Balancing Act

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By the time we reached Petrified Forest National Park, clouds had begun their slow drift across a sky that had, until that late afternoon, burned with the heat of summer. These weren’t the clouds we’d hoped for — the rolling, agitated things that signal a cooling monsoon storm — but, still, we loved the shadow shapes they made across the floor of the Painted Desert. 

This was the sixth national park on our nine-park tour across the Southwest. When we pulled back into our driveway in Phoenix, my children and I had driven 1,400 miles, logging more than 500 of them on the day we arrived at Petrified Forest. It was all part of some grand idea I concocted too late one night or early one morning: No manufactured entertainment during summer vacation. No Disney lines or $30 hot dogs. No landfill souvenirs. We’d find some open road and chase rainbows, celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial with our annual pass, eat too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and feel the Earth — the open, aching land of the Four Corners region — beneath our feet. 

And we went — visiting the Grand Canyon and Navajo National Monument here in Arizona, then Mesa Verde in Colorado. We made the long haul to Ouray to soak in the hot springs there, then the even longer journey back down that winding mountain road to cross into New Mexico to visit ruins. 

Petrified Forest, though, was a last-minute decision, a push. We’d planned to visit Canyon de Chelly, but, as I had a handful of other times during the trip, I let the children choose.

“Rocks and dinos,” my daughter, Vera, said as she plucked a cracker off the back seat and plunked it into her mouth. 

We were running on fumes. 

Often, the Wallace Stegner quote about national parks is edited down to its first line: “National parks are the best idea we ever had.” But, to me, the second line is just as important: “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best, rather than our worst.” 

Maybe that’s why — especially in today’s social and political climate — it’s important to introduce our children to the parks. Though they’re governed bureaucratically, they remain wild and rugged and beautiful. 

They’re places where kids can learn to understand magnitude and space and human impact. They learn about geology, time, biology. The Grand Canyon, of course, is a good teacher, but nowhere on our trip did we feel the pull of the planet as we did at Petrified Forest. 

The car I’d rented for the trip — a bland midsize SUV — felt shrunk to the size of a Fiat that day. All of our gear, snacks and fatigue had become suffocating. So when we spilled out into our parking space at the park’s first overlook, I think maybe we all took our first deep breath in a while. Sometimes, traveling alone as a parent with two young children is, at its worst, like being cornered in a cage with wild animals. Without a blow dart. At its best, it is a balancing act, the very delicate alignment of discipline and freedom, of letting out and reining in, of patience.

My daughter is loud. She says what she means, when she means it. We are working on her manners. But she is also a naturalist from her deepest wild root: examining rocks and sticks on our evening walks, counting birds and lizards. 

My son, Jack, is sensitive, cerebral — the kind of Cub Scout who’ll likely make Eagle. He loves history the way most boys his age love baseball and Pokémon, reading more each week than his second-grade book journal can handle.

They bicker. Often. Ad nauseam. The way two people do when they don’t yet know that, as adults, they won’t remember their spiteful, youthful words. To me, though, it becomes a grating thing, likely louder in my ears than it is to the rest of the world. 

But as we explored Petrified Forest, we were often the only people for hundreds of yards. We talked one-on-one with a ranger at the Painted Desert Inn and walked in solitude to the binoculars to peer out onto Newspaper Rock. We read displays about Blue Mesa, Jasper Forest, the Long Logs and Agate House. 

When we reached Rainbow Forest, the children were quiet. The sky was, too, darkening as pieces of clouds moved together, awaiting the call from sunset to turn their amber hues. I gave Jack and Vera space. 

They moved out and away from me and watched their steps, my warning about moving or harming or taking tiny pieces of petrified wood resonant. As they came to rest at an edge, I strained to hear their conversation. Nothing. Still, I’m not sure what they said to each other in that moment, only that they grabbed each other’s hands. 

Some words, I suppose, are better left to the ones who spoke them. 

A darkening sky then, and a plea to return to our car. Jack and Vera bounced and ran across the landscape, pulling ahead of each other and laughing, the way people do when they already know they won’t remember their childhood arguments someday. 

“It’s so big here, Mom, and we’re so small,” my daughter called. 

“Like ants on another planet,” my son said. 

And I smiled again. Miles to go before we made it home.

— Kelly Vaughn

This essay is excerpted from the February 2017 issue of Arizona Highways magazine. It is republished here with permission. 

Kelly Vaughn