Thanks to Literary Mama’s Blog Editor Amanda Jaros for her contribution to Cargo.
I needed to feel the desert: its immeasurable openness, its brilliant colors, its penetrating silence.
I unlocked the door to our room at the Lazy Lizard Hostel and pushed it open with my foot. As light sifted into the darkness, a constricting box the size of a garden shed emerged before me. Cedar toddled through the doorway and I clambered after him, the large duffel bag and diaper bag falling off my shoulders, banging the backs of my thighs.
“Waitwaitwaitwait,” I uttered at him, trying to grab his pudgy arm before he got to the bed. I didn’t want him touching anything before I had a chance to look around. But he was on the bed and bouncing before I could snatch him.
When I finally found the light switch and flicked it on, my brain erupted with the pinky-peach tone of southwest decor. The walls, bedspread and curtains were bathed in a soft, yet pukish color. I pushed back the curtains, hoping more light would drown the tone, but it only served to highlight the cracks in the drywall and dust on the nightstand. The floor inside the tiny closet was sprinkled with a number of dead flies, but there was nowhere else to put the bags, so I brushed the flies aside with my shoe and set them down.
“Cedar,” I said, trying to get my son’s attention. “Cedar. We are going to stay here for a few nights. And go hiking. Can you say hiking?”
“Ha-kin,” he said in his high-pitched baby voice. Just a month shy of his second birthday, Cedar spoke his own language; a language I was getting better at deciphering every day. Much of it was just sound, with changing inflection, but he was willing to repeat anything.
A week ago, we’d flown to Salt Lake City to visit my brother and his family. We had a few days before our flight back home to New York and I needed to feel the desert: its immeasurable openness, its brilliant colors, its penetrating silence. When I’d made plans to visit Utah, I knew I couldn’t miss the opportunity to explore this magical, wild landscape with my child. So I’d borrowed my brother’s car and made a long drive south.
Cedar stood up and leapt as high as he could, then crashed down and rolled across the hard, springy mattress, shrieking with delight. I wondered what was festering in the pink bedspread that my boy was rolling on, but pushed the thought from my mind.
I left him for a moment and stepped outside to get a few more things from the car. Across the street from the Lazy Lizard loomed the rocks, smooth and crumbling all at once. They towered over one whole side of town, curving up toward the sky as if building the wall of a bowl, holding all those below captive in the basin. They were the rich, roiling and shifting orange-red I remembered, as vibrant and alive as any other living thing in the desert.
I was here. I’d made it back. Moab.
Cedar spoke his own language; a language I was getting better at deciphering every day. Much of it was just sound, with changing inflection, but he was willing to repeat anything.
… the sky too limitless, the air too silent.
On this trip, I originally wanted to go to Hovenweep National Monument, site of several Ancestral Puebloan ruins, at the far southeast corner of Utah. Despite being at the heart of the Colorado Plateau, it’s a place few know about, a place I’d not known about before I got a phone call offering me a Student Conservation Association job there in 1999. When I arrived in the desert for the first time I could not absorb it all. It was so unlike the landscape I knew back east. The land was too sunburnt, the openness too encompassing, the sky too limitless, the air too silent.Though there was one full-time ranger, and a couple other on-and-off volunteers over the months, the solitude cut into me. The Monument got, at most, a handful of visitors each day. There was little work to be done. Some evenings after we’d closed up the visitor’s center, I sat by the ruins, trying to understand the silence. On my off days I hiked through other parts of the Plateau—Canyonlands, Monument Valley, Arches—returning back to Hovenweep windblown and exhausted, with sand rooted into my scalp and embedded into my skin. The days in the desert moved slowly, but slowly, the desert etched itself onto me.
That was years ago. Now, older and less windblown, I was still exhausted, but it was motherhood that was being etched into my skin. With a two-year-old in tow, it was already a stretch to have driven this far from Salt Lake. Getting to Hovenweep—another hundred and twenty miles and two hours south—wasn’t going to happen. So I’d settled on Moab, which was hardly settling. Also on the Colorado Plateau, Moab is an outdoor enthusiast’s mecca. You could spend twenty-four hours a day mountain climbing, biking, backpacking or rafting down a river. While I wouldn’t be doing any of those with a baby, I was sure I could manage all the hikes and vistas I wanted in between diaper changes, naptime schedule, and the inevitable tantrums.
Hoping to spend as little time in the Lazy Lizard as possible (I had vowed to not look too closely at the bathroom) we headed to Arches National Park. The first stop was Devil’s Garden at the northernmost reach of driveable road. My goal was to hike to Landscape Arch. The Park brochure touted the Landscape Arch trail as easy. “Flat, popular trail to longest arch in park. Side trips to Tunnel and Pine Tree arches,” it said. The hike was only three-quarters of a mile one-way. Perfect for a mom and baby. I estimated that we could definitely fit in the side trips before nap time.
I was here. I’d made it back. Moab.
