The following story may be the first of a new category for this blog There are other Wilderness Sagas I want to share in the future. This is an excellent one to start.
by Brittny Bailey
Our annual vacation from Georgia to northern Minnesota is a tradition established across generations; one I married into and have learned to love. The 1200 miles through five states, around mountains, and past endless acres of corn in mid-summer have been a part of my husband’s every summer since childhood.
His dad began these trips sometime in the fifties when he was still in diapers, and this summer our two-year-old began chanting with unbridled enthusiasm, “Sotaaaa!” Uncertain of its meaning, he was doubtlessly informed by all the dinnertime conversation about the place, spearheaded by his dad and readily entertained by his three sisters. Our girls have several years’ experience, and now they weave their own memories into that family tapestry that we all adore.
They will remember this year’s trip to the cabin as the one where we were in the car for days, and we had to come home early because Daddy was sick. I will remember it as the vacation through which I was made to feel very much like a sheep; a little head strong, a little captured by my Shepherd’s crook, taken up in my Shepherd’s arms and held there with all the power of a mighty maker, all the love of a tender Father, and in the safety that is mine as His child.
It began much like previous vacations, a month of meticulous planning, shopping, cleaning, and an ambitious number of events scheduled for the week of departure. We were ever diligent to lay hold of that vacation promise, anticipating all the rest to be had in that place, but a shadow was cast two days before we planned to leave.
Several households from our Church were taken ill with COVID, and this threatened to derail our plans. We waited until the last possible moment to take a home test for the virus. It was midnight, just hours before hoisting all our sleeping progeny into the car. We were banking on getting ahead of Atlanta traffic that morning and stopping at The Ark Encounter on the way.
That test marked the beginning of our vacation, and it was a source of great uncertainty.
We prayed about it and waited for the Lord’s leading, but waiting well even while the course was yet unknown? That is a hard thing to do. Waiting cheerfully without begrudging all the rules and circumstances? That is a different sort of waiting.
Patient waiting is marked by a quiet spirit; patient waiting requires practice. It was in this School of Waiting that we were to be enrolled for the next seven days, and in very ordinary ways the lessons began.
Establish our Steps
We left the house a couple of hours late, took a bypass around Atlanta to keep out of rush hour traffic, lingered long at Chick-fil-a waiting for our lost breakfast order, then spent the next eight hours on a scenic Kentucky route behind vehicles of authentic country spirit, pacing ourselves at or below the speed limit the entire way. We were in the car two hours longer than we had planned, and we arrived at The Ark Encounter four hours later than we anticipated when we booked the tickets. These were the first of our opportunities to wait, patiently.
As it turns out, the Ark after 4 ‘o clock is less populated with fellow tourists and the children could only endure the excitement of it all for about three hours anyway before discovering their aching feet and empty tummies. The sun was setting when we made our way out to the little zoo, and a breeze lifted the day’s heat from the asphalt and danced through the hibiscus blossoms that were in spectacular display across the grounds.
Here at the closing of the day we had the flowers and the animals all to ourselves. I was on the verge of tears of wonder and praise about every 15 minutes as we wandered through that great monument to God’s faithfulness. These moments were gifts, priceless memories, but the uneasiness with which we began our trip hounded us.
Jake developed a fever that night at the hotel. We were far from home and a bit more subdued by the day’s travel. Perhaps we were more willing to concede that things were not going to go as planned but still so sure that all would be better tomorrow.
The fever broke sometime in the night, and Jake felt completely normal again by morning. By mid-afternoon we continued our way up to the cabin where his parents would be waiting for our noon arrival the next day.
The route to the cabin from our stop in Kentucky was different from the one taken in years previous. By night, it was an elaborate system of construction cones and flashing arrows, flanked by miles of cornfields, and made nearly impossible to navigate by rainstorms and regular tolls. The rain held me in a perpetual, blurry blackness as I followed shifting brake lights through the eerie night. It slowed me down, made me doubt every road sign, and it made me impatient for day.
