I go into nature to be soothed and healed,
And to have my senses put in tune once more.
- John Burroughs
When we pack the car for camping, we leave little pore space unstuffed. Aside from a few storybooks and bedtime stuffed animals, however, we don’t bring any toys for Theo and Sylvia.
They wouldn’t fit among the camp gear, copious clothing, bulky car-camping food and extra shoes. As it is, bungee-cord scaffolding is required to protect a space for our dog, Sophie. But the real reason we don’t bring kids’ playthings is that the best entertainment is where we’re going.
We were all a little irritable when we set off the other weekend, and even the curvy Taos High Road didn’t induce Theo and Sylvia to nap. For the most part, though, we were able to swap whines and spousal jabs for car snacks and the changing view. There were bright fall trees to notice, horses to count, cows to moo to and old northern New Mexico houses to wonder about. As we climbed, the Truchas and Chimayosos Peaks rose above the wilderness beyond the road. When we stopped, the kids and Sophie ejected.
Someday we’ll take the kids backpacking—maybe here, where the trail climbs into the Pecos Wilderness and the clear, cold West Fork of the Rio Santa Barbara flows from the Santa Barbara Divide. For now, we happily settle in the campground, where we get out our lanterns, two-burner stove and a double kids camp chair in giraffe-print fleece. Car camping allows us to cook in Adam’s 50-pound cast-iron Dutch oven, a Father’s Day gift only now getting used. We’re celebrating three days of just the four of us after a summer of too few weekends off work.
Shortly after we arrived, Theo and Sylvia lay down side by side and spent time looking up at the treetops reaching up to the sky. They logged 20 minutes trying to unearth a boulder from the roots of a ponderosa. They filled their pockets with rocks, leaves and a couple found pennies. Later, Theo built and landscaped a bug/fairy house, and they both drew pictures on the ground with dirt-caked fingers. We went on a walk to say hello to the rio.
Being outside in the woods and on a stream is like rushing into the arms of imagination and discovery—the opposite of structure, constraint and measured time. For children (and adults, too), few things are more stimulating or engrossing than just playing outside. Sticks! Dirt! Mud! Rocks! Water! Leaves! Willow tunnels! Wildflowers! Bear scat! Owl pellets! Cow poop! The novelty of a tent and the promise of s’mores just amp it up.
Camping is all this for me, too—even in a busy campground and especially now that I can experience it with my children. Sharing even a tiny patch of wilderness with a five- and two-year-old reacquaints me with its magic from their perspective. It also reacquaints me with myself in a deep, critical way that gets lost in the distractions, schedules and stuff of our daily lives.
Parental demands abound when camping with small children—making sure no one falls into the fire pit or pokes someone’s face with sharp, burning sticks, for example. Food prep and clean-up alone take a good while and involve plenty of calls to “Stay where I can see you!” and “Not in the ashes!” I hold Theo’s hands when he’s on the outhouse toilet, both of us leery of the gaping hole beneath him. I hold Sylvia crossing the river.
It’s hard to close the deal on a nap, especially when it’s hailing on the tent, and 3 am finds at least one child squirming into my sleeping bag. I always bring a book and a journal, but I never open them.
The couple camping at the site next to us, on the other hand, sat fireside reading every day. They also referred to Sylvia’s tantrum one dawn as “chirping,” as in, “It was very sweet to wake up to the kids chirping this morning.” Beyond the bounds of our tent, we’re quite charming.
Theo and I experimented building kindling formations for the fire, trying a tee-pee arrangement of small sticks one day and a log-cabin stack the next. The log-cabin worked best. We whittled sticks for “roast toast” in the morning and marshmallows at night, confirming that blackening a Jet-Puffed marshmallow pretty much cancels out its staleness.
Our fire was particularly smoky—I was determined to burn the damp, mostly rotted slash I scavenged in the forest instead of shell out $6 for a tiny stack of hardwood—so we shifted around it as we ate. We looked at stars and sang a few songs, but a guy with a guitar a few campsites over sounded better than we did, so we ended up listening to him. We inhaled campfire smoke, the occasional scent of a free-range cow and the woods after a rain.
Being outside together is one of the most important things we do as a family. Perhaps of equal importance is the parent swap: We start out hiking as a foursome, and then Sophie and I peel off for a half-hour run while Adam stays with Theo and Sylvia. When I find them again, we picnic and play in the river until I hike the kids back for “naptime,” and Adam gets fly-fishing solitude. The four-pack is great fun, but spending a few minutes alone in the mountains is really restorative.
I got two whole spells of it this trip. I trotted out in layers, my ears cold; the midday heat had autumn quick at its edge. The Santa Barbara trail rolls up the canyon through a few aspen groves, and their waxy yellow leaves dappled the ground. Some fell around me as I ran.
October is a month of birth and death for me. Its calendar page is marked with the birthdays of some of my dearest friends and family members. It’s also when my grandmother passed away, and the mothers of two close friends. If I hadn’t miscarried, my first baby would have been born in October. This is a month when I think about the lives that touch mine, about stories and examples and the inexpressible things that pass between us.
The emotional poles of October go with this season of warmth and chill; they are not to be reconciled as much as meditated upon. To be outside with October in a wild place feels best. Birth and death and parenting are wild. Domestic though they may seem, marriage and children are, too. There is wildness in me.
A half-hour trail run is not exactly summoning my inner Farley Mowat. Even so, sometimes re-grounding myself is most possible on rough and rocky ground. Being alone even in a brief, tempered wilderness makes me more aware, calmer, more compassionate—even if that, too, is brief and tempered. It reminds me that boredom is impossible and life continues without judgment all around me.
After my first run, I met my family on the riverbank, where Theo was reaching out to balance a long stick on some rocks. His vision was to span the river with a thin bridge of such sticks and then decorate the rocks on which they connected. When we left, his bridge scrolled over the water like a ribbon, and his hope was that other people would see it and add something. Later that evening, he asked if I thought anyone else had worked on his sculpture.
No one had, I was unsurprised to discover the next day when I visited it on my run; it was a ways off the trail. It was intact, the sticks wet on the bottom where the water splashed up, the far bank in the sun. I balanced with toes and fingers on a couple dry rocks in order to reach the second junction of sticks, where I set a cairn of striped pebbles. I placed red willow leaves where the span began and put three spent yellow seedpods on a barely bridged stone.
The same cold, spongy smell of wet rocks and decaying leaves was with all of us later when we played in the river near the campground. We soaked our shoes and raced leaf boats to the river dam Theo and Adam built. I like that my time by myself was linked by a stretch of river to our time as a family. Upstream, Theo’s sculpture was subtle, unexpected and beautiful. Few people would see it. Here, the yellow leaves paused at the rock dam, congregated and pushed over. Then, they continued on.