Family Used World Travels To Educate Children

December 2, 2018

Walking 3,100 miles between Canada and Mexico with two small children was just the start of adventures for Cindy Ross and her husband, Todd Gladfelter. Ross and Gladfelter found that hiking the National Scenic Continental Divide Trail gave them precious time with their children and taught resourcefulness to the entire family. Unwilling to quit hiking after their children were born but unable to carry all the family’s gear, including 100 cloth diapers, in backpacks, they loaded their belongings onto llamas. They separated the trail into 500-mile segments that they walked in five successive summers. Their daughter, Sierra, was 8 and son, Bryce, was 6 when they finished crossing the continent. As they children grew older, the family tramped through the Swiss Alps, rode elephants in Thailand and bicycled the Way of St. James in Spain. Ross credited the Blue Mountain School District for realizing Bryce and Sierra were learning despite being away from the classroom. The children did their homework while traveling during their elementary years at Blue Mountain before being home schooled. From their first trips as a family, however, Ross and Gladfelter noticed their children felt as comfortable sitting on pine needles as sitting on carpet in their log house at the edge of Hawk Mountain. They, too, realized how much Sierra and Bryce absorbed about nature and other cultures. Gladfelter and Ross paired teaching with travel. On a hike, they might explain how trees grow. After the children read pioneer books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the family signed up for a trip on the Oregon Trail in covered wagons. Ross describes Bryce and Sierra’s upbringing in her new book, “The World is Our Classroom: How One Family Used Nature and Travel to Shape an Extraordinary Education.” She discussed the book at the White Haven Library on Oct. 10 during a program sponsored by the Carbon County Environmental Education Center and the Western Pocono Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Ross and Gladfelter are experts in the outdoors who met after finishing solo hikes along the Appalachian Trail. Always, they took great care to make sure their children were warm, dry and well fed and to control the risks that Sierra and Bryce took in the wild. Other parents might not feel comfortable leading the family into the wilderness, Ross said, but they can go car camping at a state park for a weekend. “You need to spend time with your kids. I think the best way is in the natural world,” she said. Children are daredevils so letting them take chances for which they have prepared with their parents, such as climbing steep slopes, might discourage them from other risky behaviors such as experimenting with drugs, Ross believes. For the price of a Disney vacation, the family spent a week locating relatives in Sicily. If foreign travel is too expensive, Ross suggested taking in an exchange student. Her family learned about Ecuador from a girl who spent three weeks with them. Close to their home, Ross and Gladfelter befriended researchers at Hawk Mountain, where the children helped band saw-whet owls and took part in other studies. By tending the family garden, Sierra and Bryce learned where their food comes from. Ross and Gladfelter gained confidence to build their home in New Ringgold after attending a do-it-yourself class for a week. The home cost $20,000 and kept them debt-free so they could work as hard or as little as they wished, have time to spend with their children and save money to travel. An artist and travel writer, Ross has authored six other books and hundreds of magazine articles. She supported the family while Gladfelter concentrated on building their house. A furniture maker, he recently took up chain saw art and now carves and sells about 70 sculptures a year. Visiting people who could afford few possessions helped their children distinguish between needs and wants. When Sierra noticed foam padding disintegrating in their sofa and suggested getting a replacement, Ross said they could buy a new sofa or save the money for a trip to Thailand, where they could ride elephants. “The sofa is just fine,” Sierra said. Bryce learned empathy while noticing scars that propellers had cut into manatees that he swam with off Florida’s Gulf Coast. He has become an artist, lives in Philadelphia but says Fairmount Park is only a bicycle ride away and that he needs to return to nature to offset hours spent working on a computer screen. For a new cover on an anniversary edition of his mother’s first book, “A Woman’s Journey,” about her hike along the Appalachian Trail, Bryce sketched his sister hiking through the woods with a pack on her back. Sierra, now 28 and a Fulbright scholar, has lived in Tibet and India while doing research on climate science and natural disasters. She and Bryce, 26, continue to travel. Together, they circumnavigated the Annapurna Mountains in Nepal. And they still clear their schedules to go on adventures with their parents. Contact the writer: kjackson@standardspeaker.com; 570-501-3587