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We Are Climbing…

Date: August 4, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Scripture: Psalm 121

Scripture Reader: Chuck Lewis

It was May of 1987. I had just finished my first year of college. My uncle Bob was about to receive his master’s degree from Oregon State University, and my grandparents wanted to go out and help him celebrate.

We did occasionally converge on one place as an extended family, so it didn’t take long before folks got their heads together and decided we should all go. So for several weeks we would get together regularly to plan the big trip. I only remember one of those gatherings, around a bowl of guacamole in my aunt Sue’s living room.

The main topic of discussion was what kind of food we would take to eat on the way—carrots and celery for Sue, who was on a diet; finger jello and monster cookies for the kids. We talked about what drinks to have on hand, since Grandma and Grandpa would be taking their RV, which had a reasonably good-sized refrigerator. I asked for New York Seltzer, which wasn’t readily available in our little town at that time; but my grandpa special-ordered a couple cases from his wholesaler (of course I was never spoiled at all, you understand…). We planned out who would cook what on the nights when we’d be eating together at the beach house we were going to be staying in.

We also discussed communication, since we’d be in three vehicles for most of the trip. These were the days before everybody had a cell phone, so we opted to put CB radios in all the vehicles. Grandma and Grandpa already had one in their motor home, and my dad knew of someone who would lend us a couple that could be temporarily installed in the other two cars, with antennas that attached with magnets.

The plans having been sorted out, we began our pilgrimage right after Memorial Day. First to leave were Grandma and Grandpa, Aunt Sue and cousin Chris, and me in the motor home, dubbed “The Cobra” for CB purposes, towing Grandpa’s little Chevy Sprint.

We left on Thursday, May 28, at 5:30 in the morning. Everything that we would need had been loaded the night before. 5:30 being a completely unacceptable hour to be awake, as soon as we were on the road I made my way to the bed at the back of the RV and went back to sleep for awhile.

The trip from Coffeyville to Estes Park, Colorado, where Aunt Ann, Uncle Richard, and cousins Liz and Tim lived took about twelve hours.

If you’ve ever traveled across Kansas and eastern Colorado, you know it’s a rather dull journey. As soon as you cross the state line, everybody starts scanning the horizon for the first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains, which generally appears somewhere near Limon. (“I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”)

Finally we saw the mountains, and then we got to Denver and made our way north to Estes Park. My parents and sister joined us there the next day, and we celebrated Ann’s birthday with dinner and cake. Then we watched a movie they had on videotape, which none of us Kansas folks had seen yet: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Next morning, when we could see the sun shining on the tops of the mountains but not down in the valley where we were, we set out, now in three vehicles: the aforementioned Cobra, Grandma and Grandpa’s RV; my parents’ Oldsmobile, nicknamed “The Big O”; and Ann and Richard’s brand-new minivan, first I’d ever seen, “The Colorado Voyager.” There were twelve of us in those three vehicles—switching places fairly frequently, when somebody was hungry or needed a nap or just wanted a different set of companions for awhile. We always counted heads when we were ready to get back on the road; with that many people, it would have been very easy to leave someone behind.

From Estes Park we headed north, up into Wyoming, to meet up with I-80. Standard procedure in our family is that anyone who has a driver’s license takes a turn at the wheel. Carrie was not quite 16 yet and only had her restricted license, so I don’t remember her doing a whole lot of driving; but the rest of us did. We set the cruise control at 62; at that time the speed limit was 55, even on interstates, and my dad for some reason thought 62 was the highest speed you could go and not get pulled over.

The other rule in our car was that whoever was driving got to choose the radio station or tape in the car stereo. I had my Walkman with me, so at least one person was exempt from having to listen to the driver’s choice. Oftentimes my dad would be in the back seat while I was driving, and he’d put some country tape in the Walkman and start singing along, much to the amusement of the rest of us. When I was driving, I often put in a brand-new album I had just gotten: The Joshua Tree by U2. I still consider that one of the best albums to take on a road trip.

What do you like to listen to when you’re on the highway? What songs or albums make the miles pass by easier?

Back when the people of Israel had to travel up to Jerusalem to celebrate their major religious festivals, they probably sang together the group of Psalms known as “Songs of Ascents,” 120-134. Some of them are Laments, some are songs of trust, like the one we heard today. It could have been a call-and-response kind of song, or perhaps a sending-off song at one end or the other of the journey, reminding the pilgrims that wherever they were, God was there with them to guide and protect them. The journey to Jerusalem was in many cases a long one, and they would probably have made it on foot, stopping at night wherever they could—and depending on God’s providence and protection, because the roads weren’t terribly safe at night.

