The Big South by Leanne Phillips

I wanted to show my daughter something wild and free before it was too late. But I’m a shit mother, and that’s an inescapable fact. It’s in my bones, passed down in my family over hundreds of years, like other families pass down their sourdough starters. 

Rae was remarkably quiet on the drive south from Santa Cruz. I’d expected her to be happy about missing school, but she seemed to feel inconvenienced more than anything. She kept letting out perturbed little sighs like an old woman. 

“Do you know where we’re going, Rae?” I asked. I wanted her to talk, to be as excited as I was.

“No,” she said. “But I know we aren’t going to my school. Mrs. Eaton isn’t going to be happy about this.” Rae wasn’t being mean or disrespectful. She was a straight shooter. I never had to wonder what she was thinking—sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse. She hadn’t started talking until she was close to four years old—she seemed to be taking everything in before deciding what she had to say about it. But when she became verbal, she did so all at once, with a voice that wasn’t necessarily accusing, but that often bit at my conscience all the same.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’ll write you a note. I’m taking you on an educational trip, so she won’t mind, I promise.” It’s first grade, for chrissake.

Rae didn’t seem so sure. “I have a spelling test today,” she said. “Cindy is going to wonder why I’m not at the monkey bars. She was going to teach me the cherry drop.”

I didn’t want to be the “cool” mom. I didn’t want to be the kind of mother who let her kid skip school and smoke cigarettes and throw keg parties. But I didn’t want to be the kind of mother who parented strictly by some sort of rulebook either. I wanted Rae to have the freedom to be whatever she wanted and needed to be. This trip felt like a step in the right direction.

“It’s okay. We can get your schoolwork from Mrs. Eaton tomorrow,” I said. “You can do it over the weekend, so you won’t fall behind.” There. I’d struck the perfect balance between irresponsible and rigid. “And I’m sure Cindy will teach you the cherry drop tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to do homework over the weekend,” Rae said.

“I’ll help you,” I said. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. And you are going to be so excited when you find out where we’re going.”

“Where are we going?” Rae asked. 

“Guess,” I said. “I’ll let you ask me twenty questions, and you have to try to guess.”

Rae didn’t look entirely amused by the game, but she indulged me.

“Is it cold there?”

“No, not this time of year.”

“Is it Big Sur?” I must have frowned without meaning to. “I just thought it might be Big Sur,” Rae said, “because I heard you asking Dad if we could go sometime.”

Yes, I’d asked James. And he’d said no, he didn’t want to, and I’d made up my mind then and there to take Rae on my own. I became obsessed with the idea. It wasn’t him saying no so much as the assumption that, if he didn’t take us, we weren’t going.

“Yes,” I said. “Big Sur.” I tried to maintain my enthusiasm, but Rae didn’t look excited about the idea. I began to consider whether I was making the trip for her or for myself—that would be much more on brand. “It’s warm there this time of year.”

“Okay,” Rae said.

“Do you know why it’s called Big Sur?” I asked.


“It’s because it’s a huge wilderness in the southern part of Monterey County. It stretches for one hundred miles along the coast. They used to call it El Sur Grande. It means The Big South in Spanish. But now they just call it Big Sur, Big South.”

“Oh,” Rae said. “So how much schoolwork do you think I’ll have to do this weekend? I want to go to Sara Bailey’s birthday party on Saturday. I’ll still get to go, right?”

“Yes, of course you’ll still get to go.”

“Okay,” Rae said. “I need to get her a birthday present.”

We pulled into a visitor’s center near the entrance to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park just past ten o’clock.

“We’ll go in here,” I told Rae. “Let’s see what they have and where we should go.” We got a complimentary map to help us find our way around once inside the park. A ranger asked if it was our first visit to the park (it was) and suggested we join a group nature walk that was starting in half an hour. But I didn’t want to wait, and I didn’t want to walk around the tame edges of the park—that wouldn’t do for what I had in mind. We’d need to hike up into the Ventana Wilderness. 

“I think we’ll just look around on our own,” I said. 

“Are you an experienced hiker?” the ranger asked.

