For 70 years, generations of my family have been racing to a rustic cabin in the woods whenever we don’t have work on a summer day.

The one-room log cabin has electricity, an outhouse, and no running water. If you want heat, you have to crawl out of your sleeping bag to chop wood and build a fire in the cast iron fireplace.

You also learn to cook eggs and pancakes over that cast iron fireplace/oven. And yes, you burn quite a few breakfasts in the learning process!

I still remember the day my dad took my siblings and me for a day hike along the property lines, which were marked with strands of barbed wire fence. “If you get lost,” my dad said, “remember what you’re seeing today.”

He showed us how to determine which mountainside was north-facing and which was south, based upon what grew there.

We learned about using the sun as a guide, and we hunted for corner markers and moss on trees while weaving in and out of those barbed wire fences.

We learned to study the clouds, watch the weather, and read maps.

Today, I use those navigating skills on a regular basis. Just a general knowledge (and confidence!) of navigation has helped me get un-lost a thousand times, whether I’m back here in the Montana mountains or I’m living abroad somewhere like Berlin, Germany.

Whether you grew up near the mountains, in a small town, or in a great city, you learned something about navigation from your parents and mentors, too. You learned to trust your instincts and use the clues available to you.


Photo by Katie Clemons

Are we teaching future generations the same?

Last night, my husband and I were watching a fantastic TEDTalk by Ken Jennings. He’s the world’s trivia king, holding the longest winning streak on Jeopardy. And you know what he says? He reports that the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain that helps us with navigation, will actually shrink if it’s not being used.

Our society is more mobile than ever before. Wouldn’t this part of our brain be getting stronger in future generations, not weaker?

Ken Jennings holds up the smart phone he’s had in his pocket and shakes his head. He argues that we’re letting our smart phones figure stuff out for us because it’s easier than problem solving, learning, or investigating ourselves.

What do you think? Are we teaching kids enough about stuff like moss on the trees and topography or are we handing them a smart phone with a built-in GPS when they go out to play? And what about us and our navigation?

P.S. This Friday, September 20, I’m giving my own TEDTalk at TEDxMinot in North Dakota. My presentation is entitled “STORY MATTERS: Empowering Our Community and Lives Through Shared Narrative”, and I’d love to see you there.