In the summer of 1983 after I completed my masters degree, I decided to celebrate by taking my children on a westward camping tour. I bought a used pop up camper and borrowed a camper’s atlas. Between the green areas marking national parks and the homes of relatives, the trip could be done cheaply as long as we avoided lodging at places with nice beds and bathrooms. A campground with showers was a premium find, although almost any lake or river would do.
Between Kentucky and Colorado, water was abundant and clear. However, when we left Colorado, we entered long stretches of hot highway passing through dry land spotted with sage brush and scraggly junipers.
“Let’s find a river and cool off before lunch,” I suggested during a monotonous morning of driving.
The map showed an area near the highway where the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado River, passed through a state park. Anticipating a cool dip, we left the main highway. Asphalt soon narrowed to a dusty gravel road that stopped at a parking area identified as Green River State Park. There was a primitive toilet sheathed in wood slats and covered with a vented tin roof. A hand pump stood near a couple of picnic tables. A few cottonwood trees indicated the presence of water nearby.
When we walked to the river, we found a muddy ditch.
“A river? That isn’t a river!”
“And it sure isn’t green!”
“It’s the Mud River.”
“Well, at one time it must have been green,” I suggested. Mentally I speculated that ranchers had dammed the river and reduced its flow. Summer sun had evaporated what water remained.
We tried washing our hands and faces at the pump. A gush of water burst forth after energetic pumping then seized. We resorted to our five gallon water jug, made some punch, and ate sandwiches before retracing our path down the road to the highway and continuing on.
As a mother with two teenage girls and a preteen son, I had plenty of experience soothing disappointments. Any six week adventure with my crew was bound to present some difficulties. Outwardly I reframed disappointments with optimistic possibilities. “Mountains ahead!…Look! A US Forestry sign!…Just wait until you see the Grand Canyon!…Yosemite is awesome!” Inwardly, however, I questioned myself. Had I too hopefully entered into this trip?
Caught up in the newness of each day and its surprises, everyone so far had been a good sport. Another side tour to a mud hole might cause my cooperating kids to rebel.
Later that day we stopped for gas at a truck stop. A couple of vehicles were the only signs of civilization. A gritty wind blew from the south, our shorts flapped against our thighs, and our hair whipped across our faces. Inside the establishment we discovered pay showers. Each of the two showers was on a timer with a coin slot. A quarter provided a five minute spray of lukewarm water.
The showers were behind a lockable door. A noisy venting fan in the ceiling switched on with the lights. Stingy vinyl shower curtains hung from rods, but the prefab showers looked clean.
“I’m getting our towels and some soap. We are going to take showers!” I announced. I imagine they rolled their eyes at each other. I didn’t stop to see their reactions. Children are free to have their own conversations between each other without a parent listening. Besides, I was determined to demonstrate how refreshing a pay shower could be.
Like ducklings following Mother Duck, they fell in line, at first reluctant, then timid, until finally splashing and laughing and asking for more quarters.
The five minute blessings of soap and water at a truck stop had washed away more than sweat and dust. Our doubts had disappeared.
Somewhere beyond the rugged, salmon colored horizon line was our destination for the day, a place we had only seen in National Geographic and heard about from others. Finally, the highway began to twist until we were climbing switch backs toward the cooler regions of Mesa Verde.
The Green River’s mud and the truck stop’s showers are mostly a forgotten layer today. If I were to ask my adult children about that day, they might say, it didn’t happen that way. Nevertheless, I’m sticking to the story.
At home in Kentucky a small pond burbles next to the deck. We water plants every summer morning, take generous showers, and drink freely from faucets. We can be at Barren River Lake in only forty minutes. We vacation in the North Carolina Mountains near the French Broad River and its tributaries. We have arranged ourselves around the soothing sound of water. We experience a trusting and secure relationship with water. In our imaginations rivers are resources of refreshment, lined with cooling trees.
On that camping trip, we learned otherwise.
I like to think we were acting on faith, exercising a pattern of hope. We believed in the possibility of flowing water. When we found mud instead, we pushed on. We weren’t free of doubt, but we also didn’t cave in and turn back.
On Mesa Verde that night, cool breezes brushed at the trees around our campsite. A slight drizzle fell at dusk. We slipped into sleep. In the morning, sunshine and chilled air awakened us. After a breakfast of cereal and fruit, we toured the ancient ruins of people from the past who had carved a life out of the mesa’s cliffs and wet springs, safely above the unyielding dry land to the east.
It’s no surprise that in literature and song we find Justice flows like a river. We hunger and thirst for righteousness. We’ve got peace like a river. We’ve got joy like a fountain. Love like the ocean.