“Common sense needs to come into play here,” I overhear a Dad say. He flings open the side of his orange minivan as if it’s a cage door. “I can fix some things, but I can’t fix everything. The hospital is a long ride from here, kids. A LONG ride. And a painful one.” Considering his six- to nine-year-old audience, the speech is a pitch-perfect safety talk: brief and direct. I file it away as an essential parenting tool, and wonder how to adapt it for a twenty month-old hell-bent on climbing every bit of sandstone she can find.
Doggie and I polish off the last of our drinking water and return to what I’ve come to consider the best campsite (it’s relatively private and, more importantly, free of cliffs). We spy a roadrunner amongst the yucca – I consider the Chemehuevi Indian legend prophesizing the reuniting of the tribe after removal from their land: the first of the people would return as roadrunners and race down the floor of the valley to the mesquite forest. Here, they would be met by pods of sweet beans.
There are no beans to share as our family is reunited; instead we arrive to find Little Mama and Dada doing tummy time alongside a black lizard. Back when we were courting, I fell for Dada pretty hard after seeing him make a lizard leash out of dry grass, then actually catch a lizard with it in his front yard. His unbridled glee at such a simple toy gave me butterflies.
This J-Tree lizard scurries away, and we turn our attention to setting up camp: chairs, fire tools, water, Bumbo for Baby Licious. Little Mama ventures incrementally further and further away, pushing her comfort zone. Twilight stretches over the last rays of desert sun. I nurse and swaddle Baby Licious, then snuggle her into a tiny camper nest while Dada bundles up Little Mama.
“You’re kidding me!” The dreamy calm is broken by my husband’s high-pitched cry.
“What is it?” I leap into the night, jumping down camper steps.
“The fire pit is sizzling hot.”
Shredding newspaper for the fire, Dada has discovered that the fire pit has been hot all day without our knowing it. Little Mama spent a large part of the afternoon toddling around the metal-walled ring – it’s a miracle she didn’t burn herself. It’s a clear-cut case of rookie parenting; we definitely did not include “HOT FIRE” in our safety talk.
Next day, Little Mama wakes everyone pre-dawn. It’s crisp outside – we wait for sun to touch rock before leaving our cozy den. Little Mama and I search out lizards and rock play houses. The kid’s got skinned knees, hands, tummy, arms and shins. She has stopped saying “uh oh” when she falls. Instead, she pops up and carries on, despite the blood. We are on constant alert for snakes. We practice freezing in place (in the event we do stumble onto a rattler) and I teach her to look closely at handholds before grabbing – most snake bites happen on the hands.
I consider my mother’s take on parenting, which is basic Darwinism. “The entire point,” she often says, “is for the cubs to survive.” Heading back to basecamp, I develop a small swagger. Little Mama’s survival skills are improving, alongside my danger awareness – we’ve got camping with babies wired, I think to myself smugly. I’m enthralled with the notion of baby survival, my mind lost in theorizing, so I don’t notice the metal camper jack at toddler head-level until Little Mama’s forehead clangs against it. She’s rocketed backwards several feet, and lies sprawled out in dirt, mouth open, no sound coming out.
“Oh no!” I hold her close until a tremendous shriek rumbles up from deep in her chest, echoing through the Joshua trees.
I failed to include the metal jacks in the safety talk. For a week, I will remember this oversight every time I look at the bruised welt on Little Mama’s buttery forehead.
The larger lesson will remain with me for much longer: Do a thorough scout of the area before letting the kids out of the car. It’s a LONG ride to the hospital. And a painful one.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Where to stay: There are nine National Park Service campgrounds, for more info contact Joshua Tree Visitor Center http://www.nps.gov/jotr (tent and r.v. sites cost $10-15 dollars). Reservations can be made via phone at 877-444-6777 or web http://www.recreation.gov For those not wanting to camp, try Spin and Margie’s Desert Hide-a-Way (760-366-9124; http://www.deserthideaway.com ) in the town of Joshua Tree.
When to go: Winter in the desert can be extremely cold, with temps near freezing. Spring and fall are the best times. Summer temperatures soar into the hundreds.
Things to do: There are some great hikes suitable for little legs. The Skull Rock Trail is a 1.7-mile trail through boulders in the Wonderland of Rocks. The 1.3-mile loop to Barker Dam is also a favorite.
Mountain bikes aren’t allowed on hiking trails, but they can go on paved and dirt roads – your best bet is Covington Flats, where there is an easy network of dirt roads. J-Tree is best known for its rock climbing, and boasts more than 8,000 routes. You can rent bouldering crash pads from Joshua Tree Outfitters (760-366-1848, http://www.joshuatreeoutfitters) and sign up for a day or weekend of lessons from Uprising Adventure Guides (888-254-6266, http://www.uprising.com). Birdwatching is also good at Joshua Tree; over 250 species have been spotted in the park.
What to pack:
Pack clothing for extreme temperature swings: fleece for bundling up at night plus sun shirts and hats for scorching daytime rays. Sunscreen is a must, as is plenty of water. A well-stocked First Aid kit, including triple antibiotic cream, epi-pens and benadryl for bee stings.
Emergencies: Hi-Desert Medical Center in Joshua Tree has a 24-hour emergency room (760-366-3711) or contact a ranger, 911 or 909-383-5651. Cell phone coverage throughout the park is unreliable.