My life is a series of different-sized screens. From a 3.5-inch smartphone, to a 55-inch flat screen TV – and all dimensions and devices in-between – I spend much of my day focused on a digital reality.
When I need to flee the screen’s electronic grip, I head outdoors. Often times, the simplest escapes involve a quick trip to the backyard of my suburban home in Wisconsin. It could also be a bike ride or a visit to my state’s plethora of parks.
But I’m most happy anywhere I can find the familiar tan and forest green logo of the National Park Service. Officially created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, national parks – and their idea – have been around much longer. President Ulysses Grant established Yellowstone National Park in 1872 – the nation’s first national park.
National Parks are part of our country’s fabric – and were established by visionaries who believed in the power of nature and the importance of preserving it – forever.
Indeed, they’re our best idea.
However, growing up my friends had different summer dreams – of baseball stadiums, big cities and beaches – not national parks. My family’s compass almost always pointed to the West, where interstate highways led us to less glamorous places with names like Badlands, Little Bighorn or Bryce Canyon.
I was a child of the National Park Service, and I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned in some of its 51.9 million acres.
Last summer, I gave my kids (10 and 12) a similar education, going on what they dubbed “The Great American Road Trip.” OK, that’s a bit cliché, but we did have a fantastic, 3,800-mile journey through South Dakota and Wyoming.
Everywhere we went, so was the National Park Service. We saw (and smelled) mud pots, bison and geysers. We tent-camped in national forests and parks, paying a penance to sleep under billions of stars in lieu of cushy queen beds and free WiFi.
We ate and slept among nature – not protected from it in some stuffy, air-conditioned hotel room. Our dinners were on wooden picnic tables that thousands of other campers like us used before. We disconnected from reality for two weeks, and it was hard to come home – back to our screens. Back to reality.
But we returned recharged. And my kids learned the lessons of my youth - the ones only nature can teach: appreciation of life’s simpler gifts.
John Muir – a pioneer of national parks – said it best more than 100 years ago:
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.”
― John Muir, Our National Parks
Editor's note: We want to hear your favorite summer escape. Leave a comment or visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page throughout the summer. Join the conversation by checking out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtags on Twitter and Facebook.
I don’t hike as much as I’d like to these days, but I carry fond memories of hiking with my daughters when they were children and a special hike with them years later.
One special spot is Devils Lake State Park near Baraboo, Wis. Despite its name, it’s a heavenly place. Devils Lake offers miles of hiking trails with varying levels of difficulty, so there’s something for just about everyone.
I have three specific hiking memories that come to mind.
Hiking memory No. 1: During a weekend camping trip there when the girls were ages 4 and 8, their mother and I took them on a hike all the way around the lake. I can’t recall the exact distance, but it’s about three miles or so. I recall being quite proud because they made it all the way without whining or asking to be carried.
Hiking memory No. 2: A few years later, my older daughter accompanied me and a friend on a hike along the East Bluff trail heading south from the north end of the lake. Somewhere along the south face of the East Bluff we unwittingly got off the trail and ended up climbing down through some big boulders for a while. It turned out to be a little dangerous, to tell the truth, especially for a 10-year-old. But we were unscathed and lived to tell about it.
Hiking memory No. 3: When my younger daughter was about to head off to college in another state, the girls wanted one last day of adventure with their old man. They realized this rite of passage meant the opportunities for this kind of activity would be limited as they moved along in life, living in different states, pursuing their own careers, etc. So off we went to Devils Lake. We hiked there and then headed for nearby Phil’s Woods, a small park named for Phillip La Follette, a three-time governor of Wisconsin. We had never been there before, so we combined a new experience with a familiar experience that day. It’s one of my favorite memories.
So make the most of your summer. Get out there and hike. You’ll get some exercise, see some sights, flirt with danger and create some great memories. And it always helps to stay on the trails and dress appropriately to keep ticks and other bugs at bay.
Editor's note: Where are your favorite places to take a hike? Leave a comment, or visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page today and throughout the summer. Join the conversation by checking out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.
It started with a movie – as many things do. In Fried Green Tomatoes, one of the main characters climbs a tree and steals honey from a beehive to give to the person she loves. The object of her affection exclaims, "You’re just a regular bee charmer, Idgy Threadgood!"
I was fascinated by the idea that someone could be a bee charmer - that you could climb a tree and interact with the bees without being stung. And, if I’m perfectly honest, I’ve loved bees since I was a kid. There’s something amazing about them, from the efficiency of the hive to the way they communicate and, of course, the honey.
Over the years, I became more and more interested in beekeeping. I started buying books on the subject and learning about what it takes to maintain a hive and about the bees themselves. I learned that 95 percent of a bee colony is female, that only the queen lays eggs, that the worker bees (all female) do ALL the work (cleaning the hive, making the comb, feeding the babies, making the honey, collecting the pollen, collecting the nectar, etc. etc.) while the lay-about male bees just “service” the queen and keep her clean.
I learned that a bee colony is a collective and all decisions are made as a group. And, maybe the coolest piece of information I learned ... the bees actually have a language.
I was also exposed to the story of “colony collapse”. Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon where an entire colony of bees will abruptly disappear for no apparent reason. In the U.S. alone, we've lost more than 5 million colonies, which account for nearly half of the country's the bee population.
