A family that hikes together stays together

It appears the recent spat of fair weather has combined with the looming threat of a new school year to drive more than half the nation’s population outdoors.

For those who have always been regular outdoor travelers, this trend is both a blessing and a curse.

Certainly there is safety in numbers, and if more people are utilizing the local woods and waters, the outdoor environment will continue to hold value and warrant protection.

There’s also the widely accepted notion that people who are regularly exposed to natural surroundings are happier, healthier and more secure.

It makes perfect sense that families who regularly hike, bike or paddle together tend to stick together. After all, they are sharing a natural common bond that’s been with mankind since the day we functioned as hunter-gatherers.

However, there appears to be a number of distinct differences between casual outdoor enthusiasts and the regular woodland wanderers. Not only are the differences a matter of the degree of use; they are also measurable in the degree of comfort and convenience.

For many, the sole purpose of visiting the forests and hills is as a simple way to escape the endless chain of mechanization and artificiality that bounds and binds their lives. In the woods or on the waters, we have an opportunity to temporarily escape the routine of our everyday existence.

However, some travelers find it difficult to leave it all behind. They often carry the same cautious attitudes and exhibit the typical unwelcome patterns of behavior that they seek to escape.

It is completely understandable. It is unusual for anyone to instantly reconcile with natural surroundings if they haven’t been immersed in them for years. It is a situation comparable to taking a group of lifelong Adirondackers and dropping them off the bus in the middle of Times Square. Although generations of their ancestors may once have lived there, all they will likely experience is fear and awe.

Often, as regular outdoor travelers, we fail to recognize the fear factor that our comfortable surroundings can instill.

If they were stuck in the middle of Times Square, many local residents would surely be on alert for muggers or some other unfamiliar threat.

The same goes for many of the casual weekend wanderers when they are in our neck of the woods. This may explain their tendency to travel in tight groups, and to speak in tones that remain several decibel levels louder than necessary.

Such behavior is understandable and easily overcome, but it takes practice. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for the average American to gain such experience.

Our once-comfortable culture has changed drastically in the past 30 years. The majority of Americans just don’t travel outdoors anymore. The woods are no longer considered a good or safe place, and are viewed as intimidating or downright dangerous.

We’ve also become sedate, lazy, nervous and gullible. We’ve been conditioned to accept what we hear despite the source, and the unending 24-hour barrage of sensationalized news coverage now has half the population scared of their own shadows.

In 1969, more than 50 percent of U.S. children walked or biked to school. By 2004, less than 13 percent did.

The area in which children are free to roam has shrunk by 89 percent in the past 20 years. Parents are simply too scared to let children out of their sight.

There must be a way to reacquaint the average traveler to the outdoors. The forest has far greater entertainment value when it is viewed up close and personal, rather than through the tinted windows of an air-conditioned vehicle.

As David Douglas, a Scottish botanist explained, “The wilderness is a place of rest, not in the sense of being motionless, for the lure, after all, is to move, to round the next bend. The rest comes in the isolation from distractions, in the slowing of the daily centrifugal forces that keep us off balance.”

Current research into the benefits of outdoor travel indicates the time spent in natural environments helps to restore our mental functioning in the same way food and water serves to restore our bodies.

The humdrum pace of our everyday life – dealing with traffic, decision making and interacting with the public – is depleting and distracting. Man-made urban environments wear us down, and natural scenes bring us back.

In fact, psychologists recently coined a term for the health benefits and unique curative properties provided by such simple woodland wanderings. It is now known as ART, the acronym for “attention restoration theory.”

According to the theory, the unnatural urban environment continually drains our limited “direct attention” resources by constantly requiring us to direct our attention toward specific tasks, such as watching for street signals, listening to honking horns or avoiding traffic.

Since our survival instincts are constantly being called to attention, they eventually become overwhelmed. As a result, our responses are drained and the reflexes exhausted.

Fortunately, there is a more effective solution than just popping a few Valium or knocking back a martini. Psychologists now recognize that a simple walk in the park can do more to calm and restore the human mind than any drugs or other such stimulants that are currently available.

Many regular outdoor travelers have taken these effects for granted. They always knew they felt better and sharper after a hike, but they simply didn’t understand why.

However, the British Journal of Sports Medicine recently reported on scientific research that provides the proof that walking in nature and spending time under leafy shade trees actually stimulates electrochemical changes in the brain. This all-natural effect permits people to enter into a highly beneficial state of mind described as “effortless attention.”

Another term used in the study is “fascination,” which describes another involuntary state that often occurs when a person is immersed in nature – whether it involves walking through the woods, hiking a mountain trail or simply staring at a waterfall.

Fascination is defined as a state of effortless attention that serves to wipe clean the brain’s hard drive.

We’ve all experienced natural fascination while watching a brilliant sunset, witnessing a booming thunder and lightning storm or simply while being captivated by the coals of a once-crackling campfire, which is often described as a “drool-inducing, million-mile stare.”

Such experiences have the capacity to alter an individual’s emotional state and to help restore their mental balance. It appears the outdoor environment is naturally refreshing in more ways than most travelers had ever considered.

Researchers continue to study the cause and effect relationship of natural travel in an ongoing effort to quantify these unrealized benefits.

Parents of the baby-boomer generation seemed to understand the benefits of natural play quite well and they often preached, “Turn off that damn boob tube and go outside to play.”

Fortunately, it was one of the few times I actually paid attention to their advice.