School started nearly three months ago, the cottonwoods along the Santa Fe River are at their golden peak, snow is studding the Sangres, and I’m reflecting on summer. Indeed, our fall activity lineup is in full swing, but my kids’ and my July-long road trip still frames the way we’re moving into this season.
Road tripping with my children reinforced foundations of family, curiosity and valuing wild places that my husband and I try to establish whether we’re in the backyard or backcountry. Doing this through the National Park Service’s Every Kid In a Park program, wherein every family with a fourth grader gets in free to every national park and monument, added another important layer.
Camp Road Trip had relatively low overhead: car, bike rack, tent, stove, coffee. Also lots of clothes, books, journals and bedding because I’m not a minimalist. I added racket games for campsite play and a pull-over alternative to yelling at the kids to get along. Theo, then 10, held the fourth-grade pass. Sylvia, then 7, held many things because she’s not a minimalist either.
Most important was the spirit of going on an adventure, of heading out to weeks of discovering new places and being outdoors.
We started out in the Four Corners landscape of my childhood and rocking our evolving road-trip soundtrack. After winding through Arches National Park at the hottest time of the day, we renamed some formations, discovered how they were formed in the first place, and appreciated that Arches’ Junior Park Ranger badges are made of wood and smell still burnt from the imprint. We shared a picnic table with families from Pennsylvania and India.
Farther northeast, in Utah’s Wasatch Range, we soaked up time with college friends, reaffirming bonds that run across time and time zones. Such reunions remind our children they are part of a community that spans age and distance, that enduring relationships are worth attending to, that they are loved by people far and wide.
I think about this as my children move into the more peer-defined spheres of upper elementary school. I want them to have a solid sense of their value as whole, loved individuals. Part of grasping this value comes from kids knowing their bigness—being strong, active, capable, aware—and also their smallness in the world’s diversity of people and landscapes.
So we head to the mountains, to the basin and range, to active volcanoes and habitats in which we are vulnerable. We head to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone without a schedule or campsite reservations right after July 4 kicks off high season.
Ah, there’s nothing like the open-ended freedom of a family camping trip you didn’t take time to plan!
On a practical level, white-knuckling it in pursuit of first-come-first-served tent pads meant I hardly used my stash of stay-awake-while-driving lemon drops. Also—we found a site every time! In philosophic self-justification, I hope this instills in my kids a sense of spontaneity, optimism and flexibility, if not mellowness.
It took us a good three hours to pack up our first Tetons morning. Theo and Sylvia did not appreciate how creatively I’d turned out a breakfast from the previous night’s dinner, and we weren’t yet working together. They preferred biking among RVs while I packed everything. Then, driving through the elkless elk preserve with two maps spread across the front seat, the $10 Tetons/Yellowstone audio guide forever not downloading on my phone, I took a wrong turn. Note: There’s only one main road through Grand Tetons National Park.
By the time we arrived at the visitor center, it was lunchtime and the kids begged to buy region-reflective plush animals, which we’re not exactly short on. Wildflower books? Geology trays? Historical accounts? Nope, a stuffed mule deer and keychains.
“Take a deep breath, mama,” said the childless guy behind the counter who spends each summer camping and working national park shops. He exhaled loudly and smoothed the air in front of him with open palms. “You seem a little stressed out.”
“Is it really that obvious?” I asked, horrified, while snapping “No!” to Sylvia’s armful of souvenirs.
He nodded. “It’s all going to be okay,” he said.
“I feel anxiously indecisive about your T-shirt designs,” I confessed. He said there were other park shops but they didn’t actually carry the same designs.
Still, he reminded me, “Just mellow. I see so many stressed out people. But, remember: You’re here. You’re going outside with your kids. It’s great.”
He was right. We went outside, boated across Jenny Lake, hiked around, photographed mountains whose grandeur escaped all of our lenses, and took off our shoes in water, rocks and dirt. We crouched down to look at minerals and we looked up to take in the terrain. We were there. We were outside together.
I’m grateful Wise Bookstore Guy set me straight early on. Our camp-packing time didn’t improve much, but I got more patient coaching the kids to help me, or I like to think I did.
My agenda simplified: Cool, sure, we can just watch Old Faithful three times. Dinner here? Now? Chicken nuggets? Ok. And huckleberry ice cream!
I focused on smaller areas of the map, on trails instead of destinations. Sometimes we strolled—or ran—or skipped. We talked about wildflowers, geology and nothing at all. Theo took 147 pictures of a bison grazing in a campground. We studied differences between black bears and grizzlies. We dunked in cold streams. We taught camp neighbors to make s’mores with dark chocolate.
Panoramic shots have different qualities than the microscope, of course. When Sylvia demanded we ride bikes more, I planned a rolly little jaunt along one string of geysers en route to another. Not far in, Theo charged ahead and Sylvia began a loud, angry diatribe about bugs and how she hated this whole national park thing.
I just breathed, hanging back to appreciate the sweet picture of her amid the long grasses and weird geothermal activity flanking the trail. I reflected how appropriate her volcanic changeability was to this landscape. Beauty is everywhere.
Perhaps the lens shift between macro and micro is where wisdom lies, or at least some parental sanity. Other parents help, too.
The crown of Camp Road Trip was cousin time with my sister’s family and our parents. Northerliness and the western end of a timezone defines Montana summers, and golden days are long. We got off the Blackfoot River once at 10 pm, confirming the absurdity of summer bedtimes. At just one spot on Flathead Lake’s 162-mile shoreline, the cousins spent hours creating rafts and narratives from floating logs and discarded pieces of rope. We practiced diving from a pontoon boat.
The luck, timing and skills I gained from not planning ahead in previous parks helped us snag the last tent site in Glacier National Park. Notwithstanding the nearby bathroom lighting—dark skies, National Park Service?—it was a great family camp. With a three-generation group of 10, we didn’t move fast; but we sure enjoyed being outside hiking and playing in a three-generation group of 10.
We jumped in icy lakes and squinted up at the park’s last remaining glaciers; we made rock towers and dams and grilled dinner riverside; we slid through snow fields, paused for mountain goats, and paddled quietly by nesting bald eagles.
National parks’ huge tracts of public lands are gifts that cannot fully be appreciated without spending time in them. No matter what one’s level of activity, the scale of these gifts—and the fact they belong to all of us—is staggering. Yes, traffic hordes in these places can be daunting, especially if you go through one entry lane only to find you exceed the vehicle clearance height and must therefore cross three lanes of stop-and-go lines to get to the appropriate entry.
Human masses are not generally an attraction, but they bother me much less when I see so many experiencing the wonders of public lands. People are much more likely to protect places if they value them, and they’re more likely to value them if they experience them. When I see grandparents camping and kids hiking and hear languages from around the world, I am in awe of the power of our national parks.
It’s a different kind of awe than being solo in the wilderness, but it is deep appreciation. It makes me proud of the United States for setting aside wild places for our collective benefit. It makes me committed to speaking up when government actors want to limit these spaces.
These are discussions I can have with my third- and fifth-graders now, and they offer a rich balance to social studies, science, math, English and arts. Ideally, things learned on Camp Road Trip can also help us mitigate our jumps to judgment, strengthen our curiosity and powers of observation, articulate our values and reinforce the fun of being together. This is a solid supplement for all of us back in school.