I remember it like it was yesterday - my first big cross country journey. I had been invited by my best friend Jay's famly to go with them to Seattle for their church's international youth conference. We were traveling by car and staying in a camper that was towed behind us. But first, I had to pack.
Ten minutes of careful consideration and three minutes of throwing all the jeans, pullover shirts, socks and underwear that I owned into a duffel bag and I was ready to go meet Elliott. It's good to be fourteen.
Elliott was the name Jay's dad had given to the little pop-up camper. When I asked him "why Elliott?", he just grinned at me and said, "why because he's just dragon along behind us!"
No, I did not just mispell draggin' as dragon. He meant dragon. As in Pete's Dragon, Elliott. From the movie. Get it? Neither did I.
We took off from Indiana on a beautiful Monday morning. Driving past vast corn fields we headed for Illinois - taking in that state's golden, waving fields of corn. Finally we crossed the western border into Iowa...the corn state. Once, Iowa was home to the most beautiful grassland the world had ever seen; prairie grass so high it topped the wagon wheels as the settlers rode west in the early 1800s. You could have fooled me. All I saw was corn on it's way to being "knee high by the fourth of July."
Finally our first day came to a stop at a KOA camp on the outskirts of Des Moines. A KOA camp is a place where people can park their RVs, campers or pitch their tents for a night. A few bucks allowed you to pull in, hook up, enjoy a hot meal, and shop in the little store that sold all the things you forgot to bring (like toothbrushes).
My favorite part of the camp, though, was hovering around the other campers. All of them, it seemed, were going somewhere different: Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Pike's Peak, Mount Rushmore, the Redwood Forest, the Grand Canyon. You name it, someone at that camp was headed there. And, it seemed, no matter where you were headed, somebody else in the camp had just been there.
We would be traveling through the Badlands of South Dakota the next day and making our way up to Mount Rushmore. The camp was full of people who had just been there, and the advice was flowing free and frequent.
One older man in particular, though, had caught my ear. He and his son were traveling on motorcycles across the country in the opposite direction from us. Patiently he advised me to not miss the grandeur of the Badlands in my hurry to see Mount Rushmore.
"You don't have to worry about that," I replied. "I'm not driving, and he never hurries." I used my thumb to indicate Jay's dad who was having a lively conversation of his own with a group across the path.
"That's not what I meant," the old man answered me. He was easily in his mid-forties. Like I said: Ancient. "I mean take some time to look at the sights along the way to where you're going. You don't want to miss the beauty that God has put there for you to enjoy."
The old biker pulled a bedroll off the back of his ride and walked past me towards his tent."Tomorrow, I'm headed back the way you just came. Tell me what I can expect to see along the way."
"Corn." I could almost taste it as I spoke the word and it sent a shudder of distaste up my spine.
"What else?" He asked.
"Nothing. Just corn."
"Must have made for a beautiful sunset. All that flat farmland with nothing between you and the horizon."
Suddenly the line "amber waves of grain" from "America the Beautiful" popped into my head. I hadn't watched the sunset. The wise old man watched knowingly as the revelation washed across my face. I had already missed a national treasure.
As I rolled up into my sleeping bag that night on Elliot's floor, I vowed that I wouldn't look past what's in front of me again. I think I did a pretty good job of taking it all in for the rest of that trip, but, to this day, the sights and sounds of that campground are still some of the most vivid memories I have.
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