Mountain Gazette was launched just as many of the crazy notions of the 1960s were going mainstream. One such notion was the realization that unregulated resource extraction and unbridled industry were taking a heavy toll on our planet, a situation that prompted, in short order, events such as the first Earth Day and the passage of the Clean Air and Water acts. Another was that, while good old Mother Nature needed some help via legislation and shows of power by the people, she also offered up the chance for spiritual sustenance, especially when under the influence of various plants and/or chemicals being sampled by larger and larger segments of the population — a cultural shift symbolized by John Denver’s iconic “Rocky Mountain High” breaking into the Billboard top ten in 1973, just a year after the founding of the Mountain Gazette.
As it happens, I was born the same year as MG, which meant that my childhood was colored by the themes many adults of the era were embracing. Toxic chemicals in canned baby food meant that my chow consisted of carrots stewed on the stovetop and thrown in the blender, a reflection of the rise of health food and organic farming. The fact that my mother thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Monkey Wrench Gang” meant that a picnic in the woods might also entail a long walk along the Denver Water Board road plucking out survey stakes. Changing attitudes toward the Earth went hand in hand with a reexamination of Native American culture, so I watched “Little Big Man” instead of “Gunsmoke” and grasped the evils of Manifest Destiny at a very young age. The rise of a sizable ski-bum culture meant that my friends and I learned to ski early, and we sat with our parents as they drank Coors and smoked a joint on the chairlift.
Suffice to say that the “back-to-the-land” ethic of hippie communes from Vermont to Hawaii was being lived out in less extreme ways by a huge chunk of “normal” American society, kids included. It was a big shift, and one that Fischer Price toy company was hoping to cash in on when they introduced the “Adventure People” in 1975. These were America’s first 3-and-3/4-inch action figures — the standard for more-famous versions that followed — and their rise and fall traces the arc of America’s first serious love affair with the great outdoors circa 1969 to 1981.
The first batch of these toys consisted of an “Emergency Rescue Truck” and “Air-Sea Rescue Copter” — more firefighter than mountain man, but in 1976 the company debuted “Wilderness Patrol,” a couple of backcountry rangers with search plane, sleeping bags and a motor boat, followed a year later by the “North Woods Trailblazer” — two rugged fellows (“Brad” and “Hawk”), a jeep, a tent and a canoe. Over the next few years, similarly themed sets were released: “Sea Explorer” (A boat, scuba gear and a dolphin, a la Jacques Cousteau), “Sky Surfer” (a “stuntman” with hang glider), a whitewater kayaker, mountain climbers and a skydiver, among others.
The toys were a big hit, but then came “Star Wars,” and action figures like Doug the Diver and Susan the Mountain Climber found themselves up against the likes of Han Solo and Princess Leia. By 1979, Fisher Price’s innovative and Earthy action figures had been left in the dust by the first-of-its-kind toy marketing juggernaut of the “Star Wars” conglomerate, so they countered by introducing a line of motorheadish pursuits: a dirt bike team, dune buggy and a drag racer. When this failed to pull the kids away from their Millenium Falcons, the toy company jumped on the outer space bandwagon with a new round of Adventure People based upon robots and space ships, with some military swag thrown in for good measure.
It was a desperate move, and useless, for even the mighty “Clawtron” and his realistic, claw-like hands couldn’t compete with the array of movie-backed icons and ingenious spacecraft being churned out by the “Star Wars” machine (bolstered by two more blockbusters), and the military angle was soon eclipsed by the reintroduction of G.I. Joe — a scaled-down version of the American soldier that popular culture had rejected in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam but now embraced with open arms. By 1981, the same year that President Carter and his somewhat mindful “turn down the thermostat/wear a sweater” philosophy gave way to Reagan and his balls-out “morning in America”/James Watt (the original drill baby driller) regime, toy kayakers and mountain climbers had been phased out for good, while laser weaponry and machine guns were in full effect.
