Because Winter is Inevitable

Once, long  ago, before babies and moves to houses in new communities, I picked up the beginning of an understanding of the seasons—their rhythms, their tasks, their hard realities. Learning to be a mom to three babies while finding my way in three different towns left room for little else in my brain. I traded a loose grip on the concept of seasons for the clutching fist of survival.

It was not a good trade.

I forgot that seasons really do change. That whether delightful or dry, balmy or bitter, fertile or fruitless, they don’t last forever. That there is a time for every single thing.

SmokeysI still thought about seasons here and there. I even wrote about them. What I didn’t do was believe the truth of them, a truth that drifted around, unanchored, just beyond my grasp.

At least, that’s how it was until I woke up on the hard ground one morning in a tent in South Dakota to a bombardment of missiles launched by a pinecone-gathering squirrel. The squirrel didn’t forget. Because he is a creature of instinct and the outdoors, he knew. Yellowstone 2011 It was September and he was doing the work of the season—gathering pinecones and flinging them down from the tree in rapid succession. They landed on the ground, the picnic table, the tent, and the camper next door. Autumn, the season of harvest, of preparation, of gathering and storing what he needed for the winter, weighed on him. He went to work with the sunrise.

Cocooned between my husband and our littlest one, who’d woken up cold in the night and sought out somewhere warmer to sleep, I listened to the frenzied activities of the squirrel in the tree above as he prepared for the unavoidable days of winter. From the warmth of our double sleeping bag, I considered the cycle of the seasons and acknowledged my own.

Deep winter. There was no other name for it.

Above the Basin

Our babies had grown into big kids, but even years beyond what we hoped would be the last move, the bleak chill of displacement claimed my soul in the same way the afternoon cold settles into my bones and makes them ache. And this frozen season of the heart held on too long, so long that my emotional storehouses—reserves against times drought and famine—depleted to dangerously low levels. With little left to fight off an engulfing depression, I longed for spring, a spring so slow in coming I thought it might never arrive.

But it did.

It came quietly, meandering in soon after waking up to that squirrel. It came on the heels of a long breakfast with an old friend, several perspective-challenging days in the mountains with my dad, and a couple of space-making weeks in South Dakota with my family. It came slowly, spring, with its powers of restoration, and its light, balmy air that took the chill off my soul.

The squirrel gathered because his fields were ripe. He gathered because it was time to harvest. The physical world is tidy that way. The seasons come in turn. Winter, then spring, then summer, then fall. And then it begins again.

101_0915It isn’t so simple in the world of people. Our seasons don’t follow a predictable pattern. They don’t always come in turn. And because of the rich complexities of our lives, we sometimes find ourselves facing deep winter in one place and high summer in another.

What the squirrel didn’t know on that sunny September morning was that within the month his home in the Black Hills would be blanketed by two feet of out-of-season, blizzard-driven snow. Like him, I’ll never know when autumn’s abundance will end. But what I’m learning is that winter is inevitable, that it’s best to gather whenever and wherever the fields are ripe.

For everything there is a season

Linking with Kelly’s Small Wonder and Lyli’s Thought Provoking Thursday.

This post was originally shared at

The Intruder

DSC00776A low rumble of a growl, that’s how it started. Our first camping trip found us buried further down a country road than I had ever traveled, stuck on one of those rural grassy drives between dusty gravel and green pasture.

The little red Plymouth Sundance that I brought into our marriage lost the battle with the deep ruts that passed for a driveway. My husband’s manly Jeep from antiquity would have prevailed, but we wouldn’t have been able to hold a conversation during the drive. So there we were, in my vehicle instead of his—a vehicle stranded with its undercarriage on the dirt, wheels dangling in the air like a little kid in a grownup chair.

A distant cousin lived this deep in the country so J calmly walked us down the road to their house, where we found him home and able to extract us from our predicament. We thanked him and drove the remaining fifty yards through the open pasture and pitched our tent amid the close timber. J unpacked while I worked on dinner.

