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An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada

By Leo Babauta

We set out for the Sierra Nevada as a family, all eight of us, excited but unsure of what to expect from our first family camping trip in the mountains.

I surveyed our two vehicles full of camping gear and food, and wondered at foolishly calling myself a minimalist sometimes. A family of eight people has a lot of sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tents, chairs, veggie dogs and vegan marshmallows, though. And we probably overprepared, after reading and worrying about bears and the cold and cougars and Lyme disease.

At any rate, earlier this month, we drove four four hours, the scenery out our windows becoming more and more incredible, pine forests and alpine meadows and creeks winding through towering peaks, Lake Tahoe and more. We were awed, as a family from the tiny tropical island of Guam, used to beaches and jungles and swordgrass.

This was the start of our adventure, our education in the mountains.

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One of the things we’ve learned by unschooling four of our six kids is that education isn’t just in the classroom or books: it’s everywhere. All the time. And as we arrived at our campground in the Eastern Sierra, that was never more clear.

We’ve also learned that education isn’t just for our kids: we learn with them. We set up tent, learned about various pine trees (Jeffrey pine smells like vanilla!), wandered along the creek, watched the majestic stars come out. I sketched the chipmunks and deer, studied the supermoon, and then lay under the vast night sky to watch the best meteor shower I’ve ever seen. Seriously, we saw some awe-inspiring meteors shooting across the entire night sky with huge tails, looking like they were about to take out a mountain or two.

We learned to chop wood (badly), to start a fire and keep it going so that we could be drenched in smoke, to cook over the fire with much gourmet char, to prevent forest fires, to keep bears from getting into our food stores or cuddling up with us in tents. We learned about safety in the woods, about what to do in the unlikely event that we encounter any dangerous animals (spoiler: don’t run screaming, despite what all your instincts tell you), about what water is safe to drink and what isn’t.

One of the best things we learned is that we don’t need all the modern conveniences we’re used to — we can get by without electricity and running water for a few days, we can re-use the same clothes, go without TVs and the Internet and all our devices. The lack of running water was probably the least convenient, but the rest we lived happily without.

We learned we can find entertainment in exploring nature and telling stories and playing games and finding delight in the company of those around us and the place we’re in. Amazing discovery.

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And we learned that we’ve been missing out on the gorgeousness of nature so close to us. By immersing ourselves online, we forget what’s out there.

We rediscovered this in the Sierra.

The mountain lakes are breath-taking. And cold. The trails are winding, peaceful, quiet, profound. The trees have a power like nothing found in towns and cities. The mountains dwarf you, and make you realize your humble place in the world. The rivers sing songs of peace and joyful dancing, and the skies are ridiculously expansive and severe.

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This isolation in the wilderness, cut off from texting and social media, served to bring us closer together as a family. We pitched in and worked as a team, shared the trail and creeks together, made jokes at each other’s expense, witnessed beauty together that can’t be expressed to others accurately unless they’re with you.

I think the kids (and Eva) learned they are tougher than they thought, too. They could hike through mountains and be exhausted and be totally happy. They could sleep in the cold air, and while it’s not as comfortable as being in their warm beds, they’d survive. They could weather heat and desert-like terrain, suffer some sore legs and cuts, be dirty.

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Now, I’ll be the first to admit that what we did in the Sierra was pretty tame, and probably old news for many people. I’m not claiming to be better or more courageous than anyone, or saying anything other than, “We islanders went into the mountains and learned a lot.”

We had conveniences: we were in a campground with bathrooms and picnic tables, with a carload of food. We had coffee and hot chocolate and wine. We weren’t truly roughing it.

But we did learn to love the mountains.

And learning to love something is the best education there is.

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