The Marsden Expedition: Chicago

Wheaton, Illinois is a postcard-worthy place. I’ve visited the friend that we’re staying with a few times before–using the biennial Redbud Writers retreat as an excuse to come early and explore. Kathy is always a gracious hostess, being sure to include stops she knows I would enjoy: a trip to the Wade Center where I saw C.S. Lewis’ writing desk or a visit to the Wheaton College library to see Madeleine L’Engle’s handwritten notes in the archives. This visit was no different in Kathy’s attentiveness, but with plans adjusted accordingly to it being my whole crew instead of only me. No need for quiet museums or archived stacks, today we walk a couple blocks in glorious sunshine to play on a giant trampoline with her granddaughters and then go out for deep dish pizza. Perfection.IMG_5313 (1)

During dinner I ask Kathy and her daughter Mindy to help me figure out a touring plan for tackling Chicago the next day. It’s so unlike me to not have this sort of research completed by now, but this trip has too many variables to account for all of them. I’ve found it better to talk to the locals whenever possible. Truth be told, I’m a bit anxious about having to use public transit. I’ve never taken a train before, let alone with four kids. Mike has limited experience. I listen intently as they tell me the best stops and must-sees.

IMG_5316The next morning, still full from breakfast, Kathy walks us to the train station and gives us specific instructions on purchasing our tickets. I’m especially grateful for the tidbit about where to put your tickets when you’re sitting on the second level of the train. I hate looking like a clueless tourist. When we all climb up there I lean forward and slip the paper tickets under the small metal tab. Walter is in obvious awe of the uniformed conductor and watches intently as he punches our tickets; Walt hands his faux child-under-six ticket to him and he punches it into a smiley face mirroring Walt’s wide grin.

After an hour we arrive in Chicago, hustled onto the platform in the large station, trying to keep track of the kids in the bustle. After the brainstorming session with Kathy and Mindy over pizza the previous night, we’ve decided to attempt to save the kids’ energy by using Uber, rather than walk the twenty minutes from Ogilvie Transportation Center to Millennium Park. Another first for Mike and I both. While getting into a complete stranger’s car feels contrary to everything my mother ever taught me, UberXL (we need larger cars for our crew) ends up being easy and surprisingly affordable. Chicago is gorgeous and the weather is apparently showing off for us Californians. I careen my neck to try to glimpse the tall stone buildings rising around us like a forest out the window.

IMG_5331At Millennium Park we follow the streams of tourists to The Bean. I don’t know why there is a giant metallic bean or what it has to do with Chicago, but we have fun making faces into it’s mirrored surface and viewing the infinite images underneath. Next, we happen upon a modern art fountain on our way to Buckingham Fountain. The kids strip off their shoes and socks and roll up their jeans, which almost keeps them from getting completely soaked as they splash across the water’s glossy surface.

day 17 (5)Shoes back on, and Walt is lagging behind as we walk through the city. I can never tell if he’s actually tired of walking or is succumbing to boredom. Fortunately, his energy spikes with the rest of the kids’ excitement upon seeing the enormous Buckingham Fountain. The water sprays dozens of feet into the air and is whipped across the esplanade by the wind. I puzzle over who would put a giant fountain here in “the windy city.”

day 17 (7)We can’t stop commenting on the vastness of great Lake Michigan across the street. “It looks like an ocean!” “You can’t even see the other side!” “There’s just no way that’s fresh water!” We cross at the crosswalk and sit with our legs dangling over the fresh, sky blue waters and eat a snack. I try not to panic when Lucy drops her goldfish bag and leans down toward the water to grab it. I fail, and shout a little too loudly to, “Hold still!” My kids look at me like the safety-freak this vacation is teaching me that I am. I grab the bag off the concrete step separating us from the deep water and make everyone scoot back a foot.

I summon another UberXL, not realizing there is nowhere for the driver to stop to get us. We cross the street to a slightly wider muddy shoulder and throw the kids into the minivan when it pulls up.

Next stop: The Museum of Science and Industry.

IMG_5343We shut. this. place. down. Even after four hours of exploring and playing with all the interactive exhibits, we still hadn’t made it to the top floor. We run up the stairs and try to take in as much as we can while polite-but-firm docents announce repeatedly that the museum is now CLOSED.

Now pretty much pros, we UberXL back to Ogilvie Transportation Center. There is one express train which leaves around 5p, skipping all the stops we waited through on the way out and only taking a half hour to get to Wheaton. I am determined to make this train. Upon entering the station, we realize that tourists are in the minority here as it’s obviously rush hour. We find the correct platform and walk further and further down the train only to see car after car packed to capacity. It would be difficult to find seating for a single, and we’re looking for space for six! We climb aboard and continue to walk single-file down aisle after aisle. Eventually we come to a car with one available bench seat. Mike squeezes the four kids onto the bench and sits next to a woman across the aisle. I sit next to a gentleman behind him and sigh with relief. I fish our tickets out of my jacket pocket and place them in the clip. Like. A. Boss.

Back at Kathy’s we’re spoiled with a rib-sticking home-cooked meal of crock-pot tender roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, fresh baked bread, and green beans. Mike and I had skipped the awful, overpriced food court pizza at the museum and dig into the delicious dinner with vigor. This quaint home has become one of my happy places, always overflowing with stimulating conversation and hospitality. I sip my tea after dinner sleepy and deeply content.

IMG_5346Next morning I’m up early to sneak away for a couple hours to have coffee with some local Redbud writers–board members, actually. Time passes entirely too quickly–as it is apt to do when I’m immersed in friendship and caffeine and conversation–and it’s too soon time to leave. I catch a ride back to Kathy’s where the kids are just finishing the homemade cinnamon rolls they got to help make for breakfast. We thank Kathy for her warm hospitality and the gift of having a place at her table.