“I’ve been hiking before,” I said. He didn’t look convinced.

“Well, be sure to stick to the trails,” the ranger said. He pointed out a beginner trail on the map he’d given me. “You’re getting a late start. It’s going to be warm out there. Did you bring plenty of water?”

“Yes,” I lied. We wouldn’t need to carry water—we’d only be gone an hour or two at most.

The park ranger then offered Rae a “little explorer” kit, the main feature of which was the same map, only without detail—cartoonish and printed in black and white so she could color it in. Inside the kit was a tiny box of four generic crayons—red, blue, green, and orange. There was also a sticker, a cheap plastic magnifying glass through which Rae could look at bugs, a toy compass, and a “Junior Park Ranger” patch.

“You can sew that onto her jacket when you get home,” the ranger informed me.

“I don’t want that on my jacket,” Rae said.

“Wouldn’t you like to be a park ranger? Like me?” the ranger asked.

“No,” Rae said. “I don’t think so.” She looked up at me. “Do I have to put that on my jacket?”

“I’m sure we can find something else to sew it on,” I said. “Maybe a cap.”

“I’m hungry,” Rae said.

The year Rae was born, the California condor became extinct in the wild. There were only twenty-seven such condors left in the entire world then—ten in the wild and seventeen in captivity. The federal government captured the ten remaining wild condors to save the species. The plan was to breed them in captivity and keep them safe from manmade influences: the destruction of their habitat, illegal hunting of the birds, lead poisoning. They caught the last one on Easter Sunday in 1987. 

Unlike most other birds, condors mate for life and lay only one egg at a time. Like me. Just the one husband. Just the one child. The condors keep that single, fragile, porcelain blue egg warm in their nest and wait for the hatchling to peck its way out of the shell, and then they feed it and care for it for eighteen months—an entire year and a half—until it learns to fly. 

Parenting for condors is a two-year, all-in proposition. If the single egg is not viable, there are no others. No backup children, unless they’ve double-clutched and laid two eggs, one a spare. Otherwise, the condors must wait and try again in two years, and this was another thing that made replenishing their numbers a challenge. I’d had only the one chance, too. The one child. There would be no others. I had to get it right the first time.

We ate an early lunch in the car because I hadn’t thought to stop for breakfast, and Rae didn’t want to wait to find a picnic spot up the trail. We ate sandwiches I’d packed from home and wrapped in wax paper. Sour pickle spears. Cold cans of soda we’d purchased at the visitors center. I parked in a small lot next to a trailhead, on the side closest to the trail, where we could watch for lizards. 

“Look, Rae,” I said. “There’s one, on that rock.”

“Mm hmm,” Rae said. Her mouth was full of Wonder Bread, Oscar Mayer bologna, and processed cheese food. She chewed and swallowed and didn’t seem impressed. We had lizards in the backyard at home.

“Come on,” I said. I wrapped what was left of my sandwich in the waxed paper and put it back into the brown paper bag. “Let’s go.”

Rae was cooperative. She took one last bite of her sandwich and wrapped it up too, then took a long drink of her generic grape soda. “Where can I put my soda?” she asked. “How will I keep it cold?” I was beginning to get annoyed at this point. She was focusing on all the wrong things. What kid didn’t want to play hooky and go on a day trip instead of being in school?

“You can bring it along with you, if you want,” I said. “In case you get thirsty.” We got out of the car, and I smoothed the map out on the hood, then looked up at the vast wilderness in front of us and the majestic coast redwoods looming just out of reach. It was eleven o’clock by this time, and the sun was high in the sky. Heat waves were coming off the asphalt in the parking lot—our own little mirage. It felt warmer than the eighty degrees the newspaper had predicted. But it was a dry heat, not humid, and we wouldn’t go far. There wasn’t time for more than a short hike. We had to get back before school let out. Before James knew we’d gone. 

“Put your sweater back on.”

“But it’s hot,” Rae said. She didn’t whine—again, she was matter-of-fact, something I usually loved about her, but it was infuriating in that moment.

