
We were nearing the end of our hike when I saw them. Two deer moving along a path through the brush barely visible to the eye. I froze in my tracks and dropped down into a catcher’s stance. I grabbed my son by the arm and pointed. He looked at me. I pointed again and he looked in the direction of finger wondering why dad was pointed at trees that looked like the other trees right over there. I pulled him close and whispered, “look close. They’re big. You’ll see them when they move.” He dropped down into a catcher’s stance though he wasn’t yet 3 feet tall. Then he gasped! “I see it daddy. I see it. What is it?” We hadn’t been in the woods that often (for him), it was the first time he saw a deer. He was 3 years old.
This is my public lands experience. I grew up in the East where public lands were few and far between, but near my home was a wildlife refuge that served mostly as a stop for migrating Canada Geese. My dad took me and my friends there almost every weekend. Sometimes we took in what we were seeing. Sometime we were too busy pretending to be Army Rangers on rigorous hikes looking out for “the Russians.” What my dad knew was that no matter what we were doing we were doing it outside and that would make all of the difference.
My parents divorced when I was still young and my dad didn’t have a lot of money. What he gave me were experiences and a way of looking at the world. While my mother’s family went to a big church with an ornate altar, my dad didn’t seem to attend church at all. When I asked him why he didn’t go to church, he took me to see the geese. When I asked him why we didn’t go out to eat like we did when I was with mom, he showed me turkey. When I asked why he didn’t buy new stuff all the time like mom, he showed me trees, landscapes, waterfalls, and rivers. “Those things have a cost son and someone has to pay it.” He said that a lot. Most of the time I probably rolled my eyes and had no idea what he meant by it. Sometimes it was the short version, “At what cost?” he would ask. I would give some grunt in response, he would know I was lost, we would keep walking.
I have no idea, couldn’t even begin to count the miles I’ve walked with my dad in the woods. The wildlife refuge is still there, but the surrounding woods are slowly giving way to houses for people who work in the city but want to “live in the middle of nowhere.” If you can see your neighbor and there’s a WalMart within a 10 minute drive, you ain’t nowhere. When I see these childhood places again a single refrain echoes in my head, “at what cost?”.
When I got older I went West. I grew up there in a different way. Something about the wide open spaces, the ability to see for miles, and tiny towns that always dotted the back road from a distance appealed to me. I don’t really do East anymore. But the lesson learned in those white- tail-woods moved West with me and now I have a son of my own. I take him out every chance I get, even if they don’t come as often as I would like. I talk with him about the birds, tell him stories about what the birds do for us and how we live in their world. We talk about the rabbits, squirrels, and other animals we see along the way, we stop to notice the signs of their presence, I show him mountains, waterfalls, and what passes out here for a river. He loves most it, but I still end up carrying him for some part of the hike. He just turned 4. I pray that he looks back on these times in the wild the way I do those with my dad.
I now have a job people would kill for. On any given day, I’m as likely to be hiking, fishing, rafting, or hunting as I am to be sitting in an office. When the outdoors is your job it’s hard to connect to those emotional (spiritual?) ideas that I had when I was younger or that I hope to instill in my son. But it’s my son that gets me up in the morning, often way too early, and we watch the sun come up over the Sandias. He’s awed by “morning time” and the colors of the sky, he full of questions about the birds, the stars, and everything else he sees. All too soon those moments come to an end and I’m off to work. I tell him that I do what I do for him. He doesn’t understand, yet.
I’m not a rich man. I don’t come from a rich family. I won’t leave my son a corporation or a Scrooge McDuckesque money bin. But I will leave him the experiences we share and will share on our public lands. I will leave him the red stone broken mesas, the snow-capped peaks, and the arid deserts. And I will, like my father did me, leave him with a single burning question, “at what cost?”.