That’s when I heard the growl.

I surveyed the surrounding trees, looking for a bear. (Because what else would growl in the Iowa woods?) I saw nothing. Not a bear. Not a squirrel. Not even a cow. Someone rented the land for their herd, but we hadn’t seen any of them yet. I told myself it was a cow, but I didn’t believe me. I grew up around my grandpa’s cows and I never heard them make a sound like that.

I heard it again, closer this time. I turned and there, ambling our way, was a bull. Grandpa’s warning to my seven-year-old-self erupted in my head: “Tillie, I would never keep a mean bull, but if the bull is in the pasture, you stay out.” That was enough. Bulls were obviously dangerous and to be avoided.

Now one was aiming for my outdoor kitchen.

I walked to the car and informed my husband about the intruder. We went to opposite sides of the car and stood, mesmerized by the bull as he plodded toward us. We opened the doors. He advanced further. We got in and sat down, shocked, because who gets stalked by a bovine on a camping trip? He held his course all the way to the front of the car and I wondered if he would crush the roof when he stepped up and walked over us.

bull - Version 2He pressed his legs against the front of our tiny car, stretched his rippled neck, and nearly touched the windshield with his immense nose.  Apparently he didn’t need much personal space. When he pulled his head back we waited to see what he would do next. We didn’t wait long. He bent down, stuck his nose under the car, and lifted it into the air.

And then he dropped us.

J had the vehicle started and in gear before we hit the ground. He backed through the maze of trees with impressive speed and got us to the fence where we could put a gate between us and the bull, the conqueror in full possession of our gear.

Back to the cousin’s house we drove. Once he finished laughing, he told us that yes, he knew the farmer who kept the cattle on the land. He called and miraculously, he too was home on a Friday night.

The farmer met us at the gate and climbed out of his truck with a bag of Cheetos. The bull was a rental, brought in for breeding purposes. He’d been raised as a pet. His owner had shared his cheese curls with him while he chored, so he was unusually interested in people.

The gear extraction plan was simple: The farmer would distract the bull with his Cheetos while my husband made the grab. I waited on the safe side of the fence.

It worked.

We drove even further into the country to the empty farmhouse where J’s grandma grew up. J pitched the tent on the lawn and I restarted dinner. We fell into our sleeping bags in the deep dark and slipped into sleep to the mooing of the cows across the road, mooing broken by an occasional low rumble of a growl.


We shared camping’s trial and by the next morning we shared its laugher, first together and later with J’s great-aunt who roared up in her pickup not long after we peeled ourselves off of the ground. Now it’s one of our stories. Not all of our stories are happy. Some are sad or even dull, but each one is a different type of thread in the fabric of our life. With the threads of faith, hope, and family, they hold our life together.

And you? You have stories. What do you do with them?

This is the final post in a series about the trials of life outdoors and their effect on relationships. Part one is here and part two is here.

The bull photo is courtesy of a friend who risked life and limb, under the supervision of the farmer, because she knew I wanted a photo of a bull. What greater love?

On Trials Shared

Gary Smalley, founder of the Smalley Relationship Center, says that the secret to a “close-knit relationship is shared experiences that turn into shared trials.” He mentions camping as one source for shared trials and a potential relationship-building activity. Makes sense. Camping is fraught with potential for trial.


There’s the weather. The bugs. The work. The hard ground.

He grants that you don’t have to camp to invite such trials. I agree. A picnic will do nicely.

The year of the October heat wave that turned to snow, we adapted to the rain with less time on the trail and more time on the road. Lunchtime still always found us nowhere near a restaurant. We picnicked in spite of the weather.

We stopped during sporadic sprinkling rain at an understandably empty picnic area, unloaded our supplies and got ready to make lunch: fruit, veggies, and—because it was cold—soup from a can. All was well until no one could find the can opener.

