A Q&A With Fearless Hiking Momma Carol Underhill

Carol Underhill and her son explore our nation's natural treasures nearly every week!

Carol Underhill and her son explore our nation’s natural treasures nearly every week!

Tell me about growing up in Bishop. What has stayed with you? In Bishop we roamed free around our neighborhood, rode bikes and horses, played in creeks, flew kites, and went camping in our backyards. I also remember kayaking with Dad, looking for old bottles and other treasures in the desert with Mom, and doing a lot of “fishing”- which for me was wandering around with a fishing pole but not wanting to actually catch – and thus have to touch – a fish. What has stayed with me? All of it.

Where do you live now? What do you love about it? What would you change? We live in Victorville, California. I love the location – we are in the high desert with its marvelous mild climate and are in close proximity to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains (where I work for the United States Forest Service). And if that isn’t enough, the beach is 1.5 hours away. And of course I’m within a couple of hours of Bishop and the glorious Eastern Sierra. But unlike Bishop, we have all the amenities like shopping, restaurants, international airports. But, still, most of our county is glorious wide open space. It’s the best of all worlds. I would change how others think about the desert. To most people it is a place through which to drive, it’s a chore, it’s a blank spot on the map between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But if you take the time to get off Interstate 15 and explore the desert’s dirt roads and trails, it’s really quite beautiful. Check out my website for more desert beauty here.

You are raising a young son. What’s your parenting philosophy? What do you most want him to know? To experience? To appreciate?

Well, you learn pretty quickly that any philosophy you thought you had will certainly be tested and may just get thrown out the window when your 2-year-old is having a tantrum in the check-out line at the grocery store. I swore that my kid would never do such a thing, I would raise them to mind me. Well, guess what, kids just do things like that. The only thing I’ve found that helped was either getting a baby sitter and going to the store alone, or Cheetos. When in doubt, give your kid a Cheeto. Seriously, my husband and I try to be good role models, love our son unconditionally, and just be flexible, realistic, and go with the flow. I want my son to appreciate our close-knit family and of course the natural world around him.

When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Zoo Keeper – I took a week-long class at the San Diego Zoo, and one at Sea World the following summer. I realized pretty quickly that to be this you’d have to clean up a lot of animal poop, and it didn’t seem so glamorous after that.

At present, what do you want to be when you grow up?

Public Affairs Officer for a National Forest or National Park.

Which books have made an impact on who you are today? What about them resonated with you?

Ed Abbey – Desert Solitaire – I read this book after my first season working with the Forest Service and it solidified my decision to want to work as Park Ranger, or similar job, with a land management agency. I wanted to have a job and a career that matched up with my passion in life, and that is enjoying and helping to protect the natural world.

What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

Aldo Leopold – Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic,” or a responsible relationship existing between people and the land they inhabit, is at the very core of all environmentalism. If you believe in the relationship and its importance, everything else will follow.

What are you focused on today?

Raising my son, having fun in the great outdoors, and advancing my career.

Which environmental issues have you most concerned?

Our kids are growing up indoors, in front of screens and don’t spend as much time outside as previous generations. They are growing more and more disconnected to the natural world. Kids these days do not know where their water comes from when they turn on the tap. They don’t know where they get their food. They don’t know the importance of clean air. All of this needs to change if our planet is going to survive.

Of which achievement are you most proud?

It’s the little things – when my son points out manzanita or creosote bushes to me when we’re hiking. When I see my son and my Mom and Dad hiking in the desert together. When a visitor thanks me for the information I give them and says they had a great time on the trail I recommended. When I’m alone in my house and I look around at everything my husband and I have provided for our family. I’m proud of all of it.

What is your favorite animal?

I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like. But if I had to choose just one favorite, I’d choose a cat. We have four cats and they help me de-stress when they lay on my lap and purr. And I love it when they do silly things like chase their tails or streak across the room for no reason at all. They’re cute and very entertaining.

What is on your travel bucket list?

North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Lassen National Park, Crater Lake National Park, and Olympic National Park. Hiking the whole length of the John Muir Trail.

What is your favorite natural feature in the Owens Valley?

Mount Tom – it is the background to my best childhood memories.

What gets you up in the morning?

My son, he usually wakes me up with his giggles.

What difference can one person make, if any?

A person can make a difference, the trick is finding what you’re best at and sticking with it.

What do you know now that you wished you had known as a young adult?

To not care about what others think about you – just be yourself.

What advice would you give to someone interested in protecting the planet?

Do what you do well and is your passion, and then also teach a child how you’re protecting the planet so it will be in good hands after you go.

Does art and literature have a place in conservation and environmental protection? Why?

Absolutely – photographs by Ansel Adams and paintings by Thomas Moran inspired folks to protect this nation’s public lands in the first place. Also great nature photographs and writing are what inspire most people to go out and explore, and they also help lend appreciation for areas you may not ever visit.

What would you tell other families who want to get outside more, take their kids hiking/camping/climbing/fishing, but don’t know where to start?

Just go! Don’t think too much about it. And definitely don’t wait until your kids are older. It’s really quite easy to take babies on camping and hiking adventures – just put them in a carrier and go. Baby won’t stop crying? Go outside. Works every time. Now once they start walking and putting things in their mouths, it gets a little trickier, so I suggest taking another adult with you to help you keep an eye on them. Always keep a daypack packed with everything you need – diapers, wipes, small trash bags, sweatshirts, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, pacifiers, water, snacks – in your vehicle so you can go whenever you have the chance. For inspiration look up information on your local county, state and national parks, botanical gardens, arboretums, visitor and nature centers, lakes/reservoirs, beaches, zoos, and rail-to-trails.

I’ve met so many people who are afraid of taking their babies outside, but from my experience a rocking chair in your living room has greater potential to hurt your child than anything does in nature. Just take the same precautions you do when you go outside yourself – check the weather forecast, tell someone where you are going and what time you expect to be back, and take a friend.

I recommend every parent buy three items: a comfy front baby carrier, a backpack for use when your baby starts to be able to hold their head up on their own, and a Bob/Jeep/or comparable stroller that can handle dirt roads/trails. These will make getting outside easier for you and your little one.
The planet we depend on depends on us.

The planet we depend on depends on us.

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