Just before we left the mountains after the long weekend, the girls were asking their father to borrow his pocket knife so that they could carve their names into a tree trunk.
“We need to leave our mark!”
“We’re getting in the car in five minutes. You had all weekend to do that. Not now.”
They had all weekend to explore. To see where the nonexistent paths might take them. They found bottles that drunk former campers had left behind and found pleasure shattering them against boulders. They climbed over fallen tree trunks in an attempt to get to the next outlook or outhouse. They discovered several carcasses and took pieces in their hands to pretend to roast, brush the teeth of, or assign names to. They built and destroyed campfires, each claiming a stick and making rainbow sparklers dance across the sky. They set up their own tent and fought over who had the best pad, the warmest sleeping bag, the most comfortable spot. They made charcoal paint from ashen logs and drew on paper plates, clothes… themselves. They picked up giant pieces of bark and an abandoned rope, making an old-fashioned telephone “show” as they handed the “receiver” back and forth for hours on end, chatting about extended metaphors and checking current schedules for fire-fixing availability. They disappeared for hours on end, hiking several miles, discovering miniature ponds in large boulders, old cables that worked as trampolines, views of distant peeks… and … themselves.
They couldn’t carve their names into the trunks of trees because they were already leaving a piece of themselves behind. In a world surrounded by screens and studying and neat city blocks with perfect yards and friendly neighbors, they released themselves into nature as all children should. They giggled with their friends and had free reign over their weekend kingdom.
As we made our way down the dusty dirt road onto the smooth pavement that curved its snakelike yellow line out of the canyon, I was thinking about the pieces of all of us that are scattered behind us wherever we go. In their own way, my girls left their imprint on that mountain, with eighteen sets of shoe prints, a forgotten wisp of paper towel, a broken branch. But more importantly, the mountain left a piece of itself in us. The panicked drive up with nauseous travelers and no sites in sight. The scratches and ripped pants from too many falls and rough rocks. The charcoaled face paint. The layers of dirt and pine needles and campfire stench unwashable by the best of the best machines.
The memory of a weekend free of chores, free of homework, free of nagging, free of screens, free of strict diets, free…
In the end, Daddy didn’t give them the knife. Instead they piled in the Pilot, all seven of them, taking their new “telephone” to carry on their stories for the drive home. They pointed to peeks they’d topped on their independently-led hikes. They commented on how strangely smooth the pavement felt once we finally arrived to it. They napped near the end, fully exhausted from running a kingdom all weekend.
Even without a pocketknife, they left their names on that mountain. They carved them into the curve of the road that wrapped itself around our site. Into the bits of clouds that only barely covered the sun. Into the memory of every mountain, of every happy childhood that begins and ends with a bit of royalty, a bit of owning all your choices if even for a day.
A bit of freedom. It’s the best way to run a kingdom.