(Photograph by Greg Stout)
In response to The New York Times article “650 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing”
99. “What Family Traditions Do You Want to Carry On When You Get Older?”
Traveling alone, you know, teaches you a lot about yourself. Likewise, traveling with your family teaches you a lot about your family. For this reason, I would like to keep the spirit of family road trips alive when I get older.
My family used to travel west every fall to Big Bend National Park. We would take a different highway to get there from the year before, but the destination was always the same. We would travel with the Reeses, now long-time family friends, and spend a week in cabins or tents in the Chisos Basin. This tradition began in the mid-90s, and continued uninterrupted for a decade; after which the fall trips became sparse, one year on, one off, until the older generation of children graduated from college in the first half of the 2010’s, about 20 years after our first trip. I haven’t been in two years now, but soon I will return with the friends I enjoy and family I love.
From our very first hike, the Lost Mine Trail, there was always a sense of hidden magic in Big Bend. Growing up, us kids felt we could stumble on a chest full of gold at any moment. Or stand face to face with a ghost, visiting Terlingua. Maybe even run into some outlaws, have a shoot out. Though we only ever bought plastic toy guns with firecracker powder, and never wandered farther than a shout from our parents. But we did earn Junior Park Ranger badges: learning the difference between cacti, how to scare away a mountain lion, or why littering is unforgivable.
We’d take a week off of school to go on these family trips. Our parents however insisted we ask teachers for make-up assignments to take with us. So, next to our pillows and hiking boots, were piles of workbooks and reading assignments. Nevertheless, at no other point during the year were we so diligent about completing said assignments–homework doesn’t feel like work when you’re not at home. Between multiplication tables, we were learning math by bartering with the owners of trader outposts. We learned the names of constellations under a Texan autumn night sky. We shook hands with the children of the Mexican border towns across el Rio, and slung rocks at snakes together. Sure we read our school assigned chapter books, but we also shared stories with one another, made up characters, invented new languages, climbed rocks and founded friendships with the different spirits of the wild. As an adult that sounds like an exaggeration. But as children we felt connected to the things we were surrounded with–deer, javelinas, bears–as our fathers taught us the names of the trails and of the canyons, and how to carve a walking stick, so we could head back to camp, relaxed and wiser, to eat a meal prepared by our mothers over a warm fire.
On the road trip back home, under road lamps and a less starry sky, we would sleep content, counting down the hours until we reached Houston.
No matter how small or far away, everyone has that special place in life where they feel safe. For me, it’s miles below Casa Grande, miles so close to el Rio you can smell it, on my back under a big clean west Texas sky. Big Bend. Traveling there, or anywhere the road takes my family, is one tradition I will carry on. Forever.