Stuck in the Mud

My wife received a text from my daughter Tara: “You would be proud of Dad today. He was adaptable.” Of course, Tara did not send this text to me, and the only reason I saw it was because my wife chose to share it with me. Interesting. My first reaction was to think, “So I am not usually adaptable? What was so unique about this day? Which day is she talking about?!”

After a short conversation with my wife, it was clear she was referring to our day in the desert. On my sabbatical, I’ve had the opportunity to run a few races and spend time with family. Our families, the Bakers and the Ballards, are from Arizona. Tara is working in the Glendale School District and living with her grandmother Ballard in Sun City, Arizona. In February, I flew down and Tara and I participated in the Pancake Run in Scottsdale — a 5K run that ended with pancakes at the finish line! It has been an unusual spring in Arizona, with a lot of rain and cool temperatures. In fact, it was cool and rainy on the day of the race. We ran together and enjoyed it. 

Later that week, Rebekah, our middle child, and her husband Kenton flew down to spend a few days with family on vacation. The four of us decided to spend a day hiking in the desert and drinking coffee. Tara and Rebekah chose to hike in the Superstition Mountains, which provide a wilderness experience close to Phoenix, so we got up early and headed in that direction. I was the driver and somewhat-appointed guide.

The drive to the trailhead took almost an hour and a half. As we got closer, it looked more and more like we were headed into heavy rain. As we turned off the main road and drove toward the mountains we noticed that the paved road ended and you had to travel roughly six miles on a dirt road to get to the trail. Normally this would not be a problem, even in the 2019 Honda Accord we were driving. Today was a different story. 

It had been raining in the Superstitions for about a week, and the dusty dirt roads of Arizona have a tendency to turn into thick mud after heavy rain. Feeling brave, we decided to keep going. We were going to make the trail! In many ways, it was like driving in snow, which may sound funny. The mud in areas was more than eight to 10 inches thick, and it was more like a thick ooze than anything else. The car slid back and forth as we pressed onward. The road also passed through “washes” (places in the desert that are normally dry but turn into rivers when it rains a lot). We went through one wash that was only about a foot deep, but as we traveled further it was getting a bit dicey. Several large four-wheel trucks went around us and left us in the dust (or, the mud, as it was on that day). Our car had Oregon plates, and you could see the look in the drivers’ faces as they passed us — “Why do these tourists do this just to get to the mountains?” 

Well, our brave trek ended about two miles in, when we met a park ranger standing just outside his four-wheel drive Chevy truck. As I approached he caught my eye and simply waived his finger and pointed back. I knew that meant, “You crazy tourist! Turn around and go back to the main road!” I was not a tourist; I’m a native Arizonan, no less, but I did get the point. I literally spun the car around and, with a little effort, we made it safely back to pavement about 20 minutes later. 

Once back on solid ground we got out to look at the car. Sure enough, the mud was caked in the wheel wells so thick it was brushing the tires. Fortunately for us, we noticed a car wash just down the road. We drove back and started into the car wash when someone who looked like the manager ran out waiving his finger back and forth in what was clearly a “no” gesture – not unlike the ranger we had seen about 30 minutes before. I rolled down the window and he kindly noted, “You cannot bring that car through my wash!” Well, I did understand. He told us of a place three miles down the road where we could power-wash the mud off the car, and I spent the better part of the next hour – and about 10 dollars in quarters – trying to get all the mud off. Finally, we roughly achieved success. 

As we stood at the car wash looking over the car and getting the final pieces of mud and dirt out of the brake pads, we talked about what to do next. It was supposed to be a day of hiking and coffee. What now? We were in the desert an hour and a half from Phoenix, and there didn’t appear to be a lot of options. Here is where being a native Arizonan helped. We were only 10 miles from where I was born and partly grew up — Florence, Arizona. I suggested we take a trip down memory lane, and the kids reluctantly agreed. Florence is a town much like Sheridan — not a lot there but a prison – but they seemed open to the journey. We visited our “home” in the city, the remodeled courthouse and the small museum. It was actually interesting. We then drove back to Phoenix on backroads, found a cool coffee shop and then headed to South Mountain (Phoenix) for an unplanned hike of five miles up the peak. In the end, it was a spectacular day.   

As I reflected on Tara’s text, I began to understand. I can get frustrated when things don’t go as planned. That day, I had plenty of chances to get upset, frustrated, even angry that nothing was going our way. I probably need to admit that frustration may be my more normal reaction to changes to the plan for the day, week or year, and thus the text, “You would be proud of Dad today.” I do not really like change. 

Your children can teach you important lessons about yourself, and sometimes they come through your wife. Whether at the college or in your family experience, challenges are going to emerge that force you to rethink your plan. The reality is that there are always alternatives. What is more important than the events of the moment are your responses to the path that is in front of you. Sometimes, the closing of a road in one direction leads to paths less trodden and new unforgettable experiences if you just see the opportunities.

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