“I know it’s hot, but we still have to protect ourselves from the sun.” We should have worn hats. “On second thought, leave your soda in the car,” I said. “Sugary drinks make you thirsty.” Rae looked annoyed, but she complied.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go this way.”

My husband wanted to raise our daughter in captivity, too. When Rae was in kindergarten the year before, the teacher had laid big sheets of grayish butcher paper on the classroom floor. On each sheet of paper, there was a life-sized outline of a kid already sketched in, in pencil. Just a round head, arms, legs, torso. No eyes or nose or mouth. The kids were told to color them in and draw uniforms on them—whatever they would like to be when they grew up. My redheaded daughter turned hers into a nurse with long, curly blonde hair and hot pink lipstick. 

“Is this you?” I asked when she spread it out on the living room floor.

“Yes,” she said.

 “Why is she blonde?”

“I don’t know,” Rae said. 

I waited for her to say something more, but she didn’t, so I changed the subject. “Why do you want to be a nurse?” 

“Because I want to help people,” she said.

“What about a doctor? You could be a doctor and help people.”

James laughed out loud. 

“Girls can’t be doctors,” he said.

That’s when I knew what I was up against. 

James and I had lived in Santa Cruz since we met, all of our life together, and all of Rae’s, but the week before I took Rae to Big Sur, James lost his job. Not the first time. But this time, he was insisting we move to San Diego to stay with his mother.

“My mom can help us,” James said. “She can help with Rae, help us get back on our feet.” Help James avoid getting another job. I didn’t want any help mothering, but I couldn’t explain that to him. I couldn’t explain that I didn’t trust the woman who’d mothered me, and I didn’t know that I could trust the woman who’d mothered him either. They hadn’t gotten it right. 

In 1992, when the condors’ numbers began to rise, they began releasing them back into the wild. I’d given the birds a year. Surely there was a condor nearby. I’d picked a trail that would take us high up into the Ventana Wilderness, where the birds were most likely to be, I thought. The trail’s description promised a terrain that was steep, but had plenty of ups and downs, which sounded forgiving enough.

Rae and I made our way up the trail, a sharp incline, more strenuous than I’d imagined—all up, with no down in sight. I told Rae what we were looking for, how the great birds had been gone since she was a baby and were just now coming home after six years away. It was late autumn. The narrow trail was lined with grasses, heavy chaparral, and what I assumed was poison oak. Off the trail, the wilderness floor was strewn with pine needles and acorns. Intermittently, stands of redwoods, pine trees, and oak created a shady canopy overhead, for which I was grateful. But for the most part, we were exposed to the open sky and hiked up, ever up, through the mountains and along drop-offs into ravines. As we got higher, we could turn and see the ocean and the up-and-down of the canyons behind us. 

After we’d hiked for a while, I noticed Rae scanning the wilderness—she seemed to be on the lookout for things she hadn’t seen before. I began to relax. I was warm and getting thirsty, but I was hitting my stride, and the map had promised a camp up ahead where I was sure there would be water. I hadn’t taken note of the distance, but it hadn’t looked too far on the map. The map. Which I’d left in the car. I stopped to look back. I couldn’t see the car or even the parking lot. I was suddenly aware of how isolated we were, how far from anything and anyone. We hadn’t seen any other hikers. But as I began to feel wary, Rae began to come alive. 

“Look, Mom! There’s a tortoise! Can I take it home?” A turtle was slowly making its way toward an outcropping of rocks, about twenty feet off the trail. 

“Oh no, Rae. We mustn’t disturb anything. We have to leave the wildlife alone. And we aren’t supposed to leave the trail.” Rae’s face fell. “Well, I’m sure we could at least get closer to it,” I said. “Just for a few moments.” We left the trail and moved closer to the turtle.

“Can I pet it?” Rae asked. 

“Okay,” I said. “But be gentle.” Rae reached out to stroke the turtle’s exposed head, but the turtle pulled its head and limbs inside its shell and disappointed her. If it were any other animal, it would have run away, but the turtle seemed to know its limitations.

