Over a decade ago, before we had children, my wife and I took our first “family" summer vacation. I was in the midst of a very difficult church situation, and had been encouraged by some gracious church leaders to take some time away. They knew the conflict was only going to get worse before things could get better, and thought a few days away would be healthy. So we spent a few nights in beautiful Eureka Springs, Arkansas—only a few hours from where we were living at the time. But on our drive back, I found myself in a strange state of auto-pilot.
After deliberately missing a turn at a major intersection and an erratic maneuver that quickly set us on an old gravel road, Jenny finally dared question my bizarre navigation. “Where are we going?” She was kind as she asked—maybe even concerned. She knew I was scared to go back into the war zone at my church. “I know this road,” I said. I had never driven on it before, and the last time I went down it I was a kid in the back seat of a silver Pontiac Trans Sport Minivan. Mom and Dad were blasting an Oak Ridge Boys tape, trying to drown out the road noise. I remembered the bumps and rough ridges in the old long road. The dust trail behind the car from the rear-view mirror was just as familiar as the country landscape winding out ahead.
“Did you ever hear any stories about the Patton family summer reunion at the Kings River from when I was a kid?” It was the vacation we always talked about. “Of course!” “OK. Well, I’m pretty sure it all happened at the end of this road.” “Wasn’t that over twelve years ago? Are you sure?” “The old church should be up here on the right.” A minute later and that one-room wood chapel came into view—still perched on its stilts. I remembered going to a church service in there unlike any I have ever been to in my life. Anybody could stand up from their pew and preach, pray or lead a song spontaneously. I remembered experiencing the Spirit of God in a new and exciting way in that old shack. But the church was only the vestibule to the Holy of Holies—the river.
“This is it—where all my family was,” I thought, caught somewhere between sadness and victory, or what some call nostalgia. I was now confident that I was on the right road. After a good while, the road bent to the right and started down a steep decline to the banks of the Kings River. The low river old bridge came into view, the river rushing over its top just like I remembered it. Somethings had changed, but it was all there: a house to the left, the big meadow on the right, the sandy bank across the bridge. I remembered the adults enjoying sack races in the meadow and cousins swimming down the slick rock just above the bridge in the river.
I met family there I had never seen, who warmly welcomed me with hugs and kisses and cheek-pinches—look how tall you are nows and you look just like your Daddys. There were guitars and horseshoes and fireflies. There were long tables of homemade fried chicken and apple pies, guarded by the Doss brothers—whose voices mysteriously stair-stepped in half-octaves from bass to baritone when they all introduced themselves. “This is it.” I said to Jenny aloud as I pulled the car over, “this is where all my family was.” “How did you find this?” “I really don’t know. But it feels like it’s a part of me.” I sat there a few more minutes and took it all in, letting the little Kings River knock the rust from my memory—remembering that family reunion vacation from years before. I even remembered another family vacation float trip when the river was too low—Dad had to drag us for yards down the river in the canoe.
Even though none of those people were actually there that day, I knew they were there for me—a cloud of witnesses. I knew they were in my corner. I knew they were family. I had roots and I had a tribe. As I tapped back in to that strange, deep navigation, I drove us right to Aunt Josie’s house from the river. She had never met my wife. I hadn't seen her in many years. I was overdue for a visit. And every story I heard and old picture I saw at Aunt Josie’s started to build back my fractured soul.
I needed that vacation. I didn’t need an exotic destination or hours of quiet time. I needed to reconnect with my roots—to remember where I came from and be reminded of what it means to have family. And as I forge the highways again this summer, captain of a new silver minivan, cutting a new journey for my own children, I pray that summer vacation is building in them what it’s supposed to: the kind of family identity and belonging that will someday lift their heads when life gets tough. Regardless of our destination, we are building memories of being on pilgrimage together.