And the Marsden Expedition rolls on.IMG_5324

I’ll take a large Chicago vlog, please: (insert image of me laughing hysterically)

Some of Wheaton also on Day 16: https://youtu.be/fkZj7_kOdzY and Day 18: https://youtu.be/G4slqa9Midk

The Marsden Expedition: Indiana

We don’t have turnpikes in California, only toll bridges. Imagine my surprise as I’m cruising down the interstate in the middle of the night somewhere in Pennsylvania, suddenly stopped at an electronic booth and told to take a paper ticket. I’m not exactly sure what to do with the ticket, but I stuff it in the center console for safekeeping. Mike and the kids are all sleeping. An hour, or less or more, later I come to another booth where the attendant asks for my aforementioned ticket. I give it to her and explain that we’re from out of town. She smiles and asks me for $35. Thirty. Five. Dollars. CASH. Who carries that kind of cash anymore?! Is Pennsylvania full of drug dealers and restaurant servers?

Fortunately, there is a safeguard built into this archaic system for clueless outsiders like me with a seven day grace period where you can pay fees online. I have to ask for this grace at the next turnpike as well. The following turnpikes accept credit cards, as they should since the trip from Virginia to Indiana ends up costing us over $60.

Indiana is flat, but green. The neighborhood our friends live in is a row of well-manicured homes on large lots. I dock the Mars(den) Rover in the driveway. I get out and hug our friends, the Brummel’s, then climb back into the RV to freshen up while Mike and the kids go in the house.

image1 (3)I join the grownups at the kitchen table a little later, gratefully accepting a warm mug of coffee as we all catch up. Mike and Suzanne were youth leaders at the church we attend when Mike and I were in high school. We laugh about all that has changed as time has passed. Mike and I answer questions about how’s so-and-so from church, and ask them about their recently married daughter we knew as a little kid.

“Have you ever had Amish donuts?”

I don’t remember if it was Mike or Suzanne who asked this question, but I was all-in for wherever this was about to take us.

“We can have [our grown kids] watch your kids and we could go get some?”

All the YES.

IMG_5284We four adults climb into the Brummel’s minivan and head out to Shipshewana, Indiana: Amish country. We buy delicious donuts. Mike and I also buy smoked sausage bread and a jar of a dessert-worthy peanut butter-marshmallow fluff mixture. We drive slowly behind a black horse-drawn buggy on our way to a cheese factory (where we buy a small block of tangy sharp white cheddar). I’m amused at the honey shop that it looks closed, because: no electricity. I’ve always been fascinated by other cultures and this was no exception. I’ve practically got my face pushed up against the window and we drive (twice!) by an Amish baseball game; everyone in plain, simple clothes and dozens of bikes and buggies lining the street.IMG_5287

IMG_5294The next stop after leaving the Amish area has my Mike’s face pressed up against the glass: a fireworks warehouse. He can’t stop smiling as he fills his red plastic handbasket. Most places in California don’t allow fireworks. I remind him of this and of the drought of the last three years. He pretends not to hear me.

That evening the Brummel’s have invited us to join them at a friend’s house for dinner. The house is full of kids and friendly faces. My crew quickly scatters. This property is actually a small working farm. We see chickens, geese, roosters, dogs, cats, a bunny, and cows. One cow is swollen with pregnancy, due any day. I shudder in sympathy remembering feeling the way she looks.IMG_5300

IMG_5303Conversation is easy and the food is plentiful. I’m reminded at church with everyone the next morning of the gift of fellowship in community. During the service we sing the hymn Because He Lives. The last time I sang this was with a group of Africa New Life staff during their mid-week devotional service in Kigali, Rwanda this past February. How beautiful the Church can be, made up of brothers and sisters from across the chapel and around the world. A touchstone of welcome across cultures. I’m grateful to be a part of it.

After a lunch of butter-burgers, cheese curds, and frozen custard at Culver’s, we bid our dear friends goodbye and thank them for their generous hospitality. With a hymn in my heart, we pull back onto the road—Google map set to AVOID TOLL ROADS—for the (mercifully) short drive to Wheaton, Illinois.

The Marsden Expedition: Washington, D.C.

At 4am after driving dark, winding, sometimes scary backroads, we pull into the driveway of Patrick and Barbara Hubbard’s home in Lynchburg, Virginia. I’m so tired my stomach hurts. Might also be all the candy I’ve eaten to stay awake. The kids have been asleep for hours. Mike and I stumble to the back of the RV and climb into bed.

My alarm goes off at 9am. I left myself no time to get ready, valuing rest above first impressions. Well, sort of first impressions. Though I’ve never met them in person before, Pat and Barbara—founders of Living Bread Ministries—and I have been emailing and meeting via Google Hangout for almost a year now. I splash some cold water on my face and run my fingers through my hair as the kids scramble to get dressed.

Kind of funny to be piling out of the RV and walking up to their front door for breakfast.

Kind of crazy to think a year ago I was tweeting about Women’s World Cup and that’s how I met Pat.

Kind of nuts that next month Barbara and I will be flying to Brazil to gather the stories of the pastors and people served by Living Bread Ministries.

Kind of amazing how God brings people together.

IMG_5140The Hubbard’s are gracious and the kind of hospitable that makes you feel at ease the moment you walk in. Within moments our four kids have disappeared with their two daughters, their teenage son making his appearance a bit later. We grab coffee while Barbara makes breakfast, swapping stories and laughing as if we’ve all known each other for years. These people after my own heart even got me a Mother’s Day present: a Virginia mug!