“Let’s go, Rae,” I said. “The turtle is hungry. We interrupted its lunch.”

“It’s not a turtle, Mom,” Rae said. “It’s a tortoise.” She stood up to obey, then spotted something in the distance and ran toward it. “Look!” she shouted back to me. “It’s a quail! Come on, Mom.” 

I followed her because I had little choice. “Rae,” I called. “Come back here, Rae. We need to get back on the trail.” The little bird was quick and on the move. By the time she reached the place where the quail had been, it had scuttled off to safety and was nowhere to be seen. Rae stood still, disappointed, then looked around to see what else she could see. We chased after a butterfly, a toad, and a canyon wren, in quick succession. Then we stopped.

“When are we going to see the condors?” Rae asked.

“It’s not scheduled, Rae. It’s not fireworks, for Pete’s sake.” The heat was making me irritable. It suddenly felt too still and too quiet.

“I’m hot,” Rae said. She sat down on a fallen tree trunk. “Can we sit down for a minute?”

“Sure,” I said. “But not for too long.” I sat down beside her on the tree trunk and looked back at the way we had come but realized I didn’t know what way that was. We couldn’t have gone far off the trail. Maybe fifty feet? One hundred? But all around me looked the same. Dirt, scrub, trees. More dirt, more scrub, more trees. It didn’t matter which way I turned, the same scene greeted me. I listened for noises that might give me a clue as to the direction of the trail, perhaps other hikers or the gurgle of a stream, but I heard nothing. The trail could have been in any direction.

“I’m thirsty. Can I have a drink of water?”

“Sure,” I said. “But we have to get back on the trail first. The map said there are streams along the trail.”

“I thought you brought water with us,” Rae said. “That’s what you told the park ranger.”

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get going.”

I’m not sure how long we spent walking in the wilderness, looking for the trail. It felt like hours. We’d been hiking along the trail in an easterly direction, right? Away from the coast. So when we’d veered left off the trail, we must have headed north. To get back to the trail, we’d need to head south. I looked up at the sky to try to gauge the position of the sun. But all of this conjecture depended on a trail that climbed steadily east, and a child running away from that trail in a precise northerly direction, and I couldn’t count on any of that.

When we sat down again for a break and so I could gather my thoughts, Rae pulled a plastic magnifying glass from her pocket. She squatted down on the ground and looked through it into the dirt and under the tree trunk.

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t know you brought your park ranger kit with you.”

“I didn’t,” Rae said. “Just a couple things.”

“Did you bring the compass?”

“No,” she said. “I didn’t think we’d need it. I thought you knew where you were going.”

“Let’s go,” I said.

“I want to stay here for a while. In the shade.”

“We need to get going, Rae. It’s getting late.”

“I’m hot,” Rae said. “I’m thirsty.” I noticed then that her little face was turning red. “Can I take my sweater off?” I looked up at the sun overhead, bright through the leaves, now leaning in a direction that I hoped was true west because that’s the direction I was determined to go.

“Sure,” I said. “Here, I’ll carry it for you.”

“Can we stay here a little longer?” Rae asked.

“No, sweetheart,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I think we should get back to the car now, so we can get out of this heat and I can get you something to drink.” 

“But we haven’t seen the condors yet.”

“Maybe we’ll see them on our way back,” I said. “It’s getting late. It’s time to go.”

It was a mixed bag at first, when they began releasing the condors into the wild. Four of the birds were electrocuted by power lines. One of them ate antifreeze and died. There was much more to their survival than merely finding a place to nest or relearning how to find their own food. They had to learn to care for themselves and for one another. They had to avoid all the manmade dangers that had nearly obliterated them to begin with. 

The conservationists began to give the birds aversion therapy so they would stop landing on power lines and eating antifreeze. Human therapies to help them survive in a human world. To help them avoid the human things that would most certainly kill them. I suppose they never considered getting rid of the human things and giving the condors’ home back to them. 

We were heading steadily downhill now, following the sun. That was my only plan.

“Look,” I said. “There’s a banana slug.” Rae didn’t bother to look. I continued to point out birds and reptiles, but Rae was no longer interested. She only wanted water and to stop walking. It felt like we’d been walking for hours.

