It was a cross-country road trip for the ages. We were three kids, two parents, and a 1978 Chevy Malibu station wagon on a mission to see the wild west of 1984. From Minnesota to California, we traveled across plains, over mountains, and into deserts—a great American postcard on display through panes of glass.
There were gorges to feast our eyes on and fears to wrestle within—a memorable journey into the heart of America through the lens of my fragile 15-year-old identity.
On the far side of Nebraska, the air conditioning betrayed us, and my sisters and I were thrust into battle over the middle hump seat. It was the place where one plucky passenger could drape arms and head into the front for a fresh gust of wind. The backseat windows didn’t roll down—something the manufacturer deemed a good and necessary component of “child safety.” All we had in the way of ventilation were small, triangular window vents at our shoulders.
The three of us were sticky and ornery, crammed together on a vinyl bench seat with two weeks’ of homework spread over our laps.
When these tensions threatened the stratosphere, Dad would turn off into a wayside trinket trap and we’d disembark, vowing to Mom that we wouldn’t touch anything. Posted at child’s eye level were You break it, You buy it signs, one of them close to Dad as he jousted with a puzzle game, flipping a red plastic barbell up-up-up against the clear dome as he tried to make it catch on the stand. We crowded around him, mouths gaping, living vicariously through our hero . . . right up until the moment the toy fractured into pieces. We snickered while he paid the cashier, and then we loaded up for a long ride into the night.
Like my obscured view of the Grand Canyon, my perspective on God back then was but a scrubby outline.
The backseat folded down so that we could lie three wide amid the luggage in the rear. With my body coiled around soft-sided suitcases, just above the wheel well, I could feel every vibration of the road—I’d nod off, only to be jerked awake by sharp turns in the night. Worried that my father would fall asleep behind the wheel, I wondered, If I were to die, what would happen to me?
I had always been a good kid. And despite my perfect Sunday school attendance, I was nonetheless terrified about my sin and shortcomings. Though I knew the saving grace of Jesus Christ, my conscience was overrun with the “thou shalt nots.” Hearing little evidence that others struggled as much as I did, it convinced me that I was the one Christian unable to lead a sinless life. I puttered along with the notion that Jesus made it possible for me to go to heaven, but the responsibility for arriving blameless before the throne of God was mine alone.
When we pulled into the parking lot of the Grand Canyon, there wasn’t much to see. We stepped from our Malibu, squinting toward the horizon at the ragged shoots of brush peeking over a chain-link fence. But then the parking lot isn’t much of a vantage point. We drew nearer, and a welkin blue contour emerged like a trace line for the opposite canyon bowl. As we moved nearer still, our perspective expanded, leaving me breathless at the vast depths of the place, the dark gray ridges and great walls of orange sandstone. The experience easily trumped all the photographs I’d seen. It was a living, transformative encounter with a national treasure.
Then it was on to California, where we bounded around Disneyland and relived the parting of the Red Sea on our Universal Studio tour. As a souvenir from the San Diego Zoo, a seagull “relieved” itself atop my head, necessitating a hasty exit. We took a sunset drive toward the Mexican border and a quick dip into Tijuana. The car, with the gewgaw of our travels, was tucked safely beneath the floodlights near U.S. Customs as we crossed a bridge into Mexico. Tijuana seemed like nothing more than an out-of-doors flea market, a clamorous din of merchants offering handcrafted blankets, beads, and baubles.
Back at the car, we found one of our triangular rear windows popped open and the doors unlocked. Our suitcases and shopping bags were gone, the car ransacked. Our most valued items, including the shiny trinkets we’d collected along the way, were swept off—leaving us just a trash bag of laundry for a consolation prize. I stared up at the tall fence designed to keep us safe from the outside, then over to the nearby guard shack, feeling violated and betrayed by two nations.
I possessed no more control of my circumstances with my feet on solid ground than I had while traversing the interstate. Now those dark worries about dying in my not-so-good works seeped over into the daylight, where I calculated any number of unexpected setbacks in the days ahead. Like Martha in Luke 10, I needed Jesus to steer me from the edges with loving correction, John, John, “you are worried and bothered by so many things; but only one thing is necessary . . . ” (vv. 41-42).
After the robbery, my parents were in no mood to prolong the trip home to Minnesota, and traded shifts behind the wheel to get us back without stopping. It was a breakneck pace, but I rested against the contours of that vinyl bench seat, sketching the great panorama outside the car. With the sunshine’s bright warmth flooding in through the windows, I began to feel something—the beginnings of sweet peace, God reaching me in His timing.
Like my obscured view of the Grand Canyon, my perspective on God back then was but a scrubby outline. Today, as I continue learning how to walk nearer to Him, I begin to appreciate both His power to shape my life and His grace to sustain me. It is then that I hear Him say, ‘Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand’ (Isa. 41:10).
My family and I were kept safe for that trip back home, but I’ve never forgotten those restless fears about eternity. The journey awakened me to my helpless state and perpetual need for the keeping grace of God. Just like the countless lives before mine that He faithfully led across plains, over mountains, and into deserts to be received by Him in the land of forever, where not an anxious thought can abide.