Tag Archives: road trip

Unplanned and perfect

Have I ever told you about my favorite day? Maybe that’s weird to you that I have a favorite day. I don’t know if that’s a normal thing or not. But I do, and you might be surprised to learn that it’s not my wedding day, or any of the days I gave birth to my children (although those days are etched in my memory and tucked in my heart forever).

No, my favorite day ever happened on a Tuesday in June, during the summer of 2017. My family and I were taking a big two-week road/camping trip throughout Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming. We’d flown into Denver and rented a 30 foot RV and we had 14 days to see and do as much as we could fit in.

As you can imagine, a trip like this doesn’t just happen. There was an entire year’s worth of planning that went into this trip, which I’d been dreaming about for even longer. And if there’s one thing I love to do, it’s plan. I had mapped out our route carefully, estimating the driving time for each day, how long we’d stay at each destination, reserved camp sites, booked fishing trips, ordered a National Park Pass, and even tried to build in “extra time” in case things went wrong, as I new surely something would.

It didn’t take long for the first set-back. After 2 days exploring Denver and Colorado Springs, and visiting with my sister-in-law and her family, we were scheduled to pick-up our RV on a Monday. The plan was to pick it up by 1 p.m. and hit the road by 2, getting a solid 4 hours of driving in on day one. But when we landed in Denver I discovered an email from the RV rental place asking I call to book a pick-up time. When I called I was told that the earliest slot they had available was 4:30 p.m. I knew that getting the RV back to my sister-in-law’s house, loaded up, and then dealing with Denver rush hour traffic meant the earliest we could possibly hit the road would be 6 — if we were lucky.

Frustrated at the early set-back, I revisited our itinerary for the first two days and decided we’d have to find a campground closer to Denver for our first night, which would mean cancelling our plans to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park on Tuesday since we’d need to drive at least 6 hours to get to our next destination, Cortez, CO, by Tuesday night. It was disappointing, but I tried to be flexible and luckily found a campground with space that was only 2 hours from Denver.

We pulled into our site in Buena Vista after dark on Monday, had a quick dinner and went to sleep. Tuesday morning we awoke early and got to finally see the beautiful campsite in the daylight. We hiked down to the Arkansas River, which ran along the edge of the campground, had breakfast, and hit the road. Since we were no longer going to Sand Dunes, I found a more direct route from where we were in Buena Vista to Cortez. The goal was just to make good time and arrive in Cortez by dusk. What I didn’t realize at the time was that our more direct route would take us across the Wolf Creek Pass, a stunningly beautiful and historic route (and also part of the route the Griswold’s took in National Lampoon’s Vacation).

The first half of the day brought us great weather and a beautiful drive through Colorado farm land, with the mountains making a stunning backdrop. Around 12:30 p.m. we rolled into South Fork, CO and stopped for lunch at a little Mexican restaurant where we ate burritos the size of our heads!

Then we began the ascent to the top of the San Juan Mountains, where you cross the Continental Divide. As we got higher in elevation we saw snow covering the ground, which my kids thought was crazy since it was the middle of June. By the time we got to the top – at 10,000 feet elevation — we decided we had to pull over and enjoy it. In our flip-flops and shorts we hopped out of the RV and ran through the snow, and even had a snowball fight. It was the most unexpected moment of sheer joy and laughter.

We continued our drive and a few miles later saw signs for a waterfall, Treasure Falls, and decided we had to stop and explore. That stop turned into a 40 minute hike to the middle of the falls where they had a misting deck. My kids danced and twirled, getting soaked from the mist of the powerful water. A few more stops to enjoy the view as we descended the pass added to the day and we finally pulled into our campsite in Cortez about 7 p.m. that night — several hours later than planned, but full on happy memories.

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It was, without a doubt, a picture-perfect day. Nothing was planned, everything was unexpected, and our hearts were full of joy as we took in the wonder of each new discovery. I often look at the photos from that day and smile, reminiscing about how much we laughed, how much we loved one another, and how effortless it was. There were a lot of wonderful things we did and saw that trip — things I had dreamed of doing my whole life, like seeing the Grand Canyon at sunset, and standing in front of Old Faithful in Yellowstone. But the day that stands out most to me is that Tuesday when we had no plans.