The kids make their way back into the kitchen to eat Olaf waffles and I grab seconds of bacon. The time sneaks past until I glance at my phone and realize we really need to get going—which I end up saying about three times as the conversation is just so good we all keep getting pulled in. We say our goodbyes in the front yard. As Mike backs down the driveway I’m filled with gratitude for this new friendship and the small role I get to play being a storyteller for this ministry.

IMG_5238We drive through winding greenery as we make our way to Fredericksburg, home of our dear friends, the Files family. Chad and Joy were stationed at the Air Force base near our home years and years ago. This was a friendship formed in the trenches of being young and having growing families. It’s not just that they would end up to have four kids about the same age as our four, it’s that we just worked. We did all kinds of life together while they lived in California: gym, preschool, date nights, pregnancies, vacations, and random what’s-in-your-fridge-just-bring-whatever weeknight dinners.

It was heartbreaking when they moved.

Over time Joy and I have come to accept that we are officially the worst long-distance friends ever. We both hate talking on the phone. We don’t prioritize text messages. We almost never talk on Facebook. Now, if something crazy comes up we check our schedules and attempt to plan a call. And yet, every six months or so we try to get together, either me out there or her flying here, and we catch up on all the life we missed in-between.

After a week on the road, and nearly a year since my last visit (and much longer for Mike and the kids), I am giddy with the anticipation of getting to spend almost a week staying with Chad and Joy and their kids. I obsessively check the map and agonize over how slow each minute ticks by.

This is by far the shortest leg of the trip, but it feels like the longest wait.

It was by far the longest stay of the trip, but it flies by the fastest.

IMG_5169We all just pick up where we left off; even our kids, a few of them meeting for the first time. We eat and laugh, while the kids run wild: riding bikes outside, playing dress up, venturing (with Mike) to the fort in the forest, playing video games, having water fights, watching movies, and playing with makeup. Both our youngest daughters were meeting for the first time and became instant fashionista friends. (The video of them doing their makeup in front of the camera is hilarious.) Even our fouth-children, which we came to realize is a specific distinction of character, hit it off.

IMG_5175One of the days we are brave and, determined to see the touristy Washington D.C. sights, we take our combined eight kids ten and under into our nation’s capitol. On that day we see the International Spy Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial—and then we all black-out from exhaustion.IMG_5181

Joy and I spend days in our yoga pants doing nothing together.

IMG_5212I also get to have dinner with my person, Danielle, who recently got married and also relocated—convenient, and yet not, to have two incredible friends living an hour from each other, yet our country’s width away from me.

One of the days Chad has to work, we take the kids strawberry picking and get Joy’s minivan so stuck in the mud the farmer has to pull us out with a tractor.IMG_5225

IMG_5232On our last day together, Joy’s sister and brother-in-law offer to watch all the kids so the four grownups can do one last D.C. trip and dinner together (Lord, bless these saints).

IMG_5279It cannot be overstated how much fun we have that day. These are the friends who will humor you by taking you to museums one of them has no interest in seeing. Friends where we have so many inside jokes from our history together we really shouldn’t be seen in public generally being fools and laughing loud as teenagers. Friends who will plan future trips with you while eating four baskets of free bread before the entrees arrive at dinner.

Friends who will pray with you in your RV and cry with you over the terrible reality of living so far apart as you say goodbye.

I can’t believe we still have a little over a week of this trip to go. I’ll be excited about that the next day. On this night, I pull the covers over my head in the bed in the back of the RV and long for the kingdom come, when we will eat and laugh and never have to say goodbye to great friends.

Lot’s of vlogs from this week, but I think Day 10 exploring DC is my favorite:

Day 11: https://youtu.be/n6BI63a9gZg   Day 12: https://youtu.be/mzqtoRH1gtY

Day 13: https://youtu.be/XH5_SsgaGcY    Day 14: Coming Soon!

The Marsden Expedition: Nashville

I can only assume from what I see of the interstate, that most of Mississippi and Alabama is dense, lush forest. The stretch of drive to Nashville is largely unvarying; the first leg of the trip where life on the road starts to drag. We were still worn out from the previous evening spent wandering the French Quarter in New Orleans.

I call an RV campground that Mike found on Google to book our stay for the night in Nashville. One nice thing about this whole mobile sleeping arrangement is the flexibility to make decisions last minute. On the phone with the sweet southerner at The Grand Ole RV, I can’t help but smile at her warmth. I ask if it would be possible to pay for a late check out the next day. She exclaims, “Oh, darlin’ y’all don’t have to do that! Y’all might need to move out of the space if someone is going to be getting in, but y’all are more than welcome to park by the store. Y’all stay as long as you need.” Okay, maybe I’m remembering it with too many y’alls, but you get the picture. It was a little disorienting to be referred to as darlin’, but endearing none the less.

I can tell the condition of the RV is starting to wear Mike down. He keeps talking about his plans to deal with the issues on his own until we arrive in DC and can get it into the shop. At a truck stop gas station in Alabama, he walks into the truck service side and asks if they have any spill pads. The fuel line leaks every time we pump, and my husband, being the EPA-conscientious Chevron employee that he is, is trained to take precautions. The attendant offers him a handful of spill pads and Mike offers to pay for them. The guy replies, “I don’t even know how to charge you, these are our shop supply,” then after a brief pause, “So, here you go. Roll Tide!” Mike returns and tells me this and I laugh until tears come to my eyes.

Apparently we are now legitimately in the South. I think maybe Texas didn’t count. They seem to have their own thing going.

