It doesn’t matter how much planning we do or how many lists we make or how organized we are, in our family, there is no such thing for leaving for vacation “on time.”
But then, I remember one of my uncles repeatedly saying one summer, “We can’t be late; we’re on vacation.” And really, the way that I planned our 2019 vacation, there was no such thing as late (except the few tickets that I had to pre-purchase to guarantee spots for National Parks tours). Leaving later in the morning just meant everything else in the day got pushed back, which is how our first two days of our trip went.
Despite leaving about one hour after the “ideal” time, we didn’t feel too rushed once we were on the road. And then ten miles down the road I realized that I had forgotten a fresh pair of contacts which meant I was going to have to make the pair I was wearing last an extra seven days. And thirty miles down the road our son realized that he had forgotten Blankie (a beloved heirloom that belonged to Jeff when he was a little boy that our son has had possession of since he was two), which sent him spiraling into twenty minutes of inconsolable sadness just as we were heading into a construction zone, raising the stress level in the truck. Then about two hundred miles down the road I realized that I had left the state park pass on the kitchen table at home, keeping that realization to myself until we had pulled into the park ten minutes after the front office closed.
We found our reserved site at South Llano State Park and blocked traffic while I proved a poor parking assistant as I sort-of directed Jeff to the correct side of our double-wide camping spot. The camp host, who was staying at the site directly across from us, came over to tell Jeff, while he was in the middle of parking the camper, that once he was done parking he needed to detach and park in the secondary spot right next to the camper spot. Not only was that direction not at all helpful in the moment, it was far from necessary. Apparently, the map with fifteen state stickers on it wasn’t enough of a clue that we were no novices at the camping thing and that we could figure out how the site worked on our own..
We made quick work of setting up camp, getting the air conditioner on so that our dogs could comfortably settle inside, and I took a quick bike ride around the campground to find the path that led to the fishing hole. By the time I got back, the kids were ready to check out the river and possibly go swimming so we took a family bike ride down to one of two designated swimming spots in the South Llano within the confines of the state park. Both kids swam and played in the comfortably cool knee-high rapids of the river, letting the water sweep them to the boundaries we had set and then fighting those same rapids to get back to where they had started. Jeff and I stood in the rushing water and then worked our way to a rock island so we could watch the activity from there.
The ride back to the campsite was full of the drama that comes with teaching one child how to work the gears on her bike and praying that the other child, the one with a broken brake, expertly handles the hills and returns safely. The late swimming excursion meant a late dinner of enchiladas (made up the night before), a later campfire when we finally caved because we didn’t know how many more campfires we would be able to have over the next two weeks, and a super late bedtime, but it was a happy bedtime.
It also meant that when I was awakened by my Sunday morning alarm (for the Houston church service that we were not going to be attending) the rest of my family slept for another two hours, while I ate breakfast, checked out of our campsite and bought our state park magnet, and drove into town to get gas. I almost considered a solo hike up to Lookout Point but eventually decided against it, instead getting a start on dishes and making sure that the dogs got a little more exercise before forcing them back into the truck for a slightly shorter day of travel. The gas water heater wasn’t working, which put us off for a little longer because Jeff was trying to figure out what was going on (it appears we just needed to get the air out of the line from completely running out of propane) and we finally continued west.
From the inside of the truck with two audiobooks and Kenny Chesney and Big and Rich keeping us entertained, we watched the Hill Country landscape slowly turn into desert, the vegetation getting shorter and more sparse with little evidence of civilization, thankful that we had filled up with fuel before we got back on the road. We finally pulled into Monahans Sandhills State Park shortly after the office closed (apparently we either have really bad or really good timing, depending on your perspective) and found our assigned parking spot. Then the adventure began.
We had a pull-through spot, the type of camping spot that is supposed to be easier but it really just presents its own sets of challenges. Our first challenge was parking in a position that would keep us away from the site marker poles, which were not-so-conveniently placed right next to the electrical box. We cleared the poles, disconnected the camper, and then discovered that we were too far from the electrical box. So we tried again.
The second time we were closer to the poles but I eyeballed it and convinced myself that we were safe. We disconnected and started putting out the slide-outs. The bigger of the two slide-outs was not going to clear the pole. So we reconnected to try again.