Around each curve in the road, boulders bigger than houses balanced precariously atop others…
If the red rocks towering over Moab were impressive, the sky-scraping formations on the drive into Arches were beyond comprehension. Around each curve in the road, boulders bigger than houses balanced precariously atop others, appearing as if they might break way and collapse at any moment if the slightest breeze picked up. That familiar feeling of too-muchness arose. It overtook my brain and heart, threatening overload. The itch to move my legs swelled. I was ready to breathe in the juniper air and hear the crunch of boot on rock in a landscape I hadn’t encountered in far too long.At the trailhead, the wind whipped under dull gray skies. Cedar wore his orange plaid pants over his poofy diaper, and his thick blue, red, and green striped coat. I pulled a fleece hat over his head of thin baby hair, then pulled the hood of the coat over that. With the hood cinched around his chin, and all the layers, his toddle seemed even more penguin-like. When I released him from the confines of the car, he flapped ahead of me along the trail.
I felt good. The path was wide. The air crisp. I strode after Cedar, pleased he was leading the way. It would be a great morning.
Then, fifty feet up the gravel entry path, Cedar got sidetracked. The trail was edged by a high rock wall to one side. At the base of the wall Cedar found a one-foot high mound of dirt with a gathering of dry shrubs and grasses covering it. There was just enough room between the grasses and the wall for a toddler to pass. He ascended the tiny dirt hill, gingerly stepped over three strands of dead grasses that had fallen over, then tiptoed down the other end, one mittened hand carefully holding the copper rock next to him. He treated the one-foot decline as if he were descending Everest, concentrating hard on slow, deliberate steps. At the bottom, he flashed a smile, then ran back the five feet to the beginning. He did it again. Up, over the grasses, down. And again.
For ten minutes Cedar went up, over, down, and for ten minutes I reveled in my little guy’s utter cuteness. When other hikers passed by, I considered grabbing their arms and pulling them aside to prove the point that my baby was the most delightful baby of them all. I wished Cedar’s dad was here to see him, so I videoed our boy’s new favorite thing. His motivation and enjoyment was evident, and I interpreted it to mean he loved being outside. This was something I wanted more than anything else for my child, the chance to experience wild places; and here it was, happening.
Eventually, my cheek muscles began to ache from smiling and I noticed my ungloved hands turning to ice. As I stowed the camera in my daypack, it dawned on me that Cedar wasn’t planning on stopping this activity any time soon. When he finished one of his rounds, I asked if he wanted to go hiking.
“Mountains?” I said.” Do you want to see mountains?”
“Yuh.” Back to the beginning.
“Can you say mountain?
“Man-ton.” And around again.
A rabbit hopped into view up the trail. A glimmer of interest sparked in him, but then he turned back for another climb of Everest. Every time I tried to lure him away, he dismissed me, fully intent on his trek.
I jumped up and down on the trail, trying to stay warm, considering my options. I wondered what it would have been like had I backpacked into the arch alone with my one-woman tent, my tiny cooking stove and freeze-dried supper, and my trusted hiking poles. My legs would settle into the rhythm of movement, my feet would feel the pressure of thick sole on earth, my heart would beat a little faster; I would have been at Landscape Arch by now. Ok, time to go.
I pulled the parent card. I held Cedar’s hand and urged him to walk. He resisted and began to cry. Scream, in fact. He refused to leave his game, pitching himself to the ground with all the weight of his little body. The reason babies are small is so parents can physically contain them when they throw a tantrum. There is no containing the sound however. I was bigger, but he was louder. It was an unpleasant tangle.
Though I could have used a hand, I was thankful there were no other hikers around just then to witness my parenting skills. I hated having to wrestle him into the baby carrier, but what else could I do? We needed to get going, there was so much to see. I pulled the straps over my shoulders and clicked him onto my back still protesting.
Finally, I was able to walk.
I tramped confidently across two-hundred-million-year-old rock that laid out walls and carpets and stairways before me. The path trailed away from the rock and into the pale desert. Dusty green juniper trees held up their tiny blue berries in bunches, as if an offering. I plucked a few, the woody berry scent careening me back into my past. Beyond that, the view across the plateau expanded toward the edge of time.
I paused for pictures as Cedar wiggled and cried on my back. Eventually he calmed down and merely talked into my ear, saying things I only half understood.
“Cah,” he said. “Cah.”
That I understood. He was ready to go back to the car. I walked on despite his protests. Because of the danger of rock slides, you can’t get up close to Landscape Arch. So I stood behind the roped-off area and photographed it. But the photos merely blended rock against rock. Colors the pinkish hue of our Lazy Lizard bedroom made the arch hardly definable.
“Yes, yes,” I said. “We’re going.” I threw one more glance at Landscape Arch, then turned and carried Cedar back to the car. So much for the side trips.
The reason babies are small is so parents can physically contain them when they throw a tantrum.
I surmised that if my child grew up surrounded by natural places, he would turn into an adult who respected and appreciated the world around him.
Our few short desert days passed like the hazy photo of Landscape Arch. The weather varied, but mornings didn’t. Every day Cedar woke me at dawn, and I tried to feign sleep until a more respectable time when we could go get breakfast.