We pull into The Grand Ole RV, which I have been repeating in my faux-southern accent the entire drive. Actually, on one particularly monotonous patch of drive when I decided to take a break from listening to Lonesome Dove on Audible, I spent half an hour reading street signs in my wannabe twangy drawl. It’s well past dinner and the kids are restless. We check Uber to see if we can get into downtown Nashville, but no XL is available and to do two cars we’d be out $80 roundtrip before feeding the six of us dinner. We make the decision to take our chances with the little restaurant which is also the check in office, sundries store, library, video rental, and game stop.IMG_5118

A man who looked like he was dressed up as a character from Duck Dynasty holds the door open. We are flooded with the sweet sounds of live country music. I look timidly around the crowded little room, the band takes up a quarter of the floor and people are sitting at all the mismatched dining room tables filling the rest. The Duck Commander motions for us to take the other end of a large table at the front already occupied by a couple with an ice bucket of longneck beers. I shyly sidle in and apologize for taking space at their table. The woman smiles and shakes off the apology.

IMG_5092We order BBQ ribs, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese for Mike and the kids. My own food arrives on a white paper plate, a BLT stacked with what must be half a pound of bacon, sweet potato casserole, and a red solo cup of icey sweet tea. I can feel the tension of a long day on the road release. Even Mike seems to have forgotten about the RV, smiling and playing rock-paper-scissors with Walter. The woman at the other end of the table croons over our kids and the waitress spoils them with brownie sundaes for dessert. I close my eyes and sway to the music.IMG_5095

After dinner we walk the gravel road back to the RV and proclaim, “THIS is EXACTLY what we needed!”

This euphoria lasts right until we open the door to the RV and smell noxious fumes. We end up figuring out that the battery which controls the electrical for the living space has overheated. Mike disconnects it. We climb into bed in the dark a bit wary, but warm enough.

We sleep in late—well, at least the kids made it a little past sunrise today—and prep to move to a spot by the store. After we’ve rolled our home to its next temporary location, I grab my shower stuff and make my way to the women’s bathroom. I enter and am greeted by the sight of a sweet teenager sitting on a sink with rollers in her dark hair. “Sorry, the mirrors are just too far away to do my makeup,” she explains and reaches to turn of the country music she has blasting. “No worries. Don’t turn that off on my account,” I say as I walk into a shower stall. Truth is, it was relaxing to have a hot shower with Tim McGraw and Keith Urban in the background.

IMG_5123After I’m cleaned up we gather the kids from the camp playground and roll out to meet friends for lunch in Nolensville. We meet at Martin’s BBQ Joint after a sketchy attempt to navigate the Mars(den) Rover through the crowded parking lot next to a little league field. Again, we are indebted to southerner who directed Mike’s driving so we wouldn’t inadvertently crush anyone. Lunch and time with our friends, missionaries back from China who have just accepted a call to a church serving the Chinese community in San Francisco, was as excellent as the food. Which is saying something because the Redneck Taco (corn pancake topped with BBQ pork, sauce, and slaw) was BOMB. I think the hushpuppies were good, but can’t really tell because Lucy eats them all off my plate before I’ve had more than a bite.

Overall, Nashville was nurturing. We needed that time to slow down. We needed time to decompress. For people to call us darlin’ and give us sweet tea and a welcome place at the table. We didn’t know how much we needed some southern hospitality until we received it. We leave lunch grateful and in awe of the transfixing beauty of a Tennessee spring day.

It’ll be another long drive through the night to Lynchburg, but we take the fullness of gratitude for having received soul care with us.

Day 7 Vlog (first day in Nashville):

To see the Day 8 vlog of us leaving Nashville visit: https://youtu.be/pvkmtxqFEwc

The Marsden Expedition: New Orleans

I woke up an hour before my alarm, irritated with my internal clock. As if leaving at 4am weren’t early enough, my body decided to wake at 3am just to be sure I don’t sleep through my alarm. We sleepwalk the kids down two flights of stairs and tuck them back in in the Mars(den) Rover. 🙂

I slept the first chunk of the drive, but when I wake and look out the window I know we’re in Louisiana by two things: street signs and swampland. No other place have I seen names like Atchafalaya or Thibodaux or Vacherie or St. John Parish. I’m also surprised to see trees growing out of the water in the swamp. I guess I thought they would be on marshy ground, not sticking up right out of the water.

We pull off the freeway into the RV park I had meticulously researched before booking. It’s becoming clear a real challenge of this RV life is getting around. I now understand why people tow small cars around, although I don’t think towing our SUV behind this thing would be an option. The French Quarter RV Village was a glorified parking lot surrounded by an eight foot concrete wall with razor wire on top. The area looked sketchy. However, it was spotlessly clean and the people were friendly. The big draw was that it is walking distance to the French Quarter.

I have a terrible sense of direction. I can barely read a map. Even with the woman at the front desk highlighting a route AND my phone set to live walking directions on Google Maps, I still manage to get all turned around. Mike isn’t much better, but he has been blessed with a greater dose of common sense, “We can’t cross here because of the giant construction site sink hole in the street. If we go down an extra block we can backtrack.” This is makes us a pretty good team, until he suggests a shortcut down Bourbon Street.

I’m not totally naïve. I understand what happens on Bourbon Street, in concept. In reality, we accidentally walk down the section of adults-only sex fetish stores. I try to avert the kids eyes, “Hey! Look at that over there! The… um… the people playing drums waaayyyyy overrrrr there!”

Lesson from the road: You can’t control your surroundings; roll with it.

