Posted by: Kirsten | Sunday, 1 July 2007

Tonto Really Means…

In March of 2002, I found myself sitting in the Scottsdale, Arizona sun with my father-in-law and my five-and-a-half year old son watching the Oakland A’s take on the Arizona Diamondbacks, yet daydreaming of an upcoming trip to a nearby National Park.  As is typical of any vacation our family takes, I spent some time before our trip studying the map of our destination, looking for a nearby National Park Service area to visit. 

Arizona has no fewer than 21 National Parks and Monuments, including some with colorful names like Tuzigoot, Wupatki, Chiricahua, and Tumacacori.  Amazingly, the greater Phoenix area has very few places run by NPS, but there was one tucked into a corner of the Superstition Mountains that caught my eye — Tonto National Monument.

Now a typical Easterner, like myself, could easily think this park is some sort of tribute to the Lone Ranger’s trusty companion.  A quick visit to the NPS website told me that I got the part about Native Americans right, but Tonto NM was created to preserve a pair of cliff dwellings high above the Tonto Basin in southeastern Arizona.  Dating from the years 1150-1450, these remnants of the Salado culture were set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907.

The gravelly, washboard road on the last part of the drive was an adventure in itself, especially with our one-year-old daughter in tow, but four hours later we made it with enough stamina left to climb the winding switchbacks up to the park’s Lower Cliff Dwelling. 

At the Visitor Center, I presented my annual Parks Pass (which costed only $50 for a full year back then) and picked up a Junior Ranger booklet for my son to pass the time.  Kids aged six to 12 can complete fun activities and earn a Junior Ranger patch or badge at most park units in the country.  We weren’t yet a homeschool family at the time, but I still thought it important to instill a love and knowledge of the parks in our children.

I’ve found that my son’s interest in earning a Junior Ranger badge fluctuates wildly, but at Tonto he was in a good mood.  I think that hearing “Tonto” was the Spanish word for “fool” had a lot to do with his positive mood swing that day.  It’s a kid thing.

We started up the trail and began the first activity — Find something along the trail that starts with each letter of the alphabet.  I thought for sure that some letters would be impossible, but I knew he’d still enjoy the challenge.  We started out with several easy ones — A is for Arizona, B is for bench, C is for cactus, D is for desert… 

After struggling with E, F, and G for a while, we decided to quickly abandon the sequential method and just find anything at all and apply it to any available letter.  R is for rock, T is for trail, M is for mountain.  We were making pretty good progress. 

There were even a few of the tougher letters — you know, the ones in Scrabble with high letter scores — that we were able to find with the help of some well placed signs along the trail.  Y is for yucca, J is for jack rabbit.  We didn’t see one, but the sign had a nice picture.

We made it to the Lower Cliff Dwelling (which was practically at the top of the mountain despite its seemingly innocent name) and spent some time taking in the fabulous views, pondering what it was like to live 800 years ago in the desert with no modern conveniences.  As with most uphill hikes I’ve managed to complete over the years, the reward was certainly worth the effort here at Tonto.

On our descent we quickly realized that our alphabetical task was close to completion, but yet so far from over.  The letters K, X, and Z remained unsolved and I spent the next several minutes scouring every page of our Junior Ranger book looking for hints.  Nada.

My son brought up a kouple of C-words that he thought began with K, but I wouldn’t give in.  I was about to close the book and explain to him that these letters probably didn’t have an answer when he blurted out “Kirsten!”  My wife, Kirsten, started with the letter K, and according to the rules as written, she was indeed something along the trail.  It was a bit of a stretch, but I had to admire his persistence and kreativity.  One down, two to go.

After a few more switchbacks, he yelled out “Zig-Zag!”  Now I was truly impressed.  The trail, of course, did quite a bit of zigging and zagging and we suddenly found our task one X-word away from completion.  Having scanned the dictionary quite a number of times over the years, I knew there weren’t that many X-words to begin with and doubted that my son knew the meaning of the prefix “xero-” which happens to mean “dry”. I was prepared to finish the task for him when we got to the Visitor Center, if necessary. After all, the rules for earning a Junior Ranger badge state that parents are allowed to help.

Two switchbacks to go, and the sign explaining the significance of the Christmas cholla (a prickly plant found in the area) gave my son the final hint he needed.  “Dad!  It’s the X-mas Challa!  I got the X!”

Call me a Tonto, but I’d like to thank the long-dead person who first abbreviated the word Christmas using the letter X and allowed my son to earn his Junior Ranger badge without any help from his know-it-all Dad.  He was simply X-static, and it was an X-perience I won’t soon forget.

— Jon

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