Long before this, back when we had one or maybe two children, we took a weekend camping trip five miles from home. By the time I had everything packed, piled, and ready to load, it filled two vehicles. My easy-going husband was less than happy. Now I try to be more reasonable when I pack.

The can opener was necessary, and not purposefully left behind. It probably sat alone and overlooked on the kitchen counter, utterly useless to my hungry family.

My husband is a creative guy, not easily flapped because he knows that there’s usually a solution if you stay calm and look at all the possibilities. In this case, the possibility was my son’s axe, which he lifted and struck the can—hard enough to open, yet gently enough to keep from spilling the contents everywhere.

The whole family watched him work on the can, too engrossed in what he was doing to notice the rain that once again began to fall until we heard the crunch of gravel. We turned and saw a Yellowstone Association minibus filled with students enrolled in a wilderness class. They drove past, staring but not stopping. My kids suspect the sight of a man hacking open a can with an axe turned them away.

It’s an image that sticks in the mind.

At least, it sticks with my kids. They weren’t mortified by it. It was just another family adventure and just their dad being their dad, saving the day in his quiet and slightly off-the-wall way.

Life’s an adventure, one filled with trials–otherwise known as opportunities to knit relationships closer together. Sometimes it’s our relationships with people that are strengthened and other times it’s our relationship with the God who created us. It’s hard to remember that in the midst, but worth it when we do.

A question for you: Do you see trials as something to be avoided at all costs or as opportunities for something good?

This is the first post in a 3 part series on the pitfalls and joys of life outdoors, especially those related to camping. Why post about camping in September? Fall’s weather is perfect for camping.

Sharing stories at Unforced Rhythms and Coffee for Your Heart.

Every Morning

Our van rolled to a stop in front of the after-hours arrival board in the Canyon campground.  Some of us assumed the reservation would be posted. Others imagined a long night in the van.

Yellowstone River Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone River
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park

The Canyon Area is an outpost of civilization near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone boasting two stores, a post office, Visitor Education Center, hotel, gas station and campground. A slow drive down a wooded lane leads campers away from commotion and commerce into an enveloping lodgepole forest. Among the pines, loop upon loop of campsites string together like so many cul-de-sacs,  an exclusive neighborhood in the woods.

Our name was on the board. We had a place to pitch our tent. The pessimists breathed their sighs of relief and we drove on, headlights peeling back a sliver of the night.

My husband was at the wheel, and he, for the only time in our twenty years of marriage, yelled at my mom. Campgrounds are dark, lit by the moon. Campsites are designated by tiny signs. Mom was trying to read each sign we passed. He was driving too fast for her to read the signs and she told him–perhaps sharply–to slow down. J, who has a thing about knowing where he is, barked. He hasn’t lived it down.

Several silent loops later, we arrived at our campsite. It was time to make camp. In the dark. Noiselessly, we pulled our gear from the van. We didn’t want to disturb the neighbors.

In the midst of this, Mom whispered something about making dinner. Dinner? We didn’t want dinner. We wanted sleep. I don’t remember why we hadn’t had already eaten. It should have been obvious that it would be late when we pulled in. Maybe we just wanted to get there. Maybe Mom wanted to cook.

It was 11:30 at night. She hasn’t lived it down.

One obstacle stood between us and sleep: the tent. This was no pop-up. Old-style and complicated,  metal pieces and canvas, it would have been formidable at high noon. On loan from my sister-in-law’s family, she brought it to my parents’ house one Saturday for a trial run. The guys set it up halfway, far enough to account for the pieces and get an idea of how to assemble it.

High noon was long past as Dad, my brother, and J hovered around the tent parts, trying to make sense of them in the shadowy lantern light. Mom, disappointed about dinner, lurked near the van. I joined my sister-in-law at the edge of the lantern’s circle where she watched the construction of our fabric shelter. “I knew,” she lamented, “we should have set it up all the way.”

