It’s practically a rite of passage: the family national park road trip. Kelly Vaughn and her children make a five-day, 1,400-mile odyssey through the Four Corners region that inspires a new appreciation for life
By the time the elk go to find water, the campground is nearly full, early evening light filtering through tents and trees. That it is a Monday doesn’t matter — the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, including Mather Campground, swirls with tourists and language and noise.
This is our first stop on a five-day tour of the Four Corners area. My children — Jack, 7, and Vera, 5 — and I make day one a short one, traveling from our home in Phoenix to what many call the crown jewel of the National Parks System. We set up camp and wait for sunset, eating spaghetti I’d made the night before and laughing at the way the ravens dance and squawk and joust for remnants.
When we walk to wash our dishes, we spot the elk at the waterspout, his antlers in full velvet, his massive body flanked by the people of the campground. Once the kids realize he isn’t a statue, he becomes their favorite part of the canyon — better than sunset and sunrise, or the climb up the stairs at Desert View Watchtower. More fascinating than the distant view of the Colorado River or the talk of geology and strata and time.
And as we drop into the Painted Desert the next day, I try to explain why it was important for people to leave the elk alone, to let it drink without interference, to let it leave. We make our way north and east, detouring to Navajo National Monument. We load our water and make the short hike to the Betatakin ruins overlook, tracing with our eyes the architecture of a people who walked away from it more than 700 years ago.
“The trees,” my daughter says. “They’re so green, and the walls are so orange-red. I love the colors in this space.” And as we walk away, she keeps looking behind her, followed, she thinks, by the ghosts of the people.
It is only a breeze.
Up and over to Four Corners Monument, where the crowds don’t do much for our hunger or fatigue. This is the tourist stop we knew we’d race through and cross off our list, hurrying to the state line, stopping to photograph the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” sign.
Counting clouds, we near Cortez, the spine of the San Juan Mountains in the distance. Jack and Vera drift in and out of that sweet, muddled road sleep as I pull into Mesa Verde National Park. There, we spend a second night in our tent, the three of us huddled against the chill that crept in after an evening storm.
The next morning, the world is orange and pink, leftover rain casting crystals across the grass. The kids run through a meadow as I break up camp and wonder how much longer their patience will last.
We hike to Step House ruins, chasing lizards on Wetherill Mesa, then make the slow amble past overlooks and informational signs. By late morning, the kids lose interest, and I make a mental note to return.
We drive up Highway 550 from Durango through the San Juan National Forest to Ouray, spend the night in a hotel and rest for the return trip, across the Animas River and into New Mexico. Tonight, we soak in natural hot springs the Ute Indians once used to heal themselves. We eat well, and as I sleep, I dream of the road again, the white-knuckle winding trip in rain and wind that we’d made just a few hours before.
Clear sky the next morning means that we cross easily into New Mexico, stopping for a tour of Anasazi ruins National Monument. Then, ahead of schedule, we make the slow drive through Navajo Nation land, past Shiprock and back into Arizona.
That’s when it falls apart a little. At a rest stop, I build a wall of sleeping bags in the back seat and lay down a maternal edict: “Not another peep — or I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
At Petrified Forest National Park, I check the odometer. We have traveled more than 500 miles that day, with more to go before we sleep. But, as the sun slips toward the horizon, magic. Jack and Vera become friends again, running past the park’s fossilized logs, and stopping to hold hands and swallow the magnitude of the space.
We had all learned our limits today, and, to some degree, I realized that I can probably go anywhere alone with my children and be OK. The single-motherhood I feared had made me stronger than I imagined.
The next day, we hike to the ruins at Walnut Canyon National Monument and dart through the volcanic landscape of Sunset Crater and the Wukoki and Wupatki ruins. There, at our last stop, a butterfly finds my son’s orange shirt. It crawls down his arm to his wrist, and he shakes it free, its yellow wings floating out of sight against a bright blue sky.
As we near home — 1,396 miles of road behind us — I ask Jack why he didn’t let the butterfly rest awhile longer. “It was a living thing so I had to leave it alone,” he says. “Like the elk, remember?”