Taking my own kids on vacation is startling different from what I remember of family trips growing up. This summer my husband and I are driving with our three young children from L.A. to Durango, Colorado. Cue the anticipatory anxiety! How many Water Wow coloring books equal the survival rate for 12 hours in a Honda Odyssey? Which will break us first, the third-grader’s shrill cries of boredom or actual crying by the 3-year-old?
To push through the work of packing and panic spending (organic lollipops, water shoes, Etch A Sketch), I recall a nostalgic reel of childhood vacation memories. I yell to my husband in the other room that I’m finally ordering the $349 Tundra 65 Yeti cooler. I need it to store the salami-and-cheese sandwiches, just like my mom used to make for car trips.
With one and then two kids, my husband and I flew several times a year. But on our budget, having the third was the nail in our minivan coffin. The sentencing is familiar; for years, my parents each drove a minivan. I remember in my late elementary and junior high years, well before the invention of iPads, and even Yeti, loading up our Toyota with a red Igloo cooler of homemade snacks to drive from my hometown of Sacramento to Bluff, Utah, population 250. We didn’t know anyone there, except the owners of a humble motel called Recapture Lodge.
I pull up Recapture’s website and look at the photos online to remember the wood-paneled rooms and beds in blue coverlets. Nothing’s changed. Old, heavy TVs sit in the same bulky cabinets. From what I recall of 1993, I can picture the oilcloth-covered table in the rec room and the squiggly lines of the topographic maps that we pored over with owners Jim and Luanne Hook to plan our hiking route. I remember that Jim looked over at me with his pinkie finger in his nose. He must be touching his brain! I thought. It was jammed up all the way to the second knuckle. Seeing my widening eyes, he laughed and reached over to show me his hand, revealing the stub—a long-ago casualty. My dad and Jim still exchange Christmas cards, but it wasn’t Jim’s charisma that got us to Bluff. The Hooks kept a pack of llamas that guests like us could take out on multiday backpacking trips.
For school breaks, a lot of my friends growing up flew to their grandparents’ time-shares in Hawaii. Some visited Disneyland or the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Mataya went to L.A. to visit her cousins and Zach went to San Diego and said he touched a real dolphin. No one else had been to Bluff.
My father, a physician and landscape photographer, who in his “retirement” works with Doctors Without Borders, dedicated our time off to minivan adventures in all sorts of places my friends hadn’t heard of. This time we’d go even more remote than Bluff: into the permit-only Grand Gulch, a winding canyon known for well-preserved Anasazi ruins and cliff art. From the maps, we knew the entrance points and exits from the canyon. It was a high water year with frequent flash-flood warnings. No one had cell phones. We loaded the pickup, hitched on the llama trailer, and took the highway to a long dirt road through the red desert.
Hiking with llamas wasn’t only quirky, but also practical for our family, since my dad traveled with a significant amount of bulky camera gear. The genius was that instead of wearing a heavy backpack stuffed with food and clothes, we carried only a lead rope. And by making friends with a llama, we were distracted from the drudgery of walking for miles in the dusty canyon. Dalton, who had a white chest and dark patches around his eyes and nose, followed me slow and steady. My sister’s llama, Hershey, solid dark brown, was more jumpy. No, he didn’t spit. You’re thinking of a camel.
But before we got to know those two, my sister and I were in the front seat of the pickup with Jim, bumping down a long, flat dirt road. We drove up to a deep divot in the ground and Jim stopped the car. The road dipped into the steep, sandy side of the hill and right back out. But we could no longer see the road. The pit was filled to the brim with tumbleweed. All-day we’d seen them rolling by and hadn’t given a thought to where they’d end up.
This wasn’t a little gully with a dozen tumbleweeds that Jim and my dad could toss-up and out of our way. A few buses could fit down in this crevasse, now containing a critical mass of straw weeds like a jar of spiky jellybeans. Jim stopped the car and got out to talk to my dad and mom, who were tailing us in the minivan.
They talked for a long time as my sister and I sat wide-eyed, no idea what would happen next. Then Jim climbed back in the cab, rolled the windows up, and told us to hold on to our hats. We looked at each other and back at the llamas as the truck started driving forward. We were going in.
Slowly and confidently, like a pachyderm entering a swimming hole, Jim drove us into the tumbleweeds like they weren’t even there. The brittle material crunched from the impact, fighting us off by confiscating all visibility. We became completely enveloped in tumbleweeds as they overtook the windshield and both the driver and passenger windows. Us little girls just giggled incessantly, heads turned back, eyes fixed on the llamas as we watched them become swallowed up like us. The truck engine was loud alongside the competing volume of the scratching and crunching of the weeds. Our mission shifted into slow motion at the bottom of the gully, for surely we would become stuck, forever separated from our parents and buried alive. We still couldn’t see anything; we just listened to that roar, and it was hard to tell whether we were making forward progress. Jim gunned the gas to push through the density at the bottom of the pile. We screamed and laughed nervously, and somehow, miraculously, the sun reappeared, we saw the horizon, and it became clear that we’d reached the other side.
On vacation it happens like this, unplanned moments you always remember, and ones (long, whiny drives) you can quickly forget. For my parents’ efforts packing, finding these rare sights, securing permits, packing the cooler, we saw it all: sandstone waves like orange taffy, giant redwoods, green hilltops dotted with twisted live oaks, slot canyons, and class IV river rapids. My sister and I cartwheeled among wildflowers and clambered up rock piles while dad stood underneath a white sheet peering into his 4×5 view camera.
There were plenty of times when I just wanted to fit in and take “normal” trips. But looking back, what defined and shaped a lot of who I became are the odd, wonderful experiences I had on vacations. For some families it’s around the dinner table, or the baseball field. For us, in between the irregular, around-the-clock schedule of an emergency room physician, we had our time together on vacations. My parents set a budget and an interest point, carved out time, and we went. Now I enjoy the thrill of doing the same.