It was normal in my immediate family that travel was a little bit flexible, but we always knew before we left our lodgings on a given morning where we would be stopping that night, and a reservation was made and waiting for us. But on this trip we didn’t do that for the one night we spent on the road between Estes Park and the Oregon coast. I’m not sure why not; maybe we just didn’t know how far we would all want to go that day.

At some point that afternoon, it was decided that we would go as far as Boise, and figure out where we’d stay when we got there. So it was that we pulled into Boise at around 9:30 or 10 that night, with no real idea where we would be sleeping. (Well, actually, Grandma, Grandpa, Sue, and Chris knew where they were sleeping; they all had beds in the motor home—but they would need to park it somewhere, and the rest of us needed motel rooms.) By that time we were all pretty tired and cranky, and we just wanted to stop and get into beds—which was precisely what we couldn’t do, because we hadn’t made any reservations.

We got off the interstate when we saw a big neon sign that said, “BOISE MOTOR VILLAGE.” Surely that was a truck stop or some such thing with a motel nearby, we thought.

We were wrong.

Grandpa was in the lead driving the Cobra. I was in the Voyager, second in line, and my dad was driving the Oldsmobile at the back of the procession. We drove and drove, but never saw a motel. We were about halfway to the end of the very long street we’d turned onto when reality dawned on my dad, who broadcast the obvious over the CB airwaves:

“It’s a dagboned car lot.” (That’s the G-rated version.)

We were on Boise’s version of that street just about every big city has, the one where new and used car dealerships line both sides of the road, one after another. There wasn’t a motel in sight. To top it all off, the enormous Cobra, towing a vehicle on a trailer behind it, couldn’t really back up and turn around just anywhere; so Grandpa led us on a procession through the entire Boise Motor Village, until he got to the end of the street where he could turn around in the very last car lot.

Eventually we found our way back onto the interstate, and an exit or two down the road was the Flying J truck stop with a motel next to it. We got rooms for the eight of us who weren’t sleeping in the motor home, and began to discuss plans for the next day. Someone among us decreed that we would be up, fed, and on the road by 7:30 the next morning. Most of us were less than enthusiastic about that, especially given how late it was at that moment, but it was no use arguing; so off we went to our respective rooms, fuming.

As we prepared to go to bed, Carrie and I argued about which side of the bed we’d each sleep on. Since I was the owner of the alarm clock—this was in the days before every hotel room had a digital clock radio, too—I thought I should sleep on the side closest to the bedside table. She didn’t agree, and I lost the argument.

Next morning, the alarm either didn’t go off or got ignored, so we all woke up when Sue knocked on the door with coffee at 7:45. We all began to fly around the room, running into each other as we scrambled to throw things into suitcases. But Sue said we might as well relax. Seems the power had gone out in the motor home, so they had all overslept and weren’t ready to leave yet. And when she had gone to Ann and Richard’s room with coffee, their alarm hadn’t gone off either.

After a quick consultation, it was decided that we’d take our time getting loaded up, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, and head out at more like 9:30. After we ate we all pulled up to gas pumps and filled our tanks; but the Cobra and the Voyager took off before we in the Big O were finished, and got well ahead of us. We tried to call them on the CB, but they were out of range. Finally we reached another CBer with the handle “Cobra,” on a radio at his home in Nampa, between us and the others. He relayed a message to them, and they pulled off at a rest area so we could catch up.

Once we did, it wasn’t long before we crossed over into Oregon.

Now between LaGrande and Pendleton, in eastern Oregon, lie the Blue Mountains. When we reached the summit, Sue was driving the Cobra and I was driving the Big O. We started seeing these ominous yellow signs that read, “WARNING: 6% DOWNGRADE.”

It was terrifying. I’d never driven down a slope that steep or that long before. (I’m from Kansas, you know.) There were curves and switchbacks, and every so often a sign would alert us that a “RUNAWAY TRUCK LANE” was just ahead in case it was needed—where a gravel road went off the side of the highway and up a slope, with plastic barrels and other stuff at the end to stop a runaway truck. Over the CB, I could hear Sue’s frightened voice in the background as Dad and Grandpa gave both of us the same advice: Don’t ride the brakes!