IMG_5058We are on a mission to get beignets from Café Du Monde. When we began planning the Marsden Expedition, Emma had one request: she wanted to try the beignets that she saw on Princess and the Frog. It became clear that Café Du Monde was THE place to go. We grabbed a table inside by the doors, wiping powdered sugar off the seats before sitting: a good sign. The beignets are thick and fluffy, more dense than I had imagined. Sweet, but not overly so like the donuts we get at home. I, of course, have to pick up another mug to mark the occasion.IMG_5075

We haven’t even made it up the street before I realize I will crave these beignets forever.

IMG_5061After walking to the waterfront and looking at the steamboat on the Mississippi River, we make our way up St. Louis Street to Pierre Maspero’s for dinner. We chose this place because as we had passed by on our way to find Café Du Monde, a server handed us a menu and told us they have $7 kids’ meals. Done. Fortunately, it turned out they also have good eats. My friend Karina met us there.

Karina and I have been friends for years now. We met on Twitter—it is possibly one of my spiritual gifts to meet awesome people on Twitter—and we hung out at IF:Gathering in ATX a couple years ago. She’s also a writer, and also knows me well enough to have brought me a mug as a gift. This puts me at 5 days of travel and 6 mugs.IMG_5073

I imagine I am becoming the crazy cat lady except with coffee mugs. Someday my kids will complain about my mug-hoarding and I will swear to them I have memories attached to one. Because I do. It is a delight to choose a mug in the morning. Both for the physical practicality of holding my hot beverage of choice (I’m in a tea phase right now) and the emotional satisfaction of also sipping the memory stored in the mug.

IMG_5074After a delicious dinner (I had the Crescent City Sampler: gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish etouffee. BOMB.), we walk the noisy streets to a candy shop. While we were in Texas my father-in-law had organized a treasure hunt for the kids with gold Sacagawea dollar coins as the booty. They’ve been burning holes in their pockets since. Any guesses how long it takes four kids to spend five dollars each at a candy store? F O R E V E R. Well, depending on the kid and their understanding of money. Walter saw candy Legos and was sold. He was even excited about getting change back: “The lady gave me more money!” The older kids are not so easily swayed. They agonize over their choices to the point Mike starts counting down from ten. Ten seconds to decide or you’re not buying anything. It’s a mad scramble, but they’ve memorized their options at this point and the pressure helps them pull the trigger.

I think they get that from me. I am never more decisive than at the last possible second.

IMG_5078I hug Karina goodbye (and her sweet friend who had joined us) and we make our way back through the dark, sketchy side streets to the RV.

 

 

Day 6 Vlog (Mike says this is his favorite so far): 

The Marsden Expedition: Texas

IMG_4924I drive until the rainbow sunrise breaks the horizon. Even though the warm sunshine on my face revives me a bit, at the next gas stop—after nearly ten hours of driving!—I climb into bed and crash hard. I wake up two and half hours later, covered in drool, somewhere in west Texas.

We drive through idyllic small towns, every other ranch driveway with a sign overhead. My favorite, and the most puzzling, Oleo Ranch: An Easy Spread. Wildflowers line the highway, pops of poppy-orange, faint pink, crayon-reds, and yellow and black-eyed Susans. We pass two men fishing out of a small paddleboat in a pond barely big enough for one man in a paddleboat. Faded, peeling painted signs announce gas stations and BBQ joints. We pass homes with wares lined on their lawns that would make all my junking friends envious; a year-round garage sale. It was like driving through a Texas-sized dreamscape.

Much as I enjoyed our stint in the desert, after hours and hours of driving through the barren landscape, it’s comforting to be back in civilization. In Georgetown, Texas we get settled in at my father-in-law’s second story apartment. I wash all the things all over again and shower all the kids. I take the most glorious shower. It reminds me of the shower I would take at the hotel in Anaheim after spending a week on a youth mission trip in Mexico. I felt like a new person after that shower.

Mike spends much of the day working on the RV, meeting a guy with a (possibly fake?) Brooklyn accent to pick apart the electrical system. No help on the fuel line leak, though. That will have to wait. I’m not too worried because Mike doesn’t seem too worried about it.

A lesson from life on the road: Don’t waste time worrying about things out of your control.

IMG_4934We eat dinner at 600 Degrees Pizzeria & Draft House, my father-in-law’s restaurant. We sit on the patio while the kids climb around on the steps and enjoy the perfect weather. Everyone keeps commenting on how we brought the good weather with us. After the freezing temperatures at the Grand Canyon, I’m especially happy to oblige. I sip my grapefruit shandy and eat entirely too much Palo Alto pizza. (Palo Alto: gorgonzola cheese, artichoke hearts, and spinach. SO GOOD!) After dinner we wander across the downtown square and end up at a candy shop. I am entirely too full, but never so full as to miss out on a peanut butter s’more (graham cracker, peanut butter, and marshmallows covered in chocolate).IMG_4936

After a long day on only two and half hours of sleep, I crash the minute we get back to the apartment.

When I realized during trip planning that my father-in-law lived only a little over an hour away from Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas, I knew that I just had to go. As it was becoming increasingly clear that I was the only one who felt this way, I tried to remind myself to be a flexible traveler and to let it go. Then I have a moment of pure genius: What if I went to the Magnolia Market Silos ALONE?!

I almost regretted the thought entering my head because of how hard I latched onto it. An entire afternoon alone among gourmet food trucks, beautiful artisan housewares, and perfect ambiance. ALONE. Not that I haven’t loved every minute of the abundance of time we’re getting as a family, I have, but this introvert could use some recharge time. I could hardly contain my excitement when it worked out.

