Ode to the Junior Ranger.

We sat on the rim of Dead Horse Canyon. My daughter and I set a timer for 5 minutes, and let the river of deafening silence rush through us. The quiet hush was vast. Almost too profuse to bear witness. I wanted to say something to cut the uncomfortable trance. Resisting the urge to talk over it, I let the silence talk to me. It was old. It didn’t speak to me in words, but in spirit. My own spirit. A mirror of my conflicted soul. Full of fear and yet insatiable for deep experience. I let the fear and the weight of the canyon fill me up. I let it be what it was without judgment: terror, excitement, fear and freedom. I let the experience and connection to the canyon wash over me and I listened to its silent history. And, the nothingness. The nothingness in the canyon loomed like a heatwave rising to the surface of the void, full to bursting with the afterlife.

Ding ding ding, our timer went off knocking us out of our spiritual reverie. “That was an epic five minutes, Emilia,” I said to my 4 year old. We walked back to our RV site and sat down at the picnic table to talk about what we heard and felt during that time.

This mini adventure was bestowed on us by the National Park’s Junior Ranger Program. I didn’t expect to have such a meaningful and memorable learning experience from a children’s workbook, but here I was, learning supreme lessons with my toddler.
As I write this I glance over at my bookshelf, decorated with Emilia’s Junior Ranger workbooks. I now consider them to be one of my most valuable physical possessions. Living a traveling lifestyle, I have learned to relinquish the value of physical belongings. It has to be really special to earn the title “valuable,” in our family. I rifle through the workbooks, and find the one from Saguaro National Park.

I remember pulling into our RV site after a 7 hour drive through the dynamic desert landscape. There it was: the silly yet serious Saguaro Cactus.

The iconically desert plant was something I wanted to set my eyes on since I was a little girl. I spent my formative years in Iowa, where the only iconic imagery was corn. (Which really lost its magic after I spent a summer detasseling it.) We backed our 20 food travel trailer into the smaller than advertised RV site.

After a day trapped in the clammy car, we were ready to run free. My husband, Adam, unloaded the two kids, ages 4 1⁄2 and 1 1⁄2, from their tiny prisons, Emilia and Pepper took off on tiny feet across the sand. I take in the scenery for a brief moment, inclusive of the no less than six species of cactuses in our RV site alone. Then it hits me: We are trapped in a cactus garden with a toddler and baby and a sweet, but very dumb, dog.

“Kids, put your shoes on and stay at the picnic table until we get the RV opened up.” Since the kids are, well, kids, they proceed to completely ignore me, so I put on my angry Cuban voice and shout, “Sit down and don’t move!”
“Mommy, you sound like Grandpapa when you yell like that.” In situations like these: whatever it takes is our general motto.
I take a minute to assess the soon to be crime scene of mutilation by cactus as our dog goes frolicking amongst the pin cushions. I just don’t have time to address that right now. She’s a wild thing, she will be ok.

The kids are sitting at the table, and the clock of their hamster sized attention span is ticking. I have about three seconds left before they will start to disregard my tyrannical orders altogether. We level out and open up the RV at record speed, and start blasting the AC. There’s no power here, so we’ve got our generator singing sweet lullabies to all our retired neighbors. I think about what we are going to do to keep the kids entertained and safe from Arizona’s prickly pear massacre. The kids need to blow off the steam that accumulated in their energy stores during the grueling drive. Adam walks over to one of the many species of cactuses in our campsite. This one is a regal Saguaro, suffering a bad bout of Necrosis, and looks like it’s about to fall right over onto the RV. A Saguaro cactus can live up to 200 years. So I doubt that the demise of this cactus is going to end on our watch. “I wonder what the fine is if you push one of these over,” my husband jokes. Forget the fine, the punishment is up to 25 years in prison.

We pack up the kids and head to the visitors center for a reprieve from our cactus nursery/RV site. Walking into a national park can be intimidating. There’s so much to see, learn, and experience. Our overzealous coast to coast itinerary only allowed us a few days at each park, so it was a leap of faith picking a place to jumpstart. We couldn’t let the kids blow their steam at our cactus observatory of a campsite. Forward momentum on a beaten path was what we needed. I walked to the ranger desk and retrieved a Junior Ranger work book. Itinerary, and park guide in hand, we needed nothing else. We spent a magical hour in the light of a Hunter’s Moon doing one of my favorite Junior Ranger activities: a nature scavenger hunt. I don’t know if it was the Hunters Moon, or just luck, but we set our eyes on an array of spooky predators during our hunt. A rattlesnake, scorpion, and tarantula were checked off the list only a few minutes into the search.

