AARP Magazine - January/February 2007


MAKE MEMORIES Travel with Grandkids

More and more grandparents are taking their grandchildren on journeys they’ll remember for years. We spotlight two families who said no to ho-hum trips. They wanted an action-packed adventure.



During dinner at a restaurant in Vernal, Utah, the night before Pepi and Raul Cuadrado and their grandchildren Alex, Danny, and Natalie begin a white-water rafting trip, Danny, a cherub-faced 10-year-old, disappears into the bathroom. When he hasn't emerged by the time the main course is served, Raul dispatches older brother Alex, 12, to check on him. Five minutes later Danny, who has severe allergies to an overwhelming variety of foods and carries an emergency injection of epinephrine, finally returns to the table. "I was sick, but I feel better now," Danny reports. Raul instructs the waitress to reheat Danny's dinner, and life goes on. The calmness and authority with which Pepi and Raul respond to this potential medical emergency characterize their relaxed but watchful attitude. This equanimity will be tested in the coming days when they'll expose their three grandchildren to the joys and perils of white water.

It's an expedition that could over-stress the physical and emotional resources of just about anyone. For four days, on a trip run by white-water experts O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists), they'll navigate the rapids of Utah's Yampa River, the only undammed tributary of the mighty Colorado River, passing between towering cliffs of Weber sandstone varnished with mahogany stripes of mineral deposits; each night, they'll pitch tents under cottonwood trees on a sandy riverbank.

In tackling the Yampa, the Cuadrados are joining a trend of new-style grandparent-grandchild vacations. Move over, Mickey Mouse and the beach: this generation's grandparents are charting a different course, blazing a trail to adventure. They're taking their grandchildren river rafting and snorkeling, hiking and biking, up mountains and down into caves. They crave the bonding that happens when you tackle something difficult together, the shared adventures they'll remember with their grandchildren for years.

Pepi, 69, a family-practice physician in Miami, and her husband, Raul, 74, a public health administrator who launches international medical-school programs, rafted the Grand Canyon a decade ago. Now, they want to share their love of white water and southwestern scenery with their three oldest grandchildren, who are English-Spanish bilingual and spend a month each summer with their other grandparents, who live in Guadalajara, Mexico. Danny and Alex have done float trips near their home in San Antonio, but it's the first white water for them and 9-year-old Natalie.

On the bus ride from Vernal to the put-in on the Yampa, the kids are fairly vibrating with anticipation. Before they clamber onto a big rubber raft, Raul gives them a quick, no-nonsense safety talk: "You listen to us—no exceptions."

It's mid June, the water is low and relatively peaceful, and this is O.A.R.S.'s last trip of the season on the Yampa. Afloat on the river, the family immediately logs a wildlife sighting: a majestic bird perched on a river-side tree. "My first bald eagle," Danny shouts with joy. It's the kickoff to a kid-friendly series of animal encounters: bighorn sheep navigating perilous slopes, bats that orbit the camp at dusk, swallows emerging from the potterylike nests they paste onto cliff-wall overhangs, plus herons, red-tailed hawks, badgers, and even a gopher snake. Total kid heaven.

Pepi and Raul have stipulated that the grandkids ride with them on the first leg of the journey, but after that, they loosen the reins, releasing them to make new friends among the five other families on the trip and ride with different river guides. Before Alex, Danny, and Natalie split off among the six rafts, the paddleboat, and the two inflatable kayaks, Raul lines them up for firm instructions to do whatever the guides tell them.

Pepi would have been called a tom-boy when she grew up in Florida in the 1940s. She is a lively, own-drummer woman who chopped off her waist-length hair just three years ago and now trims it herself, and who isn't too old or too proud to engage in a burping contest with Alex, though she does confess, "His mother would be horrified." Raul is a man of great dignity, a silver-haired raconteur who tells wild stories of fleeing Cuba in 1949 with his mother, stepfather, and two brothers. Together Pepi and Raul have traveled the world, trekking in Nepal, going on safari in Tanzania, cruising Antarctica. "We love to camp," Pepi says. "Back when I was an intern, it's all we could afford."

"It's the first time we've taken all three of them somewhere without their parents," Raul says, and the first night on the river Pepi confesses to nervousness about letting the kids sleep in their own tents. "If anything happened, you'd feel awful if they were your own kids, but with grand-kids there's that extra measure of responsibility to their parents." Still, she doesn't let caution stand in the way of the kids' good time. "I treat them the same way I treated their father. Kids do better with clear limits, but their freedom to explore shouldn't be curtailed." When Danny runs a small set of rapids in the two-seat kayak, his face and his grandmother's are a metaphor for the entire trip. The weight of responsibility is written across her features, while Danny is open-mouthed with glee until a guide shouts, "Paddle, Danny!" This is the expression Pepi and Raul have traveled 2,000 miles to see. From the first, there's no question that the choice of trip is brilliant: Natalie exults, "I loved that rapid; I got totally wet!" Danny, the family live wire, bounces from boat to boat, befriending all the guides, while Alex totally digs the paddleboat, where passengers are put to work helping the oarswoman move through the rapids.

Day three brings the biggest water of the trip. On this sunny morning Warm Springs Rapid is running three on a difficulty scale of one to five. It's the newest rapid the group will encounter, created when a flash flood in 1965 brought a cascade of rock tumbling into the river. A day later a boatload of Boy Scouts came upon the white water unawares. One scoutmaster drowned. Danny and Raul ride on one of the rafts, while Alex, Natalie, and Pepi, who's rediscovering her childhood canoeing skills, are in the paddleboat. It's an exhilarating ride, and when one of the rafts gets stuck on a rock, the paddleboat must make its way upwater and pull the raft to safety. Mission accomplished, there are high-fives all around.

But this is not the high point of the trip. On the final day the paddleboat is once again center stage in a drama. Pepi and the three kids are aboard, mid-rapids, when a jagged piece of limestone pokes a hole in the side. With an explosive gush, the right forward compartment deflates. The guide offloads the children to another raft, then asks if any of the adults want to disembark to safer passage on the rescue raft. Pepi shakes her head; she is determined to be part of the team that takes this wounded boat through the rest of the white water.

That night—after a hearty dinner of salmon and steak, plus salad, mashed potatoes, and a carrot cake, prepared by the guides—the Cuadrados relax in camp, taking a moment to reflect on their experience before they head home in the morning. Alex says he's happy to see his grandparents in a different setting, in different roles, while Pepi and Raul agree that an adventure like theirs can create a special bond between grandparent and grandchild.

"There are so many shared secrets," says Pepi. But it's irrepressible Danny who delivers the capper. Eyes gleaming in the campfire light, he announces, "I want to be a river guide!"