Mom loves the desert. Daughter loves the Dollar Store.

Can a desert ‘superbloom’ compete with the flashy pull of toys and gadgets?

 

Last spring, we camped in the Sonoran desert for our kids’ spring break, bathing in the sunshine after record winter snowfall in our Colorado hometown and savoring the “superbloom,” a fireworks display of wildly abundant spring flowers. Waterfalls of silky orange poppies cascaded down hillsides. Purple lupine lined the roads. By dusk, the intense heat slipped away along with the daylight. Bats swooped over our campsite as the sky becomes a starry darkness. It was my kind of vacation.

My children felt differently. One afternoon, we drove on the outskirts of Tucson through a promenade of big-box stores. My 12-year-old daughter, Rosie, funneled all her energy into spotting the Dollar Tree amid the squared hulking buildings with their distinctive logos, more recognizable to most Americans than their regional flora and fauna. This was my daughter’s kind of vacation.

As we blurred past storefronts, a familiar despair washed over me. I long for my children to find value and intrigue in the natural world rather than in unrestrained consumerism. It’s hard for me to separate their lust for the next landfill-bound fad from my failure to imprint my conservation values on their developing minds. When this mixes with my worry about the demise of the planet, it can make for troubling parent-child relations.

“Do you think everything at the Dollar Tree actually costs a dollar?” Rosie asked, concern tightening her voice. “Because if not, maybe we should look for Dollar General or Family Dollar.” Like my own captivation with desert plants — spiny and waxy and extravagantly orange — Rosie was taking note of the subtle variations on a theme “Hey — what about the 98 cent store?” she asked, a new species calling to her.

I swallowed my sermon on how clever, well-funded marketers have sold her a lie that the next new shiny thing will bring her happiness and how the longing for pleasure delivered through single-serving stuff is actually killing our planet. These are not popular messages among the backseat contingent.

While trekking through the saguaros, Rachel Turiel’s daughter gives her son a piggyback ride.
Rachel Turiel

We had spent the morning hiking in Romero Canyon, northwest of Tucson, gossiping about saguaros: which had the most arms, the tallest trunk, the most classic storybook look. We delighted in bright cardinals and their cartoonishly chunky red beaks. The sun cranked up the heat. Lizards darted. My 14-year-old son challenged us with logic riddles.

I announced how much fun we were all having, like a salesperson trying to sell the kids on something — the wonders of quick-moving birds and slow-moving cacti. They could smell my fear: If this blooming desert won’t stand up to their world, beckoning them with unlimited entertainment and the lure of perky YouTubers peddling merch, we were, as a species, in very big trouble.

A friend recently said to me, about adolescents: “They’re questioning everything. That’s their job.” I get it: If it is my voice railing against retail therapy, that will become the easy target against which they will necessarily rebel. As when Rosie says, “Hey, World Market looks interesting!” and her father replies, “How ‘bout the actual world; that could be interesting, too.” Now, mental space available for outrage is directed toward her father, rather than the corporations that convince us we are hopelessly deficient without their products.

I would like nature to be a salve, a refuge, a teacher for my kids, as it was for me as a young adult investigating my own cultural conditioning. At the same time, I don’t want to shame my children for wanting what they want. I believe that if they get to taste all the flavors of consumerism — the joy and heartache — they will find their own wisdom. 

We located the Dollar Tree, and Rosie exploded from the car clutching $16. I found her in line, behind a man gathering 100 toiletries. “For the homeless,” he explained. He returned multiple times, arms loaded with toothbrushes, shampoo and other items that confer human dignity. The part of me that wanted to point fingers at some villain had to lower my hand and reconsider. Rosie and I were stilled by his kindness but also by his cheery resolve. I detected no inner tension, not about the copious plastic bags, nor the dubious “scents” in the scented deodorant. Life was more complex than I’d made it out to be.

Rosie paid for her 16 items; I covered the tax. “Just one bag, please,” she requested.

Back at camp, we set off in the waning light for Romero Creek. A rabbit paused in the shadows. The saguaros were, inexplicably, just as we left them; I had crossed through 10 emotions and back again.

At the creek, Dan and the kids conducted a stick race downstream. A Gila woodpecker called from the top story of a saguaro. The kids were barefoot and laughing, cheering on their stick-boats as the sun cashed out on another day. “This is so fun!” Rosie shrieked. I felt the utter relief of not having to sell them on anything, of simply letting the experience of unstructured joy in nature imprint its hopeful message on them. If the kids are in the business of questioning everything, I hope they found one small answer in this moment.

Rachel Turiel writes and grows food and a family in Durango Colorado. She’s been published widely, including in The New York Times. See more work on her website 6512andgrowing.comEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • SOUTHWEST REWILDING ADVOCATE
    WildEarth Guardians is seeking a full-time advocate in our Wild Places Program to advance a new paradigm of forest management and protection based on the...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....