The Importance of Discomfort

In honor of Father's Day, one adventuring dad muses on raising his kids in the outdoors
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Jun 19, 2015 | By Micah Albert

We think a lot about our dads on Father's Day, but we're betting that it goes the other way, too — the fathers out there spend a lot of time thinking about their kids. Case in point? Micah Albert, an award-winning photojournalist and father of two, who's here to give all the parents out there a few tips on getting into the wilderness. We'll see you out there.

've spent my career exploring some of the most difficult-to-access places in the world, having life-changing experiences in remarkable places with remarkable people. I've witnessed history, photographed the plight of the marginalized, and seen firsthand their daily struggle to survive.

Pursuing my work and getting access to these locations has meant exploration has been a fundamental process. It has taken me to countless blazing deserts, along long dusty roads in the back of pickup trucks — through canyons and along ancient trade routes that traversed contested land with military roadblocks resisting entry and the way back home. I've bushwacked through dense jungles with 400-pound gorillas peering through dripping ferns and steaming prehistoric volcanoes silhouetting the horizon. I've hiked jagged granite peaks and glaciers with racks of climbing gear and a week's worth of rations on my back, beckoning me further in spite of the conditions.

Even traveling on the cobblestone labyrinths of ancient walled cities, the smell of fresh baked flat bread or boiling mint tea being my only markers to recall knowing whether to turn left or right, has been exploration for me. The dust on hair, in my ears, in my nose; the sunburns; the disease and sickness; the humidity; the never-ending border crossings; the planes, trains, autos, and yes, the camels — these are all the signs that I'm doing it right. I'm forever drawn to the Golden Age of exploration and the tea stained-maps not yet complete. I think about the intrepid nature of those explorers and the sheer grit it must have taken to go deeper and deeper when the conditions got bad, the destination was vague, and the safety of home was months away, if not years.

Going back to my beginnings, I grew up in a farm town. It's not a destination for anyone, but it is a place I am proud of. Hot summers required grit and creativity. We got outside; we played in piles of dirt that, in my imagination, were Mount Everest or K2. We were encouraged to explore the world on our terms — to ride bikes, climb trees, ride horses bareback, swim in questionable water, make stuff, get a little bit hurt, and do it all over the next day. "Free-range parenting," they call that today. It involved relationships with hard-working farmers and ranchers and folks with integrity that could be counted on. And none of us forgot that we were providing the nation with its fruits and vegetables.

My small farm town provided me the space to cultivate my love of exploration and wanderlust. I remember as a kid just wanting to begin and end the day outside – to be encompassed by the cultivated land that surrounded our house and to be still within in the pace of nature.  

Not living in proximity to any one trophy destination gave me the perspective that I lived in the center of them all. Backpacking, climbing, and surfing have come to define my early years and served as a foundation of confidence to carry me through life. And I'll always attribute my wanderlust to my early days exploring with my family in America's National Parks, wilderness areas, deserts, and remote beaches and reefs of Baja.

We were all born artists, yet many of us lose that inherent nature to create. So it is with exploration; we were also all born explorers, and that's something I believe with all my being. Exploration, in its simplest form, is the very nature of how we learn. When you’re a kid, absolutely everything is exploration, new and unknown. Kids can be as immersed in the little things, the micro, just as the legends of travel's Golden Age were engrossed and driven in the macro, those gaps in those old maps.

Exploring requires us to get out of our comfort zones and to try new things. Learning is the core of exploration. We learn from experience and we experience by exploring.

I'm obsessed with cultivating my own childlike nature, my thirst for wanting to know what is around the corner or how far I can push myself or when my breaking point is. As a father, I'm driven to pass down to my kids what I've been taught and what I've learned along the way. But even more, I want their infectious spirit and outlook to rub off on me. They might never know how much their zest and enthusiasm sharpens me.

I think the bold are free — and kids are bold.