IMG_4972The whole afternoon is a blur of all the pretty things and delicious food. I felt like a fool trying to vlog. Not caring what other people think is not my strong suit. Apparently—our video editor pointed this out after watching the footage—an employee in the background tells me there’s no video allowed inside. I PROMISE I DID NOT HEAR HER. I am a rule follower and even knowing I broke rules without knowing is a struggle. But I’ll bear that guilt so you can catch a quick glimpse of the wonder that is Magnolia Market. IMG_4969I left full, physically (trashcan rice bowl from food truck: rice, pickled carrots & cucumber, extra cilantro, chicken thigh meat, braised beef, smothered in cilantro-lime sauce) and emotionally. I stalked a couple camera men who I overheard saying they were waiting on Chip and eventually lost them. I indulged my #muglife obsession and picked up a super cute speckled mug with the market logo—pretty much the only thing in my price-range in the entire store.IMG_4980

As I walked out I heard someone yell, “Hey, Chip!” in the direction of the roof. I looked up. There was the Chipper in all of his Fixer Upper glory. (Filming from the rooftop was probably a good call as even on a Wednesday afternoon the place was a circus.) It was the cherry on top of my sundae of a day.

I rocked out and dance-partied with my music blaring the whole drive home. I met up with the family and grubbed on chopped spicy brisket at Rudy’s BBQ—half gas station, half restaurant.

God bless Texas.

The Day 5 vlog might be my favorite this far! In my defense, because as you will see our editor Justin gives me crap about it, I didn’t have a tripod and it was windy. And I don’t know what I’m doing and accidentally switched the camera into the wrong mode at one point. So there’s that. Also, thanks for that opening screen, Justin… Enjoy! 

You can catch Day 4 here: https://youtu.be/copNzc9pMDw

The Marsden Expedition: Petrified Forest National Park

We hit the road early this morning, waking and packing by a little after seven. We’re meeting Mike’s ex-stepmom, Haven, and her husband, Rick, at a Cracker Barrel in Flagstaff. I’m curious to meet her. Mike’s always told me that he owes much of his academic success to her working so hard with him after he was diagnosed with dyslexia late in elementary school.

13131086_10153783564268547_2040853498180917818_oBreakfast was wonderful and the company turned out even better than the biscuits and gravy and bacon (which is saying something!). As I look at Haven and Mike, I can’t help but think of my sister and all the other stepparents I know. It’s a tough job to do, and Mike and Haven will both tell you it was difficult, but at breakfast I’m in awe of the good that is possible.

Back on the road, I can’t stop thinking about how much I want to come back to Grand Canyon someday. I know we barely scratched the surface of the beauty here and I want more. Mike and I talk about looking into a rafting trip for our next big anniversary.

I’m surprised by how much I love it here, actually. I’ve never thought of the desert as being anything especially scenic before. When I think of beautiful outdoor places I think of Yosemite or Huntington Beach, overwhelming vistas.

IMG_4899Maybe the desert’s beauty is found in it’s lack. Like the art projects where you scratch off the black to find the sparkly beneath. Or it’s the amount of blank space that sparks my wonder.

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The Petrified Forest National Park offered a lot of that empty space. It’s silent other than the wind rushing across the desert—well, it was until we tumbled out of the RV. We make the 28mi drive across the park, pulling over every few turnoffs per the suggestions of the helpful teenage docent at the Visitor Center. We take in sweeping panoramic views of the Painted Desert; every striated shade of burnt orange, terra cotta, dusky purple, serenity, and rose quartz (perhaps Pantone’s inspiration?).IMG_4895

We walk to the edge of Newspaper Rock and peer into the tower viewer, at first unable to focus on anything. We continue to scan the boulders below and then we see: petroglyphs! Hundreds of them. Ancient pictorial stories that have survived for more than 2,000 years. I consider the importance of stories. What a privilege to have been trusted with words that have that kind of staying power.

IMG_4907At the Rainbow Forest Museum we dig in the sand pit for hidden bones and listen to a knowledgeable and kind ranger who tells us about the fossils of ancient reptiles which predate the dinosaurs. Out back we walk a path that winds around enormous chunks of petrified wood. Rainbow rock stumps scattered as far as I can see.IMG_4910

Back on the road I enjoy views of shocking bright rainbows and red rock mesas. We stop for dinner and Mike tries to fix our decaying land yacht, the Mars(den) Rover. (Hahahahaha! Still funny.)

We drive and drive and drive and drive.

IMG_4915We drive through Arizona into New Mexico.

We drive on two lane roads through the night.

After hours and hours, I’m driving listening to Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants and laughing so hard that I forget to keep an eye on the GPS. We’re on a pitch black, two lane road. It’s almost midnight. Adrenaline surges through me as I fumble with the computerized map. I smack Mike awake, he’d been trying to doze in the less bumpy passenger’s seat, and tell him what I’ve done. I do not want to be lost out here. Fortunately, he figures it out.

I continue to drive into the dark through the night, constantly glancing at the GPS in paranoia. When the day dawns we’ll be somewhere in west Texas.

If you want to hear a whole lot more about the RV issues check out Day 3 of the trip vlog that goes with this post:

You can find day two here: https://youtu.be/xJedce-XeYs

The Marsden Expedition: Grand Canyon National Park

We leave home in the dark, eleven pm, tucking our excited kids into what will be their beds for the next three weeks, and start the thirteen hour drive to Grand Canyon National Park. Mike takes the first shift driving. After a full day of packing and preparing, having already driven to pick up the rental RV and gotten it packed, I was fading fast. However, sleeping in the back of an (older) moving RV is a bit like trying to sleep while off-roading. Every pot hole sends me bouncing, making sleep elusive. I remind myself of the last leg of my flight home from Rwanda in February, twelve hours from Amsterdam to San Francisco smushed up against an unfamiliar body and unable to lay flat, and I find gratitude to be prone regardless of the jostle.