The decline in the bee population tipped me over the edge. I took a class, joined a beekeeping club, and now…
In my little backyard, I have a single hive which I started this summer. Because I started late in the year, I bought some already established bees and am working to build a strong, disease-free colony that will survive the winter. Next year, I should be able to harvest honey!
I’m slightly obsessed (that's what summertime passions can do to you). I visit the hive every day, at least once. I stand by the hive and talk to my girls (this is to get them used to having activity around the hive).
Then, once a week, I take the entire hive apart, view each frame, look for the queen, and make sure nothing looks amiss. If I had my way, I’d do this every day, but I’m told it’s too disruptive to the bees.
Bees are quite docile – mainly because they’re all drunk on nectar right now but also -- I like to think -- because I work hard to make sure they’re used to me poking around their home. In the six weeks I've had them, I've been stung once because I stepped on a bee and I wasn’t wearing shoes. I always wear shoes now.
I love my bees. They're infinitely fascinating, and I could spend hours fussing over them. My summer hobby now has me on the road to becoming a "regular bee charmer."
Editor's note: What are your summer hobbies? Share your story in the comments below. Or visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page today and throughout the summer to join the 30 Days of Summer conversations. You can also check out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.
Can I tell you a secret? I’d take a staycation over a vacation any day.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one to pooh-pooh a luxurious, tropical getaway or a dazzling, big-city adventure. I’m just saying by choosing to stay home and savor more local delights, you might find the escape you’ve been dreaming of all summer.
Not only are staycations typically more affordable than traditional vacations, they also offer the gift of time and a fresh perspective on things. A cheesy thought? Perhaps. But there’s something truly powerful about slowing down to appreciate your life just as it is – no bells and whistles.
A few weeks ago I took my first staycation.
Instead of waiting in long lines at the airport as I normally would, I took time for me – a day at the beach, a morning run through the park, indulgent, sun-lit naps in the hammock.
Instead of splurging on a pricey hotel, I took time for family and friends – catching up with loved ones, sending a handwritten note to an old pal, joking with my neighbors across the fence.
And instead of having my nose in a map, navigating a new place, I kept my head up to explore MY city, trying local restaurant specialties, visiting nearby nature sights, and getting to know the friendly faces at the farmer’s market.
If you’re considering a staycation, remember, there is no one right way to go about it. Keep it casual. Skip the rigorous itinerary, and instead, get everyone in the family involved in brainstorming a list of fun things to do. Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Pop a tent in the backyard and have a family campout. Don’t forget a deck of cards!
- Plan a themed movie night. Dine on snacks inspired by the film.
- Embark on an ice cream hop and lick your way through the neighborhood’s sweet shops.
- Dust off your photo albums and giggle at old snapshots.
- Pack a picnic. Stay for the whole day.
- Teach your dog a new trick – or just give him extra belly rubs.
- Call up someone far away.
- Sit on the front porch and eat a popsicle while reading the funnies.
- Take a family bike ride to the neighborhood diner.
What do you dream of doing on YOUR staycation?
Editor's note: Throughout summer, American Family is sharing family-friendly ideas. We’ll also offer opportunities for you to share your own summer experiences with us. Visit the American Family Insurance Facebook page today and throughout the summer to join the 30 Days of Summer celebration with your own comments, stories and pictures. Or check out the #30DaysOfSummer hashtag on Twitter and Facebook.
In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d learn so much or be so interested in trash!
When I was a child, it was my job to take out the daily compost. In the summer it was stinky and there were bugs all around the bin. In the winter, nothing was decomposing because it was frozen. I didn’t get it.
Then in college I saw things differently. I came to see trash as a resource, a realization that would set me on a path I would not have predicted.
I realized everything is connected in one big loop. Therefore, everything must go somewhere – there is no “away.” The consumption of resources (inputs) must produce outputs that are used for something else. When we are finished using something, it doesn’t vanish, it just takes a different form. Think of it this way, when baking a loaf of bread, we use flour and other ingredients (inputs) to get bread (an output). We never see the ingredients again as they were originally, because they’ve taken on a different form.
This was on my mind the day I stood next to a pile of American Family rubbish at our waste hauler’s sorting facility last October. Our vendor had dumped our 40-yard compacter on the floor for our viewing and sorting pleasure (see photo). It was an eye-opening experience for me and the rest of the recycling project team.
We were there to estimate what percentage of our trash was organic and could be recycled and what could go to the landfill. We were astonished to see huge amounts of recyclable materials in the waste pile headed to the landfill.
Since that day, our facilities operations project has taken a new approach to recycling. First, we needed to define what our desired outcome would be. Second, we had to figure out how to get there. After a lot of thought, we decided on an ambitious goal of reducing the amount of waste we send to a landfill from the national headquarters to be no more than 10 percent of our total waste output.
Now, we face the challenge of achieving this lofty goal. Stay tuned. Every employee will be an important part of this program’s success!
Looking back to my childhood, I can now see how much I learned from our family compost pile. It produced nutrient-rich soil that was applied directly to our garden, which produced food that went directly to our dining room table. It also cultivated a culture of recycling in our home that set me up for my life’s work. It created a neat and tidy feedback loop.
We can all do a better job of recycling. How do you, as an individual, think about waste? What do you do to complete the loop and make a positive impact on our global problem of waste?
Editor's note: American Family Insurance is the now the first major private employer in Dane County, Wisconsin to routinely divert food-related waste from the landfill. Read more about our zero-waste initiative here, and learn more about our company's sustainability efforts on our website.