World Religions -- California-style

Finn, Anders, and I spent a couple weeks in California this November. In addition to connecting with friends and family, playing in the sand and running from waves, and eating fresh avocados, we fit in a little religious studies.

It's all part of my unschooling/homeschooling plan. (Which isn't really a plan, more of an openness to opportunities that present themselves.)

I loved taking religious studies classes in high school and college. Religion is fascinating and knowing what people believe helps us better understand the history of the world. It can also help us separate the rhetoric we hear on the news from what particular religions actually dictate. I'm not saying this trip made us experts, but it was a good jumping off point for further discussion and exploration.

We had some reading material, of course, but there's nothing like walking into a church and talking to someone who works there to get a real feeling for a religion. There aren't a lot of Hindu temples or Sikh congregations in Montana, so I had to take advantage of the great religious diversity of southern California.


I was inspired when my friend Noelle suggested we meet at the Skirball Cultural Center to play on the Noah's Arc exhibit. The Skirball is a Jewish culture center. I checked out a book on bible stories for kids to get Finn prepped for the exhibit. (Anders was at my mom's for a little one-on-one time.) No better way to learn about Noah's Arc than climbing all over it and hearing costumed storytellers tell the tale of Noah and his big boat.


When I was in high school, a few friends and I liked to go down to the Malibu Hindu Temple and walk around. It is really beautiful and so different than the world we grew up in.

A man who worked in the office gave us a little talk about the different deities represented at the temple. I only understood about 1/3 of what he was saying, and the kids didn't understand anything, but his thick accent was beautiful to listen to. And they had a brochure with a little description of each deity, so we pretty much figured it out.


I wanted to visit the Deer Park Monastery, which was established by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to share the practice of mindful living. Unfortunately, when I emailed them to see if we could visit, I found out they were closed to the public until Thanksgiving.

Fortunately, there are two other Buddhist monasteries in Escondido. We visited the Phap Vuong Monastery. No one was there, so we walked around and looked at the statues and talked about the Eightfold Path, enlightenment, and Nirvana (not the band) .

I do hope to get to the Deer Park Monastery sometime for a day of mindfulness.


My dad had mentioned that there was a temple/church near him that he didn't know what religion it belonged to. Since we were on a roll, I decided to go check it out. I'm used to blindly walking into religious buildings at this point.

Turned out it was the Gurdwara Sahib, part of the Sikh Society of San Diego.

I knew less about Sikhism than any of the other religions we had studied thus far, so I was pretty excited to talk to the young priest who lived there. He recently moved over from Punjab, India and was missing his wife and two kids (he showed us pictures on his phone). He was also incredibly welcoming, open, and friendly. He made us tea and snacks and we sat outside talking for about an hour. We asked all sorts of questions about Sikhism, which is a really cool religion, and tried to explain the difference between Christianity and Judaism to him. Then we exchanged knock-knock jokes. It was one of those experiences that makes you glad you showed up totally ignorant at a religious institution on a weekday.

Other Religions

We didn't cover all the world's religions on this trip, but it was a good start. Maybe I'll show the kids pictures of our honeymoon trip to Turkey and visits to Islamic mosques. With the winter holidays upon us, we will soon pull out our Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanza books. We'll go to parties celebrating most of these holidays and look for ways to incorporate more religious learning in the future.


Talking to people and visiting temples/churches/monasteries was the best part of our World Religions lessons, but we did find these books useful for getting a background understanding. (And all the religion names above are linked to their Wikipedia page.)

What Do You Believe?

World Religions Flash Charts

Children's Bible

These are affiliate links and if you buy one of these books, we get a tiny percentage to help keep this blog going (at no extra cost to you).

Permalink 11/22/15 08:36:00 am, by Mel Email , 812 words, Categories: Beyond Greater Yellowstone, Anders, Finn, Learning ,

Tuesday Trails – Why going outside is the mainstay of our homeschool curriculum

I don’t write much about homeschooling on this blog. At least not specifically. Part of the reason is that we are life-learners, meaning both that we will be learning throughout our lives (not just until graduation day), and that all of life is learning. We are learning all the time, not just when we sit down at the table and crank out some math problems.

My main homeschooling goal is to get the kids outside as much as possible. Bonus points for getting into the woods, on a river, or playing in the wild.

Why outside instead of workbooks? The Great Outdoors offers more benefits than anything else we can do.