Looking back, the greatness of the early Adventure People was that they inspired play that hinted at the big experiences awaiting us in our own extended backyard. My friends and I would create dramatic scenarios with these toys then put them aside and invent our own adventures, perhaps climbing “Devil’s Mountain” at the edge of town or “kayaking” down the Fraser River on a raft made of milk jugs and plywood. Maybe we would have done some of this anyway, but the existence of action figures with names like “Hawk” or simply “Stuntman” surely led us to push our pint-sized selves to another level. Just as importantly, the toy sets also usually included at least one woman figure, which encouraged my younger sister to put aside her Barbie for an afternoon and join the fray, and none included any weapons, not even a spear gun for the deep sea diver … not due to any bleeding-heart liberal agenda, but because such weapons were simply unnecessary when exploring the great outdoors.
Fast forward a few decades. Much has been gained (Grand Staircase/Escalante for example,) but much more has been lost (gigantic swaths of everywhere else). Solar panels and organic farming are bigger than ever, but so are fracking and the acreage covered by chemically saturated Monsanto monoculture, and the whole shebang remains hopelessly addicted to oil. Closer to home, kids are spending, on average, over seven hours per day in front of some kind of electronic screen, and the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” has entered our lexicon, if not (yet) our list of official childhood maladies to be treated with pharmaceutical-grade medication — certainly the exact opposite of a Rocky Mountain High.
As born-again, halfhearted pagans, my wife and I do our best to instill our five-year-old daughter with some love for the Earth by checking out the critters in our neighborhood and the creeks in our mountains. She loves these explorations, but like any kid, she also plays with toys. Since we’ve been heavily influenced by the bygone era that inspired things like the Adventure People and the Mountain Gazette, we recycle our beer cans, invest in a weekly share of a nearby farmer’s harvest and buy our daughter’s toys from the local toy store, where there’s a variety of nature-oriented items to choose from.
But most kids in our town get their toys from the Big Box, often right out of a big box (assembly required), and THAT store doesn’t have much in the way of toys that might inspire kids to explore the outdoors. For the boys, just about everything appears to have stepped straight off of the electronic screen: Aisle upon aisle of comic-book or movie-themed weaponry, action figures and computer games, with the All Star Wrestlers (“Hurl your opponent!”) rounding out the media tie-ins. For the girls: Variations on the Disneyfied princess theme, with Hello Kitty and Barbie thrown in for good measure, and maybe some kind of winged “fairy” wearing a thong. Other than the bicycles, few of the toys look durable enough to leave the house, let alone inspire rough and rugged outdoor play in the non-existent sandbox.
But wait. Last aisle. Bottom shelf. Dangerously close to the books … a glimmer of hope. Cheap plastic, obviously. Made in China, of course. Not really built to last, but most assuredly meant to be taken outside: “BACKYARD SAFARI OUTFITTERS.” Binoculars, a canteen, butterfly net, magnifying glass and, best of all, a “bug vacuum” that lets curious kids safely and gently suck insects out of their habitat and into a plastic jar with a magnifying glass built right into the lid. The Big Box doesn’t waste shelf space, so somebody’s buying this stuff. Somewhere in town, in every town, kids are flipping over rocks and searching out creepy crawlies to vacuum up and get to know a little better.
It ain’t the second coming of George Washington Hayduke, not yet, but it beats the hell out the “Special Forces Unit” or that pussy Hello Kitty, and it’s light years beyond sitting and staring at some form of the teevee. Not to mention the other possibilities … the strange things that can happen when a kid steps out into the sunshine. One minute, little John and Jane are peering closely at spiders and the next they’re all grown up and chaining themselves to the bulldozers, or at least taking in the view from the top of the mountain instead of the couch. Like the flap of the butterfly wing that churns up a hurricane, or the hope cradled within the last truffula seed of them all, a humble plastic plaything might end up being one of the threads that holds things together for another 40 years.
Senior correspondent Charles Clayton’s last piece for the Gazette was “Jesus and Joshua Tree, or How I Almost Became a Climber,” which appeared in #189. Clayton lives in Taos with his wife and daughter. His blog, Pagan Parenting, can be found at mountaingazette.com.