DSC01903 - Version 2

The tent was raised and we fell into bed, content with our empty stomaches. When morning arrived Mom made breakfast. Morning brought more than a meal. It ushered in a fresh start, a powerful agent not just for the tourist in the national park but also for the traveler on life’s road.

The road intensifies everything.

That was a hard vacation in a difficult summer of surgeries and cancer, a wedding and the beginning of married life. Even with the pressures of that season and occasional heat of that vacation, it was good to be together. Together is an accomplishment for a family that is growing up and spreading out. Our family’s solution is to go somewhere.

It’s rough on the newbies. Entering a family is tricky business, to do so while traveling adds peril. We set out together hoping it will all go smoothly. It doesn’t always.  Advice given long ago to ease the missionary’s clash of cultures would be beneficial at the premarital counseling table today: Not wrong, but different. Navigating different is a challenge. To pull it off on the road, a coup.

We ended up in Glacier National Park where we abandoned tenting in the aftermath torrential rain. We hiked and skipped rocks and tested our will and our sanity by shooting the rapids in a stream of glacial runoff. Mom served up some of her outdoor best and we wound our way  home where the realities of that vacation–conflict, different approaches, and good desires run amok–linger eighteen years later. We deal with health or its lack and each couple is still learning what it means to get along after the wedding. And just like that first morning of our trip, we often need a fresh start. At least, I do.

One riddle science has not solved is why we sleep. They know some of what happens while we sleep; what they don’t understand is why. I don’t need to know why. I know that just like my body rebuilds and repairs, renewing during sleep the energy I’ve depleted during the day, always there is something in my life that needs rebuilt, repaired, or renewed. Because of sleep, every day I wake up to the hope of a fresh start.

God offers better yet. The rising sun brings his mercies, new for the day. And those I need every morning.

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And Your Parents Have a Twelve Passenger Van Because?

An insistent noise intruded into heavy sleep, waking me just enough to know that I had to silence it, but not enough to allow me to understand what it was or where I was.  I stumbled through the dark toward the incessant pounding, wanting only to find it and make it stop. It came from a door, which I opened without thinking, and the blindness of night was replaced by the kind brought on by a bright light shining into my eyes.  It was an officer of the law mumbling something about a slow-moving storm and opening the shelter. He vanished before I woke up enough to form a sentence.

I staggered to the other end of the camper where my parents slumbered, distance allowing them to sleep through the door-beating, light-shining police-officer, and informed them that a slow-moving storm system was heading our way and that the police officer was opening up the shelter so that we wouldn’t perish if a tornado dropped from the sky in our proximity. After a short silence, my dad said, “Well, since we’re awake, we just as well pack up and head down the road.” It was three in the morning.


Awake would not have been my word of choice. It had been a long day on the road. We – my parents, all five grandchildren, and I – had set off early that morning in Mom and Dad’s white twelve passenger van with their twenty-two foot foldout camper trailing behind. We had stopped in the late afternoon to tour the grounds of a historic home before loading our stiff and road-weary bodies back up to drive more miles when what we really wanted to stretch, have dinner, and go to bed.

A mild sense of panic accompanies the setting sun when it catches me still on the road with camp yet unmade made. Finding a home for the night had not been easy. We drove first to a wooded campground, the sort my parents prefer. Set apart from roads and towns, with trees separating one campsite from another, it was what our worn bodies wanted. It was perfect, except for the long series of potential neighbors who moved us along with their cold and creepy stares.

Town provided a small parking lot masquerading as a campground, the type of place my parents typically drive past without even a glance. We took it, made camp, fed the kids, and fell into bed. Then came the noise.

Packing was no simple affair. Sleepy children had to be woken and transferred to the van, sleeping areas folded in, outdoor equipment collected and shoved into the center of the camper, all by night. Just before we left the campground, the police officer appeared again. He asked where we were headed and at my dad’s answer, looked at us in disbelief. Toward the storm?

Toward the storm.

