Journeys of the Janky Van

Antelope Canyon 2018

“Travel brings power and love back into your life.” I’ve often found this to be true, yet the last seventeen days, Rumi’s words were more viscerally prevalent than ever. While it is impossible to fully express what leading a group of 21 college students on a spiritual journey through the American West entails, here is a glimpse into life since May 9. This snapshot explains why the ritual of re-entry is so vital, as emotional whiplash needs time to recalibrate. It also explains why I wore two different colored sandals to work and put detergent in the dryer.

Our staff adventures began jet lagged and hangry at the mercy of the hotel front desk clerk’s dinner recommendations and Lyft drivers. Our first Phoenix Lyft driver shared she quit her job days before because she hated it, and was driving for Lyft to make cash until she knew what she wanted to do next. We affirmed listening to your life and paying attention to seasons of it as we drove in Google map mishap circles on the highway. We invited her to come with us to the Grand Canyon, as she’d be in good company with those looking to find themselves. She graciously declined, but we got a big smile out of her. We ate a mediocre overpriced dinner and nearly fell asleep on the table.

The Lyft driver who returned us to our hotel is a single mom who drives at night to earn extra money since her ex is embarrassingly late on child support. One of her neighbors watches her kids to make evening work possible after she tucks them in bed. We told her she’s strong, brave, and how much we admire her. I gave her my emergency $20 to do something for herself since she’s got to be drained from all that sacrificial love. In our hotel lobby we entered a crowded elevator full of extroverts, thus we silently counted down to introvert time in our rooms with each ding of the floor exit options.

The next morning we Lyfted to pick up two 15 passenger vans and a trailer. And that’s where things start to get blurry. Because renting vans, airport pickups, attempting to park vans/trailer, soggy lunches, airport Starbucks meeting spaces sans outlets to charge phones, students we stalked on Facebook in hopes of recognizing them in attempt to greet them well in Phoenix, but everyone still looked alike at that point so I talked to a few strangers, etc.

After all 21 students and the other 3 staff were safely on the ground, we took off for Sedona, Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Las Vegas, Las Angeles, San Francisco, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and Reno. Ergo why things got blurry in our grand adventure. Lots of people. Lots of places. Lots of driving. Lots of goodness. Lots of bathroom stops. Lots of best kind of challenges. Lots of coffee. Lots of sleeping bags. Lots of smells. Lots of tired. Lots of wonder. Lots of sunrises. Lots of sunsets. Lots of stars. Not a lot of showers.

For some students, this trip was the longest they traveled sans close friends/family, or the first time they flew on a plane, or the first time they camped, or the farthest west they’d ever been. Some came because they love National Parks, and some because their campus minister suggested it. Some begged to come because they needed an escape, and some couldn’t wait because they love traveling in general. Some came because they hoped to find themselves in wide open spaces, and some had hearts that needed to heal from a rough year. All twenty-one of them brought something unique, beautiful, and profound to the group, and we are better for it.

I said yes to staffing this trip, because when I staffed it four years ago, I was weeks into my life falling apart with a freshly shattered heart. Throughout that trip, anytime we had decent phone reception, I learned more devastating news about my personal life. I remember being in those canyons and waters wishing more than anything that I could call my mom (she died the previous year), and wondering where in the world I was going to find the gumption to survive and thrive. I never wanted that trip to end, even referred to it as “Witness Protection,” because I did not want to return to my new normal since I wasn’t going back to my own bed, my own home, or my own bathroom, like everyone else. I no longer had those creature comforts, and I spent our first night back crying in an airport hotel longing to be anonymous in a canyon.

So when I said yes to this trip, I said yes to reclaiming those canyons, to frolicking in those waters, to making new memories, to having new adventures, to inhaling all the dry desert air, to thanking the canyons and the waters for holding all my grief and shattered pieces last time. And I said yes to allowing them to shine fresh light into the scars I sure am proud of four years later. I said yes to restoration and practicing resurrection. I said yes to getting to know colleagues and college students in gorgeous places huddled together around campfires, picnic tables, charcoal grills, and communal tooth brushing sinks. And it was more than I dreamed or imagined.

I spread some of my Mama’s ashes in Sedona since it’s one of our favorite places, and she’d definitely appreciate a slightly illegal ritual. I spent Mother’s Day preaching a sunrise worship service at the Grand Canyon at 5:30am, then drove a janky van full of amazing humans to Antelope Canyon, which is one of my great loves. Antelope held and cradled me as my Mama did, to the degree that I didn’t take a single photo, because I was too enthralled with touching every ridge, and getting as close as I could to each comforting crevice. It was the hug I’ve needed for years. And being alongside colleagues and students as they experienced it for the first time made it all the more magical. I savored the twinkle in their eyes as I ran my hands through the walls of sand.

After Antelope’s high, my colleagues and I had our first pastoral care gut punch while our group was grocery shopping. We received devastating news about a family emergency for one of our students, so three of us went to the Fitting Room Section of Super Walmart in order to keep confidentiality, process, and plan. We cussed and cried, and our hearts broke for our student and all involved. We hated the pain that so many in the situation had to be feeling. We ached for our colleague back home who called to tell us. As is often the case, the most ordinary and even absurd places, like a Fitting Room Section of a Super Walmart, are sacred when two or more are gathered to do the work of being the beloved community. So, Super Walmart somewhere in Arizona: thank you for being sanctuary to three shocked, dusty pastors on a Sunday afternoon.