The final time Jeff and I stopped trying to make the camper level (the leveler said we weren’t level but our eyeballs said we were fine) and Jeff struggled with sand in front of him while readjusting the position of the camper to be closer to the sand and farther away from the electrical box and the poles. Third time was a charm and we were comfortably parked for the night.
While we were struggling with parking (and surprisingly not fighting with each other over mistakes in judgment) both kids explored the small dune behind our camper and dug in the sand (with my directive to watch out for snakes in the brush), eventually begging for shade because as much fun as sand and rocks can be, the 100-degree heat, amplified by the sun still high in the sky, made for uncomfortable conditions. With the camper finally hooked up for the night, we were able to turn on the air conditioning and let both kids and the dogs inside to cool off. The kids played card games while we walked around the campground to see what was available, stopping to chat with the camp host who greeted us and then walking over to climb one of the dunes in the picnic area, just to see how far the dunes stretched.
We’re proud Michiganders who have spent a fair amount of time climbing sand dunes. The summer before we moved to Texas we took the kids camping at Indiana Dunes State Park, right next to the national lakeshore, and we completed the park’s Three Dune Challenge, climbing three different dunes using the designated trails and getting plenty of high vantage points from which to look down on the wide expanse of sparkling Lake Michigan. To be in the middle of the desert climbing a sand dune was so incongruous to us. Instead of looking down to see the sun shining off of the shores of a Great Lake, all we saw was sand and desert for miles. But it didn’t matter if there wasn’t water, we were bringing the kids back after dinner.
We left the kids inside while I made dinner and Jeff sat in the shade under the awning, both of us commenting on how pleasant the desert heat was in comparison to the swampy heat at home. We laughed, because 100 degrees is far from pleasant but perspective is everything. We chose to eat inside to avoid being attacked by biting flies as the sun continued to slowly go down behind the dunes.
As I cleaned up from dinner, our son came in with one of our drinking cups completely coated in sand and said that they needed more water. I went outside and explained to both kids that the cups were for drinking, not for digging in the sand. Our daughter quickly responded, “But Mom, we’re trying to make sandcastles.”
Our son quickly chimed in, “Yeah, Mommy, you never take us to the beach.”
True, but that’s because Galveston is over an hour away and I hate saltwater. Not to mention that the Great Lakes of my childhood have set a pretty high bar for what I deem a reasonable beach. Still, it was time for a science lesson.
“You can’t use our dinnerware to make a sandcastle. You can’t make a sandcastle in the desert. The water will evaporate too quickly.”
They continued to have a difficult time believing me, making shapes in the sand with their hands, and I finally decided that it was time for us to make the trek over to the dunes.
We leashed the dogs and walked the whole family to the first dune we had explored before dinner. The kids took off like they had never climbed a dune before, convinced they could just charge up the hill, only to be stopped in their tracks halfway up the dune, crawling on their hands and knees to the top. Jeff and I got to the top with the help of both dogs. We looked across the expanse of sand and the kids took off down the dune, ready to explore the next one. We shortened the dogs’ leashes and let them take off after the kids, both of them happily running through the sand to protect their people. We spent the next hour waiting for the sunset, climbing to the top of the next dune and then sitting at the top while we watched our kids play and roll in the sand. When the sun finally set, all six of us were ready for water, popsicles, and showers to get the sand out of every part of our bodies. Our son and Jeff settled in to read their books, our daughter sat down to get her hair braided, and once our kids were in bed, I settled in to write, eventually pulling out a book to read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore.
I woke up early to some of the best temperatures I’ve experienced in months. I knew the cool, crisp morning was going to quickly give way to heat as soon as the sun finished scaring away the shadows between the dunes, but it didn’t matter. As I walked the dogs, I fully appreciated at least an hour of relief and promptly sat down to eat breakfast at our unprotected picnic table outside.
And now we’re ready to head off to a new state park and a new state altogether, preparing to explore everything that God’s creation has to offer in New Mexico. Mountains and caves, here we come!
Corrective note: Earlier I had noted that the park host in South Llano was less than helpful in giving Jeff a “hint” that when we were finally parked he could detach and park in the spot next to the camper. Jeff corrected my interpretation of the events that transpired and I have corrected that misunderstanding.