We camped Joshua Tree over spring break.
Hiking the mile or so to our wilderness site, Henry tripped over a pricker bush and skinned his knee. Katie bumped her head on a tree branch and somehow got burrs in her hair. When we made camp, Lizzie knocked over our flaming stove during dinner.
It was my first time at the park. One cannot help but notice the Joshua trees, with their hardened and mangled trunks, flourishing despite the heat and lack of water, pushing up resolutely from the sandy soil like arthritic hands defying the surrounding landscape. But just as astonishing, perhaps even more so, are the miles of volcanic rocks throughout the park, ancient upwellings of magma near the San Andreas fault, forced to the surface as the ground shifted and millions of years of overlayers eroded around them. Though they came from beneath the earth, these stones appeared to have been dropped from the heavens, littering the terrain like remnants of a giant’s set of toy blocks. Boulders twenty feet high tottered on slabs fifteen feet across, with more rocks crammed in between.
Our children, like most children I suppose, held the trees in low esteem. The rocks, however…they beckoned. Our hike the next morning found Lizzie, Henry, and Katie scrambling up the boulders’ faces, jumping from ledges, squeezing through crevasses, and climbing to new heights.
In the beginning, Ken and I tried to keep up. He clambered behind, while I shadowed the kids from below, ready to catch the first one who missed a step, or at least break a fall as a child slid from a rocky shelf. But soon the heat and our aging ankle joints got the better of us. We sat on an outcropping while the children continued their games alone. Up, around, over, and through. The three-year-old combat-crawled through a narrow cave. The six-year-old surveyed miles of wilderness from a rocky perch. Even the eleven-year-old shook off her tween-ness to scurry, summit, and conquer.
Severed from gadgets and electronics, iPads and phones, our children could have been any children, from any land and any time. They did what young people do—they challenged themselves and found strength from the earth. At one point, I counted nineteen things that could have harmed them–spiny cactuses, crumbling rocks, a drop to a hole that was surely a snake den. But resting on my old bones, on an even older rock, I realized that the one thing that could have harmed them most was the insistence of my protection.
I’m not sure how long the kids carried on like that while Ken and I reclined in the shade. It seemed a moment frozen in time. We put our cameras away and basked in the beauty of the land around us, the wide open space, and the strength of our children’s joy. We watched them grow like trees from rock.