While hiking mountain trails on vacation in Park City, Utah, Dr. Grauer reflects on the value of being immersed in nature. As he often reminds his students, getting outside makes all the difference for the healthy minds and bodies of our students.
Captain Ron’s Treadmill
Captain Ron was a stage manager for Pink Floyd and had wild living and times. I can imagine the sensory overload of lights and sounds, the other excesses. (He wasn’t an actual captain.) When the heyday was done, he retired and bought a rustic place not far from the mountains, twenty miles out of Park City, Utah.
Park City is a ski resort in a re-purposed, gentrified former mining town, now chic and thick with art galleries, ski royalty, and film producers.
Deer Valley is up the hill from Park City and just as chic as Park City is, the village of Deer Valley is a rarified “beyond.” According to local realtors, the median home price is in excess of $21 million dollars. 2022 dollars. A ski lift ticket at Deer Valley costs–well, there you’ve asked, so you needn’t come. In winter, ski runs on twice-nightly groomed snow curve gently past massive outdoor sculpture gardens and 5-star restaurants.
Nestled perfectly mid-mountain in the heart of it, the Deer Valley Club offers ski-in/ski-out of the lightest snow in all of creation, and central hiking and mountain biking access to the whole paradise. I watched all this develop, and it could be my pick of where to die if not in Encinitas where The Grauer School is. (People up here in the mountains generally take all this for granted and want to hear all about the coast and the surf, and its equally endless beauty.)
But for all the development around Park City, the surrounding Wasatch Mountain peaks with their lush aspen, fir and spruce forests all around and high mountain lakes make for the fullest sense of grandeur that fuels a human brain and spirit.
Captain Ron’s plan in retirement got an upgrade when the Deer Valley Club offered “associate memberships.” Now any local could purchase day use at the club’s workout room, pool, ski in/ski out lockers, etc. for a very modest price, a way of appealing to locals. So, he joined and he began driving up there daily.
He had it made. He got in the car, drove the 20 miles up the mountain, headed for the locker room, changed into workout clothing, and hit the treadmill in the corner of the fully appointed workout room. There, moving at a casual pace, he watched TV for two or three hours a day, or more, pretty much every day, hoofed it through his daily calorie burn, attended to all toiletries, then headed back down the mountain and home in the confidence that he was well exercised and fulfilled.
He was a short and burly guy with bowlegs, and his tee shirt hung down to about three inches off his knee cap. He had thinning, wiry, mostly grey hair. Captain Ron was not interested in hiking those two or three hours on the mountain. He was a fixture at the weekly club social with free wine and beer. He was less drawn to the alpine scenery than to TV (mostly news), and for the 15 years I knew him, he never deviated from this path, never breathed much more than the gymnasium air.
Proprioception, otherwise known as kinesthesia, is your body's ability to sense movement, action, and location. It's present in every muscle movement you have. Without proprioception, you wouldn't be able to move without thinking about your next step. Absent proprioception, it would make no difference at all whether Captain Ron went on a treadmill or an alpine hike.
The treadmill offers relatively little in the way of self-regulation, coordination, body awareness, and focus. In keeping with its prevalent metaphor, it provides minimal access to life, no pathos or emotion. There is no deer darting out or aspen bark that looks like a strange eye coming out of nowhere, or enveloping tree tunnels or rises and curves that demand for you to be in the present moment or twist your ankle if you don’t watch what you’re doing. It had been years since Captain Ron experienced the worry or pathos of tripping or being caught in a thunderstorm.
Some swear by the treadmill. It can raise your heartrate to a healthy level and burn calories (though too bad it does not burn belly fat). It’s easy on the joints, and a good warmup. You can watch TV or even work a little. The treadmill and the TV screen above it filled the days for Ron.
Outside the Club, on the mountain, you can pick up The Daly Trailhead. It’s a cool trail with historic value, so magical that any three-year-old will believe this must be where the Seven Dwarves work, passing the old mines and up into the high aspen groves. It takes about two hours even if you meander a little, then back down into the village. There’s also Jenny’s Tail, Poison Creek Trail, Mine Shaft Loop, and quite a few more, right outside a few steps from the Deer Valley Club workout room.
There’s of course an analog for schools here. Something like Captain Ron, absent outdoor natural settings, students in most of our schools are breathing indoor air. According to the EPA, the levels of indoor air pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor levels. Fresh air has healing properties.
In the Bible, it says “I'm hurt and in pain; Give me space for healing, and mountain air” (Psalms 69:29-30). As we rise in high mountain altitude, oxygen levels in the air lower. Our bodies boost red blood cells. Lower oxygen increases parasympathetic tone which triggers our relaxation response, including lower blood pressure and other benefits like improved digestion, and Captain Ron could have used those.
