I have loved being outdoors pretty much since birth. I was born on August 26, 1991, and was quickly introduced to the wintery world of the upper Midwest. When I was just two months old, Minnesota was pummeled by the legendary 1991 Halloween blizzard, a historic snowstorm so massive it became a cultural icon because it buried the Twin Cities and the whole region in twenty-eight inches of snow.
Our house in Afton, twenty miles east of downtown St. Paul, had been encased by huge, heavy snowdrifts that cut us off from the world. To make matters worse, my dad was away on a business trip and couldn’t get back home due to the storm, so my mom was home alone with me, her newborn baby, and had to dig her way out. Even as a baby, I didn’t really sleep. I was simply bundled up in a car seat and brought outside multiple times a day as my mom relentlessly shoveled out our house like a badass pioneer woman. Immersed in snow and wind, under the bright-blue Minnesota sky, I became a true snow baby—and have been ever since.
My parents loved being active outdoors every weekend, and having a baby didn’t deter their usual ski dates together on the rolling trails in parks nearby. They would just put me in my dad’s backpack and off we’d go!
Afton may be only twenty minutes from the Twin Cities, but it is a world away from city life. A combination of farmland, rolling hills, bluffs, and dense woodlands, Afton is a blend of agriculture and recreation, a place with marinas and ski slopes just minutes from each other. It was a rural place to grow up, and our house was set so far back in the woods that we couldn’t see the road. We were half a mile from our neighbors on one side, half a mile from our neighbors on the other. The only sounds I heard out the window as a child were birds and the wind in the trees. My parents had a number of bird feeders around the house and a large bird identification book that I loved to flip through. To be honest, I was mostly interested in finding the pink flamingo because it was a pink bird! My favorite birds to see were chickadees, and I would run around calling “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-deeeeeeeeee!”—proud of myself that I was (totally inaccurately) making bird calls.
Our house was on the side of a large hill, with woods on two sides and fields on the other two. Even inside the house I felt like I was still connected to the outdoors through the large windows on all sides, and all I could see were trees, forest foliage, animals, and the ever-changing Minnesota sky. When I wanted to get outside, I’d sometimes go out the door . . . or I might crank open a window and jump out that way. When I needed a break or had to be inside the house, I lived on our three-season porch, where a large hammock hung, its white knotted netting draped between two wooden bars and perfect for a small child to run and leap into easily. I adored this hammock. It became a prop for my active imagination, and my cousins and I would play “shipwreck” on it, pretending the hammock was our ship in wild and crazy high seas, swinging it wildly back and forth and flipping it upside down. You were the captain if you could stay on the hammock while it was upside down, and trust me, that is hard to do.
All of the land around our house was my personal playground. Which was a godsend for my parents because as a child I didn’t do bored very well. I didn’t nap and hardly ever sat down. I had so much energy that when I would go places with my parents where I was required to sit still, they brought a pack of books, toys, and coloring pages they sweetly nicknamed their “arsenal of distraction” to keep me occupied. Otherwise, I was like a racquetball pinging all over the place. To be fair, I could focus when I needed to. I loved doing arts and crafts projects and could be totally absorbed in what I was doing, whether that was painting the paper or slowly spreading paint up my arms to my neck. But I had to be invested in what I was doing, and being told to sit still “just because” didn’t work for me if I didn’t think there was a good reason for it.
While my parents understood this and let me be an active child, my teachers in preschool did not. Every child was expected to take a nap, and I was really worried about this. “But what if I can’t sleep?” I asked, and was assured that it was OK, all I had to do was stay on my mat. Hmmmmm. Stay on the mat. Let me tell you, I never stuck a toe off that mat! But I did do cartwheels, headstands, jumping jacks, and all the gymnastics my little heart desired, right up until the teachers put me in the isolation room. I was given a coloring book and crayons, and from then on, when everyone else napped, I got to stay in my coloring room, a room that conveniently had a window looking into another schoolroom, where the big kids would watch movies during nap time. My earliest sharp memory of “school” was dragging my chair under the window and clinging to the sill, standing on my tippy-toes, laughing along while watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory over the big kids’ shoulders.
During grade school, I went to Valley Crossing Elementary School and absolutely loved it. I made friends, and I was fiercely dedicated to having their backs. One day at recess while we were building snow forts, a boy came over and pushed my best friend into the snow. I pushed him back, hard. He fell down and gave himself a black eye with his knee. At least this was how I patiently explained it to the principal when I was sent to his office; if I had wanted to give him a black eye, I would have! I was simply treating him the way he apparently wanted to be treated. This, obviously, didn’t work out in my favor. It appeared that pushing back wasn’t tolerated, which was probably a good thing. But between you and me, that kid never bothered my friend again, so who really won here? A more self-aware person would have recognized that she had a fiery temper at times and little to no patience, but at a young age I simply described my character traits as “don’t mess with my friends, dude.”
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We had one TV in the basement of our house, and it got only two stations: news or sports. But somehow it was only ever showing golf when I turned it on. I never really wanted to watch anyway, so I spent most of every day outside. I was outside so much that in summer I was incredibly tanned and my hair was shock white from being bleached by the sun. My skin freckled, and my feet turned tough and calloused from running barefoot. I was always covered in scrapes, cuts, and bruises, too busy playing to stop and worry about injuries. Honestly, I never cared about getting hurt. My knees are a mass of scar tissue because I was always out doing things and skinning them over and over.