And the coyotes found us, eerily reversing the roles of our hunt. One of the dogs breaks off from the pack and approaches us, proclaiming her disapproval of our own dog, Phoebe, through piercing barks and wails.

The Junior Ranger program made all our national park dreams come true. Our entire coast to coast journey revolved and evolved around those little paperback workbooks at the visitor centers of each national park.

At Bryce Canyon we had only a day to experience the park’s magnificence. Amidst an array of colorful Junior Ranger activities at this park, we chose to “Hike the Hoodoos”. We descended to the bottom of the Navajo Loop Trail and Emilia ran with a squeal of triumph as she sighted the “I hiked the hoodoos” medallion. She put her tiny hand on the brass emblem and we made a rubbing of it to complete the activity.

We all learned so much that day. We learned that the Paiute Indian name for Bryce Canyon is Unka-timpe-wa-wince-pock-ich which means: Red Rock Standing Like a Man in a Hole. We learned about the land we were walking on, its history, the animals that live wild there, and the plants that thrive on it. We saw Methuselah, a 4,500 year old Bristle Cone Pine on the Bristle Cone Loop trail. That one blew the socks right off my husband, who was an arborist in college.

Now, I’m going to put my junior ranger hat on, and zip up my vest while I prattle on about how tenable this program was for our family. Coming from a traveling mom of two children, it couldn’t have been introduced to me at a better time. We don’t plan on settling down anywhere anytime soon, so the option for my childrens’ education is singular: homeschooling. I never intended to be a teacher to my children, at least not in the ‘schooling’ sense; but if we want to keep traveling, we have no other option. I feel that a transient lifestyle ultimately outweighs the institution with countless, lasting benefits for my children. So off we go!

I have been emotionally and mentally gearing myself up for what this means prior to our trip. I bought a pre-school curriculum, collected all the pens, papers and other necessary materials for the entire year. I was going to test the waters of being a teacher to my children. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually open up the curriculum.
What was I afraid of? There was definitely some sort of emotional wall in the way of getting started with this. And it was beginning to resemble an impassable fortification of stone.

Tthe curriculum and all its books and clays and crayons and crafts stayed tucked away in the corner of our RV locked away with the keys of my confidence.
But as we walked into the visitor center of our first National Park, I remembered reading on a homeschooling blog that the Junior Ranger program was a great resource for traveling parents. We picked up our first workbook at Arches National Park.

As I completed the activities with my toddler, I realized that there I was, teaching her. I didn’t realize it at first because I was learning too. And that’s the most savvy thing about the program: Emilia and I are both learning. Teaching doesn’t have to look like it did when I went to school: A bored and underpaid teacher teaching the same thing over and over in a halogen lit room where new information is memorized and not directly applied in any associable sense. (That was my experience anyhow). Where does it say that the teacher can’t be learning with their student? In fact, we could argue that more learning can take place if both the teacher and student are learning. Maybe the learning is collective, but you don’t have to be an expert on a subject to teach it. You could even say that a fresh perspective on a subject might offer a more objective and applicable kind of learning experience. And as a parent learning with my child, I can be a role model of excitable energy while we apply learning together in our immediate environment and learn things around every corner about every corner.

As we continue to do these workbooks together, engaging in applied learning through the unimaginably beautiful scenery around us, I see that Emilia is actually teaching me things. She has a different perspective and viewpoint to offer. And since we are both learning, why can’t I learn from her as well? The roles don’t have to be static, each role can be more dynamic in its fluidity; she can teach me, and I can teach her. And, well, doesn’t that sound like fun? Not only did we learn about geology, environmental ethics, Native American history, and local flora and fauna, but we were fully immersed in the concept of applied learning.
My husband still makes fun of my overzealous excitement in the program. Of course we got the junior ranger hat, and the vest for Emilia since she more than earned it with perseverance and dedication, and most important: genuine curiosity. And after about our eighth park, my husband bought a junior ranger vest for me too. I love it. It’s loaded with tiny pockets and clips and perfect for nature walks. Hey, we can all be rangers here.

4 thoughts on “Ode to the Junior Ranger.

  1. Another great read and refreshing news of the lovely family that fair winds brought to my doorstep (dock?) so many years ago. I always felt I travelled thru the stories of my B&B guests but you have added to this perc in so many ways. I recently read about Frederick Olmstead, the country’s first landscape architect, and his role in establishing and preserving the national parks you are sending such nice pictures and descriptions of.
    Keep up the good work and always think about when our paths might cross again.
    Fondly, Chris


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