A Week In The Coachella Valley, With Small Kids In Tow

The perils — and pleasures — of traveling with youngsters

In the air-conditioned entrance hall of a Palm Desert pasta joint, my son, Kasper (6) is pointing and screaming at a cherub’s penis.

His brother, Ossian (5) is quick to spot the offending genitalia, and begins to howl with delirious laughter.

“How come he’s showing his thingy?!” he’s asking no one in particular.

The serving lady is pretending to ignore the question, which, in all fairness, is not a bad one. Who puts a three-foot statue of a naked cherub in a family restaurant? Surely that’s asking for trouble.

My wife, Ulrika, and I find ourselves running a gauntlet of disapproving Californian grandmothers. Making a bolt for a corner table, we quickly silence the boys with iPads, crayons, and cheeseburgers.

It’s been a long day, and nerves are frayed. But all in all, this two-week family holiday to Southern California has been a resounding success. Escaping the grinding New York winter, it feels as though we’ve landed in The Garden of Eden, an oasis of palm trees, swimming pools, and unbroken 10-hour sleeps.

Today started with a drive through the bizarre, Martian landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, followed by a trip to Pioneertown, a 1940’s Western movie set. Gun-toting cowboys are a sure winner for bloodthirsty five and six-year-olds. Not to mention bloodthirsty 39-year-olds with a bit of a thing for The Good The Bad and The Ugly.

Our posse strides up the dusty main street, passing a faux-bank, a faux-jail, and finally arriving at a 15-foot cactus standing outside a faux-saloon. After grabbing a handful of needles, Ossian is inconsolable; but disaster is diverted when Ulrika fishes a box of month-old gummy worms from her handbag.

The next morning, we start another bright, Californian day at The Living Desert a beautifully landscaped zoo and botanical garden devoted to the desert habitats of North America and Africa. Here we feed giraffes, pet goats, ride camels, and take a spin on the desert-themed carousel. Meanwhile, Kasper insists that I take a close-up photo of some warthog dung, and makes me promise, under pain of death, not to delete it.

In the afternoon, we’re scheduled for a Jeep Safari of the San Andreas Fault. (“But whose fault is it, Daddy?”) After our first stop at the site of a Cahuilla Indian village, our guide, Phil, makes himself extremely popular by christening the boys with Native American names (‘wise owl’ and ‘eagle sprit’) and presenting them with shiny, obsidian arrowheads. From then on, he is in, and the day rolls on deliciously. We clamber across canyons, pan for gold, and spot hummingbirds flitting through the palms at a desert oasis.

In the evening, it’s time for Kasper to sit down and write his journal. I ask him which, among all these experiences, has been the highlight of his day.

He closes his eyes, furrows his brow, and thinks for a long time before answering.

“The warthog poop,” he finally replies. “That was awesome.