Will smiled sheepishly at me from the back of a police cruiser.
About an hour prior, after 13 hours of driving into our summer trip out to Rocky Mountain National Park, the engine light went on and the Nissan NV suddenly lost all acceleration. We slowed to the side of Interstate 70, just about 50 miles after crossing into Colorado from the Kansas border. All the eye could see was a vast open prairie, and with 10 of us (including 8 kids) and a 12-passenger van (bus) full of camping gear and a week’s provisions, we were suddenly in a precarious position. After a Colorado State trooper pulled behind us to examine the situation, it was ultimately determined that with two police cruisers and a tow truck, we were headed to Limon, a small town of less than 2,000 people about 20 miles away. Will and most of his siblings filed into the police vehicles, as Amy and I and the youngest two kids rode in the back of the tow truck; we suddenly were part of an impromptu “wagon train” on the Great Plains.
As it was Saturday afternoon, the NV would have to wait until Monday morning to be checked out. So, with the assistance of the troopers, we and all our gear headed to the hotel “next door” to get a couple of rooms for 2 nights while we waited for the verdict. For the next couple of days, we engaged in some urban hikes through Limon, on Saturday night to the small Catholic Church in town and the following day, to the historic train depot and surrounding buildings. It wasn’t quite the rugged, alpine peaks we had planned on, but it would have to do.
Monday brought worse news (and this didn’t even include that our license plate had been stolen overnight). After a three hour trip to obtain transmission fluid compatible with our vehicle, the technician informed us that our transmission was shot. Worse yet, it would take 3 weeks to get a new one. Suddenly, we were travelers without transportation, and without the option of a rental car (none were available in Limon, and multiple calls to major agencies indicated that even small vehicles in Denver were not an option due to the rental car crisis across the country), we were stuck. Faced with an uncertain length of stay in Limon, we were taken to the local KOA campground thanks to an empathetic salesperson at the dealership and a van we had been given to use. We continued to research further options (e.g., Greyhound), but the doors kept closing.
That night, as we settled into our tents, I listened to the semi-trucks blow by on I-70 just across the pasture. As the sun began to rise that morning, the vacation was long gone in my mind and I would have given anything to get back home in a reasonable fashion. Suddenly, the phone rang and on the other line was one of the angels of our trip. It was Rachelle Schowe; Rachelle had graduated two years after me in high school, and had played volleyball with my wife, Amy; her sister and brother-in-law were good friends of ours in Evansville. She had learned of our struggles and she and her husband, Greg, offered to drive two cars the 80 minutes to Limon to pick us up and take us back to their home near Denver. Shortly thereafter, I learned that a dealership in Denver had found a transmission in Dallas. It would be emergently shipped there and our NV could be fixed as soon as Thursday (little did I know at the time this would later fall through, and as of this writing, our NV remains in Denver). Later that day, due to the incredible generosity of acquaintances, our car was being towed to Denver and we were headed to the suburb of Broomfield with our new best friends.
For those who know us, and have come to know this saga, there is another layer to this story that far exceeds the gravity of what I have described here. But that is a story for another time, and for another family to tell. But safe to say, around 3:30 in the morning just a little more than a week after our unexpected trip to Limon (after a 3+ hour flight delay in the Denver airport), our entire family and about 30 pieces of luggage arrived in the Indianapolis airport. We had made it back home to Indiana. Barely.
Weeks removed from our “vacation”, a few things have emerged clearly. One, making the best of a rough situation involves a few psychological keys (of which none of us really want to employ). One, it’s the reminder that when everything seems to be going wrong, it’s because so much has previously gone right. Up until this point, our vacations had always gone as planned, and this was not to be taken for granted. Two, while a family of 10 stuck out in the middle of nowhere is an real-life exercise in strategic, reasoned problem-solving, it can always be a lot worse. We were healthy, we were safe, and we were not alone.
But in making lemonade out of Limon, what really emerged as an essential lesson was recognizing the incredible generosity of people when situations become dire. While too numerous to detail in this article, it began at the moment we met our friendly Colorado troopers on I-70 to the moment that our new “family” in Denver dropped us off at the airport, and even stuck around to make sure we would manage to get into the terminal okay. It’s true when they say that the worst of times can bring the best out of people. We were the beneficiaries of all this goodness, and while we never quite reached the Rocky Mountains, we undoubtedly reached the peak of what it means to be loved by your neighbor as yourself. Even when your “neighbors” have never met you before.
Still, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains sits this idyllic spot, on the shores of Shadow Lake just across the Colorado River from the Continental Divide Trail. In my mind, I can hear the river flowing just outside my tent, as the peak named for its neighboring lake rises in the east. I imagine it as a beautiful, peaceful place, one that I hope to see someday. But sometimes, as I learned once again a few weeks ago, life has other plans that we might not foresee. It’s easy to lament what might have been. But in doing so, it occurs to me that we would have missed some new friends and a Superman sighting had it played out our way.