Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Homeschool Hike: Grand Canyon Edition

The Grand Canyon looms large on many a bucket-list. We’ve scratched it off now, but felt like we almost kicked the bucket while doing it!

The Grand Canyon
As a family, we like to travel and our flexible homeschool schedule (and a generous mother-in-law) has helped us take many adventures. We have stood atop the Great Wall in China, climbed the gazillion stairs at St. Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican, and dipped our toes in Israel’s Jordan River. Each trip has had its challenges -- new types of adventures or language barriers -- but I knew right up-front that this newest one was going to be perhaps the most difficult of all. My husband the Eagle Scout spewed optimism; I had my doubts.

Our homeschool journey started pretty much the same way. My husband heard about it, thought it was a great idea, and never wavered. I read The How and Why of Homeschooling by Ray E. Ballmann, whole-heartedly agreeing with the “why” but overwhelmed by the “how.” I resisted. But, at Holly’s private-school kindergarten interview, God stabbed me in the heart with His plan and I gave in.

We left the Grand Canyon decision to the National Park system. I had read that 30,000 people apply annually for the mandatory back-country camping permit and only one-third gets in. I was pretty sure we wouldn’t get in. But, the park called my bluff, giving us an immediate acceptance. We went into over-drive trying to figure out all we needed to do to get ready in a short amount of time. A lot hinged on weather conditions which were surprisingly unpredictable. Before this, I always thought “desert” would be easy -- dry and hot. I learned a life lesson. I made sure the kids had both snow pants and swimsuits; we purchased hiking sticks and searched for the lightest tent, a lantern, and butane stoves. My husband researched and we came up with our itinerary. We flew out the last week of April.

Once we decided to homeschool, I did a lot of research. My daughter was attending kindergarten while I read The Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling by Debra Bell and Homeschooling: A Patchwork of Days by Nancy Lande. Knowing how my daughter was enjoying school, we started on a public relations drive as well. We pulled Holly out at Christmas time and, thankfully, the school gave us all her leftover A Beka curriculum which turned out to be the perfect starting point for us.

Overview of Bright Angel Trail
The starting point for our Grand Canyon hike was a day at the South Rim trail on the bus loop. We didn’t know if it would snow that day, but we had prepared just in case. As the sun cleared the sky a bit, we were able to look down on the path we would be taking, noting how steep it would be and locating what seemed like a tiny oasis of trees that would be our camping spot. Our plan was to hike five miles down, camp at Indian Gardens, hike another ten miles to Phantom Ranch and back, camp again at Indian Garden, and then, on the third day, hike the last five miles out. Getting that overview was a great idea. We gained some confidence laced with a healthy dose of fear.

Reading books had given me some insight into the path ahead for homeschooling, but even better was talking with other moms who had gone down this road already. I am thankful even for those moms who were only a few steps ahead who gave great advice like:

Unexpectedly Heavy Snow at the Top
Wear your PJs, have fun, and take breaks when you want.
Do a lot of read-alouds.
Don’t try to do public school at home; treat homeschooling more like a tutoring situation.
Make your own decisions about what is important to teach.
Academics are less important than teaching God’s principles and showing love.
Do what is right for your family.

But, some parts of the path were hidden. We didn’t know our son, Elijah, would get in a Dyslexia Rut for a while and take longer to get back on track. We didn’t know the truth that not all curricula works for all kids; some work better than others and some would be better jettisoned over the side. Fear and worry are heavy like the tent and poles; we must get rid of them and keep marching.

Taking a load off at the Resthouse
Trust me, once we started hiking Bright Angel Trail, I would have loved to have thrown my backpack into the grand Grand Canyon and listen to it thud at the bottom! But, since that is probably a federal offense, we were obliged to carry them all the way down and all the way back out. They were so heavy! On the way down, they were somewhat troublesome, but gravity and the encouraging words of other hikers helped pull us along. A five mile walk in flatlander Florida would have been a hot and sweaty 2½ hours without any problems. We know because we trained that way. But, in Arizona, with almost a mile change in elevation, my legs got wobbly and I was glad for each stop. Rest-houses are available at the 1½ and 3 mile markers. No water was available at this time of year, but decent toilets and a shady spot to eat were very welcome. The wind blew our sweaty shirts dry in no time.

There are rest stops in homeschooling too. Usually, each summer we stop and re-evaluate and then again over the winter break. Our support group and our state convention give us refreshment and encouragement. We think and we pray. Are we going to continue? What are our options? Why are we doing this in the first place? We are called back and calmed by the words of Jesus:
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
Setting up camp at Indian Gardens
As we strode into our campground, there was some relief knowing the walk was over for a bit. But, there was fear too. The first day was five miles, the next would be ten. I have to be honest, I had to make a hard decision. I decided not to do the second day’s hike. I stayed in camp while my husband and kids continued on. In one way, it felt like a failure. But, in another, I knew great peace that I had made the right decision. I needed to be at my best for the final hike out. As the park puts it: “Hiking in is optional, hiking out is mandatory.”

