Interesting Times: 'Where's the playground?'

Traveling is adults' way of compensating for the loss of wonder in every place and every moment.

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
As an American, I have traveled to the far reaches of the world - to Nepal, Indonesia, India, Peru and South Africa. What was close to home could wait. This month, finally, we travelled as an Israeli family the American way: in a massive RV ("recreational vehicle") through a small part of the vast open regions of the American West. At first the kids weren't quite sure why we would be traveling in an "aravi," (Arab, in Hebrew), but they were game. We told them it was like a small house on wheels. You sleep in it, it has a shower, kitchen, closets - everything you need. Unfortunately, we built up its size so much that when they actually climbed in, they thought it was rather small. Where are the other rooms? they asked, as if they had ever been in a "car" that was almost 10 meters long and designed to sleep seven. All three could fit in the queen-size bed over the driver's cab, leaving another queen-size bed in the back for their parents. I picked up this behemoth in Denver and set off to scoop up the family in Vail (life is rough), where we had come for a wedding, two hours away. Even this drive, on a major interstate highway, was spectacular, peaking at a 10,000-foot mountain pass and crossing through a tunnel under the continental divide - the ridge line that theoretically sends a drop of water on one side to the Pacific and on the other to the Atlantic. Driving an RV takes a little getting used to, but not that much. What needed more adjustment was the basic premise of our vacation: that we would wow our 10-, seven-, and five-year-old girls with some of the most awesome vistas America has to offer. We had planned to blaze through one national park after the other, seeing Utah's Lake Powell and Arizona's Monument Valley - places our friends had raved about. We began with Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, which boasts some 2,000 natural stone arches, some stretching the length of a football field. THE FIRST sign of trouble came even before we arrived at the park. As their parents gawked out of the window contentedly, satisfied that they were delivering the scenic goods to their offspring, the kids could barely be cajoled to look up from their assorted projects and take a peek. "Pretty," they would say, and turn back to coloring, singing or arguing, or whatever they were doing. When we finally did tumble out of the RV to see our first natural arch, the weather, to be fair, was not on our side. Early April is not exactly "in season" for this park, almost 2,000 meters up, and freezing winds were whipping about outside. But for the kids, the issue wasn't so much the weather as the purpose of going out in it. Why had we come? What was there to "do"? Sure, the views were pretty, but where was the playground? our youngest asked innocently. Trying not to panic as our plan - or non-plan, since we were winging it day by day, anyway - crumbled before our eyes, their mother and I quickly scrambled to find things to "do." We weren't going to spend our time looking for playgrounds, but did find a self-guided tour of ancient Indian rock art that, as a sort of "treasure hunt," captured the kids' imagination. That rock art; seeing ancient abandoned Indian dwellings carved into cliffs at Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado; taking a ride on an antique, steam-driven train; and swimming in a hot spring at the foot of still snow-clad mountains, turned out to be the highlights for the kids on our week-long journey. On Shabbat (the one time the RV didn't stir for more than 24 hours), we took a great little hike to a small waterfall and spent the afternoon staging puppet shows in the public library of Teluride, a former mining town, now ski resort, high up in the Rocky Mountains. From the kids' perspective, the jaw-dropping scenic backdrop to all this was probably incidental - we could have been in Cleveland - but maybe it added something. THE LESSON from all this, however, is not exactly that young children do not appreciate nature. How could that be, after all, when children get such joy from things that adults don't notice, like a flower or a stick, or some steps and a sidewalk? The ability of children to appreciate the mundane means that the spectacular doesn't add that much. To those for whom almost anything can be wondrous, and everything looks big and overwhelming, traveling for hours to further saturate the senses is redundant. Our instinct as adults is to "teach" children to appreciate nature. We certainly should expose them to it, but I'm not so sure who should be teaching whom. Traveling, it seems, is the adult world's way of compensating for its loss of wonder in every place and every moment. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11