Increases to blood flow to the body's major muscles improve mood and concentration, and our students could use those—changes like those can dramatically impact their ability to make friends and present themselves well in the workplace later on. Not to mention mental health experts are screaming about both an anxiety emergency and an obesity epidemic in the schools right now.
Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the average screen time (including television) by age: kids 8–10 years old spend six hours on screens, kids from 11–14 spend nine hours, and teens 15–18 spend seven-and-a-half hours on screens per day. You cannot replace the indoors for outdoor green time. Today, for one reason or another, U.S. kids are indoors 95% of the day on average. That’s one of many reasons my favorite contemporary urban education movement entails the proliferation of instructional gardens. Where there is little or no nature, those kids are creating it.
The history of machine learning is littered with failed schools with standardized goals for students, and it hardly needs saying that our schools are taking personal interaction away from the students, not to mention nature, panoramic and beautiful vision, and of course proprioception. Likewise, Captain Ron preferred or chose screen time, even though a bigger view was right on the other side of the wall where he paced or pedaled, day after day.
Now I'm hiking the Mid-Mountain Trail across Ontario Bowl, north. The quaking Aspen trees feel cool to the touch. The footfalls have a soft gravely feel and a crunchy sound to them in the early morning. It rained yesterday and the trail is still damp. Stones, mud, curves and banks: no two steps are the same.
Click-clacking of cicadas in my path, the sound of silence carried in soft wind. I put my ear to the smooth white bark of an aspen and cannot hear anything. I take a deep breath of cool air and it smells a little bit like dead things in a good way. Up above, a family of deer. I go into playful stealth mode so as not to frighten them. It’s unlikely I will ever grow up— maybe because I don’t really want my students to, in certain ways.
Early light is hitting at least 20 different types of mountain Alpine flowers. My wife keeps stopping to photograph them and it reminds me to be patient, something that has taken years of practice and, though I am better at skiing, I think I am improving. The lavender-colored alpine aster is pretty and worth a stop. So I stop and take a look at it. Taking in the vista across the valley over Park City, it comes to mind that they've monetized views like this by putting them on videos so people on treadmills can watch them. Better than the TV news, I think.
The sun’s rays cause a release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. The constant scanning near on the trail, a flower, a bee, and far, scanning across the horizon, exercises the eyes: near and far. My eyes drink in sunlight like a bath. Vitamin D.
I am mostly present, but now I realize it has been 47 years since I've missed the opening day of a school year, that I have taken this path instead. A little scary, it is my way of not just renewal, but making space for new leaders I have spent decades cultivating. The view into the distance somehow takes me away.
At the Open Learning Lab at MIT, variety is viewed as a basis for deep learning: This concept, variety, amidst an efficiency minded culture allows for inspiration and unique, personalized outcomes. In the gym, sometimes Captain Ron mixed things up and moved over to the stationary bicycle machine, where a body can sit (and watch TV).
The human being is unbelievably adaptive. Our minds and our bodies love getting off the beaten track. Variety in our experiences makes us adaptive and more fit. The engaged lifestyle with diverse activities is basic to our cognitive health, improving our strength, flexibility, and cardio. As Psychology Today reported, “On days when people with this [diverse] brain signature experienced more variety in their physical surroundings and were able to spend time in different geographical locations, they were more likely to report feeling ‘happy,’ ‘excited,’ ‘strong,’ and ‘relaxed’ or ‘attentive.’  That feels like right now, on the Mid-Mountain Trail.
Alternatively, our bodies and minds will adapt to the habitual dullness lack of variety delivers. We learned about this during the stay-at-home, virtual learning phase of the pandemic.
After 15,689 steps, no two the same, I emerge from the trail with a sense of lightness and wonderment, a high, like I have landed from another world. The next day I would repeat all this but on a mountain bike starting from the top of Bald Mountain, which adds elements of whole-body awareness, exhilaration and, admittedly, fear.
100 feet from the side of a green alpine meadow bordered with aspens shimmering, I remember Captain Ron on the machine, watching TV. I can hardly imagine all he’d been through. Once, shifted over to the stationary bike, he could be watching not one but two TVs, the wall-mounted one above the bike machine and his own pod thing. Maybe that is variety. It is uncanny how Captain Ron kept showing up in the same place, every day, on this treadmill, logging his 15,000 steps. He was a good guy when I knew him, with some good stories of back in the day.
 The Effects of School Gardens on Students and Schools: Conceptualization and Considerations for Maximizing Healthy Development, Emily J. Ozer, July 21, 2006.
 The Science Behind Our Need for Variety in Activities, Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland, May 31, 2020.
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