It’s a steep haul up the High Peaks Trail, especially when you’re seven months pregnant with your first child. But back then, giddy with promise, my husband Jonathan and I floated past the massive boulders of Pinnacles National Park. Cresting the summit, baby bulk and all, I relished the double take of the buff, shirtless teenagers loitering atop the rocks. They paused mid-swagger to glance in horror at my swollen belly as I conquered the mountain in my smocked maternity top.
Our family has returned to the Pinnacles again and again, drawn by the massive cliffs, soaring spires, and lush spring wildflowers. Leaving behind the fragmented kaleidoscope of daily life, we are calmed by the reliable sameness of the timeless, indifferent peaks.
Yet even in this constant landscape, change is under way. The fantastic rock formations are the remains of an ancient volcano ravaged by erosion, creeping steadily up the Salinas Valley along the San Andreas Fault. I am grateful that only subtle clues dispel the illusion of permanence. A precariously balanced boulder has fallen from its perch. Spatters of chartreuse and rust lichen toil as alchemists, turning rock to soil. Their magic allows monkey flowers the color of apricots to bloom from dirt pockets hidden in solid stone.
Time has worked its alchemist’s magic on us as well. Two years after our initial trip, we camp at the Pinnacles, weighed down by the accoutrements of toddlerhood — diapers, goldfish crackers, juice boxes, a travel crib. Emma, whose in utero view had been obscured, now enjoys the scenery from the baby backpack that digs into our shoulders as we trudge along the dusty trail.
When we return again, the campground has been paved over for more parking. This time, we have two young daughters in tow, barely out of diapers. But Emma and Ally are definitely into sit-down strikes at the prospect of hiking more than a few hundred yards. Not wishing to fight an uphill battle, we content ourselves with the flat path at the base of the mountains so the girls can splash in the creek. Jonathan, impatient with the meandering pace of childhood, sprints to the summit while the girls and I delight in wild bouquets and rocky forts along the valley floor.
The next time the Pinnacles beckon, Emma and Ally gamely traverse the High Peaks Trail. They are enchanted by poppies sprouting out of boulders, the rock that looks like a camel. The girls nibble on miner’s lettuce and strategic bribes of chocolate, scampering around the summit while their tired parents lag behind. Rocks and children tame each other: whininess turns to exultation, forbidding stone becomes an infinite playground.
Although the incline invites vertigo, the girls clamber up and down, up and down the footholds chiseled into the rock, swinging from the metal banister as if nature and the Park Service had fashioned monkey bars just for them. Jonathan and I must squeeze through the narrow cliff passage in an awkward crouch. But it is just the right size for Emma and Ally, who march through boldly upright, giggling as their crooked parents bump their heads against the rocky overhang.
We are not the only ones who find the Pinnacles a good place for families. Condors, recently reintroduced to the park, build nests in the sheltered crevices. While they teach their young how to catch thermals, we show ours how to catch the shine of buttercups on their chins in the warm sunlight.
Now our daughters have taken flight too, soaring and wavering in their own grown-up landscapes. Alone again, Jonathan and I make our pilgrimage to drink in the riotous wildflowers and steadfast rocks whenever time allows. As always, we stop in Soledad at Pacheco’s Mexican Grocery for tortas — soft white rolls dripping with spicy carnitas.
Soledad, gateway to the Pinnacles, has sprung up even faster than Emma and Ally. Twenty-seven years ago, it consisted of Pacheco’s, a prison, a few dusty streets of dilapidated houses, and a fleabag hotel with a cracked, empty swimming pool. Now the highway billboard reads: “It’s happening in Soledad.” Vineyards dot the hillsides, and a tony resort lies adjacent to the Pinnacles. Kids from tidy homes with manicured yards swarm the soccer field at the spanking new school. A vast shopping center dwarfs the original Main Street, but we still head to our old Mexican grocery. Pacheco’s, whose tortas remain a juicy, scrumptious bargain, is as timeless as the Pinnacles.
Fueled by the succulent tortas and memories, Jonathan and I start up the High Peaks Trail once more. Although stiffer and a little creaky, we ascend quickly past the boulders and apricot blooms of monkey flower.
Again and again, we come back to ourselves in the shelter of the enduring cliffs.
What is your favorite family place that you return to over and over?