A family vacation "gone wrong" becomes an opportunity to experience generosity in action.
Will smiled sheepishly at me from the back of the police cruiser.
About an hour before that, 13 hours into our drive to Rocky Mountain National Park, the engine light went on and our Nissan NV suddenly lost all acceleration. We slowed to the side of Interstate 70, about 50 miles after crossing into Colorado from Kansas. All the eye could see was vast open prairie. The 10 of us (including 8 kids) in our 12-passenger van full of camping gear and a week’s provisions found ourselves 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 fewer than 2,000 people about 20 miles away. Will and most of his siblings filed into the police vehicles, as my wife, Amy, and I and the youngest two kids rode in the back of the tow truck. We were an impromptu “wagon train” on the Great Plains.
As it was Saturday afternoon, the van would have to wait until Monday morning to be checked out. So, with the assistance of the troopers, we headed to a hotel while we awaited 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 (not including the fact 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 three weeks to get a new one. We were now travelers without transportation, and no option of a rental car (none was 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 by an empathetic salesperson at the dealership and given a van 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, I would have given anything to get back home. Then the phone rang and on the other line was one of the angels of our trip — Rachelle Schowe. Rachelle graduated two years after me in high school, and played volleyball with my wife; her sister and brother-in-law were good friends of ours in Evansville. She had learned of our struggles and with 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 found a transmission in Dallas. It would be shipped there and our van could be fixed as soon as Thursday. (This would later fall through, and as of this writing our van remains in Colorado.) Later that day, due to the incredible generosity of acquaintances, our van was towed towed to Denver as we 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’ve described here. But that’s a story for another family to tell. Safe to say, around 3:30 a.m., a little more than a week after our unexpected trip to Limon (and after a 3+ hour flight delay in the Denver airport), our family and 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 is that it’s good to be reminded 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 in the middle of nowhere is an exercise in strategic 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 the moment we met the friendly Colorado troopers on I-70 to the moment that our new “family” in Denver dropped us off at the airport. 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.
And while I still like to imagine myself somewhere in the Rockies across the Colorado River from the Continental Divide Trail listening to the river flowing outside my tent, sometimes life has other plans.It’s easy to lament what might have been. But in doing so, it occurs to me that we would have missed out on a whole lot of amazing grace.