For this Type-A personality, who likes writing lists, and making plans, and crossing off to-do lists, the lesson is not lost on me. When I think back to this day and what made it so perfect, sure it was partly the beautiful scenery, and lack of incident. But I think it was more so my lack of expectations, the not-knowing what lie ahead, and being surprised by the gifts God presented to us along the way. Too often in my life I plan and work to craft these ideal experiences — perfect date nights, perfect parties, perfect ministry events, perfect holidays — and too often I am left feeling disappointed by all that didn’t go according to plan.

God reminded me on a Tuesday in June that often He has something even better waiting for me. But it’s only after I let go of expectations and control that I am able to experience these gifts.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

What I learned from Clark Griswold

Some of you may already know this, but my family and I just returned from a two week vacation in which we rented a 30 foot motor home and drove over 2,500 miles,  across 6 states, visiting 5 national parks including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone NP. While some people might cringe at the idea of spending two weeks in a 300 square foot box on wheels with three kids and their spouse, this was actually a vacation I’d dreamed of for a long time. I wanted to have a real-life Griswold Family Vacation (minus the dead great-aunt and dog)!

The decision to make the trip this year had a lot to do with me turning 40 and wanting to check-off a few things on the bucket list. But when my husband had a stroke less than a month before the trip, the significance and meaning of this trip took on even greater magnitude.

love at the Grand Canyon

I had begun planning for this trip months earlier. As I researched and evaluated each stop, campground, and driving route, I dreamed of the family time spent around a campfire; of my kids happily playing card games at the table while their Dad or I drove to the next destination; of the life-long memories we’d make together seeing some of the greatest sites in the country.

But as the trip got closer and closer I started to realize my ideas of the perfect family vacation spent on the road were highly optimistic, if not entirely unrealistic. I began to worry that I was building-up this vacation too much in my mind and that could only lead to disappointment when things didn’t go as planned. I jokingly referred to myself as the female Clark Griswold, but when I began to list the things that could  go wrong on our real-life Griswold Ballon Family Vacation, and calculate the chances I might have my own Clark Griswold-esque meltdown, I wondered: did I really want to try and pull this off? Wasn’t I just setting myself up for a huge, expensive disaster?

So I tell you truthfully, there was no small amount of anxiety plaguing me in the days before we left, and even the first few days of the trip. But I decided the best thing to do was try to stay flexible (completely out of character for me), and know that things might go wrong, but that didn’t mean the vacation would be ruined.

And you know what? For the most part the trip went off without a hitch. Sure, we had a few minor issues, but none of them were enough to ruin an entire vacation, or at least we didn’t let them become so important they were allowed to ruin any one day of our trip.

It was, indeed, a wonderful vacation. And while I liked to tease the kids that I was making them learn on their summer break by going to places like the Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, or reading about the geological history of the Grand Canyon, I think I was the one who learned the most on this trip. Channeling my inner “Sparky” taught me a lot about myself and my family. Here are just a few of those things:

Be a family first.
In “National Lampoon’s Vacation” you hear Clark say over and over, “Why? because we’re the Griswolds!” I can’t say that I’ve ever said to my kids, “Why? because we’re Ballons!” But I did learn from this trip that establishing  identity as a family creates unity.

Today there are so many places in which people claim an identity — even kids. We’re runners, dancers, drummers, teachers, students, etc. We belong to our employer or our school, our church and our clubs. And there is a sense of unity that comes when you claim them. Often they begin to define us. It becomes easy to forget that the first place we belonged was to a family.

By spending such a concentrated amount of time together — away from our jobs, schools, and friends — we were able to just be a family. To be the Ballons. For 15 days straight we got to experience these wonderful places and things,  together. We will always have that. And while others may take similar trips and see similar sights, none will have the exact same experience that the five of us had together.

Garden of the Gods

Arkansas River

Sisters

 

When things don’t go as planned, have a Plan B, even if you make it up as you go!
Like I mentioned above, I had a great deal of anxiety leading up to the trip as I thought of every thing that could potentially go wrong.  Overall, we were fortunate that none of my biggest fears came to light. However, I don’t think it’s possible to go on a 2 week road trip and not have something go awry, and our trip was no exception.

