The disappearing middle class of outdoors lovers

This is my son, Jack.

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Over the next 17.25 years, I have one goal for Jack: To keep him out of prison.

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Actually two goals: 1.) To keep him out of prison; and, 2.) To make sure he has the opportunity to develop a deep and abiding love of the outdoors. So far, he prefers naps.

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And that’s okay. I can’t make Jack love the outdoors, but I can make sure Jack has the opportunity to come to the outdoors on his own. This means taking him outside as much as possible, something his mom and I have done from the very beginning.

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But time waits for no one, and every day my back gets a little tighter and hiking gets a little harder. If Jack does come to love the outdoors, someday, probably sooner than I want, he is going to want to go outside without me. At that moment he will graduate from our little family enclave to the broader outdoors community. I worry about what he will find there.


They say that the internet is dividing us into smaller and smaller niches, and this is probably true. Far be it from me, an active participant in all this, to decry the internet whole cloth. As niches become smaller they become more passionate, and having people who are intensely passionate about the outdoors is a good thing.

However, as niches get smaller they also become more exclusionary. This makes sense: we love what we do outside and people protect what they love. However, as we transition from a community of outdoor’s lovers to communities of hikers, hunters, climbers, and fishermen, things start to fall apart. It takes little for hikers to turn on hunters, fishers on hikers, and mountain bikers on, well, everyone. Don’t believe me? Go read two groups of outdoors lovers tear each other apart in the comments section HERE.

I once dated a girl who knew her whole life that she wanted to be a mountain biker. She started young, did it all the time, and was quite good. This impressed me greatly as I, on the other hand, could never quite settle on one thing. Instead I was a football player, and  wrestler, and shotput-er, and marching band member, and jazz band member, and honors student. I did it all, not because I loved it all but because I had to try to know. My life in the outdoors is no different. In the last 10 years I have I have hunted, fished, hiked, mountain biked, road biked, overlanded, and canyoneered. I’m not very good at anything, but I have tried it all, failed at most, and gotten better at some.

Young people tend to try on lots of identities. Of course young people who love the outdoors are going to do the same. Yet, as we spiral into our own disparate, tightly controlled communities I can’t help but think that we are making it harder for people to try it all to find what they love. Yes, our specialized gear, tactics, and mores, have made our individual sports better, but they have also made barriers to entry, both financial and social, higher. Not very many 16-18 year olds have the cash to buy even an entry level road bike, a mountain bike, rock climbing shoes, hiking boots, bird gun, deer gun, spinning rod, fly rod, and a full suite of backpacking gear. Even fewer are going to have friends or family members who can show them the ropes of all these things. And, of course, these challenges hit women, people of color, and the poor hardest. Everything does.

Outdoors-people are becoming less like one another and coming to like each other less. If the emails and comments I receive are any indication, Marmots are the only thing we all agree on, and while marmots are great, we are going to need more than marmots to keep ourselves together. We have to keep ourselves together. It’s the only chance we’ve got.


When I was young, very young, there was only one kind of good day: my dad would sneak into my room, very early in the morning, wake me up without warning to go fishing or hunting. I’d try to stay awake in the car, but soon sleep would take me and I would wake up in some far off magical land. We never got much, mostly because I was a very loud child, but I looked forward to these days like they were Christmas.

As I got older, we tried new things. First fly-fishing, then hiking, then backpacking. We moved slowly between hobbies, but never with any sense of judgement. We did it all because that is what people who loved the outdoors did.

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Jack is getting old enough to have opinions now. Too soon these opinions are going to shift from which sippy cup he wants to whether he wants to go hiking with his old man. And that’s okay. I just hope he finds an open and accepting community when he gets there. I just hope he can move and change and grow. I just hope he finds something that makes him happy.

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I just hope.


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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

 

4 thoughts on “The disappearing middle class of outdoors lovers

  1. Good stuff Max. Specialization is for insects, and being a generalist within a given genre breeds depth of both skill and appreciation.

    That AdvJ article was one of the milder exchanges on the bike/Wilderness subject. Could be and has been far worse.

    Liked by 1 person

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