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A broken marriage, 81 hours of support-group meetings and a 2,000-mile motor-home trip across the country with her son.
The image came to me like a bolt of lightning: my nine-year-old son, Trace, and me in a motor home, driving across the country. It was an old motor home, a little beat up, but getting us where we needed to go.
We’d head west from where we lived, in New England, all the way out to Oregon, where I grew up. I saw us arriving weeks later at Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast, one of my favorite places in the world. Trace would play in the sand while I watched the light fade over the Pacific.
I’d never driven that far and I didn’t own an RV. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to take that trip. No, I needed to take it.
Just a few weeks earlier, my husband, Trace’s dad, had handed me a long, rambling letter informing me that he’d cheated on me. Not once but many times throughout our 10-year marriage.
Trace and I moved out of the house as soon as I could get my things together. More revelations came out and I knew the marriage had to end. I ran a successful wedding photography business but I had to sell it because weddings happen on weekends and now there was no husband to watch Trace.
I was lucky to find a Monday-to-Friday job in marketing, though it paid less, and a small house for Trace and me to live in.
But as far as everything else went, I didn’t know what to count on. Who to trust. Not myself, that was for sure. How could I not have known? Was I really that blind? I lay awake at night finding all sorts of reasons I’d be a terrible single mom and mess up everything for Trace.
That’s when the motor-home idea barged in. An escapist fantasy, I decided. But it wouldn’t leave me alone. I pictured the open road. Freedom. Breaking from the past and starting a new chapter.
Mostly it was something to think about besides annulment papers and custody agreements, support-group meetings and self-recrimination.
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Before I knew it I’d found a used 1986 Ford Holiday Rambler online. I couldn’t afford more than $5,000 and it was $6,500. I went to look at it anyway, just to see what an RV was like inside. This one was cozy, with a full kitchen and a big sleeping area over the cab.
Although it was old–almost as old as me–everything worked great. I told the nice couple who owned it my story. On the spot they offered to knock $1,500 off the price. How could I say no? All of a sudden I was committed.
I made a plan. I’d save money for the rest of the school year and we’d embark in July, after Trace finished third grade. My mom helped me pick a route. We’d travel I-90, staying in campgrounds and venturing off the highway whenever we felt like it.
I downloaded an app for my phone that shows you offbeat sights based on your location. Life-size statue of the Jolly Green Giant, here we come!
I even came up with a slogan for our trip: “Defiant Joy.” I was in the middle of a Bible study at church, and one of the study guides said that in Scripture the word joy isn’t just a noun. It’s more active than that, something you do, or at least try to do.
I’d found it hard to pray coherently ever since my ex’s bombshell. Maybe this trip could be like one giant prayer for joy.
My sister designed T-shirts with Defiant Joy printed on the front beneath a picture of the RV. Trace and I would hand them out to anyone who wanted one. We’d wear our joy on the outside no matter how we felt on the inside.
The night before we left I was a nervous wreck. Our RV would break down. Trace would get bored and we’d argue. We’d get lost. I’d find out I couldn’t stand driving the RV for long stretches.
We were starting from my dad’s house by the beach in Massachusetts. I wanted to touch the Atlantic Ocean at the start to make it a true coast-to-coast journey. Plus, my dad wanted to come with us on the first leg, to Niagara Falls.
“Just to make sure you know what you’re doing,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you, Amanda, I’m not confident anything built in 1986 can make it all the way across the country.”
We made it to the falls. And that’s when good things started happening. Right when we arrived we learned there would be free fireworks over the falls after sundown. We found a spot on the grass and plunked down in the soft summer twilight.
As I watched the fireworks light up the sky, I felt one major source of worry–money, now that I was a single mom–evaporate. We were on a tight budget, but that didn’t matter. There was lots of free fun out there. And just being together–that cost nothing and it was worth everything.
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Dad said goodbye after giving the RV a thorough inspection, and Trace and I headed back onto the highway.
From Day One we settled into a rhythm. Music, jokes and stories on the road. Mac and cheese, tuna sandwiches or hot dogs for dinner. S’mores for dessert, roasted over campfires with other families we met.
In the mornings I’d ask a neighbor to keep an eye on Trace while I went for a run. Then we’d head off for whatever destination my phone app picked for us.
Sometimes the fun found us. Like the impromptu Christmas in July party at a campground in Wisconsin Dells. People strung lights on their RVs and the whole campground got in on a potluck dinner.
I watched Trace riding his bike with other kids and another single-mom fear evaporated. Trace would be okay. His childhood wasn’t destroyed just because my marriage imploded.
He still knew how to make friends. He and I could still have a great time. Even doing something as simple as reading in the bunk together. I brought along some of my favorite books and movies. We’d read aloud or watch DVDs, snug and dry while a summer thunderstorm pounded on the RV.
And always there was the next day’s destination. We found the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota–next door to a Dairy Queen, so of course we stopped for Blizzards.
At a funky dinosaur museum in an old guy’s house in North Dakota, Trace posed between the toothy jaws of a tyrannosaurus skull. When the owner learned we were traveling alone, he nodded approvingly and said, “You’re a true truck-drivin’ mama! A real brave lady.”
Right there a little more of my fear evaporated.
We saw Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone, then chugged over the awe-inspiring Rockies and started our last leg. We’d just crossed the Oregon state line when I realized I’d misgauged our gas. We were almost out and there was no station in sight. I checked my phone and GPS. Nothing nearby.
“We’d better pray, Mom,” Trace said. So we did, out loud, right there in the camper. The next moment we spotted what looked like a filling station, but it was closed. We pulled in anyway. Some men were talking in the parking lot.
We told them our story and one of them, a guy with a wild-man beard, told us he had some gas at his house. A couple of minutes later he was back with enough to get us to a station. He even posed for a picture with one of our T-shirts.
A simple prayer had worked in an immediate way for us. Why worry so much when God is there, listening?
On August 15, three weeks after we started, we pulled our Defiant Joy RV into the parking lot at Cannon Beach. Trace had some playmates along–kids of friends of mine in Portland.
We piled out of the RV and flew kites on the beach. There wouldn’t be a sunset. The fog was thick and the wind coming off the slate-gray ocean was cold.
But we didn’t care. We stayed on the beach all afternoon, until light began to fade from the sky. Watching Trace and his friends play, I thought back to that day–it seemed like so long ago!–when an image of this very moment had come into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.
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I knew now who’d sent that message. Amanda, you’re going to be okay. I’m here. I’ve got some great things planned for you.
All I had to do was trust. Back then, joy seemed like the last thing I’d ever find again. But I reached for it anyway. I did joy, the way it says in Scripture. And God, the way he always does, did the rest.
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