Every crevice of the car is packed. The kids are human puzzle pieces wedged between carefully stacked ramparts of coolers, water jugs, sleeping bags. Four handmade bows bisect the vehicle lengthwise (and keep children to their respective sides, lest Dan hollers, “Watch the bows!”). We’re heading to Utah, a seasonal spring migration down from the mountains of Colorado.
We pass dozens of vaguely familiar dirt roads, at which earlier versions of Dan and I parked an ’86 Honda, and descended into the slickrock, hoping to find water, ancient ruins, unpeopled miles, the meaning of life.
“It’s like old times but with new people!” Dan says, maneuvering the Subaru down a soaring mesa of piñon and juniper, through which secret canyons are gashed into solid rock.
We set up camp. A canyon wren sings the final, descending notes of the day. Rose chops potatoes, Col chops wood. Our tent smells like every camping memory plus pine needles and the merest whiff of mildew, not unpleasant. I have the distinct feeling that I have everything I need (plus two six-packs and several bars of dark chocolate).
From camp chairs, we can see back into Colorado; the La Platas, Rico Mountains and Lone Cone rise in jagged snowiness. I drink a beer and survey our good fortune.
The next day, our friends arrive. Factions coalesce. There are those in the first half of their lives and those, likely, in their second. We grown ups check in and make plans while the kids get busy creating a game in which one person throws pebbles at the others who are lined up, firing-squad style. It’s Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games in the desert.
With buddies, kids can hike farther, eat more, stay up later and recover faster from personal injustices. They become a roving band of grubby life enthusiasts, seeking adventure. We drop over the flat edge of the mesa, down spiraling stone staircases that require all four limbs. A raven disappears into a slickrock nest. The sky beams blue.
Our obligations and responsibilities shrink down to some basic human code: keep children hydrated and away from cliffs, while the trickier aspirations like, “Become Somebody” slough off like layers of desert sand.
In the canyon bottom, we adults unfurl in the shade, conducting modern discussions about whether the unadulterated sun is more likely to sponsor vitamin D production or melanoma. Meanwhile, the children sculpt mud pies like every other child who has ever lived on this planet.
“At my bakery, you can get anything from wheat to grain-free pies!” Rose announces. (OK, maybe not quite like every other child.)
Various permutations of adults meander down canyon while I remain to watch the kids. Like little masters of the present moment, they scurry around seeking the perfect grass seeds to sprinkle on mud pies; they climb boulders and stalk lizards. My nostalgia about the carefree, childless days Dan and I spent in the canyons alone is already passing away. Someday (likely, in about a week), I’ll feel wistful about these moments. About how these slickrock canyons were enough to keep the kids’ imaginations firing, about the times we came here and found everything we need.
Driving home, it’s like pressing rewind as we backtrack through tiny dusty towns, climb up out of the desert, finish off lukewarm coffee, remember our modern responsibilities. I look around the car for signs that we’ve changed somehow, that we’ve absorbed something essential and immutable from the desert, something to bring back with us to our days of busy routine.
Col tells me, “I wore the same clothes for four days.”
“And that’s a good thing?”
Reach Rachel Turiel at email@example.com. Visit her blog, 6512 and growing, on raising children, chickens and other messy, rewarding endeavors at 6,512 feet.