Yellowstone isn’t just the world’s first national park. It’s a place full of millions of individual memories, some involving a single stone.
As her cousins raced down a path in Yellowstone National Park a couple of weeks ago, Mia lagged behind.
She was upset. I don’t even remember exactly what she was upset about, just that it was the kind of meltdown that is an age-old staple of family trips.
Anyone who has ever gone on a Griswold-like cross-country trip, either as a child or parent, knows about such inevitable drama. I’m still not sure how my parents had the will and patience to pile three kids in the back of a station wagon (one without air-conditioning or a radio) and drive a few thousand miles, hitting national parks, Wall Drug, and countless rest stops. But they did. And now I appreciate that and much more.
We, the baby boomers who went on these trips as kids, like to say that kids today don’t want to get outside. But often the problem is that we don’t take them outside. I’m as guilty as anyone. Which is why last year when my family asked what I wanted to do for my 50th birthday, I said: “Go camping in the Redwoods—like we did when we were kids.”
We didn’t quite turn the clock back. We flew to California. We had a rental car with air-conditioning and satellite radio. But once we got to the Redwoods, just the smell of the place took me back a few decades. So did seeing Mom reading to her four grandkids.
She found Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor in the gift shop and read about how to pick out a rock. Not just any rock. A special rock that fits just right in your hand, not too small and not too big. A rock that you find yourself and keep as long as you can, maybe forever.
“Everybody needs a rock,” the book begins. “I’m sorry for kids who don’t have a rock for a friend. I’m sorry for kids who only have tricycles, bicycles, horses, elephants, goldfish, three-room playhouses, fire engines, wind-up dragons, and things like that—if they don’t have a rock for a friend.”
In the months since that trip last summer, the last one we made with Mom, I had forgotten about this book. But Mia hadn’t.
When we were in Yellowstone and Mia got upset, I caught up with her on the path and prepared to say something that I hoped would help. Before I got a chance, she opened her hand and showed me something. A rock.
“Remember that book Nana read to us?” she said.
I suppose this is where I was supposed to tell her that we don’t remove anything from national parks, that if everyone took a souvenir—even a little one—the place would be altered. I didn’t say this. I just told her that it was a very nice rock. And that Nana would be very happy that she remembered the story. And then I explained that I was fine, that clearly there was something in the dry air that was making my eyes water a little.
A few days later, Mia and her cousins went to some junior ranger programs. And the ranger told them how we don’t leave our garbage in the park. And we don’t take things from it.
Mia decided she should leave her rock at Yellowstone.
I know Mom would have liked that Mia remembered the story she read and found a rock. I think she would have liked even more that she left it there.
This is what Yellowstone means. It isn’t just the world’s first national park. It’s a place full of millions of individual memories, some involving a single stone. It’s a place I went to as a kid and took my daughter to as an adult. And it’s where I was when I got a call from my sister saying that, instead of going home, I better come straight to Tucson.
My mom, the same woman who not too long ago was climbing mountains in her backyard, was confined to a hospital bed in her home. We ended up putting the bed by a big window, so she could at least see those mountains. But after a few days, she wasn’t opening her eyes.
She always loved to read. So my sisters read to her, everything from the Bible to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Eventually I took a turn, picking something I found on her bookshelf.
“Everybody needs a rock,” I began.
When my dad died in 1996, it was sudden. I sometimes wondered which was harder, losing a loved one so quickly, or watching their body gradually shut down. I’m still not sure.
I just know that when Mom took her last breath, shortly before a spectacular sunrise in the desert on June 30, it made me think everybody needs a rock. Even adults. And maybe not just a metaphorical rock, like faith or friends. Those certainly are useful. But there’s something to be said for a real rock. Maybe even a bunch of them.
And thanks to my mom and dad, I know where to find some. And where to leave them.
This story originally appeared in the Florida Times-Union and is reprinted with permission.