Around 2am I make my first attempt at driving the thirty foot beast we (okay, I) have (hilariously) nicknamed the Mars(den) Rover. Mike had pulled off into a rest area and I only needed to get back on the straightaway. He sits in the passenger’s seat long enough to be sure I have a handle on things, and then also makes a vain attempt at sleeping in the bounce house in the back. The kids, their beds being closer to the front, sleep like rocks. While I drive I listen to C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. I’ll need to look up who reads this version because he is incredible. Funny and chilling simultaneously.

IMG_4798At the next gas stop Mike takes over driving and I am now exhausted enough that I could have slept anywhere, so I did. I wake shortly after sunrise as we make our way across the southern boundary of the Mojave Desert, about to leave Southern California. The light is clear and puffy radiant clouds spot the endless desert sky.

I find myself wondering about the people who live in such desolate places. People who name things like 29 Horse Team Road, Badger Wash, Blind Hills, and Needles. We pass scattered croppings of mobile homes, backyards piled with rusting equipment, and scrubby Suessical Joshua Trees, and I ruminate on whether these people are as interested in keeping up with the Kardashians as the rest of us tend to be.

We cross the border to Arizona in a freezing downpour. This completely shatters my idyllic visions of Saguaro cacti and burros with Navajo blankets across their backs and red cliffs illuminated by a blazing sun. I make a mental checklist of all the cold weather gear I have packed and hope it’s enough.

IMG_4822Finally, we roll into Grand Canyon National Park around 4pm. A little loopy, but no worse for the wear. I try to stay upbeat when I check my phone to discover it’s 39 degrees outside. I force myself to smile as we walk from our trailer to the bus stop in something between rain and snow (slush?). After a dinner that was equally mediocre as it was expensive, we catch the blue line eastbound bus to the Visitor’s Center.IMG_4826

We Marsdens are not built for cold weather. Even in our thick waterproof snow jackets it is a Herculean effort to drag our kids the quarter mile up the paved, manicured path from the Visitor’s Center to Mather Point. I am determined to get that iconic family vacation picture. IMG_4827As you can see, our children were delighted to indulge their parents who had driven what ended up being nearly fifteen hours to make this happen.

IMG_4354My first glimpse of the vastness of the shear, variegated cliff’s edge makes my head swim. No picture I have ever seen prepared me for reality. The momentary euphoria is quickly replaced with a mixture of terror and anxiety, let’s call it terranxious, of watching my four small—tiny, fragile, beautiful, precious—children peering over the fenced looking area. Some deep maternal instinct that does not take falling from cliffs lightly kicks into overdrive in my brain. The constant 1-2-3-4 headcount that runs on loop in the background of my mind becomes a desperate, primal drive to know my kids are safe. To make them safe.IMG_4849

In (48 hours) hindsight, I’m grateful this happened on the first evening, on the final and only stop of the day. It gave me time to get my head in the game for the full day of death-defying canyon observing on the docket for the day following. Apparently it’s kind of a buzzkill for your family when you’re constantly shouting, “Follow Daddy! Hold hands! Do not touch that! Stay on the path! Slow down! Pay attention! BE CAREFUL!” When I was a kid my siblings and I referred to this parental neuroses as the “fun police.” And I have now joined their ranks.

IMG_4828On a full night of restful, blissfully-motionless sleep, we do all the Canyon-y things. We watch the surprisingly well done documentary in the Visitor’s Center, buy souvenirs (#muglife), ride busses to take in the south rim’s glory from every possible angle.

IMG_4877If you have followed me for more than a month on Instagram, you’ll know I have a thing for sunsets. I have been giddily anticipating watching a Grand Canyon sunset since the moment we pulled the trigger and committed to this crazy cross country cruise. The vista of Hopi Point does not disappoint. I bask in the beauty and take dozens of pictures that will fail to capture more than a fraction of the moment.

I almost forget to be terranxious of my kids being near a mile deep drop to the canyon floor.

We wait in line, freezing, to board a blue line bus that will take us back to the RV Village. Walter falls asleep on the seat while the rest of us laugh at the bus driver who runs his shuttle as if he were a captain on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise.

I climb into bed, still half-frozen and unable to feel my big left toe, overcome with heavy, contented sleep.

I’m hoping to post every few days, so be sure to check back and follow along on our cross country adventure. Also, our dear friend Justin Nunes offered to put together videos of the footage we’re taking. Here’s the AWESOME video of Day One:

 

The Light at My Feet

The Light at My FeetA strange sensation came over me this past Sunday. I was sitting on one of our hand-me-down leather couches in the front room, the dog curled up next to me. Mike was on the other couch watching football, feet up on the knicked and dinged coffee table where the girls were using the personalized art sets they got for Christmas. The boys were running around wrestling, rumble tumble pell-mell, imaginations ablaze.

The feeling descended on me like a heavy, Downy-fresh, straight from the dryer quilt. I looked up from my book. I contorted myself to look at the thermostat above me. Still set to our usual temp of just barely warm enough. The warmth remained, bone-deep to the marrow.

I looked around the room again. Totally average Sunday afternoon. Except…

Except my girls were so sweet there coloring and creating together. Ten and six and giggling and talking about their work.

Except the boys were loud, crashing around the circle-track our house makes when you have both doors to our room open. I love how they love each other. How they adventure together.

Except even Mike looked serene vegging out to the game.

