By Francie Arenson Dickman
My husband and I had been played. I didn’t catch on right away, not until we were in the middle of our descent from the Bump N’ Grind, a hiking trail in the mountains of Palm Desert, California. We go to Palm Desert every Winter Break to visit my parents, and every Winter Break, my husband asks: “Does anyone want to climb the Bump N’ Grind?” He’s a nature lover, an explorer, an outdoorsman. My twin daughters and I are not. We always decline the offer—as well as his other one to visit Joshua Tree National Park—as during our stay in the desert, we like to sit. Sit and read. Sit and watch HGTV. Sit and play mahjong with my mother. So I was surprised when my daughter, now 13, an age at which I’d assumed sitting and sunning would be top priority, suggested we make the climb.
Before I could question, we were on our way to Sports Authority for gear (my daughters had only packed flip-flops), and then we were off. My husband was excited. He was delighted. “Their time spent at overnight camp is finally paying dividends,” he mused, as he loaded us up with water bottles and energy bars like we were doing the Pacific Crest Trail. We’d just seen Wild.
And our trek would have been exactly like Cheryl Strayed’s if Cheryl had selfie’d her journey instead of written about it. At first, I didn’t think much of the picture snapping. The day was beautiful, the scenery breathtaking. But midway down, in the midst of a tricky patch of rock (my husband had decided we should descend “off road”), while I struggled for footing, one daughter called to me, “Can you take my picture now?” Her sister echoed, “Mine, too.” From the edge of a boulder, they gave red carpet poses. Hair back, breezy smiles. As I watched this through the lens of my iPhone camera, the situation became clear.
I considered calling down to my husband that the hike was a hoax, we’d been had. No one but him was interested in the Bump N’ Grind for the Bump N’Grind’s sake. But I didn’t want to disappoint him. And I didn’t want to start a family feud while on the side of a cliff. So I kept quiet.
Until a few days later when we were half way up the mountain road to our next photo-op, Joshua Tree. My forehead rested against the passenger seat window. My daughters’ heads were down, their thumbs twitching repeatedly upwards, in motion as constant as the car, as they looked online at postings of their “friends” feeding lambs in Patagonia, floating in the Dead Sea, parasailing over Mexican beaches. I’d never seen a Joshua Tree before. I wondered aloud how it would measure up.
“The Joshua Tree isn’t really a tree,” my husband told me, “since it doesn’t produce a trunk with rings.”
“Our trip to Joshua Tree isn’t really to see Joshua Trees,” I informed him. “It’s to take pictures of them.”
My girls’ relationships with their iPhones are, I would guess, typical. The phones are affixed to their bodies unless I tell them to put them away, which I often do since I despise them. I’d actually been looking forward to Winter Break this year, figuring phone activity would naturally die down away from home. But, I’d miscalculated. The scrolling had reached epic proportions. Instagram and Snapchat went wild as kids across the country spent their vacations looking at everyone else’s. “And in doing so, missing their own,” I said to my husband as he navigated our way into Yucca Valley.
“Who cares,” my husband said. “At least they are off the couch.”
I suppose this was one way, the positive way, to spin the effects of social media on my children. But I’m not a positive person, or maybe I’m more private. Or less secure. Or more old-fashioned. After all, I still miss the busy signal. And, I’ve never had the constitution to keep up with Joneses. When I was in middle school, I would duck my head down from the car window when my mother and I would drive by a group of my peers. True, I didn’t want them to see me with my mother but also, I didn’t want to see them. Knowing you are not doing the cool thing and seeing it are two different things. “Hold your head high,” my mother would tell me. I liked to look the other way.
Not so with my kids. As I marveled at the size of the tumbleweeds, my daughter wondered why her ears were popping.
“Look out your window,” I told her. She did, long enough to appreciate how high we were into the mountains, and of course to snap a picture of them.
Later that night, I used my own phone to take what I considered to be a somewhat “artsy”—and therefore post-worthy—picture of our mahjong tiles. “If you must post a picture, why don’t you use this?” I said, showing them a touched-up version of the tiles. “It’s a more authentic representation of our vacation than a Joshua Tree.”
They both looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. My suggestion to post pictures of our game was nothing more than a modern day version of my own mother’s command to hold my head high. Mothers across the ages have been trying to help their daughters find peace of mind and comfort in their skin. Except now we’re up against the evil of the smartphone. The intrusive device that’s turned family vacations into photo ops, and the concept of a break into an anomaly, and an impossibility—as where can anyone go these days to get a break from anything?
It turns out, Joshua Tree. About thirty minutes up the mountain, we lost cell service. The phones went down. Heads went up. We rode. We watched. We talked. We climbed. At the top of one of the other-worldly rock formations, we stopped and took in the panoramic view of the mountains and the valley, from the wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass all the way to the Sultan Sea. It was a site that even my girls couldn’t help but appreciate.
And you can, too. On Instagram.
Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.