It’s a very big country. Especially in the west, there are a lot of miles to travel between place to place. We’ve already put on 3,800 miles, and we’re still far from home. We’ve meandered on sidetrips and rarely pushed ourselves to long driving days, so our pace has been pleasant and not grueling. But, man, these distances are huge, and this land is vast.
Much of this western land is arid and desolate, nearly uninhabitable.The few people who live here seem rugged, independent, and in many cases, poor.
The fact that some of the worst land is also Native American Reservation land is no accidental coincidence. Anyone who thinks that there was justice in how those boundaries were drawn needs to think again. But history aside, this dry, desolate land makes me realize that water is an extravagant luxury. I’m used to trees, to woods, to verdant green with fertile land and cherry orchards. But here, in the west, there have been mile after mile and acre after acre of desolation.
The value of our National Parks cannot be overstated. We’ve spent time in five of them and each has been uniquely wonderful. Canyons with walls 3,000 feet high. Hoodoos carved by erosion over millions of years. Red rocks that rise out of the desert. Lava fields and geological striations that are as interesting as they are beautiful. Preserved historical ruins from 800 years ago in mesa cliffs. Though the temps are a little chilly at this time of year, we happily did not contend with crowds. We walked trails, watched unfamiliar birds, and learned from the rangers who patiently answer the same questions day after day. The stars were remarkably bright at the Grand Canyon. In addition to the sky being enormously full of bright lights, many of those stars were falling. We left our warm bed to venture out at 4 in the morning for the Geminids meteor showers and were glad that we did.
When I despair over our current administration’s misplaced priorities, I’m glad we have national parks, underfunded though they are. They are places of rare and spectacular beauty that need to be preserved and spared from development. It is one thing that our country has done wonderfully right.
Travel is great, but it comes at a social cost. We have left home for six weeks, and that means we have left our weekly church meeting, our non-profit volunteer involvements, our exercise classes, book clubs, walking and writing groups. We aren’t having impromptu games nights with our neighbors or seeing acquaintances at the local post office or nearby cafe. I miss the interactions with these people who have become our friends.
There are lots of retired people in this part of the country who are doing the same thing we are doing: looking for sunshine and mild temperatures as a contrast to the dark and damp of northern winters. Those who are wealthy buy second homes and figure out how to live divided lives- half in one place and half in another. Others buy RVs and move themselves for a few months to campgrounds that are little more than parking lots. Or they travel and stay a few weeks here, a few weeks there. In each of these scenarios it seems to me that deep relationships suffer. Mobility and travel cannot help but take their toll on human connections.
This is the first time ever that I have not decorated a house for Christmas. I find myself nostalgic for the little details that have become our yearly habits: certain cookies, specific ornaments, white lights on a fresh cut Christmas tree. But beyond that, I find I am celebrating less than in other years the God who came to earth. I am thinking less of the advent miracle. And then I chide myself; is my faith so dependent on Christmas carols and candles that I cannot celebrate advent in my car, on the road? As Christmas Day nears, I will be glad to be out of hotels and into the homes of friends and family where we might talk of the Christ child, read the gospel accounts together, listen to carols, pray.
Perhaps I can tie these unrelated thoughts together with this: I have felt small on this trip. The vast spaces we have driven through, the heights of canyon walls, the centuries-old ruins of ancient civilizations, the multitude of stars that fill a night sky: all are proof of my smallness.
I have also recognized my need for connectedness, for meaningful relationships that must be nurtured. As we come close to Christmas, I see there are answers for both of these plights in the advent story. Despite our smallness, we matter to God. In his immense-ness, He also became small and human, and now there is proof that our lives have value. Incomprehensibly, scripture says He did this because of love, because He wanted to interact with us. In this love, He affirms that relationships matter.
So as we begin to head home, grateful for so much beauty in our travels, I am also grateful today for deep truths. I pray you each find ways to celebrate and be glad for the good messages to us at Christmas.