“Can we stop?” Rae asked. I wanted to keep going, but her face was so red.

“Sure, baby,” I said. “Come on, let’s take a break over here, by this rock.” The rock was massive and shaded. “We’ll sit under it for a minute and cool off.” Only there was no cooling off. I laid Rae’s sweater on the ground so she could sit on it. I took mine off and sat down, too.  “Only for a minute, though, okay?” We needed to get back to the car soon. I was getting scared. How long could a child go without water in this heat? I hadn’t thought anything of eighty-degree weather. We’d lived in Arizona for a time when I was in high school. Eighty degrees was nothing. But eighty degrees was something alright. I had never felt so exposed. It felt like the sun was beating down on us from every angle, with no respite. But it would be cooler soon—the sun was low over a range of mountains in the distance. It would disappear behind them in a bit. I was running out of time, and it was beginning to settle into my brain how serious the situation was. The wilderness was brutally hot right now, but once the sun was gone, I imagined it would become brutal in so many other ways: cold and carnivorous, no food, no water. I didn’t see how we’d survive it.

Rae was leaned back against the rock, her eyes closed, her small lips dry and cracked. When she spoke this time, her voice was croaky and pained: “Mom, I want to go home.” There wasn’t much time left.

“Come on, Rae,” I said. “Come on, sweetheart.” I tried to keep the panic from my voice. “We’re going home. We’re going home right now.” 

“Are we lost, Mom?” Rae asked. I didn’t like lying to her, but it would do no good for me to scare her. 

“Of course not, sweetheart. We’re almost to the car. Not much farther.” 

We started walking again. Once the sun began to set, it moved quickly behind the mountains and sunk out of sight. The time had changed over from daylight savings to standard a week or so before, but it hadn’t affected me personally, so I hadn’t taken it into consideration. I hadn’t considered a lot of things. The light was fading. It would be dark soon.

I stuck to my plan—walking downhill—but scanned the trees and hillsides for a sign as to which way to go in case I was mistaken. I thought I saw a light. No two lights. A pair of dim lights in the distance. Tiny circles. An animal’s eyes? Flashlights? They didn’t move. Headlights. A parked car. Jesus Christ, if it was ours, I’d left the headlights on. 

“The car’s that way,” I said. “It’s close. We’ll be there soon.” 

“I can’t, Mom,” Rae said. “I can’t walk anymore. I’m so thirsty, and my feet hurt.”

“Come on, baby,” I said. I knelt down in front of her, my back to her. “Climb up. Put your arms around my neck and wrap your legs around my waist. I’ll carry you.”

Rae put her arms around my neck, and I stood up with a great deal of effort. She was heavy, and I was weak and out of shape. I had to pull her legs up around my waist after I stood up. She was limp. Dead weight. “Hang on, baby girl,” I said. “We’re almost there.” I started walking toward the headlights that shone dimly in the distance, trying not to trip down the steep terrain, and pausing periodically to catch my breath and heave Rae back up into position. All the while, I looked straight ahead at the lights. I didn’t want to lose sight of them. I was terrified that if I blinked or glanced to the side for even a second, I would lose them. They were growing closer but also dimmer. They were farther away than they’d at first looked, and the going was slow with Rae on my back, but we eventually made it. I bent down and let Rae slide down my back. By the time we got there, the headlights were barely glowing.

“You left the headlights on, Mom,” she said.

The car wouldn’t start. The battery was dead. I locked all the doors and turned the headlights off. “It’ll be okay,” I told Rae. “It’s just because I left the headlights on. We’ll let the battery rest for a bit and then it’ll start.” I wasn’t so sure that was how it worked. “Here,” I said. I pulled the brown paper sack from the back seat. There were two more canned sodas in the bag—I’d thought we’d drink them on the drive home. They were warm, but they were something. “Here, Rae, drink this.”

“I want water.”