I've said for a long time that the best images I've ever taken have been when I'm the most uncomfortable. I don't know a good photojournalist who would disagree. If you are not uncomfortable, you are doing it wrong. I live by this rule, although not as often as I'd like or proclaim to. It's hard. Being uncomfortable requires practice and knowledge that you/we/I can handle way more than we think we can; that the pain and discomfort are only temporary.

I recently took a remote camping trip to one of my favorite places in the Eastern Sierras with my two- and five-year-old kids. An unseasonal cold snap hit us. My daughter was having a bit of a tough time dealing with the cold and snow. Here she was, a snowstorm sweeping down the mountain, darkness overcoming way faster than she's used to, our small fire providing only ambience at this point, and her dad running around prepping for the fast-approaching night and cold.

Tough, especially for a five year old, but I told her to look around and tell me what she could see and what she didn't see. She described the stark, 14,000-foot peaks and the snow blowing off the mountains and the smell of the desert sage. Perhaps more difficult to see was what wasn't there — people. I said to her, "If it were easy and comfortable, everyone would be out here. Everyone would be doing this." I assured her that she'd be incredibly warm through the night in her minus-20-degree sleeping bag and that the sun would, again, come up in the morning.

With her cute little nose sticking out of her purple sleeping bag, she slept through the night. The sun came up in the morning and we were rewarded with what might have been the second-most amazing sunrise I've experienced in this spot. Both kids were speechless as they awoke and looked out the window of our tent, seeing what only sleeping through discomfort can bring — the first light on the wilderness, the sound of coyotes, the delicate footprints of unknown animals nearby (I really should know what they are) through the lightest snow, and the distant wind howling through the peaks. All these years I've been coming here for the morning view; now, I'd rather sit back and watch them instead, silenced by the grandeur.

I believe that our kids can learn more about how to navigate life — the hard parts that require problem solving and staying calm — based on how they see us parents handling those same things. Kids learn by doing and living, not by being told.

You know, I don't know what we are supposed to do as parents. I'm figuring this out as I go, and much of what I've said to this point is easier said than done. But isn't a giant part of it about equipping them to be way more than merely well-educated citizens and part of the local economy? Or just knowing right from wrong? Is that what will quantify my efforts as a father?

I hope there is more. I believe that as fathers and mothers, we want our kids to flourish; we want them to suck the nectar of life and know that it is good. But listen to me — your well-planned, tropical beach vacation will be tough to communicate any of what I'm saying here. (And no, a delayed flight or lost luggage doesn't count.) Don't get me wrong; there are seasons in which I need that kind of trip more than anything, to park in one spot and not move for a few days. I get it. But don't make this your everything. Strive for more!

Enter microadventures and my challenge to you.

I wish my kids could have seen me navigate, successfully or otherwise, getting held under a two- or three-set wave in some remote winter Mexico surf spot. Or that time a rocket landed in the building next to mine in Yemen. Or when I got thrown into a white van in Egypt during the Arab Spring to be "questioned." Or when I got hit on the back of the head with a two by four in East Africa. But these will be just stories to my kids. Myths.

As you carve out time, months in advance, for your vacation, my challenge to you is to also whittle out spontaneous, unpredictable time with your kids. Stop it with the family Costco trip on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon! Forgo the Internet and reserving your camping spot with a million other people. Go and find some epic spot on BLM land and just figure it out. Let you kids see you navigate, struggle, laugh, wonder, get frustrated, and negotiate. Let them feel awe in the unknown. And let yourself be free in that process, too, and at the end of the day, crack a well-earned beer, make some hot chocolate, and cheers your family for being part of the process. Laugh at the times that you made an jackass out of yourself, celebrate new scars, and smile through cracked, wind-chapped lips.

I promise, it'll be worth it. Your kids will learn more watching your scars heal than you will ever know. Just go! [H]

Micah Albert is an award-winning photojournalist covering underreported issues in Africa and the Middle East.
He's based in Northern California and enjoys exploring the American West with his wife and two kids. 
You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram

Images © Micah Albert