It was a long way off and our distance allowed ample time to watch its lightning illuminate the vast Kansas sky. All the children who should have been sleeping sat in silence, engrossed by the light. Mom was asleep. I wanted to be.

“Why,” people occasionally ask, “do your parents have a twelve passenger van?” This is why. Not so we can flee sad little campgrounds under cover of darkness, but because we like to be together. Some of that togetherness occurs on the road, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes when we’d rather be at the campsite or the hotel or whatever home is that day, and sometimes when we just need to get from here to there.

That’s why we were in Kansas. My cousin was getting married in San Antonio, and we needed to get from here to there. We made it a family adventure. Sort of. Part of us were on this road-trip, taking the scenic route to San Antonio. The rest were in flung about the globe and in a week, we would converge in San Antonio. My husband would fly in from Iowa, my brother from Macedonia and his wife from Missouri, both via New York City.  And then would all go to the wedding and spend some quality van and camper time. Simple as that.

It’s never simple, but it’s worth it and people who drive twelve passenger vans trailing a twenty-two foot camper  are willing to work with that. They are the heads of one of those families, the kind that’s all in for road adventure, and whether it’s the two of them, the eleven of us, or some number in between, it’s what works.

On Finding an Abiding Strangeness

Mom and Dad first took my brother and I to Yellowstone when he was eight and I, twelve, to show us a world away from our little town but the showing began long before we packed the car and went west.

When I was young we lived for a short time on my grandparents’ farm. One afternoon we walked into the timber and down the hill, where I discovered a canvas monstrosity of a tent and pop cooling in the creek. That night we had adventure, complete with fire and pop in glass bottles. By morning both the fire and pop were gone, but adventure remained in the form of rain, so Dad carried me up the hill and Mom walked beside us, carrying my brother. They took us home.

While I often write about experiences in far-flung places, these tales are born from a small but significant portion of my life, the part spent walking in the woods and in the West. The habits from which that life springs began far from any mountain. The hiking and biking and canoeing began as walks in the neighborhood and in the timber, as drives on Sundays and forays into camping. It started at home.

According to CS Lewis, “No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort who could find it in his own back garden.” My parents took us to the back garden. Then they took us beyond.


Last spring our pond became home to a pair of nesting geese. We are who we are, so we talked about names. Because we were reading tales of King Arthur, the girls proposed Arthur and Guinevere. Because they nested near a favored fishing spot directly under the zip line, our son preferred Free and Loader.    

We waited for the eggs to hatch; our binoculars intruding into the privacy of their nest. They were swimming across the pond behind their parents within a day of hatching.  Quite contentedly, we thought.  Except that they got out of the pond and waddled away. We wanted to label them an ungrateful lot, but it was probably because of the cats.

J and I once saw a bald eagle in flight over the Firehole River in Yellowstone. We pulled the snowmobiles over, took off our helmets, and watched it soar against the cloudless blue.  Occasionally it would dive for a fish and retreat to a tree before beginning its soaring again. We left first, probably because of the clock. Perhaps we were the ungrateful ones.

I wish that wasn’t so.

When deer appear in our backyard, family is summoned from all over the house. Often I just want to keep doing whatever Important Work I am doing and not steal toward the wall of windows to see the deer without letting it see me. Is a deer in my own back yard really that much less exciting than an elk or a moose that I will park the car and get out for in Yellowstone? No.

I just don’t want to stop.



2005 , pearl lake 120 - Version 2 When I was young I didn’t understand that it was hard for my parents to stop. They had jobs and lawns and church. Now I know. It wasn’t easy to put it aside for the week and do something different with us. I’ve learned something else: The world won’t stop for us. We have to stop  it ourselves.

My parents shared with us a world both small and expansive. Is there something that you want to share with a child? Grandchild? Friend? Just because you haven’t yet doesn’t mean that you can’t. Tomorrow is a new day and a perfect time to begin.