We Dumped the Youth Travel Teams and Did This Instead

Updated: May 27

My son Holden relaxes in the La Plata river

The sun seems to go down slower in summertime. We know it isn’t really setting any slower, but since summer days are long, it feels as if the daylight is in no rush to leave us. In Colorado, we watched as the sun seemed to melt from its own heat and it oozed down slowly behind the silhouette of the mountains. Bugs fluttered in the cooling, ember of the twilight as the sun slowly yielded the sky to millions of its distant cousins and collectively all we could say was “whoa.”

While in the mountains we woke early not for a morning team check-in on the fields, but instead we tried to determine what fly could tantalize sleepy trout (Chernobyl ants worked well, we learned). Instead of being greeted by high-revving coaches and overloaded by rule-enforcing tournament officials, we watched beavers as they gazed at us from across the pond, waddled into the water and disappeared into their dens for the rest of the day.

We cut loose our kids to explore the natural world. They spent hours playing in a stream, building river rock dams and small rafts out of twigs and vines. They skipped stones and relaxed in cool pools of water, guessing cloud shapes overhead. As my fly line unfurled upstream from them in the bright blue sky above the La Plata River, the sounds of their laughter bounced off the canyon walls like a playground ball.

We explored the San Juan Mountains on horseback, cruised a wind-swept mountain lake on a boat, and caught several different species of trout with vivid colors we could never find in a crayon box. We ate more s’mores than we probably should and we celebrated our 16-year-old’s birthday floating on a raft on the gentle whitewater of the Animas River. We bravely climbed the precarious walls of Mesa Verde to walk in the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people and stared into the vast openness of the valley below, my kids in a silent rapture staring over the cliff walls.

When we returned home the kids were not under the watchful eye of coaches, referees, fans or judges. Instead they spent their time floating lazily in the pool, playing in the park, flying drones, napping and reading in hammocks, playing board games, playing fetch with our dog, riding their bikes around the neighborhood, having Nerf gun wars with other kids on the block, tubing in the San Marcos River, and for my teenager, working at a new part-time job.

All of us got ignorantly excited when we hiked a trail to a dry creek bed and unearthed fossilized shells that we learned dated back more than 65 million years to the Cretaceous Period. We collected buckets of palecypods, gastropods and other fossils, and we hauled them back to the house only to learn that they held no archaeological value. Apparently Central Texas is covered in these easy-to-find fossils, but that didn’t stop us from channeling our inner Indiana Jones.

Late summer found us in Washington, D.C. where the kids got an up-close lesson in American history. They saw John Glenn’s spacesuit and Friendship 7, the Last Spike that united a nation, and the furniture two old warriors, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, sat on to make concessions to end the Civil War. The kids visited the capitol, monuments built to memorialize great Americans, and they stood just several feet from George Washington’s sword, military uniform and Ben Franklin’s walking stick.

The sidelines on the fields we visited this summer in Manassas were not sports team sidelines, but battle lines of the Civil War. We stood atop a Union Army artillery hill and walked the woods where Confederate Army infantry waited to attack. More than 150 years earlier, the first major engagement of the Civil War had been fought on those Virginia fields and now we followed the footsteps of the soldiers peacefully, leaving behind a trail of footprints in the morning dew.

At the National Museum of American History the kids came to understand that America’s history was also their family history and they gathered around a chunk of Plymouth Rock where their distant relative, Edward Doty, came ashore in 1620. Calvin Coolidge and Eliphalet Remington, we’d learn, are distant relatives of ours from the Mayflower.

This past summer, everything we did had no future payoff. No spot earned on a team, no skills would be improved, and no tournaments would be won. No trophies or medals were earned. The only remnants of summer on the kids was their sun-kissed skin and the unseen memories each one had made and of course the knowledge of the things they learned. Together we logged more than 5,000 miles on the road this summer driving to destinations where our only objectives were fun and exploration. Did I mention we did it without a DVD player in the car?

A couple of weeks ago, we began another school year. I wanted to know if the kids had enjoyed their summers so I asked them what their favorite summer memory was. The answers varied, as expected, but after plucking a memory from their mind like a dandelion and offering their favorite anecdote, they added that all of this summer’s memories were great ones and that it was too hard to pick just one favorite, but this summer, by far, had been their favorite.

I reflected as they walked to the bus stop to catch their school buses. My favorite memory was in Washington, D.C. when after a full day of absorbing the nation’s history our kids broke out into a random wrestling match on the cool, lush grass of the National Mall. They tackled and tickled each other, smiled, laughed and ran around happily, spastic in a relaxed glee I had not seen since before we started the regimen of organized summer sports. Then again, the thought of them playing in the river suddenly entered my mind as they disappeared down the sidewalk. I guess like them, I have plenty of dandelions to pick from, but in the end, I suppose there was an award won this summer after all.

Best summer ever.

My oldest son Duncan enjoys the Colorado sun while the rest of us fish for trout. He is reading Howard Zinn's, A People's History of the United States.

This essay was first published in Sept. 2018 at: https://www.fatherly.com/play/spend-summer-lifetime-without-youth-sports/

©2020 by Steve Alvarez, Burb Dad.