I drove into the early morning hours then parked among a fleet of sleeping truckers at a rest stop somewhere in Indiana. Jake slept and slept and slept, and I slept but wondered why Jake slept so long. I began to be anxious about the day’s plans. Would we ever get there at this pace? Would we ever get out of this car? How many more times could we eat at McDonalds? Was Jake okay?
Jake had been taking Advil for pain in his knee, but as the day wore on and the medicine wore off, he suspected that he might have a fever again. We drove on from the middle of nowhere to the secluded backwoods of northern Minnesota. When it was apparent that Jake was sick and not just exhausted from the week’s labor and subsequent travel, we had to stop and begin looking for another Covid test and inquire into alternative lodging so as not to displace his parents. This was about four additional hours of driving, searching, and eventually finding a test so that we would know how to proceed. I sat there, waiting yet again.
Shimmering lake waters and crisp cool morning breezes began to slip through my fingers. I tried to hold them there, knuckles white with will and vain hope, hot tears finding their way down my cheeks and into my lap as I grieved the memories that I had hoped to make this year.
We were so close to our destination, but without a clue as to where we were going. We waited and learned that there was no vacancy at any lodge for miles, we waited and learned that the clinic was closed for the weekend, and results from others would not be for days. We waited and learned that Covid home tests were sold out in five of the nearest locations.
And at last we learned that somewhere, an hour away, Walmart still had a test on the shelf. Despite the despair and exhaustion my Father’s spirit spoke to mine and knowing my thoughts he gently reminded me to be patient, that the heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.
In this School of Waiting I was being taught the practice of patience; the practice was found in wanting the Lord’s blessing above my own plans. The nasty tears were poor company and my husband- who was the one feeling bad, mind you- needed the peace as much as I. So, I asked for the blessing; I asked the Lord to establish our steps.
And there was peace. Patience, too, as we waited for the next right thing to do.
Answer Me When I Call
We both tested negative again. Jake’s parents, who were waiting for us at the cabin in the Northwoods, instead packed up for a short trip until we could see improvement in his situation. We arrived at last on Saturday evening to an empty, recently evacuated cabin, completely uncertain of what the next two weeks would hold.
It was another eerie night. I was with my children in their grandfather’s cabin filled with their father’s childhood memories, their father sick in bed, without his parents or his memories to make any of it feel familiar. There was no phone or internet service, so I couldn’t console myself by researching what to do in case of an emergency or even text home.
I remembered the words of a dear friend telling me once out of an abundance of her own experience that as pilgrims passing through this land, we should all begin preparing for a stage of aloneness. This seemed to me an appropriate time to begin making those necessary preparations.
So, I met Aloneness there, remembering that my Father is the same in the day as he is in the night, my truest and closest Comforter. I put the children to bed with Psalm 4, then I put myself to bed with Psalm 91.
Jake’s fever departed in the night, and he was back on his feet two days later.
We had one glorious day on the lake and his parents came back to the cabin, all of us hoping it was the right thing to do. We celebrated with a meal and worship and songs, but we soon realized that Jake was not completely well, and the next morning and for the rest of that week he relapsed into fever and fatigue. That week brought more and more sobering news from back home of friends and family who were succumbing to Covid, several of whom were in the hospital.
Each new development brought with it a weary sigh or a knot in the pit of my stomach, but there came also a voice that whispered again and again an old and precious promise: “And it shall come to pass that before they call I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.”
So, I called out to Him.
My dear in-laws were now with us, and Jake was undeniably sick and in a way that caused us to doubt the test. But they didn’t want to leave me alone with four children and an invalid so they stayed, all of us hoping that best case scenario Jake had another illness (I mean, those are still around) and at the worst, it would be a mild case of what everyone else had.
Our supplements began to dwindle by midweek, and I went into town to arrange for more to be sent from home, thinking all the while that if we could just get our hands on some good medicine, Jake would turn the corner. By week’s end news arrived that the package of supplements –due to arrive—would not arrive for another three days.
The same morning, Jake’s parents determined that they would leave the cabin and return home the following day, hoping to make it home before they came down with the same illness. I began thinking that if I were to come down with the same thing my husband had, we’d be “vacationing” indefinitely, our children possibly unsupervised as we languished.