“I know you do, honey. So do I. But this is all we have right now, and you have to drink something.” My voice cracked a little, and I knew I’d given my fear away. I was glad Rae couldn’t see my face in the dark. “We’ll be home soon, baby, I promise. And then you can drink all the water you want.” I popped the top on a can of generic lemon lime soda and handed it to Rae across the darkness that was between us. I expected her to complain—it was nowhere close to her favorite—but she was too thirsty to be choosy. She chugged it down. “Not too fast, Rae,” I said. “You need to sip it.” I wasn’t sure where I’d heard that, but it popped up out of some deeply buried catalog of seemingly useless information that was stored for the day it was needed. I could hear Rae’s gulps slow to sips, but her sips were frequent.

I was regretting so much now, but most of all I was regretting that I hadn’t told James or anyone where we were going. No one knew. When they noticed us missing, they would have no idea where to look for us. I started thinking about how cold it would get in the car. At least we had shelter, but Rae needed water, and the temperature was going to drop. A lot. I hadn’t brought much with us. Rae had her sweater on. I took my jacket off and was covering her with it when she sat up straight. 

“Look, Mom!” She pointed to the windshield.

I looked and saw nothing.

“Oh, you missed it,” Rae said. “Maybe there will be another one.”

I kept watching, and after a few minutes, through the windshield, I saw it, the thing Rae wanted me to see. A falling star. 

“Make a wish,” I said. “Like Jiminy Cricket.” 

“How come there are so many stars here?” Rae asked.

“The stars are always in the sky,” I said. “Everywhere. We just can’t see them in the city because of all the other lights.” I was shaking but not from the cold. “Here, Rae. Slide over here next to me. Let’s cuddle up and watch the stars.” The stars were something.

We must have sat there for an hour—I didn’t have a watch and had no way of telling the time. But it felt like about an hour. 

“Rae?” She was tucked in tightly under my arm. Even with our body heat, it was getting colder. I shook her lightly. 

“Yeah,” she said. 

“Sit up a minute, baby. I’m going to try to start the car.” It turned over with great difficulty three times and then nothing but click, click, click. I tried to turn the headlights on—they came on weakly, and something in front of the car stared at us with beady eyes and then scampered away. The lights faded to dim and then went out. I turned the headlamp switch off. I’m not sure why it mattered. I thought to preserve what little battery was left, but clearly there was none.

“Rae,” I said.


“Can you reach over and open the glove box? See if there’s a flashlight?” She didn’t answer. She just sat up and opened the latch. 

“I don’t feel anything, Mom,” Rae said. “Just papers.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here, drink some more soda.” I handed her a half can I’d saved back.

I sensed a sudden light from behind us. Lightning. I waited for the crack of thunder to follow. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. No thunder came, and the light was still present and growing brighter. Now, I heard a steady noise, the hum of an engine. James. James, you found us.

I turned to look through the rear window and saw car headlights approaching, then a truck pulled up beside us. A man got out of the truck. He came over to our car and shone a flashlight through the window. It wasn’t James. It was someone better. The park ranger. He’d come looking for us when we hadn’t returned. Someone had been watching and waiting for us after all. 

We moved down to San Diego just before Christmas to live with James’s mother. I took Rae to see the condors for her seventh birthday. Not the birds living a fragile existence in the wild, but the ones across the Bay from us, at a nearby animal park. The massive birds were in an enclosed habitat, a half dozen of them sitting on bare poles that had bare tree limbs affixed to them. But Rae wasn’t stupid. She knew the birds were not sitting on real trees, and I watched as she surveyed the wire enclosure that surrounded them on all sides and overhead.

The condors sat so still on the poles that they didn’t seem to be real. Or alive. 

“Can we go look at the monkeys?” Rae asked. 

We were turning to leave when one of the condors spread its vast wings. Flapping them almost imperceptibly, the great bird glided down to land on a rock below. Two others followed, one at a time, as if in slow motion. Rae and I stood still for a moment and watched them, mesmerized.

Leanne Phillips lives and writes on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New American Studies Journal, and elsewhere. Leanne is the fiction editor for Kelp Journal. She earned an MFA in fiction from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts.