We arrived at our campsite well after dark. The rodeo had been a much-anticipated highlight of our cross-country trip, and no one was in a hurry to stop talking about it — or to crawl into our sleeping bags.
It’s a good thing, too, because standing where our tent should have been was a small gathering of fellow campers. One was setting up our lawn chairs and three others were headed in our direction, dragging a pile of fabric that looked like . . . our tent.
The six of us piled out of the mini-van into the glow of our headlights. My eight-year-old took my hand.
Kind neighbors informed us that while we were gone a tornado had swept through the campground throwing tents and camping equipment in every direction. Our tent had been completely uprooted, leaving behind all its stabilizing ropes and anchoring pegs, and landing in a heap several sites away.
Beside me, a small voice quavered, “Does this mean we have to go home?”
Cobbling together a plan on the fly, my husband and I tag-teamed a way forward:
“We’re going to gather our sleeping bags . . .”
“We’ll pack up all our gear . . .”
“And we’ll find a hotel in town, back where we watched the rodeo!”
“Tomorrow we’ll buy a new tent, first thing.”
By the time we had loaded the last cooler, everyone was visualizing the luxury of a hotel shower. (Especially me!)
Apparently when you show up in a hotel lobby at 1 a.m. with four dusty kids, they’re willing to bend the rules about maximum occupancy. We arranged ourselves somewhere on or around two king-sized beds and, amazingly, we slept.
Fortified by a quick breakfast of yogurt and bagels, we bought a tent at a big box store and hit the road, because now we were not merely travelers. We were tent-tornado survivors, and we would persevere.
Earlier in the trip, teenage squabbles might have derailed us. Slow-drying beach towels twirling in tired campsite laundromats might have dampened our spirits. The perennially squashed hot dog buns in our crowded mini-van might have seemed like an impossible hardship before, but post-tornado, we began to see ourselves as adventurers on the open road. For this privilege, we could eat the odd squashed bun.
We had started our vacation behaving as if there was a “right way” to do this cross-country journey, a perfect itinerary to follow, and a “correct approach” to the family road trip. We read every word of the historical markers, looked in every corner of every museum, and collected brochures for future school projects. Please understand that this was not a matter of capturing teachable moments – this was a case of ambushing them and wrestling them to the ground.
Sometimes it takes a tornado to make you realize that you are driving your kids (and yourselves) crazy. Intentionally, we backed away from perfect. We began to get off the highway more often. As our mini-van devoured the miles, we spotted our first cactus on the way up Scott’s Bluff. We stalked cicadas that sounded like artillery fire in the muggy southeastern darkness, and we marveled at mockingbirds that apparently spend every waking moment fine-tuning their repertoire.
We made crazy Hail Mary phone calls to camp sites, hoping at the last minute to be able to pitch our tent near a place we had fallen in love with. After all, if Mt. Rushmore is stunning at sunset, what will it look like in early morning light?
The unclenching of my fists around the idea of the perfect vacation signaled the opening of my hands to The Given. Designed by a wild, incomprehensible, and totally-other God, we are, nonetheless, a family of imperfection – and delight!
We are museums, and we are rodeos.
We are McDonald’s hamburgers, and we are fresh Washington state cherries eaten alongside the road.
We are wild, whirling winds; and we are dark, peaceful night skies announcing that God really did “hang the earth on nothing.”
Our vacation was not perfect, but neither are we.
We had brought ourselves along for the journey.
And we were glad to have us.
If you are planning to read Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow and to join us in the discussion, we’ll begin tackling chapters 1-3 on September 7th. I’ll be sharing the full schedule on August 31 in my end-of-month musings post.
One of the prevailing themes of the book seems to be the nature of calling. Jayber’s life takes some unexpected twists and turns, but even so, he had this to say:
“I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.”
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