Every year our family flies across the country, escaping frigid flurries for the outskirts of Arizona. We take the trek with toddlers; shipping wipes and training pants, packing what we need to dress comfortably, activity sets to stay busy and safety essentials necessary for surviving a dry, sun-drenched desert. This is not a winter getaway—it’s an absolute adventure. One that requires us to step into nature and out of our comfort zone.

Off-Grid & Isolated

Dirty on arrival from over six hours of air travel, we’re welcomed by high temperatures. Two hours by pickup will get us to the family ranch. We look forward to what the experience offers—natural beauty and peace of mind.

We hit the straightaway to the homestead, lined with “use at your own risk” warning signs. Jackrabbits and road runners scamper ahead, escaping rocks thrown by rolling tires on a primitive route not regularly maintained. Dust clouds kick up, fogging the windshield and windows around us. The air clears as we steer onto 40-acres of land, featuring two buildings created in cob and surrounded by a wall of the same substrate—a mixture of sandy-sub soil, clay and straw—a material made from the earth we stand on.

They operate by solar power and function with well water. Each living space offers a bedroom, bathroom and wood burning stove. The main house features a full kitchen and attached pantry, housing refrigerator/freezer chests. Beyond the ranch wall sits a cob work shed, art studio, washing machine, hoop house and step-down garden with raised beds. The main parking area is lined with fruit trees, hose-fed by barrels.

Insects & Animals & the Elements, “Oh My!”

Hummingbirds and butterflies dip into wildflowers to sip nectar, as armies of ants march orderly, weaving through bricks. Grasshoppers fleeing flowering shrubs bounce against us, while bumblebees and flying insects buzz by. The courtyard pergola, vined thick with roses, offers a sitting area for shade.

We opt for a winter visit when most desert creatures hibernate—lowering our odds of encountering rattlesnakes, tarantulas and scorpions. What’s out and about are wild cattle roaming free, feeding on brush and juniper trees. When too close for comfort they usually scare—by barking ranch dogs, megaphone or a slow moving, horn-blowing car chase.

Out here it’s us against the elements. The mandate is to hydrate. We encourage extra-serious slurps of water and feed the kids water-rich fruits and vegetables. Bright sun rays bathe delicate skin, warning us to slather on high SPF. Our dress code is cover “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” with rimmed hats, UV-blocking sunglasses, long sleeves, pants and boots.

Skin salvation becomes second nature, layering moisturizer, sunscreen and lip balm frequently. Evenings are unexpectedly cool. Sandhill Cranes shriek overhead, racing sunset for the Whitewater Draw wetlands.

We bundle up and group fireside, with raised glasses to cheers, surrounded by family we haven’t seen all year. Crickets chatter in chirps and coyotes call, howling into the night. Far from the sound of sirens and glow of city street lights, billions of stars twinkle above, illuminating the sky with the Milky Way and moon, leaving us mesmerized.

Forget Fresh & Clean

The kids dance barefoot in the mud, mixing material to create cob, then help shape bricks to form walls around fruit trees hit hard by spring winds. I’m in the hoop house pulling vegetables for lunch. Daddy’s on day three, crushing through caliche to set palm trees for shade.

A washcloth once over won’t deal with the dirt on work days. We’re filthy and must shower. Never mind soft hands, manicured nails or manageable hair. The desert lacks humidity, stripping natural oils. Overnight hydration treatments are necessary—slicking coconut oil through hair, massaging into scalps and spreading over skin.

Dealing with Digital Detox

his electric grid family is far from technology, television and high-speed internet. We dissolve our relationship with devices for simple sensory play, humming harmonicas, strumming the ukelele and striking tambourines. Tiny hands share snacks and afternoon tea with trolls.

Dinosaurs and cars dive into the sand. Floating toys supply splashing fun. We get messy with finger paints, find rocks to decorate, form clay and felt wool. Daily walks introduce us to prickly plants we shouldn’t touch.

When little legs get tired our tykes buckle in the bike trailer for a ride across the property. Come evening we enjoy card games and glow-in-the-dark dancing, then settle in for storybooks. We connect in a way so different than we’re used to—all without pressing our thumbs to a screen.

Eating Right is Everything

Ingredients are fresh and fabulous, hand-picked from the garden or purchased from neighboring farms. The kids dig potatoes, pull beans, figs, cucamelons, peppers and pomegranates, then help compost leftovers. We discover new dishes, make minimalist meals, wrap tamales and roll vegetable sushi. Bake breads and desserts with Grandma’s guidance, and learn to roast more than just marshmallows fireside.

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Outside the Open Range

From saloon drinks to lollipop quickdraws, we trot the tracks of Tombstone’s famous gunfighters, witnessing reenactments, visiting historic buildings and listening to live music at local watering holes. Down a stretch is Bisbee, an artistic architectural town lined with small shops, hillside stairways and all-natural eateries.

Juniper Flats sits above, overlooking the Mule Mountains. For expansive views we visit Chiricahua National Monument, hiking Echo Canyon Grottoes and climbing gigantic rock formations, then drive into Coronado National Forest to spot wildlife.

Free-Range & Functioning

Truth be told I was fearful at first. This was no place for rest and relaxation. As a “helicopter” parent by nature, I was “hella-coptering” our kids every move. With endless opportunities for independent play and exploration, they enjoyed every supervised moment—under watchful eyes.

Each year, along with souvenirs, we bring home an improved sense of self-sufficiency and a better understanding of what we can’t live without. My husband and I work well together, actively parenting with open minds, teaching our children experiences outweigh material things.

Although challenging, the visit is necessary. It helps us manage our home meaningfully, builds confidence, creates perspective and makes life interesting. More importantly, it puts focus on what matter’s most—our family.

Featured Photo Courtesy: Bridget Shanahan