How can I relate that to homeschooling? Well, over the years, we’ve had to make lots of decisions. We’ve decided to stay in and not bail out, decided on starting or stopping curriculum, decided to listen to nay-sayers – or not. Our methods for teaching have changed. When my son wanted to study physics, I decided to “stay in camp” and my husband took him down that particular path – a path I had no desire to go down. Other times, we have relied on co-ops, or intensives, or self-study to keep the kids on track without dragging us parents down.

On the trail to Phantom Ranch -
at the bottom of the Grand Canyon!
Letting my kids go off without me – even though they are at or nearing adulthood, and even though their dad was with them – wasn’t easy. The Grand Canyon is a life or death situation. There are dangerous animals (not that we encountered any, by God’s grace) out there. There is also the danger of spraining an ankle or getting another injury that would make it harder or impossible to hike out. Seeing my crew hike back into camp, a prayerful eight hours later, filled me with great joy. My husband made it! My kids had successfully met the challenge!

This feeling comes and goes during different phases of homeschooling. It comes when you see your child acting more and more grown up, taking on new challenges like dance, Sea Cadets, a job, a CLEP exam or college courses. We moms fear, but we also rejoice!

The night before the hike out, it began to rain. In the tent, huddled and freezing even in long johns and sleeping bag, I worried about it. How could we pack and carry out wet things? But, as a native Floridian, I didn’t understand something about the desert. By the time we woke up, the ground was dry. D-R-Y. The tent dried easily with just a little poking to make the water run. Our camp packed up easily, if not lightly, and we started moving out of our comfort zone.

Few things take you out of your comfort zone more than kids starting their high school years. You have fear and doubt your abilities to teach “higher” subjects. But, we forget the nature of homeschooling when we do that. We forget that:

The kids have made it to high school! They can read and write and problem-solve. They should be able to do a lot of learning on their own and the parents become facilitators more than teachers.
You have been re-learning with your kids for a while now and you can do this too (if needed)!
And there are options like tutors, co-ops, and online programs that can come to your rescue.

I was looking for a rescue on that final hiking day, for sure. Even my intrepid husband urged, “If you see the Park Ranger, see if they can helicopter us out. We’ll pay!” But, the rule at the Grand Canyon is: you go out the way you came in. We were stuck. The steep change in elevation made me short of breath almost immediately. Remember, we were going back up almost a mile! My pack felt impossibly heavier than it had on the way down and the weight was not well-distributed. Eventually, the sleeping bag got unstrapped and my husband, then my son, and then my daughter lugged it up for me. My hiking pole helped me keep my balance on the uneven natural steps as we weaved around switchbacks, stepped over rocks, and avoided fresh mule poop. Hours stretched into forever. Then, at the 3-mile rest-house (going in reverse order now), the rain whooshed down. We huddled in the open-air shelter house with a dozen or so strangers. We felt God’s provision on the one hand as the rain didn’t last long and it came when we had cover. But, we also feared lest it start again or rain harder. We covered wet shirts with soggy sweaters and then ponchos which resulted in a sweltering sauna effect.

Getting ready for the final hike OUT!
With 30+ pounds on my back, each step was an accomplishment. Sometimes, there were only a few minutes between breaks. We had to sit and take the loads off. Why did we bring so much stuff? The wonder of it all was how the family pulled together as a team. Elijah, reminded me to sing praise songs to God to keep my mind off the hard labor. He repeatedly helped us all pull off or put back on loaded backpacks. Holly kept marching, offering help wherever needed and dragging my sleeping bag with her. Neither complained or whined. We all knew that this was something that HAD to be done. We had to GET OUT and best by nightfall.

Those last five miles took TEN hours! On the way, we not only got rain but momentary tastes of hail, sleet, and snow flurries. We heard rumors of a blizzard at the top of the trail. The track became slippery with mud – just what you want as you climb up a sheer precipice. We feared the coming darkness. But, we kept going. One more step, one more switchback, one more rest.

We made it!
On our homeschool trek, I’ve thought about stopping once or twice. But, I know, for us, we had a mandate from God to “train up our children.” There really was no stopping halfway. So, even when it was tough, seemingly impossible, we plodded on. Twelve and a half years later, my daughter graduated with honors. One more year and my son will join her on the other side. Our journey will be over. We’ll look back at the grand vista that was the homeschool years and be glad that we did it. And we’ll be pleased by how we became a team. And we’ll be amazed at what God has accomplished.

After all that, my family has decided that our best words of advice about the Grand Canyon are: “Rim Trail!” You can see all you need to see from the top! But, our advice for homeschooling? Take it all the way!