At three years old, my son left home.
He didn’t leave for good, of course; but from the time he could get around our neighborhood under his own steam, Travis was traveling. After waking up in the morning, he’d wash up and get dressed, strap on his little backpack outfitted with a peanut butter sandwich and a thermos of milk, and off he’d go down our two circle of streets (we lived on a corner) to explore with friends all day. When one playmate had to go inside, he’d knock on the door of another buddy’s house for more adventures. I wouldn’t see him again until late afternoon. It feels like I’ve hardly seen him since the time he turned three, although now he’s reached the ripe old age of 26.
I had never traveled much before I hit my forties—neither had my husband—so Travis couldn’t have gotten this “urge for going” under parental influence. And even if we had been world travelers, how much could he have absorbed in three short years, one of which he spent as an infant? Where does wanderlust come from?
Planting the seed
My Webster’s Dictionary defines “wanderlust” as “a strong impulse to travel.” As much as we parents would like to think that we make the most lasting impressions and have the greatest influence on our children’s lives, I will have to give credit to a teacher for Travis’s inclination to roam. At three years old, my son began attending public school. The district had a program called “Early Childhood,” which was meant to give “at risk” kids a chance to enter kindergarten on an equal footing with the average child. Travis wasn’t truly “at risk,” but since he had an older sister with attention deficit disorder and the syndrome tends to run in families, Travis was granted admission.
My son’s first teacher was Miss Jan. She was well traveled and talked to her young students a lot about “Eng-a-land,” as my son pronounced it. Was his wanderlust spawned then? Are the passions we have as adults planted into our psyches before we’re barely four years old?
Today, the United States is facing what some have described as an epidemic: the loss of the adventurous childhood. According to a recent annual report from the Outdoor Foundation, youth participation in outside activities has declined for three straight years. Many of the respondents surveyed for the report cited a lack of time or a lack of interest for choosing to go outdoors to recreate. And when we parents overschedule our kids and insist on being involved in every one of their activities—in other words, when we become “helicopter parents”—we kill our children’s desire and their freedom to explore. The spark for wanderlust goes out, permanently.
What’s on the other side
A few weeks ago, my husband and I took a trip to Yosemite National Park from our home in Wisconsin. At the last minute, Travis, who lives in San Francisco, asked if he could tag along. With a lot of lessons planned (yes, he became a teacher—of music) and gigs he’d committed to, he had to work hard to rearrange his schedule so that he could manage to get away for a few days. And for a while, the reordering task seemed monumental.
But the fire for adventure that I’d first noticed in him so long ago was still there.
After all, Yosemite was a place he’d never seen.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,