Mark Christensen was an idealistic 19-year-old in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez supertanker ran aground on a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, spewing 11 million gallons of crude oil and causing one of the most damaging environmental disasters in U.S. history. Horrified by the thought of suffering wildlife, he set out for Canada and Alaska to help clean birds and sea otters covered in gooey sludge.
“That impacted me huge,” said Christensen, 51, a high school teacher who lives in Golden with his wife and three daughters, ages 12 to 16. “The sea otters, I never heard a worse sound in my life, just hearing them cry. It stuck with me, and I said, ‘I’m going to raise my kids to be environmentally conscientious.’”
Christensen and his wife, Crystal, are raising their girls to be minimalists, to live simply and mitigate their environmental impact. The kids have ridden their bikes to school, even on snowy mornings before sunrise and sweltering afternoons in late summer, ever since they started grade school. They also use bikes with trailers for trips to the grocery store whenever possible.
The younger two girls are doing middle school online at home now, but the oldest, Novalie, rides daily to and from Golden High School, a distance of 5 miles each way. This time of year that means leaving the house before dawn. Dad goes halfway with her, and so do her sisters, even though their school day will unfold at home. They are a familiar sight in their neighborhood, a dad and his three girls pedaling in the dark with lights on their bikes, and they have been for years.
“When they were really little, it was really easy not to drive,” Christensen said. “As they got older, we would car-pool, because the kids do play soccer. We would drive our car 200 to 300 miles a year, just back and forth from soccer. Just tried to keep it simple, and get the kids to be mindful about the world they live in, to be aware of how you live.”
Now Christensen and his wife are driving closer to 500 miles per year. His new job at Sheridan High School is a little too far to commute by bike in a timely fashion, so he motors there in an electric car and says it makes him feel a little “shameful.” Still, they’re driving a small fraction of the 14,300 miles the average American drives annually.
“It’s a really fascinating experiment,” Christensen said.
When the kids were little, they began riding bikes to Kyffin Elementary near Green Mountain, 2 miles each way. When snow was too deep to ride, they would haul out the snow boots and walk.
“It’s easy to make excuses not to do it,” said Christensen, who ran track in college and didn’t get a driver’s license until he was in his late 20s. “It’s time with the kids, to be able to spend more time with them and share that one aspect of growing up. I was working part time. We were just starting out and living on very little.”
Sometimes classmates would ask the Christensen girls, “Why does your dad make you ride bikes?” Christensen would tell his girls he didn’t understand why those kids’ parents make their kids ride to school in a car. When his girls bike to school, they get to see deer and coyotes. The other day they saw an owl.
“We see them all the time,” Christensen said. “I think it’s more kid-like to let kids walk and ride and experience (nature). That’s why we talk about the simple life. You maximize your time by putting your kids in the car, but is it healthy?”
Sophia, 14, said she likes riding to Novalie’s school with her sisters and her dad — even though it means riding back home to start her school day — because she loves nature. Allisson, 12, says it’s also an opportunity to spend more time with Novalie, 16, a runner on the school’s cross country team this fall.
“Our older sister, we never get to see her because of her high school life,” Allisson said.
Crystal, a social worker, rides her bike to work when she can. She values the environmental payoffs but also sees it as a way to combine commuting with the pursuit of fitness and wellness.
“Instead of spending my commute sitting in a car not moving, I’m riding my bike doing something active,” Crystal said. “Yes, it takes a little bit longer, but you’d be surprised, it doesn’t take as much longer as you might think, and that’s my workout for the day. I don’t have to build in separate time for it.”
Christensen said the overall goal is the “pursuit of simplicity” while being “passionate and bold” environmentally.
“How do you change the world for the better, for the environment? You do it by you personally not driving your car,” Christensen said. “I wanted to show my kids there was an alternative way to live, and it’s a nicer way, to live in a city and simplify your life to a point where you can enjoy the life you’re living instead of chasing after this abstract ideal that, ‘If I only had more money, I’d be happier.’ That’s just not true.”
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