At home in Southern California, I spend most days caring for my four-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. Fantasies about travel without them often put me on a lounge chair someplace where the tropical warmth is a balm for both the skin and the soul and where the total weight of my responsibilities rests in the novel in my hand. Other times, I conjure the long, aimless days that my husband and I used to spend wandering cities known for their extravagantly late dinnertimes and narrow lanes of stroller-hostile cobblestones.
For some, navigating foreign countries and languages can exacerbate relationship tensions, but for us travel has always encouraged connection, summoning our best selves and the best version of our partnership. Ordering fish in Lisbon without any working knowledge of Portuguese is a team-building exercise; clinging to your spouse on a scooter ride through Uruguayan back roads is a veritable trust fall.
Ordering fish in Lisbon without any working knowledge of Portuguese is a team-building exercise; clinging to your spouse on a scooter ride through Uruguayan back roads is a veritable trust fall.
And it’s all very romantic—when you’re not sleeping beside a battery-powered sound machine or cutting anybody’s entrée into small bites. That is to say we spend a lot less time in such places now that we’re a family of four. Though our kids do have their own passports, featuring more stamps than mine ever held until adulthood, we more often go camping together or take road trips along the West Coast.
Which is why, when we had the opportunity to take our first long weekend away since the birth of our daughter, I was apprehensive about landing on a camping trip in Zion National Park. It’s not that I didn’t want to go (anyone with an Instagram account knows that Zion is the nation’s third most popular national park for good reason), but since it’s the kind of trip we usually do as a family, I didn’t expect it to be anything like those romantic, child-free trips of our past.
The morning that we arrived in the Utah national park was mild for the desert winter and quiet in the off-season. Before setting up camp, Seth and I drove the length of the scenic road, which is paved with bright red cinder rock chips and cuts like a meandering incision up the canyon floor. Following along the north fork of the Virgin River, we were flanked on either side by towering rock formations. Tufts of pale desert grass and clumps of shining sagebrush were everywhere—I was stupefied by the beauty and enormity of the scene.
We parked at the Temple of Sinawava and continued by foot on the paved riverside path that gives way to the entrance of The Narrows, the legendary river gorge that marks the thinnest section of Zion Canyon. We had neither the gear to continue on nor any real interest in wading into the cold water, but we stood for a while in view of the narrow river framed by thousand-feet-high walls—enough to persuade me that any image I had arrived with, of this place and of this trip, was only a weak approximation of the real thing.
Later that day, after a picnic in the backcountry where boughs of ponderosa pine crawl out from massive cliff-side cracks, Seth wandered off to explore nearby. I was reading on a camp chair, letting the weak February sun warm through three layers of long sleeves, when he reappeared saying he’d found something we should check out. Soon I was gracelessly step-sliding down an unmarked sand trail into a hidden slot canyon. Walled with high rock faces colored by marbled strokes of mauve, copper, and coral pink, it was as narrow as a single person in some places. And it was unoccupied except by the two of us, as close to silent as any space I could remember having been in. What was it that I’d wanted to invoke about the way we used to travel—the sense of adventure and closeness? Well, here we were.
It turned out that for this weekend together in nature, no bottle of rioja could compete with a couple of slightly warmed and shaken beers, pulled from a backpack at the summit of a trail. No rooftop dinner in Rome could match the intimacy of dining on camp steaks under the white beam of a headlamp. Hiking and building campfires and gaping at so many stars: What else are these but acts of connection, trust, and romance?
Years ago, I watched the sun rise from an overwater bungalow off an island way out in the Pacific, and it’s since been my peak romantic travel moment. But when I awoke early on our last morning in Zion, I had a view of mountains emerging under a gradient glow of bright yellows and oranges that I’d now take over any $12 mai tai at a resort swim-up bar. The view was cheap, free of fussiness. It set a new standard for moments that make me swoon.
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