Modern challenges: Family combines travel, education

AMHERST – Cyberbullying, screen addiction, overscheduling, obesity.

Parents and children today have challenges of which their grandparents could never have dreamed.

However, Cindy Ross and her husband sidestepped those modern problems when they took their two kids outdoors and around the world.

She was at the Amherst Town Library recently with a slide show and talk on her new book, “The World is Our Classroom: How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education.”

Ross’ story really started 40 years ago when she was an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and loved the feeling of freedom and independence it gave her. She decided to create an independent life for herself.

Ross and her husband, Todd Gladfelter, built their house on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania after attending a 10-day class in a log house building. They learned roofing, plumbing, chimney building and tiling, while growing much of their own food on their 12 acres.

Determined to keep hiking after their children were born, they were stymied by the problem of hiking with little ones.

Then Ross learned that llamas are reliable and sure-footed little kid-carriers, and they were on their way. The family crossed the Rocky Mountains, hiking from Canada to Mexico during the course of five summers with children and llamas, hiking 500 miles a summer. For the last stretch through the New Mexico desert, they traded their llamas for tandem mountain bikes and pulled trailers full of gear for the last 650 miles down to the Mexican border.

During school vacations, the family traveled the world on foot and bicycle, and also sought out adventures close to home. Learning opportunities seemed to abound.

Traveling through forest fire country, for example, it was easy to teach how fire burns, Ross said. Going past a beaver dam, “even a 3-year-old gets what a beaver does.”

Eventually, they took the children out of school and home-schooled them by doing what they had been doing all along, she said: traveling the world with curiosity and an open mind.

Teachers and principals encouraged them, saying, “we can’t do the job you’re doing,” she said.

The kids had explored 15 countries before they left for college, trips that were never less than one-month-long. They biked through Ireland, even camped in Rome and in the Everglades. After 9/11, they went to Morocco, and Ross was proud her children didn’t let the language barrier stop them from playing cards and singing rap songs with other kids.

“We decided to teach them with intent … and I knew the learning was going to stick because they lived it,” Ross said.

But in the end, it was not the knowledge they acquired that was important, said their mother, but what kind of people they are – caring, self-reliant lifelong learners, with empathy and humility.

Sierra and Bryce are now 28 and 26. Sierra is a Fulbright scholar who won a National Science Foundation grant. Bryce is an artist and illustrator, and “The World is Our Classroom” includes their comments on their unconventional upbringing.

“We had a lot of discussions about needs and wants,” Ross said. Once Sierra suggested they replace their beat-up sofa, her mother asked if she wanted a new sofa or a trip to Thailand.

The book has chapters on pushing beyond your comfort zone, setting values and priorities, learning from wild animals and from other faith cultures.

People in the audience had a lot of questions, including how the couple, doing freelance and part-time work, paid for the trips, and whether anything was lost by choosing this life for their children.

“They have gaps in their education. Everyone has,” Ross said.

Young mothers wanted to know about handling diapers on backpacking trips, and she explained why cloth was easier to deal with than disposable.

Cindy Ross has published six books and written more than 1,000 articles for such national magazines as Outside, Backpacker and Wooden Boat. Her travel stories have appeared in numerous newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

She will be back in New Hampshire, giving another presentation at Milford’s Wadleigh Memorial Library at 2 p.m. Nov. 4.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.