Finally, and with much gratitude to the One who has promised never to let our feet be moved, we reached the bottom. As soon as we found a place to pull off, Sue and I gladly relinquished our respective steering wheels. My dad said later that had he known what was coming, he would have stopped and switched seats with me much sooner. No doubt the Colorado contingent laughed uproariously at us poor panicky flatlanders through the entire episode.

(Many years later, when I lived in Portland, I had to drive out to LaGrande for Regional Assembly. On the way home, I saw those ominous signs warning of the upcoming downgrade, and was prepared to downshift or whatever else was needed to get safely down the terrifying slope. But by that time I had negotiated the 6% downgrade on Highway 26 between Beaverton and Portland lots of times, and so I could not figure out why we had found it so scary and difficult a decade before.)

After Pendleton we entered the Columbia River Gorge, heading for Portland. When we arrived at The Dalles, we decided it might be good to stop for lunch, since we were still a few hours from the beach.So we pulled into McDonald’s.

It took us quite a long time to get everybody fed and through the facilities, and then we got back into our vehicles and prepared to leave. I decided to ride in the Cobra so I could nap.

For some reason, this time we didn’t count heads before we took off. As we started moving, I was standing in the Cobra getting ready to open a bottle of New York Seltzer, when I heard a faint voice calling my name. I turned, and through the back window of the motor home, I saw Sue running behind us, waving and calling. Everyone had assumed she was in one of the other cars. We picked her up, and Grandpa took the lead again in the Cobra. (“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”)

To get back on the highway, we needed to turn right out of McDonald’s parking lot; but Grandpa turned left. Immediately my dad was on the CB: “Any reason you turned left there, Dad?”

“No.” We drove through a nearby Kmart parking lot to turn around, and proceeded on our way.

(“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.”)

To get back on the highway, we needed to turn right out of McDonald’s parking lot; but Grandpa turned left. Immediately my dad was on the CB: “Any reason you turned left there, Dad?”

“No.” We drove through a nearby Kmart parking lot to turn around, and proceeded on our way.

It was raining when we reached Portland a little over an hour later. I was sleeping in the loft bed above the driver’s seat in the Cobra. There were all kinds of warning signs up there saying not to use the bed while the vehicle was moving, but I had ignored them.

I woke when Grandpa slammed on his brakes at the end of Interstate 84. You have to make a choice there: a right turn takes you to I-5 north or across the Fremont Bridge to I-405; a left turn puts you on I-5 south, crossing the Marquam Bridge and merging with I-405 and Highway 26 heading west to Beaverton and the coast. Suddenly, when faced with the choice, Grandpa wasn’t sure which one to take. (What he didn’t know was that either option would have gotten him to the same place, as long as he crossed the river, since I-5 and 405 make a circle around downtown Portland.) A hasty CB consultation ensued, and we managed to get across the Willamette and on the way to the coast.

Once we crossed the coast range and started south on Highway 101 toward Cannon Beach, the next goal was to see who saw the ocean first—just as we had lifted our eyes to see the mountains as we headed west on I-70 in Colorado. I don’t remember which one of us got that first glimpse, but that’s all it was, as we came around a bend, then it disappeared again.

We passed through Cannon Beach and continued on to Arch Cape, where we would be staying. To make things easier on us, Bob had walked up the road so he could direct us back to the large grey house called “Casa Pacifica.” We had finally arrived.

Over the course of the next few days, we got sunburned on the beach, attempted to dig for clams (but didn’t actually find any), some of us went fishing for sturgeon while others drove into Portland to go shopping, and we generally had a great time.

Toward the end of the week it started to rain (what did we expect, really; we were in Oregon, after all), and we were all cooped up inside the house. Even in a close-knit family, that’s a sure recipe for getting on one another’s nerves, and this we did with a vengeance.

Then on our last night there, some of Bob’s friends from Portland came out—his partner Kevin, Roberta and her brother Steve, and some others—and we cooked steaks they had asked us to bring all the way from Kansas. Kevin brought name tags, since Bob’s friends didn’t know us and we didn’t know them. But we weren’t exactly cooperative. Some of us chose not to wear the name tags. My dad and Richard switched theirs, and I had mine upside down on the back of my sweater. After supper we played a long, rousing game of a brand-new board game called Pictionary, which Steve and I won.

Family togetherness was fun again (as another one of the Songs of Ascents, Psalm 133, says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”), but the next day it was time to leave. Trusting, as before, in the One who keeps Israel and watches over our lives, we said our goodbyes, stopping at Yellowstone on the way home.