We are so small

By Mandy Cloninger

I firmly believe that spending money on travel and experiences indeed make us rich! If every day is a lesson, the values that I hold most closely and want to teach my daughter Luna include faith: loving God and loving others, a sense of adventure, a love of reading and life-long learning. These values are cultivated every day, and I often ask Luna when I pick her up after school, what adventure will we find today? 

We indeed made adventure happen! Upon returning from a more than 60-day camping and cross-country adventure, it makes sense to reflect and share what we learned.

The dream for our camping adventure was nurtured in a year’s worth of tent camping trips during the pandemic in my faithful Toyota Corolla. On our first one, I actually brought my friend Brigitta’s shade tent accidentally since I didn’t know the difference (the orange one – not an actual sleeping/camping tent) to Disney’s Fort Wilderness with a queen size air mattress. I had no idea what I was doing. Then I spent a month researching the world’s easiest tent to setup (our pop-up Coleman) and became a pro! Luna and I have explored quite a few Florida State parks within just a couple hours’ drive of home: Highlands Hammock, Fort De Soto, Hontoon Island, Colt Creek and then a crazy dream started percolating where Luna and I had our own camper and an upgraded camping experience! When I returned from truck and tent camping in Yellowstone late last year with my friend Leslie, Luna had caught that dream too and was channeling it as she played with her Chelsea doll and a little camper. The synchronization in our thoughts and dreams was a little eerie.

We learned lessons about RVing, camping, nature, and most importantly, about ourselves!

We can do really hard things – (thank you, Glennon Doyle!) It was hard learning to tow, back-up, setup and break down the camper, to dump. It was all new to us. We had to build new skills, new routines and habits. Tons of mistakes were made along the way. Several missteps and shady, predatorial RV repair places (that’s you, Lazydays) delayed us leaving town. We learned to trust the recommendations of people who had gone before us! What’s a wise person do? Ask someone who is wiser and smarter for help! We even had to get a repair once we arrived in Oregon, which involved us having to backup, setup and break down the camper three different times all in one week – by the end I was an expert.

The driving days were long and lonely heading out west. Those first few days of towing and travelling were all designed to test our perseverance. I joked that if I decided I didn’t want to go any further, I could always just change my mind in Texas. On day two, after a 400-mile day took more than 10 hours and those terrible Louisiana roads had me questioning my own ability to drive while bumbling along, I thought I would quit. I held my breath and prayed crossing the Mississippi River and going through the tunnel in Alabama. 

After a 10-hour day of driving and challenges, this is how Luna unwound!

When we finally arrived, we ate dinner, swam, biked and showered, and my mood started to improve. Then a man creeped me out in the pool. His steady gaze and line of questions had me responding, I am traveling with my daughter, but we also have a pit bull and a shotgun in my camper, so I’m not really alone. He shut up quickly and while his stare lingered, we did not. Then the gray water tank backed up in the shower while Luna was rinsing off. I called my most-experienced RV friends for advice and used a cup to bail the water from the shower out and toss it into the toilet, fighting a dirty water river running straight down the little hall of our camper. I went to bed crying, frustrated, and ready to throw in the towel.

But, the next morning, a new day dawned, and the sun rose. The campground had a lovely breakfast that Luna and I enjoyed, and the woman in the kitchen suggested I talk to the manager. Her husband was very experienced with all things RVing, maybe he could help. He did; he cleared a clog in the u-bend that blocked my grey tank from emptying. Then his lovely wife offered some kind words, sharing that she thought I was brave and adventurous to travel cross-country with my daughter. It was just the fuel I needed to keep going.

The strangers who were kind, friendly, and helpful had me recognizing more than once that asking someone for help also blesses the giver as much as the receiver! Folks loved to help us back-up, give us directions, share recommendations of places to eat, camp, and help wrangle kids around a campfire for smores.

On the journey out west, Luna and I stopped in Moab, Utah, to visit Arches National Park. I was exhausted from my first experience with towing through the mountains and 6-7-degree grade inclines. There was a whole lot of fear, shoulders up by my ears and tension from driving that were hard to shake each day. Luna easily shook her tension off as she jumped in the pool or on her bike, but I kept second-guessing myself, my abilities and the negative soundtrack played on. We headed to Arches after 5pm when you didn’t need a timed entrance. We bought a grocery-store dinner and planned a near sunset hike. We said hello to fellow tourists at one of the lookouts and hiked the Park Avenue Trail. Luna ran ahead as the trail was flat and mostly downhill at the beginning. Huge boulders invited her to scramble and climb. It was quiet, serene and void of other hikers.

“Look how far I came!” Luna exclaimed. We sat down after a mile or so and simply looked up at the arches, 

“We are so, so small. The world, and all that God has created are so big,” I said. Nature has a way of reminding us that she is grand, and we are miniscule. We sat in awe and wonder.

There we found the joy in nature, basking in God’s creation and simply being together, and a reason to press on.

As we drove across a new landscape, I would urge Luna to look – check out that view. We talked about the colors. We played I spy. We shared wows and oohs and ahhs. Our conversations in the car and in nature often turned towards God, our friends, thankful prayers reflecting on the beauty and highlights of the day. 

Our daily dialogue often included, “What state are we in? Where are we today?” When something caught Luna’s eye, she’d shout: “Look at that view – it’s amazing, spectacular, magnificent.” Each day she’d vary the adjective as her vocabulary searched for a bigger word to convey the wonder and beauty that she experienced!

This morning (about 10 days home so far) Luna and I battled getting ready for school, brushing her teeth and her hair. It’s hard to transition home and back to a regular schedule after so much ease, adventure and camper baths (a cleansing wipe for the face, feet and hands, and swimming totally counts as a bath). 

As we were getting into our SUV for the ride to school, Luna asked, “When are we going hiking again? When are we taking the camper on our next adventure?” She is her mother’s daughter after all, and at the end of our trip as we reflect on the memories we shared, the miles we logged and the tears we cried, I’d say if the goal of the journey was to teach Luna about important values, it was a success!

Published by mcloninger

Mandy Cloninger, CFRE, is a nonprofit thought leader, charismatic spokesperson, and a results-driven executive. With 20 years of experience raising hundreds of millions of dollars, cultivating transformational relationships with diverse constituencies, she has built capacity, scale, and scope in higher education, health care, and community-based nonprofits. She is passionate about social justice and humanitarian work internationally and at home. Mandy Cloninger is also a writer, public speaker, leader and faith seeker. Her journey and travels often bring inspiration to write, think and dream new dreams. Mercy & Meadows is a writing project inspired by a camping and hiking trip to Yellowstone National Park in 2021.

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