That night we slept under the stars by the shores of Lake Powell, and the stars shined glittery light in the darkness that felt so heavy and so close. The vast blanket of stars spoke all the words of comfort, peace, and hope we pastors couldn’t articulate. I don’t know when I crossed over from savoring the stars to falling asleep that night, but I do know I awoke, sideways, down the hill from my sleeping bag, in some tumbleweed, just in time for sunrise the next morning. For morning always comes. Sometimes with a side of tumbleweed. But morning always comes.

As the sun warmed the day, we stood in Lake Powell and had a ritual of remembrance for all those we miss now that their baptisms are complete, and those we miss because life is messy, and relationships aren’t what he hoped or thought. We thanked God for the people in our lives, for the power of memory, for the gift of boundless love, for safe spaces to grieve, and for the baptismal waters that always orient our souls and keep us afloat. Prior to our time of silence amid the rocks and the waters, I shared, “Under the rocks are the words. And some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”[1]

From there we had significantly more time in a janky van with amazing humans, a plethora of van karaoke songs, more bathroom stops, breathtaking sights, belly laughs, and I got to drive my favorite drive of the itinerary into Zion National Park with windows down and music blasting. The drive was more majestic than I remembered, and the waters of the Virgin River were more refreshing than I fantasized they would be.

After a devotion on courage and frolicking in the waters as a group, we divided up for various hikes, and a colleague surprised me with letters from some of my chosen family who kept me afloat for the past four years. I read their words while I splashed in the waters alone, hiked alone (safely; but won’t make it a habit), and stood at the foot of the mountains and inhaled tangible grace, hope, survival, and joy. Then I read their words again as I ate a cheeseburger on a porch overlooking some of our students playing Frisbee with strangers at the foot of the mountains. “Thank you” is still all I can muster to the waters, the mountains, the Divine, and the humans who choreographed that day. For there aren’t words for that kind of love and power infusion.

We read Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” while the sun rose over Bryce Canyon, savored the Bellagio bougie bathrooms in Vegas, slept in vans one freezing night and it felt like teenage rebellion, had dance parties while wearing head lamps, heard devotions from students about where they see God at work in the world and in their lives, drove through mysterious tunnels, celebrated communion on the cliffs of the Pacific Coast highway, awoke beside the Pacific Ocean, heard from people experiencing homelessness about the complexities of Orange County systems and discussed our roles and responses to all systems, nearly caught one of the intern’s hair on fire grilling one night, washed each other’s feet at the rim of the Grand Canyon, a student left a rose under the windshield wiper of my janky van, and I was so touched, I fell out of the van when I went to retrieve it, then we all laughed until we cried. Those are the kinds of things that filled our days, nights, souls, minds, hearts, and spirits at any given time on this trip. Again why emotional whiplash and blurry vision is real.

On Saturday, staff had one of the best breakfasts of the trip at the delicious Hollywood Café in San Francisco as we dropped everyone off for free day in that fabulous city. After breakfast, we learned both of our vans had been robbed. Fortunately, only one window on each van was broken, and there was a place with availability to repair both van windows within hours. As two colleagues took the vans to be repaired, I called the other two staff and had all the students meet where we parked the vans. As I asked students about any medicines or urgent needs in case their bag was one of the 20 stolen, it was confirmed that none of the 26 of us had our photo ID’s or credit cards stolen. Which was grace and a game changer in terms of logistics that day. The SF police department could not have been more helpful. Strangers were kind, gracious, empathetic, and helpful throughout the day as we navigated students and each other through the tango of violation and replacement.

As with any loss, it’s important to name what was lost, not only for inventory for police reports and insurance claims, but as part of cathartic processing. To that end, in the van break-in, I lost: a red backpack, toiletries, favorite big silver hoop earrings, two journals, night guard, retainer, student emergency contact info, tampons, contacts, some of my mom’s ashes, Sharpies, cards for my students, essential oils, toothbrush, hairbrush, hair dryer, an avocado, a colleague’s flat iron, gum, and almonds. Since 16 of the 20 bags stolen belonged to women, the incident became known as Tampon Theft 2018. Because, let’s be honest, that’s a heckuva lot of feminine hygiene loot. And a Target somewhere in California greatly benefited from our big Saturday night replacement run.

{Sidebar: Communal laundromats are the Bermuda Triangle. I also lost my favorite Carolina blue linen shirt, a bra, one sock, and two pairs of underwear on this trip. Colleagues who do laundry for other colleagues are saints and are never to be blamed for lost items, though.}

Prior to departing San Francisco, we surprised students with flowers for their hair on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The combination of cold, wind, and confetti colors of Gerber Daises was the ideal prescription for laughter and levity over a foggy sunset. I love fresh flowers, especially from city bodegas, and I’ve never enjoyed bargaining more than that afternoon. My pride in getting $1 off each stem was equal to our student who found out he made a 4.0 this semester, as bargain bereavement is one of my spiritual gifts. Never pass up a fresh flower or two, and definitely don’t pass up the opportunity to make someone’s day with a whole bunch of them.