It was a Lion King childhood: I was surrounded by the natural world, and all of it was my own imaginary kingdom. My parents never told me that there were areas that were off-limits. I was free to run around our house, into the woods and fields, right into the trees. I was never scared to wander around the woods by myself, and my parents trusted me to not be an idiot and to never climb higher into a tree than I could climb back down.
I often scavenged for fossils in huge rock piles in the middle of the fields around our house, not knowing what might pop out or what I’d find. One of my favorite spots to explore was an old abandoned house a mile down the road. With its creepy, crumbling exterior, the house looked like a set for a horror movie. I would poke through the rubble, finding picture frames with the pictures torn out or burned completely, making up stories in my head about the people who had lived there. I had a lot of empathy, even for people in my make-believe world. Standing in the shell of that home, I wondered if there were ghosts and if I was disturbing them.
I always wanted to know how things worked, and I was relentless in asking questions, even when it was not an appropriate time to be pestering. My mom would laugh, telling me about the time she and my dad took me to see the play Peter Pan. I was quite young and super stoked on the whole flying across the stage thing, but I couldn’t stop squirming around in my seat, peering at the stage until I figured out how they did it. “Mom! There’s wires! They’re flying because of the wires!” I announced, proud of my detective skills. The woman with kids my age in the row in front of us turned around and angrily hissed, “Ssshhhhhhh!” It hadn’t occurred to me that not everyone wanted to know how it worked. Thankfully, for my little sister’s sake, I modified my tactics in time for Santa Claus.
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I remember begging my parents for a baby sister when I was in preschool. Most of my friends had a little sibling, and I was so envious! I had this half-formed concept that getting a little sister was about as easy as driving over to Toys “R” Us and picking one out from the shelf. But, you know, a quiet, cute, well-behaved one that I could tote around like an accessory. Not one of the wrinkly, screaming, stinky ones.
When my parents told me I was getting a little sister, I was through-the-roof excited. We didn’t actually know if it would be a girl or a boy, but I was quite sure it’d be a little sister (because that’s what I wanted, obviously). I was curious about this baby. How did one take care of it? Would it talk? Could it do tricks? My mom showed me how to put a diaper on a baby by putting one on my doll, and after that I put diapers on all my stuffed animals and practiced changing them every day. Not even the pink dinosaur was spared this humiliation. My mom did her best to keep a straight face and hold her laughter in when I bossily proclaimed, “OK, Mom. You can be my mommy, and I’ll be the baby’s mommy!”
Of course, all that changed when Mackenzie Rose Diggins arrived when I was five years old. She was premature, and there were a few complications, and we’re lucky to have her alive! My poor mom had to spend a few months on bed rest, and during this time I house-hopped from my grandparents to cousins to other cousins, as I wasn’t really sure what was happening and my parents figured it’d be better for me to not spend all my time running up and down the hospital halls. When we finally got everyone home, I was perplexed. Why was my little sister crying all the time? Why didn’t she just go to sleep at night like everyone else? And good lord, why did her diapers not smell as nice as the ones I changed on my dolls? But despite having the rose-colored lenses off, I loved her and was fiercely proud of my baby sister. After all, she was the cutest baby in the world. She might drive me nuts, but nobody else was ever allowed to be annoyed by her.
As we grew up five years apart, we often missed each other’s phases by a hair. I grew out of Barbie dolls just as she grew into them. We overlapped schools for only one year. I had a short fuse and was quick to anger but also quick to move on, whereas when Mackenzie finally got mad, she’d stay mad for days. But we also had a ton of fun together. One of our favorite games was Mackenzie sitting in the laundry basket while I pushed her in circles around the living room, zooming around like a two-man bobsled team. I’d lie on the floor reading books to her as she sat perched on my back. Above all things, we loved to play dress-up together, and to this day we have a fantastical box of make-believe.
One of my favorite activities (other than being a pirate and running around the house with Kenzie as Tinker Bell clinging to my back) was helping my mom in the garden. I loved being her little assistant, and I desperately hoped my thumb was green as well. She taught me how to find the weeds and pull them out, how to put new flowers in the ground, and what the heck a perennial versus an annual was. I remember the day I learned that you could actually pull things out of the ground and eat them. I was dumbfounded. You mean to tell me you can just eat anything outside? No, my mom explained, but she did point out all the herbs, rhubarb, asparagus, and chives. When she went inside to wash the dirt off her hands, I started plucking one tall piece of chive after another, eating it simply because I could. When she came back, I smelled horrible, like an onion, and was feeling quite sick.
Later, when I was out of high school, I helped my parents build a bigger garden for all the vegetables we could handle. Dad and I nailed the wooden boxes together, fetched local compost and dirt, and spent hours trucking one wheelbarrow load after another to fill the raised beds. We had to make the fence surrounding the garden high enough to protect it from the deer, but once it was finished, I had so much fun planning which vegetables would go where and helping my mom plant the seeds. Even today, whenever I am home in the summer, I love running out to the side yard with a basket to collect spinach, kale, peppers, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, asparagus, lettuce, beets, and carrots—although most of it is gone by the time I’m back in the house.