On the Road Again
I can’t believe it’s been 4 months since we came to Death Valley National Park. I’m really can’t believe that it’s time to move on – again. This last year and a half has been one extended period of saying good-bye and moving on. It started in Aug 2016 when I was informed that Judson was shutting down the theology program and ending my faculty line. Taking a deep breath, my first thought when I heard this was – “It’s going to be ages before we feel settled and at home again.” Little did I realize then how ongoing this experience would be, how many good-byes we would have to say and how some were going to be permanent.
We signed up to volunteer (free camping but no salary) at Death Valley National Park [DVNP] as interpretive rangers or park guides, for the Fall part of the park’s high season. Usually the commitments are for 3 months but with the busy time here being over the Holiday season we agreed to stay on through January. Since we didn’t have another gig lined up after DVNP, we thought we might stay until the end of March or maybe even April, if they needed us. Either way, we knew were here short-term. In late November and early December, we began applying for volunteer opportunities for the spring and summer – anticipating that we will still be on the road. As it turns out, on January 20th we will be moving to Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP). There we will be serving in a different role, as campground hosts rather than park guides – and we’ve heard conflicting reports about the hosting experience.
One of the interesting things about volunteering is that you get to learn a huge amount of information about the regions and the parks – history, geography, geology, weather patterns, biology, animals, recreational usage, safety… – but then you move on. Just when you feel you finally have a good amount, if not a lot, to offer to others, you move on. As enjoyable as the time is, as privileged as you are to have the extended chance to learn these things, as adventurous as this is – in the end its unsettling.
We are processing a quite strange sense of being both settled and unsettled. We humans have a strange capacity to domicile rather quickly. A family camping will set up for a week and make the place quite homey and their own. A place can quickly become ‘my place’ if you know you are going to be there for a bit. You “settle in” establish a routine, get to know the people, the place, the rhythms of life. You learn to, but also you choose to be at home in a place. DVNP has come in 4 short months to feel familiar, homey, like our place.
This feeling at home has also been mixed with a constant feeling of being unsettled however. After 2 weeks of training, then 2 ½ weeks of working and getting into a routine we received word that my mother had died. We immediately left for the east coast and spent almost 3 weeks disoriented and like we had whiplash. When we returned we headed into the craziness of the Thanksgiving onslaught here in the park. We also realized we would need to start applying and interviewing for whatever parks came next. Then after catching our breath for a couple of weeks and settling back down, the insanity of the Christmas/New Year onslaught hit the park. This coupled with a visit from our daughter and her boyfriend made for a fantastic but not-routine and early January. For me this unsettled period was amplified by 3 events. After being back from my mother’s funeral for a week I flew to Houston for a job interview. Might we be leaving the road sooner than we expected and moving to Houston? Alas, the answer was no. Then, I was contacted out of the blue and had an interview (on the phone this time) in Palm Beach. Would we be moving soon to Florida? Alas, the answer was no. Then, right after the new year I had a conference in LA. It was a fantastic time and I was able to share reflections on work disruptions and its effect on faith and church life.
So, in fact we have been anything but settled over the last 4 months. And yet, we have completely settled in. This paradox seems to be, on a larger scale, the paradox of our life right now.
In a week, we will say good-bye to some amazing new friends. The team of volunteers that we live with, in our little camper neighborhood, are interesting, enjoyable to be with and have become a kind of family. Likewise, we’ve come to love all of the 6 month seasonal rangers (mid-20’s through early 30’s). And, the permanent rangers here are great folk, passionate about their work – the park and visitor experience. Saying good-bye to new friends, after such an intense experience is going to bring on some tears.
This is especially true after the number of good-byes we’ve had to say in the last 6 months. My friends and colleagues of 10 years at Judson, our friends and church family in Carpentersville and Algonquin, our kids, reuniting and then saying so long to friends in Colorado… at least all of these good-byes are more like “see you later” than final farewells. Yet there have also been more significant deaths in our close family (biological and church) than I have ever experienced. My mother, my cousin Jeff (like a second brother), my sister-in-law’s dad Jack, Al our friend from church and even our dog of 14 years. While we believe in the resurrection of the dead and know we will one day be reunited, for now, these good-byes are more than just, “see ya later.”
It’s the People
So, what have we learned? I’m honestly not sure yet. We are still on the journey and not sure where it is taking us or how long it will take to get there – wherever or whatever ‘there’ means. And in a way, that’s ok. Knowing that we are learning and growing, that this time is not wasted, gives our desert and wilderness experience a sense of meaning and purpose. Knowing that God is with us and has not abandoned us, even when it feels otherwise, gives us the ability to keep on going.
While I’m not sure yet what “the” lesson is, or even if there is “a lesson” as such, here are some things we can say with confidence:
- God is good and we will be fine, if not always in this life, at least in the next.
- Life is short, seize the moment if you can. Seek for beauty where you are.
- People make the difference. Everybody has a story. Listen to them.
- We all need meaningful work – whether that is paid or volunteer makes little difference. We all need to serve, to give to another, in and through our daily activities to live a good life full of meaning and joy.