In The World is Our Classroom, travel writer Cindy Ross looks back at her twenty-or-so years of unconventional parenting and reflects on the lessons that arduous travel has imparted to her children. The resulting memoir is in equal parts an impassioned argument for the parental road less traveled, a nostalgic travelogue of journeys both inspirational and harrowing, and a valentine to her courageous children.
Before becoming parents, Ross and her husband had already backpacked over six thousand miles each, including traverses of the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest Trails. These epic routes inspired others to write their own classic memoirs, but for all the adult struggles of Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods on the Appalachian) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild on the Pacific Crest), they didn’t have toddlers in tow. Ross and her husband added tiny children to the mix of their wilderness adventures, and her tales of managing hundreds of cloth diapers and tracking wandering toddlers make the usual mountain trek seem commonplace.
“Most people believe that raising children is tantamount to settling down, living conventionally, and avoiding danger,” Ross explains in her brisk and bracing tone. “That is not the vision Todd and I had of parenthood. . . . For us, long-distance hiking was not a family vacation. It was an extension of our lives—our values.”
What began as work and pleasure camping trips for Ross and her husband became, with the birth of Sierra and Bryce, opportunities to share their love of the outdoors with their children. When the children were one and three, the family hiked the five-hundred-mile Rocky Mountain Colorado Trail with a small herd of pack llamas to carry the children and their gear. The success of this trip inspired them to spend five summers traversing the three-thousand-mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail from Canada to Mexico and decide that Ross and her husband “could and should be [their] children’s main educators.”
As the Ross children grew, the family continued the immersive, experiential learning that began on the trail. The family farmed and hunted much of their own food, living in a log cabin that Ross and her husband built themselves. The children made and sold crafts, learned how to fly-fish, counted reptiles with a local naturalist to assess the health of the population, caught and banded owls, butchered deer, and foraged for edible greens in the woods. Family trips included traveling by covered wagon on the Oregon Trail; taking a houseboat down the Mississippi while reading Mark Twain; paddling hundreds of miles through the Florida Everglades; bike journeys across Ireland, Spain, the Yucatan Peninsula, and down the length of the Continental Divide; hiking in Thailand, Nepal, Patagonia and the Swiss Alps; urban adventures in China and Italy; camel treks in Morocco, and a journey by elephant in Thailand. The family visited over a dozen countries for trips of a month or longer.
Exhausted yet? The list of adventures goes on and on, but Ross does not write simply to reminisce nor entertain her readers. Follow our lead, she urges other parents, with an earnest belief that the outdoor way is the best for raising creative, ecologically engaged children. Ross includes “Nuts and Bolts” passages with practical tips designed to encourage parents to follow literally in her footsteps. Her confidence and enthusiasm never flags: “If a child has never played in the dirt to look for bugs and worms or encircled an old growth tree with their arms, how could he/she care that a species is disappearing or that our forests are being exploited and need protection?”
To make her argument, Ross outlines the many benefits of outdoor life for the growing child. Her children were plunged into foreign worlds and on the way, embraced creative problem solving, appreciation for the natural world and its denizens, self-reliance, and the balance of risk, all while enjoying the greatest natural beauty our world has to offer.
However, Ross cannot escape the dominant question of the homeschooling approach: do the children become socially engaged? Passages about enjoying Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House book series and joining groups of historical reenactors have an odd sheen of apolitical nostalgia. Immersion in historical recreations glosses over the racist foundations of slavery, Manifest Destiny, and land grabs at the expense of Native Americans. Ross’s perpetual sense of wonder and discovery about the world can occasionally lapse into a wide-eyed innocence while experiencing culture shock in China or encountering poverty in low-income communities such as the Navajo Nation. Her increased “sense of gratitude for what we have” is a common tourist response to coming face to face with wealth inequality; a deeper dive into issues of justice, equity and colonialism may have made for a richer educational, rather than emotional, experience.
Ross’s passionate cheerleading is leavened by honest confessions that at times, the road less traveled left her children slightly lost as they approached adulthood. Neither teen knew how to use the traffic signals to cross a Philadelphia city street. Twenty-something Sierra, unfamiliar with modern appliances, was puzzled with the results when she put her dirty clothes in a clothes dryer with soap and turned it on. Yet, there are few regrets. Her son Bryce acknowledges, “I was alienated from the rest of society and for that I am grateful.”
Such a candid reflection makes one wonder to whom exactly Ross is making her argument. Her family’s adventures are unique and inimitable, made possible by parents with unusual drive and fortitude. “When one views the world as the amazing, fascinating place that it truly is, there is no room for complacency or mediocrity,” admits Ross, in her unstinting fashion.
Frankly, it seems most of these tales will be vicarious pleasures for armchair travelers visiting parenting worlds unknown. Conventional wisdom advises against leading your children toward danger, fostering best friend relationships with your children, devaluing school education, arguing with your child’s college professors. And yet, Ross’s children appear well-adjusted, happy and independent. Their inexhaustible mother continually shows genuine compassion and patience for her children’s unique qualities and shortcomings. Her summation—”We didn’t all just fall in love with lifelong learning, we fell in love with each other along the way”—is undeniably moving.
The fact that Sierra and Bryce, now grown, are willing and able to articulate their own positive reviews of their unconventional upbringing speaks volumes. “Actively participating in the world and communicating with others has always been my path to understanding,” writes Sierra, currently a Fulbright student researching traditional strategies for coping with climate crisis in rural India.
If, like many parents, you live between bouts of exhaustion and exhilaration, contentedness and doubt, you may find Cindy Ross’s memoir more a fantasy than a how-to manual. It is the nature of mothering to make choices for little people before they can make their own. In the woods or not, we are all making the leap of faith. Most parents understand that no matter what we do, most outcomes are beyond our control and no other outcomes are knowable.
Mountain traversing and difficult journeys are frequent tropes for life’s challenges, and you may choose to view this book through the lens of metaphor. Any journey, even that of a single step, can be a learning experience, whereas frequent travel, even on modest terms, is a luxury for many. As much as Cindy Ross focuses on the nuts and bolts, and as much as this book is about literal and concrete travels, I would hope she’d understand if we admire her parenting feats and then follow our own paths, as smooth or rough as they may be.