We found out two days before we were to pick up the RV that we were not going to be able to get it before 4 p.m., when we had figured on a 1 p.m. pick-up. This meant not only a 3 hour delay, but also dealing with rush hour traffic in Denver. It didn’t take long to figure out that our original plan to drive three and a half hours that first day was not going to work out. After getting over the initial frustration, we looked for a new, closer destination for our first night and adjusted our plans accordingly. As it turns out, we loved the campground we stayed at the first night, even if it was a short stay, and by dedicating our second day to driving (originally we were going to visit Sand Dunes National Park, but had to scratch that plan to allow for a longer drive), we were able to go slower and enjoy everything we saw (see number 4).

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon tower

Jelise at the Grand Canyon

My body is still strong, even when it hurts.
So the truth is that I’ve been mourning the days when I was more fit and exercise wasn’t quite so hard. Turning 40 has magnified a lot of the things I don’t appreciate about the aging process…and gravity. But on this trip we did a lot of hiking and moving. In fact my fitness tracker calculated I walked over 140,400 steps, or 66 miles in two weeks! And I can tell you a big portion of that included some strenuous, up-hill hikes, and even climbing wooden ladders through rock crevices in Mesa Verde.

Of course, it hurt. I was physically exhausted each night, and took a few more ibuprofen than usual. But I did it. And it felt good. This 40 year old body is still strong and capable of new challenges.

Bryce Canyon

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Sunset over the Grand Canyon

Enjoy the unexpected moments.
I’m a planner. Like my Sparky namesake, I spent a lot of time mapping out routes, researching parks, reading reviews, and making reservations. But, like I mentioned above, on a trip like this you will have moments that don’t go as planned. However, what really surprised me were the unexpected sights and unplanned experiences that became some of my favorite moments of the trip.

For example, day two’s focus was on driving from Buena Vista, CO to Cortez, CO. The most direct route that Google Maps indicated was a 5 hour trip through the Rio Grande National Forest, so that’s what we did. What I didn’t know was that this path would take us through an area called Wolf Creek Pass, which was not only a beautiful drive across the San Juan Mountains, reaching 10,000 feet elevation, but it brought us across the Continental Divide, provided an unplanned snowball fight, and hike to see Treasure Falls. It was one of my most favorite days, not just of the trip, but of all time. Totally unplanned and unexpected.

Snowball fight at Wolf Creek Pass

Bison baby at Yellowstone

Bottom of Bryce Canyon

Everyone is allowed at least one meltdown.
So, Clark Griswold’s meltdown in the movie is pretty iconic and long been quoted. Watching the movie before we left I laughed nervously at that scene because I could totally relate to how he felt in that moment and knew that I was fully capable of having a similar meltdown if faced with a trip where it was one disaster after another, and a vehicle full of whiny, complaining family members.

I confess, that it didn’t even take a series of ridiculous events to trigger my meltdown. On our second-to-last night in the RV it took nothing more than fatigue, lack of fire-wood, and a slightly ruined dinner. While I was at least about my wits enough to know I needed a time-out and went to bed early, it was not my finest moment. As soon as my head hit the pillow I felt guilty. The next morning before we left our campsite I gathered my family to apologize and I was met with the most unbelievable grace and love. They understood and forgave. And then they all thanked me for the planning and effort I put into the vacation. It was a very sweet moment and reminded me that everyone is bound to mess up, it’s how we deal with the mess-up afterwards that matters.

Old Faithful

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde

Horseshoe Bend - Page, AZ

There was so much more I learned about myself, my family, and my country on this trip. But I realize this is already a pretty long post, so I’ll wrap it up with this: spend long periods of time with your family, disconnected from electronics. Take long drives and explore places you’ve never been. Be willing to let plans change, and make unexpected stops. And remember, if things go wrong, if you get pushed passed your breaking point, if you have a Clark Griswold meltdown moment, things always look better under the light of a new day and an apology.