Last summer, as we wrapped up our midwest vacation from Houston to Wisconsin and back, I looked at our camper, I looked at my family, and I looked to my exhausted soul.
I needed a vacation from my so-called vacation.
And let’s be honest. It wasn’t really a vacation. When my cousin announced her June wedding –destination Iowa– I didn’t consult my dear husband as to our summer plans. I just started planning to work a vacation into a trip for a family wedding. While the kids were excited to knock some more states off of our camper map, Jeff skeptically left the planning up to me, quick to point out that the trip wasn’t going to be quick or easy for him as he drove the truck nearly 2500 miles in two weeks, with the camper behind us the whole way. And as good as it was going to be to see most of my extended family for the first time in years, midwestern state parks were going to pale in comparison to our 2016 summer vacation at Fort Wilderness in Orlando, Florida.
And yes, it was wonderful to see my parents, sisters, nieces and nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. The wedding was beautiful and the fellowship refreshing. But the shine of the beautiful state parks, the stop at Effigy Mounds National Monument, and the addition of three state stickers on our camping map began to dull as we completed the exhausting trek home, a journey from Iowa to Texas with few experiences along the way to break up the long days of travel. By the last day of our vacation I was pulling out the map and looking at the match-up of national and state parks in Texas, determined that we would have a “real” family vacation with just the four of us before the end of 2018.
By the end of July, I had mapped out a Christmas break trip to southwest Texas with stays near Fort Davis and Big Bend National Park. Jeff approved and reservations were made. For months we looked forward to the end of the year trip. When the stress from work and school and life stretched us to our limit, we remembered that planned week of camping that would take us to the middle of the desert and away from everything that was distracting us from each other.
That’s not to say there weren’t some glitches in our plans. We couldn’t get a spot in Big Bend National Park so we had to resort to a more expensive RV resort. We’re having a cooler than normal fall and early winter and I suddenly got nervous that even our days wouldn’t be warm enough. And then there were the couple warranty issues that we discovered during our Campsgiving trip. Some we could deal with, but a leaking kitchen sink just wouldn’t cut it for a week long trip out west. We were able to get the camper into the dealer to get repairs made, but it was going to be close. We told the manager we needed the camper by December 24. He said he would do his best.
After a crazy Thanksgiving in Louisiana and the busyness of December, we NEEDED a family vacation. I was buried under papers and projects and yearbook spreads, our looming vacation being the one thing keeping me going. The kids were counting down the days and Jeff was eagerly asking which days he needed to take off.
Then December 11 happened. When the news broke that the president was willing to proudly own a government shutdown in order to get money for a wall that would eventually cross the very region of the country we were set to travel to, my heart sank. My brain, which was already overloaded with end-of-the-semester responsibilities, was suddenly overrun with a series of what-ifs related to our Christmas break plans. For ten days we waited on pins and needles for every piece of news related to what was happening in Washington, D.C. and I completely ignored the other potential problem: a camper that was still in the shop for repairs.
By December 21, I was checking the Facebook page for Big Bend to see what kind of notifications they might be posting in case of government shutdown. But the park was ignoring the potential disturbance during one of the biggest seasons of the year. Instead, they warned potential visitors to “Plan on a busy park during the Christmas and New Years week.” The page exploded with comments of many who were making plans for a visit, including us. And then at midnight, shutdown.
Saturday morning I started looking up other options for camping in Texas, fully aware that most, if not all, spots in state parks were full for the coming week. I found a couple and went to tell Jeff what I had found. He pulled me onto his lap, looked me in the eye, and said, “We’re not going to get stamps. We’re going to be together as a family. It will be ok, even if it won’t be exactly as you planned it.”
Then Sunday morning our pastor talked about the chaos of Christmas and reminded us to look for cheer during the season, something I was particularly struggling with. Joseph, who had his whole life planned out and knew exactly how his marriage to his young bride was going to go, suddenly had to change his plans when the angel told him that he was going to raise the son of God. Joseph had to have faith in a promise that was bigger and more important than any plans that he could have made on his own. And while I was bitter about having my vacation plans adjusted by people completely out of my control, there were people who were spending their holiday wondering when they were going to get their next paycheck for the same reasons that my perfectly planned vacation had been thrown to the wind. I struggled to keep putting my own problems into the perspective of those who were dealing with a much bigger impact than not being able to cross the border to Mexico.
With all of our camping spots unaffected by the shutdown, I made our packing and shopping list. I spent a late night at Kroger getting all of our camping groceries, froze all of the meat goods that would be going with us, and Jeff prepped the pork shoulder so that we could have pulled pork for our Christmas dinner and I could make enchiladas to take along. I woke up Christmas Eve morning and printed out the park guides and Junior Ranger packets for Big Bend, ensuring that our kids would be able to complete the activities and send them in for their badges if the visitors centers still weren’t open when we got there. We were going to make the best of an imperfect situation.
But the camper was still in the shop. When I called on Christmas Eve morning, they were still waiting on the part for the sink, the only thing that NEEDED to be fixed before we headed down the road for a week. Our excited kids repeatedly asked about everything related to Christmas Eve, including when we were going to open presents. The problem? Every single plan for Christmas Eve Day hinged on when we were going to be able to pick up the camper. Until we knew that, we didn’t know which church service we would be attending, when we were going to eat both lunch and dinner, and when we would be opening presents. I found myself yelling at our kids nearly every ten to fifteen minutes to stop asking me questions, each question raising my anxiety over the continuing chaos surrounding our trip and turning me into a Grinch who was stealing their Christmas joy.
I was all set to go for a run, but turned around and came home when I realized that I didn’t know what time the dealer closed and that was probably important information for me to have. Almost as soon as I got home, as I was on the phone with the service secretary, Jeff got a call from the substitute manager working on our issue. I quickly fed the kids, we let them open their presents to each other, and then we hit the road to pick up the camper. Unfortunately, when we got there the most important issue, the leaky sink, still wasn’t fixed, so we spent the next two hours pacing back and forth waiting for the repair to be finalized so we could get the camper home to pack.
The rest of Christmas Eve has been a whirlwind that included one church service, a couple present opening sessions, dinner, packing, showers, and the unfortunate revelation concerning the truth about Santa when our seven-year-old looked me in the face and asked me to tell him the truth about who filled their stockings. That eventually snowballed to our nine-year-old daughter and our hopes that the upcoming camping trip would take the sting off of the loss of a piece of childhood innocence.
And now it’s nearly midnight, stockings are stuffed, dishwasher loaded, late night movie is in the DVD player until I inevitably fall asleep on the couch, and our house is a hopeless mess and I don’t see that improving before we leave tomorrow morning.
It hasn’t been the smoothest start to a camping vacation, but we’re hopeful that it will all work out in the end.