Once a week we get together with one or two (or three) other homeschool families and go for a walk. This fall, I blocked out Tuesdays on my calendar to make sure it happens. I send a text on Monday with a trailhead and time, and then we go. Hiking with friends even gets Finn to go without complaint.

This autumn, my friend Jessica and her kids, plus Anders, Finn, and I have been exploring trails new and old. We can often get another family to walk with us and add to the chaos and fun. This is not a “Leave No Trace” expedition, but it is fostering a lifelong love of the outdoors and our backyard in our kids. It is encouraging free-play, intrinsic goals, and caressing them in feel-good chemicals.

In Japan, they practice something called “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing). It’s basically walking in the woods and basking in its loveliness. Among other benefits, a survey of nearly 500 people revealed that the mood of the respondents (hostility, depression, liveliness, and three other positive and negative mood subscales) were significantly improved on the day of the forest visit. I don’t need a study to know this is true; I feel significantly better after a walk in nature. I think my kids do, too.

Trees release chemicals called phytoncides that protect them from insects. When we walk through the forests, we are immersed in these aerosols. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wrote, “Phytoncides have antibacterial and antifungal qualities which help plants fight disease. When people breathe in these chemicals, our bodies respond by increasing the number and activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells or NK. These cells kill tumor- and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In one study, increased NK activity from a 3-day, 2-night forest bathing trip lasted for more than 30 days. Japanese researchers are currently exploring whether exposure to forests can help prevent certain kinds of cancer.” These are the same chemicals that reduce stress and provide an overall sense of well-being.

"Outdoor play is beneficial for motor development, vision, cognition, vitamin D levels and mental health," according to studies by Pooja Tandon at the Seattle Children's Research Institute. We can all benefit from a nature boost. Just a 20-minute walk in nature increases attention spans, and in an increasingly fragmented digital age, we can all use that.

Other studies conclude that the decline of free play may have caused a decline in the sense of control children feel, a decline in intrinsic goals, and a rise in anxiety and depression. “Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems, control their own lives, develop their own interests, and become competent in pursuit of their own interests.” When we go for a hike, it starts out with parents and kids on a trail, but at some point it usually involves kids running through the forest with sticks, while the parents hang out and chat. They get to make their own play, unguided by adults.

I could continue on with this list of nature benefits. I have lots of articles bookmarked to make my point and confirm to myself that we are on the right path, but I think you get the point.

Going outside is good for the kids and necessary for me. If there is one thing I want to pass on to my kids, this is it—Tuesdays and every day.

Permalink 10/20/15 12:21:00 am, by Mel Email , 696 words, Categories: Hikes, Learning ,

Fall Camping for Non-Hunters

Aspens are turning gold and umber, nights are longer, and days feel crisper. Summer is over—but don’t put away your tent and sleeping bag just yet. The warm days and cool nights of autumn are just right for a camping trip. When you’re planning your fall outing, you have to think about who else is out there. I don’t mean bears (although in their hyperphagic state, it’s best to be prepared for them, too)—I’m talking about hunters. We love our friends in the bright orange hats, but it’s more fun to go camping without worrying about getting shot. Here are a few of the best campsites for nonhunters.

Here are a few of the best campsites for non-hunters.

Lewis Lake Campground- Yellowstone

Hunting isn’t allowed in Yellowstone National Park, but most of the park’s campgrounds close for the season in September. Lewis Lake Campground stays open until early November, and it situated off the beaten path adjacent to Lewis Lake. Pack your down jacket, because at 7,800 feet, it gets colder than lower campgrounds. Bring your kayak, fishing pole and Yellowstone National Park fishing permit, to take advantage of the proximity to the big lake. Try to get a site in loop C to be near the lake. $15/night, no reservations.

Lewis Lake Campground, NPS photo

Missouri Headwaters State Park

Camp where Lewis and Clark stayed in 1805! This park encompasses the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin Rivers. The Lewis and Clark Expedition anticipated this important headwaters all the way up the Missouri River in 1804 and 1805. It just takes a half an hour drive from Bozeman to enjoy fishing, bird watching, and cultural sites. Campsites are $12 for Montana residents and the tipi rental is $22, no reservations during the off season.

Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area

If you’d rather shoot elk with a camera than a gun, Slippery Ann is the place to be during the rut. As elk bugle and mount each other, you can watch from the sidelines on the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Reserve. Hundreds of elk are visible around dawn and dusk displaying typical behavior of the rutting season. The Slippery Ann Wildlife Viewing Area is along an excellent 20-mile long self-guided tour. Camping is allowed above the viewing area along the road. There are no amenities, and no reservations, but there isn’t a fee, either.

Want more info on planning a trip to Yellowstone? Check out my other site:

This originally appeared in Outside Bozeman magazine.

Permalink 09/28/15 06:24:00 am, by Mel Email , 413 words, Categories: Montana, Yellowstone, State Parks, Wyoming, Sleep, Seasons, Wildlife ,

One Day in Churchill with Kids

It's been awhile since I posted. Not because we haven't been doing anything, but rather because we've been doing so much.

Welcome to Churchill! It has so much to offer.

Now we are in Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the Hudson Bay. Henry and I have both been up here a handful of times --he more than me. The kids have been hearing about this tiny town, its polar bears and beluga whales, its river and tundra, since they were babies. Now, thanks to Polar Bears International, we are here as a family.

We flew in from Winnipeg early this morning and spent the day wandering around. I've been posting on Instagram (@TravelingMelMT) and here are a few more to give you an idea of what Churchill is all about.

Scroll to the bottom to see our video update.

The lichen-covered rocks are a welcome back.

We've been really drawn to the beach this summer. But this beach just might have polar bears.

One of the highlights of this trip so far, is seeing wildflowers.

Glassing for wildlife and spotting a monster!

After two days in the car and a flight, we couldn't wait to run around on the rocks and jump over tidepools.

A congregation of snow geese.

The airplane wreck known as "Miss Piggy" turned out to be a great (if not especially safe) jungle gym.

Henry, Anders, and Finn watch a seal and lots of beluga whales.
Sunset over the Churchill River from Cape Merry.

Permalink 08/09/15 08:36:00 pm, by Mel Email , 249 words, Categories: Beyond Greater Yellowstone, Anders, Flora, Family, Finn ,

I'm on the Oboz Trail Team!

I am super excited to announce (way after the fact) that I am part of the 2015 Oboz Trail Team! Nearly 100 people applied, and 16 were chosen. Lucky me!

What is Oboz? What's the Trail Team?

Most basically, Oboz makes hiking shoes and boots. And they are based over the hill in Bozeman, Montana.

They say, "You know that we go the distance to make boots and shoes with unrivaled quality. You know that Oboz fit like a glove right out of the box. You know we plant a tree for every pair of shoes sold, and you know that we are a company made up of sincere outdoor enthusiasts with a passion for the natural world and exploring it responsibly."

That sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

I get to wear their shoes and boots around and share how much I love them on social media and in person.

Along with the other Trail Team Ambassadors, I write for the Trail Tales blog.

My first post was about shrinking your carbon footprint. Keep an eye out for my Peru Trail Report coming up soon. And there are a lot of other great posts over there, too.

Check it out!

Emerald Peak trailsports and the Big Horn River in Thermopolis.

I've been wearing three different Oboz shoes on my hikes and wanderings. My absolute favorites are the Emerald Peak trailsport shoes. I like a pretty lightweight shoe even when I am backpacking, so these are perfect for me. I wear them hiking, walking around town, and plan to wear them backpacking this summer. And they are the perfect color, because you can never wear enough turquoise, right?

Mystic Low BDry in Death Valley. Gotta match the shoes to the scenery.

I'm also digging the Mystic Low BDry low hikers. These are also pretty lightweight, and are waterproof and have a bomber sole and traction. Also perfect for hiking, around town, and in my case, backpacking. I wore them this winter on packed snow.

I love that these have a little bit of an old-school look to them.

From the mid-hiking boots, I went with the Bridger Mid BDry. I wore these more in cooler, wetter weather, but I think most people would like these for backpacking. They are comfy enough for day hiking, too, I just prefer being in trail running shoes for everything. The beauty of these boots, and all Oboz boots, is that there is no break-in period. I can wear these when I need extra protection and come out blister-free.

Henry got in on the action with the Switchbacks.

Sidenote: I don't just wear them when I am sitting. I walk around in them, too.

Permalink 06/02/15 07:50:00 am, by Mel Email , 445 words, Categories: Announcements [A], Hikes ,

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