The rest of the house wasn’t a total wreck, but certainly wasn’t tidy. I probably should have been folding the laundry or taking down the Christmas decorations instead of reading. Or the tree. One year, when I was still in the trenches of littles our tree didn’t come down until after Valentine’s Day. So, I feel like I’ve still got some time.

And it hit me. This comfortable, peaceful feeling? I think this is contentment.

I wasn’t expecting it.

I haven’t written a thing in over a month. This is partially on purpose. Per the suggestion of my spiritual director, I had decided to use Advent as a season of discernment to see where God was moving in my life. Because I felt I was drowning in good things. I had spent too much time anxious and grappling for vision that wasn’t becoming clear. I had been strategizing and planning for a future I designed on the fly.

Post-Advent now and it still wasn’t clear. I’ve struggled to find words and questioned whether flinging any at the dark void ahead even mattered. There are so many words out there already.

I have a friend who is gifted with vision. She’s the type of person who sees not only the next mountain, but the one beyond that. I realized a couple mornings ago, talking to her over coffee by the fire, that I’m in a place where I can’t even see the mountain anymore. When I try to look around all I see is darkness. I strain my spiritual eyes, but see only shadows at best. I spent a lot of 2015 reaching out, hoping to grab things that never quite materialized. All of the New Year’s vision-casting posts I’ve read over the last couple weeks a poignant reminder.

The contrast of light and darkness came up again and again throughout my Advent journey. He is our light in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome Him. We are the light of the world. I’ve been holding to the image in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Though I may not be able to see the shape of the mountain before me, I can see the light at my feet. I see enough for the next small, faithful step on a path I’m trusting He’s already laid out.

It is hard to make plans when you only see by the light at your feet. Recently, this light has illumined more than a couple sharp turns I hadn’t anticipated.

Last year I spent a lot of energy trying to figure out where I was going. I am the consummate trip planner. I have been known to write out detailed hour by hour itineraries for our family Disneyland trips. I almost never travel without checking TripAdvisor forums first. I’m currently doing extensive research for the three week cross-country family road trip we’re hoping to take this spring. I watch Rick Steves on PBS every night before bed and plan fantastic (hypothetical) European vacations.

I may have a problem.

Do you see how this season of only having enough light for my feet could be grating? No making plans, not a lot of research, no real strategy. I want to choose my destination and plan for the best way to get there; a choose-your-adventure genre of life.

Which is why the contentment that settled on me out of nowhere was so startling.

When I entered this time of discernment, I expected the outcome would be that the Lord’s plans would be made more clear. I would have a better idea of where He’s leading me than when I started, and I could then plan accordingly. Instead, He gave me more peace for where I am right now.

I guess it makes sense though. If I must live by only the light at my feet right now, then I must live in the present. I can only be where I am, no gallivanting off into a hypothetical future. No striving up mountains I can’t see. No planning out the easiest paths of least resistance.

To my fellow travelers who may find themselves on this narrow way, who cannot see beyond the edges of the circle of light in which you’re standing: be encouraged. We are meant to walk into all the plans He has for us, whether we can see the horizon or not. Whether you have crafted a five year plan or designed a dream board (or not). We are all invited to enjoy the just-enough light at our feet for the next faithful step, wherever we’re currently standing.

 

 

 

My Biggest Christmas Giveaway EVER!

Christmas Giveaway****GIVEAWAY CLOSED****

Thank you to all who donated! We ended up sponsoring 39 kits to be given to kids in need by local churches through ShareChristmas!

Grand Prize winner: Janine C.

First Runner Up: Liz D.

Second Runner Up: Patrick H.

**************************

This is my third annual giveaway here at Depth Of The Riches and I’m going to do something a little different this year. As you may be aware, I made the big announcement that I’ve joined the team over at Living Bread Ministries as their resident storyteller. The deeper I get involved in this ministry the more passionate I become about their mission, vision, and approach to church planting among the global poor.

As part of their Christmas tradition, Living Bread Ministries created the Share Christmas campaign. For a ONE TIME donation of only $15 you can supply a child with the school supplies they need to thrive along with a hygiene kit to help keep them healthy so they don’t get behind. The children served by Share Christmas live in the poorest of slums in Brazil and Thailand, where Living Bread has churches. Each kit is given out through the local church, providing a point of contact in the local community.

When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, school supplies aren’t really a priority. You have the opportunity to make a significant difference in the life of a child in need!

THE PRIZES!!

Grand Prize

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Includes: Noonday Collection Sunita Necklace, NIV Bible For Women: Fresh Insights for Thriving in Today’s World (including devotionals by writers like Shauna Niequist, Margaret Feinberg, Annie Downs, and… me!), and a Living Bread Ministries water bottle, coffee sleeve, and two reusable totes!

For each child you sponsor ($15) you gain 5 entries into the giveaway plus a chance to win the Grand Prize! My hope is that we will be able to sponsor 20 kids on their quest for an education. (Only those who donate will be eligible to win the Grand Prize).

Now, I understand that $15 can be a lot of money for some around this time of year (been there!), so I decided to offer a couple runner-up prizes you will be entered to win just by liking my new Facebook writer’s page and sharing about this giveaway!

First Runner-Up

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Includes: NIV Bible For Women: Fresh Insights for Thriving in Today’s Worldand a Living Bread Ministries water bottle and coffee sleeve.

 

Second Runner-Up

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Includes: NIV Bible For Women: Fresh Insights for Thriving in Today’s World and a Living Bread Ministries coffee sleeve.

To Enter:
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Giveaway ends midnight the night of December 15, 2015. Winner announced December 16th. International entries responsible for shipping costs. Water bottle colors may vary.

Grateful for you all and Merry Christmas to you and yours!

–Aleah

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