I’d found a diner that we frequented. I liked its simplicity, its central location in town and their extensive supply of fairly-clean high chairs. The first morning I ordered pancakes and eggs, a good, hearty breakfast that Cedar and I would share. When the food came however I discovered that they did things differently in Moab; this diner loaded the scrambled eggs directly on top of the pancakes. Despite this disgusting coupling of incompatible foods, the main perk of the place was clear: It was often empty so early in the morning, which meant there were few people to be hit by Cedar’s enjoyment of flinging his meal off the table.
Later I’d walk, carrying Cedar. Sometimes he’d ride comfortably, singing in my ear, or dozing off to the rhythm of my steps. Other times he’d protest, screaming and crying, resisting any attempt to put him in the carrier.
Evenings were spent in the confines of our bedroom. Cedar was generally not worn out by our day, having been carried most places, so he thrilled in jumping and rolling on the bed. I sat next to him alternating between videotaping his antics, writing in my journal, and asking if he was tired yet. After he fell asleep I dug into the new book I’d found at the Arches bookstore: The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places. After reading the Preface standing in the shop, I bought the book immediately. The authors, Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble, wrote about their desire to “give our children strong and satisfying connections to nature, and we wondered how best to help them make those connections with places and organisms.”
I wondered that too. That was why I had brought Cedar to Moab. I surmised that if my child grew up surrounded by natural places, he would turn into an adult who respected and appreciated the world around him. How do I help him to connect in meaningful ways?
Nabhan and Trimble suggested that children need outdoor experiences at every age. More than simply being surrounded by it, though, young children need to touch and hear and play in nature. Up close. Direct experience builds an intimacy between child and nature; the child becomes confident, acquainted, understanding. Play offers a chance for exploration. Being up close allows them to see with their own eyes that nature equals life, that they are a part of the world.
I kept reading: “Children do need wildness, and in this book we spiral around that premise like moths coming to an open, nectar-laden flower. Our spiral dance may lead you on a passage through many questions—and some may resist immediate resolution. But in the questioning lies the key.” I knew that children need wildness, but no one had taught me how to be a parent; I had plenty of questions.
I questioned my earlier decision to force Cedar away from Everest so I could go to Landscape Arch. He had been having a great time of his own making, inside a setting he could grasp. I had pulled him away to have what I thought his experience should be. What I wanted my experience to be. No wonder he had wanted to go back to the car. I hadn’t let him play.
Could I let his time playing outside unfold as he wanted and needed it to? Could I learn to be patient? Indeed, it seemed as if I had stepped into that spiral dance Nabhan and Trimble were talking of. Where would it would take me?
On our last day under the sapphire skies of the desert winter, Cedar and I climbed toward The Windows, a grouping of arches located at the center of the Park. From the parking lot, a stone staircase rose gradually for about two tenths of a mile to North Window Arch, which formed an thick oblong circle about forty feet high.
If previously Cedar had been reluctant to walk, today he seemed excited about it. The steps were small but he took each one carefully. I thought about Nabhan and Trimble and their ideas. I wasn’t great at patience, but today I’d decided to stop when he stopped and let him lead the way. We’d had enough long days of boring drives, forced carries, gross egg pancakes, a cramped and ghastly bedroom; it was time for Cedar to be in charge.
After a few steps up the incline he would stop and sit. People would pass us, going up or down, and we’d scooch to the side. He’d grab a few handfuls of gravel or dirt, letting it run through his fingers. I’d sit next to him and let the images of the sandstone creations that peppered the distance filter into my subconscious. Who knew when I might return to the desert? If ever.
The colors echoed sunlight; reds were brighter, greens livelier, and the blue sky vibrated clarity. Looking up at these incomprehensible rock towers was like gazing into a star-filled night; I thought I might be consumed. I was so small. My little boy next to me was even smaller. I wondered if this was what he felt like toddling through a world so much bigger than he, trying to grasp at whatever he could, seeking understanding.
“Up?” Cedar asked.
“Yes,” I said. “We’re going up. We’re almost there.”
Cedar looked back down the hill and pointed. Then let out a string of baby words I couldn’t decipher. Like me, he might have been philosophizing on how the vast desert space reminded him of the enormity of the moon, or he could have been saying he was hungry and he wanted to go back to where the snacks were. It was impossible to tell. But he kept moving, stair by stair following the cracked stone pathway. The parking lot receded and the view expanded. From below, North Window looked small, but the closer we got, perspective changed.
We arrived at the arch and found a place to sit inside the big circle of stone. We ate our animal crackers and drank our water. “Look at this desert, Cedar,” I said. “You can see forever.” I looked over at him. He was looking at his hands, in the dirt again. He was attempting to taste it.
The trail didn’t end at North Window. It went another mile farther, passing two more arches that I could see from where we sat. There, like here, we would be able to get right up underneath them, climb on the brilliant rocks, see the park from that viewpoint. I wanted to keep going. A mile wasn’t far. We could do it.
“Do you want to keep hiking Cedar?” I asked.
“Let’s walk over to that arch.” I pointed to South Window.
He took a handful of animal crackers in one hand and dirt in the other and looked at both. Considering.
I took a deep breath. This was enough. “No,” I said. “Let’s just stay right here.”
Looking up at these incomprehensible rock towers was like gazing into a star-filled night; I thought I might be consumed. I was so small.