In Hueco Tanks State Park, approximately 1800 miles away from home and camped in the shadow of East Mountain, just outside of El Paso: we are settling in to our home for next few weeks, site #8. After three days on the road, we are trying to (re-)organize the interior of our VW camper van in hope that more space will suddenly appear (will we go stir crazy, four of us sleeping in a van for a month?). The boys have already made themselves at home, exploring the mostly-empty campground. Dinner cooks on the stove, on a picnic table nested under a low tree. The sun is behind East Mountain now, and twilight creeps up from the horizon. We marvel for a moment at the beauty of the desert, the sounds of the birds (and, later, coyotes), and the quiet, aside from the sounds of our children, who are, at times, quite loud. We are home.
Just four months ago, this trip seemed impossible. For two weeks, we lived in Children’s Hospital, the result of a fall and fractured skull for our younger son. Looking out over the city from the sixth floor, unable to sleep, knowing that any minute the shift nurse would enter and poke and prod the boy, I wondered just how much our lives were going to change. We had plans, big plans, yet here we were, wondering if the pressure in his skull will subside, wondering not what the next day would bring, but the next hour. But, by the grace of God, we left the hospital in the middle of December, and after the new year, we could actually revisit our plans of a month on the road in the spring. Slowly, surely, the plans came together. Then, on the tenth of April, with the van packed, we said goodbye to our home and our cats, and hit the road.
Despite being avid (some may say obsessed) climbers for nearly 15 years, we had never journeyed to Hueco Tanks State Park. Winter trips to the park are considered standard fare for many climbers, but due to many years at low-paying jobs or higher-paying jobs with little vacation time, we never made the journey. This year, however, was different. We had a home on the road (a 2001 VW Eurovan with pop-top), and I had a flexible job with a manager who didn’t blink when I requested a one month holiday. Jen and I had trained madly all winter, preparing our bodies to make the most of the playground of boulders. After a two-year climbing sabbatical, I was ready to be back in the game, and Hueco Tanks was the perfect place to start. Once at the park, we were like kids in a candy store, running between boulders (many of which we had seen on glossy pages in magazines), barely able to decide what to do first. The first few days went well, and with at least two weeks still before us, I was excited about what I might be able to do.
Four days into our stay, on a tour of the East Spur, things changed. As I pulled on to the classic problem “Better Eat Your Wheaties,” a loud POP! echoed from my left hand. A few moments later, my ring finger was swollen and bruised. I thought the climbing portion of my trip was likely over.
This, of course, wasn’t good news, with nearly two weeks left at Hueco. I tried to think positively, imagining that after a few days’ rest, my finger would be okay. But this wasn’t the case. The finger was still swollen and incredibly sore, and if I moved one way, it felt as if I would injure it further. I was back on the bench. Initially, I didn’t relish my role as the designated spotter. Our good friend, Paul, who along with his family joined us for some of our trip, was excited to have an able and willing spotter, and he cast off on more than a few taller problems. As the days wore on, I began to at least take a bit of pride in the trust Paul had in my skills and my willingness to catch him repeatedly.
All was not lost, either. After a few days of rest, I taped up my finger and tried to climb. This was a double-edged sword—it was wonderful to climb again after thinking all was lost, but I was climbing well below the level I should have been. A month before, I dreamed of climbing difficult problems, and now I dreamed of simply climbing.
Some days, I couldn’t hold back my frustration, and I moped around like a spoiled child. But each morning, I woke up hoping this would be the day and my finger would feel good enough to climb. Some days it would. Other days it wouldn’t. On those latter days, I had step back out of myself and realize we were on holiday. We were together, enjoying each other and creation. Watching the boys scramble over boulders, hike endlessly up and down the rock domes, identify animal tracks, and entertain baby Silas, I realized there was more to this trip than rock climbing. I managed to salvage the trip for myself by doing a few classic problems (and a few non-classic ones, too), and even managed a few harder problems that didn’t threaten further injury for my finger. The climbing successes were certainly good, and memorable, but those don’t come to mind first when I reflect on the trip.
Climbing aside, prior to the trip, I wondered how such an extended trip would play out. As a family, we operate by routine. It didn’t take long for us to slip into routine, even 1800 miles from home. Wake up as the sun crept over the horizon, brew coffee, and eat oatmeal. Soon thereafter, the boys will wake up, tumble from their upper bed, and request breakfast. Once everyone is fed and caffeinated, gather food for the rest of the day, fill bottles, and pack bouldering pads. De-camp the van, pile in with Paul, April, and Silas, and drive to the park office to sign in for the day, hoping that the precarious pile of bouldering pads on the luggage box wouldn’t fall off (sometimes they did, and sometimes we didn’t notice). Hike up the chains to the top of North Mountain, and work on our climbing projects for the day. Encourage the boys to climb, except when we are trying to climb. Stumble back down the chains in an effort to make it back to the van before the park closes. Drive back to the campground, cook dinner with our friends, and eat in the waning light of the day. Shower, prepare for sleep, read a Bible story with the kids, and drift off to sleep.
It was perfect—a daily schedule without deadlines, aside from the park closure. Of course, weather sometimes intervened to make things interesting—we experienced a bit everything, from high winds, high temperatures, low temperatures, rain, hail, clouds, sun, and a dust storm—but it did little to interrupt the flow.
Driving home a few weeks later, pushed across Ohio by a massive tailwind, we were anxious for the comforts of our home, but sanguine about leaving the road behind. I was certainly ready for our bed, but I missed the desert already. I missed watching the moon rise over the hills. I missed hearing the coyotes just outside the park’s border (at least that’s what we told ourselves). I missed the hike to the top of the North Mountain, where we could hide from the hot sun in the jumble of boulders.
Most importantly, I missed the togetherness of travel. Often I hear parents suggest they need a vacation after their vacation. Admittedly, it is hard work, but our kids travel well and seem to relish the adventure. Never once did we hear “I want to go home.” It’s a bit amazing to recall that we were together for thirty days. Aside from trips to shower house, we were in each other’s company every day, every hour, every minute (and, as other parents may know, many of those trips to the shower house were not actually solo).
Did we sometimes get frustrated with one another? Certainly. We aren’t perfect. But that’s not what we remember. We remember watching lizards sprint along the rocks, the Native American pictographs found in caves, the boys doing their first “real” boulder problems. And those memories fuel the plan for next year, scheming how to extend it even further.