What if he got worse? He certainly showed no signs of improving. How long would it take me to get out of this place by myself? Who would I take counsel with on such matters if it came to that?
More waiting. A bit weary now, but patient. What ‘ere my God ordains is right/ Holy his will abideth.
A Broad Place
That evening Jake’s breathing worsened, and a constant cough came in shallow, breathy fits. It became a subject of urgent prayer, and our Father delivered. Amid all the potions, ointments, and vitamins we had remaining, there was a small, near-empty vial of herbal tincture used for asthma related issues.
I had brought it for Natalie, our eldest, and it was this precious daughter who suggested that it might help her daddy. It immediately settled his cough and facilitated deeper breaths. We used it through the night, deciding that we would leave the cabin with his parents the following morning.
We had been on vacation for one week. Jake had been in bed for five days.
Here at this late, vulnerable hour, without our medicine, without a hospital, with four children, and three exposed adults the Lord gently led us to this point of clarity; it’s time to go home. A decision that now in hindsight appears so obvious to me.
It was as if the Lord was taking me through a side door, and I couldn’t quite grasp what the room looked like until long after I’d arrived. Praise the Lord I don’t have to know exactly where I am or where I’m going; I know that my Father has set my feet in a broad place.
The next morning brought with it a whirlwind of responsibilities. Among them, cleaning out the fridge, eating whatever leftovers we could for breakfast, washing the bedding, and properly storing a boat, grill, and air-conditioning unit. As the package my mom had shipped from home was never delivered, I arranged to pick up more supplements on the way to hold us over for the next two days. Supplements, again.
There must be a lesson there because no sooner had we purposed in our hearts to get hold of some more zinc and l-lysine than our car battery died — dead as a doornail and not twenty minutes after starting the car. Perhaps the car doors were open too long, but the deadness of the thing made us all suspect Divine Intervention. It was another bit of instruction, or perhaps just an ordinary opportunity to practice waiting… with him.
I will wait, Father.
We unbuckled our seat belts, piled out of the car, and walked to the front porch. Jake crawled back to the couch, and I passed out rice krispie treats, explaining to the children that the Lord was not ready for us to leave Minnesota, and no, I didn’t know when that would be. The second and only working vehicle at this point was useless to us as it was blocked in by the dead one, rear to rear.
Jake’s dad found a couple of overnight battery chargers, and at last, through a conversation with Jake’s brother back home, he made use of a spare, fully charged boat battery from the shed.
Within an hour we were off. Our little caravan embarked on the first leg of the trip from northern Minnesota to Madison, WI where we stayed the night, then continued Sunday morning from 8 until midnight, born up on the prayers of our brothers and sisters back home.
And I will testify; the Lord felt very, very near.
I drove, Jake rested (perhaps in body only), and the nine year-old acted as my proxy for the backseat crew who was thoroughly immersed in bags of granola and Pixar Studios. We took the opportunity to experience nearly every rest area from there to here, and by late afternoon on the last day we hit a torrential rainstorm that enveloped us from Nashville to Chattanooga.
For four hours I could neither see the road nor the vehicles on them. I was guided only by countless flashing emergency lights as we wound our way through the mountains.
Gone was the desperate need to arrive already that had so motivated me the week before, and the rain was now an impervious veil keeping me from where I wanted to be.
I was doing my Father’s will. We were walking together; He faithfully, and I, patiently. Though I’d been made a patient driver (perhaps a miraculous working of the Spirit in and of itself), the rain was terrifying, and adrenaline surged through my veins; hitting triple-shot-of-espresso highs. I’m certain the storm was instrumental in keeping me both near to the throne of grace, and keeping me awake there at the end, road weary and still so far from home.
At midnight, we rumbled down our familiar gravel driveway, delighting in every annoying rift and rut. As we staggered up the stairs and crawled onto the tidily made beds, it was like our vacation was just beginning. The rest had come at last, in our Father’s time, after safely delivering us from fever, rain, and foreign land. And the rest was far richer than any I had imagined.