We debriefed our day on the Sunday School room floor of a church after eating greasy pizza, which was most appropriate. Because all church Sunday School room floors with carpet smell the same, and pizza is the currency of ministry, so they were the sacramental creature comforts we needed in a place we’d never been before. Students and staff were honest about their anger, violation, helplessness, exhaustion, fear, questions, and even guilt if nothing of theirs was stolen. Our debriefing was vital to processing, sleeping well, and moving forward. Much like with our Super Walmart Fitting Room pastoral care issue, we watched our group evolve yet again, and the beloved community was palpable, grace-filled, and strong. We saw the best of humanity from north and south and east and west in the reflections of the broken glass of our van windows and our world.

We awoke to the sounds of the church organist and choir practicing for the Pentecost celebration, which was the birthday party confetti we needed first thing as morning broke. We needed streamers and ribbons as the sun greeted the day. And it was such a gift. We gathered outside and read the ancient words of the prophets, “God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.’”[2]

The Pentecost prophecy was enacted during our drive to Yosemite that Sunday. Believe it or not, the janky van got even jankier after the break-in, and we could hardly hear music over random noises. Sometimes it sounded like a family of church mice was happily residing in the auxiliary cord, and they were backup singers to as many songs as we could stand any given stretch of the drive. I asked a student to download Bishop Curry’s Royal Wedding homily, and miraculously it was crystal clear as we clung to his every word while driving through mountains. Our van was full of sons and daughters who dream of being loved by another human in that way, and full of daughters and sons who have been hurt, yet chose love over and over again. It was a van full of visions and dreams for ourselves, our communities, our world, and the shared belief that love is indeed the only way. Pentecost with Bishop Curry and fifteen students en route to Yosemite is one of my favorite church services of all time. (Thanks, Royals!)

Our Monday in Yosemite started out leisurely until one of our students passed out at breakfast. Due to adrenaline, I don’t remember exact details, but next thing I knew, she and I were in the back of an ambulance headed down the mountain. After an hour, we were transferred to another ambulance for the remaining hour to the nearest hospital. It was one of the most helpless feelings of my life as we had no cell reception and no way to give updates to colleagues back at camp for those first two hours. We were in the ER for seven hours, though they were attentive, and thankfully the student got the all clear to return to camp and is just fine. Due to our nine hour unplanned field trip, she and I stopped at the first restaurant we saw after the hospital which was a TGIFriday’s. So, some iceberg lettuce, meat situation, stale croutons, and approximately 56 glasses of water and Diet Coke later, we were in our Lyft for a two hour ride back up the mountain. Due to said mountain roads, and our driver’s attempt at qualifying for the Indy 500, Friday’s was returned to the earth on the side of the road that rainy Monday night.

Our reward for Monday’s field trip was getting to shower Tuesday morning while all the others packed up nasty drenched tents and tarps. Which I felt a bit guilty about until I realized I still had various bodily fluids and medical tape on my pants from the day before, none of which were mine. As we procured caffeine for staff after showers, the Yosemite unicorn of a barista made me some concoction of espresso shots, ginger, turmeric, and angel dust that gave me the fuel I needed for my second favorite long drive of our trip. Multiple gas stops, scenic view pullovers, lunch, and hours in the janky van later, we arrived at the always breathtaking and jaw dropping Lake Tahoe. And all was right with the world. Even swimming in 40 degree water in 53 degree air temperatures felt only slightly insane. Because we made it.

As we drove staff and students to the Reno airport, we began to debrief the trip and discuss re-entry, though it was only remotely effective, as everyone was exhausted and had all the feels. We hugged them goodbye, and a colleague and I headed back to Tahoe to replenish every bit of ourselves in attempt to be quasi functional upon our return home. And that thirty-six hours was dog years worth of Sabbath. The waters and mountains gave us exactly what we didn’t know we needed, and a lovely human provided us with a cozy place to promptly stumble into face plant naps. There was also bacon dipped in bourbon thanks to the kayak rental guy’s brilliant dinner suggestion.

So, here we are, all safely back in reality on the East Coast. This time, I returned to my own bed in my own abode and there was a love note from a dear friend’s preschooler saying she missed me. A few hours later I picked up my puppy. Colleagues who are family fed me dinner and let me ramble and stare into space. The hundreds of emails have not answered themselves. There is clean laundry everywhere. The dishwasher is still full from before I left. My students gathered around my dining room table, but I basically only have dog food and tonic water, so I took them out for tacos. And it’s the best whiplash, chaos, and all things re-entry.

If you ever receive an invitation to lose a lot, gain an immeasurable amount, schlep through sexy canyons and frolic in haunting waters, say, “Heck yes!!” And go open to whatever is in store for you that you have zero control over. Just go. Then, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”[3] And pack extra underwear.

[1] Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

[2] Acts 2:17

[3] Mary Oliver, Instructions for Living a Life


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