American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 1: Preparation

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

One month prior to spring break, Daniel and I sat down with our calendars and an atlas. We put our heads together and figured out where we could go for a week on the cheap.

The beach was an obvious choice. Unfortunately, the beach was an obvious choice. Everyone goes to the beach during spring break.

Going abroad wasn’t an option, because Daniel doesn’t have a passport (yet). Plus, the cost to get out of the United States is typically high, even though things might be cheaper once you do get out of the country.

We really didn’t want to take a “traditional” spring break trip, and we really wanted to go somewhere we’d never been before and do something we’d never done before. For both of us, that meant visiting a state we’d not yet crossed off the list.

I’m fond of the American West, so I started looking at places out that way that we could get to in two days or less on the road. Of course, they also needed to be interesting enough for me and entertaining enough for Daniel.

After a little research, I pointed at a spot in southwest Utah. “How about Zion National Park?”

We looked at pictures online and I looked at the trail reports on the National Park Service’s website. It didn’t take much convincing once Daniel saw the beauty of the area and how much there was to do there.

Little did we know how much there is to do out there.

With a location decided upon, we began to research transportation and lodging. Camping was an obvious choice due to how cheap it is to camp in a national park. Driving in my truck meant that we could go where we wanted and carry all the gear we needed, rather than try to stuff it into carry-ons and check bags on an airplane. (Plus, neither of us are old enough to affordably rent a car if we ever fly anywhere.)

One thing most people don’t know is that there are tons of places where it is free to camp across the United States. Much of the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS) is free to camp on with a fourteen-day maximum stay. For RVers, Wal-Marts and other large retailers tend to accommodate overnight “boondocking” in their parking lots. The website FreeCampsites.net has an interactive map with thousands of such free locations documented across the U.S.

With this in mind, our plan was to free-camp our way to Zion rather than stay in hotels. I picked out places for every night, including in Cibola National Forest outside Albuquerque and Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, UT.

Our initial itinerary was to leave DFW early on Friday the 8th and drive to Albuquerque, and then drive to Zion on the 9th. We would stay in Zion until the 13th, when we would then drive to Monument Valley for a couple days before reversing our route and coming back home. We would be back on Saturday the 16th, which would give us one day to rest up before re-entering the “real world” (or a day of cushion in case something happened on the way back).

Then Mom and Dad stepped in and basically demanded that we get “real” lodging on our way.

And then one of Daniel’s professors moved an exam forward from after spring break to the day we were supposed to leave, which meant we wouldn’t get to leave until 11AM at the earliest.

At first, I felt like these two setbacks wrecked the plan, but strangely they helped solidify the itinerary. I decided to reverse the trip: we would drive to Monument Valley first since it was closer, then to Zion, and then back home. We could still travel a good distance on half of Friday and all of Saturday. And, blessedly, Daniel’s professor agreed to let him take the exam earlier that Friday the morning, meaning we could leave sooner than we otherwise could have.

Instead of staying in Albuquerque the first night, I booked a room at the Best Western in Santa Rosa, NM, and then a room at Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley for the next night. We then booked the South Campground for five nights in Zion (booking for the South Campground opens up only fourteen days in advance), and an AirBNB casita in Albuquerque for the trip back.

Whew! Everything did indeed fall into place.

Next, we had to get our gear together. We had most of the camping gear already: tent, Therm-A-Rests, mummy-style sleeping bags. We opted for a newer but smaller Coleman tent that Daniel used on a recent trip to Big Bend National Park, because the older Walrus tent that we had used in Missouri during the Great American Eclipse leaked in a great deluge even though I waterproofed it. Otherwise, we took the obvious camping and survival items: hiking boots, knives, many ways to start a fire, mylar blankets, rain ponchos, and the like.

I’ll pause the narrative a minute and note that I will occasionally hyperlink to Amazon pages for products that we used on this trip. These are affiliate links, meaning that if you buy the product through the link on this page, I get a small kickback from your purchase. Don’t feel obligated to buy anything at all, but if there’s something I write about that you would like to buy, I’d appreciate it if you did so through my link.

And with that PSA out of the way, back to the story.

Our camping in Zion would be primitive in the sense that there was no electric hookup or shower. A camp restroom and a spigot were thirty or so yards from our reserved campsite in the South Campground. We would be cooking our own meals, something we’d never really done before. And, we’d be doing it in what was likely to be cold, potentially wet weather.

Two weeks before we left, we drove to the closest Wal-Mart Supercenter and loaded up on canned goods: Campbell’s soups, green beans, spinach, tuna, you name it. We bought some of the cured “mystery meat” sausage, as well as crackers, trail mix, and cups of mandarin oranges and peaches.

For breakfast, we decided on grits, since neither of us like oatmeal. To prepare it all, I bought a Stanley cooking kit to complement a one-person cooking kit I already had.

We were going to eat and we were going to eat well.

For water, I purchased two Aqua-Tainers in anticipation of free-camping. It turns out that I didn’t need two (and probably not even one), but I went with the old rule of thumb that every person needs a gallon of water per day. With two people and at least seven days of travel, that would be fourteen gallons, exactly two Aqua-Tainers.

Due to concerns about the weather, I also bought us each a base layer and crampons for our hiking boots. For cleanliness, I bought some body wipes and dry shampoo (since manly men with flowing manes need to keep oil at bay, too), since we wouldn’t have access to a shower unless we paid $5 for four minutes in the nearby town of Springdale.

The day before we left, I got Vader the truck washed and waxed (so he would cut through the air better on the open road), then came home and loaded up what I could. I stored all the food in the two Plano containers that I carry around in Vader’s bed, and loaded the sleeping bags, cookware, and other miscellaneous things into the extended cab.

For campfire-building, Dad helped me pack some old wood that had been covered up in the backyard into a Rubbermaid container. All the camping gear was already stored in an old Action Packer container. I simply loaded these into the bed and pulled the tonneau cover shut. I also took the old Coleman camp stove and three cans of propane just in case.

And with that, we were pretty much ready. All that remained was for Daniel to take his exam, load up the last few things, and then hit the road the next day.

The big day: Loaded for bear and ready to roll!

Bro-Trip Report: Zion National Park and the American Southwest

The view from the top of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park. Very strenuous, 4 miles long, and an elevation change to 1,500 feet, but completely worth it!

With spring break around the corner and no plans, Daniel and I put our heads together. Where could we go that would be exciting, affordable, and something that we’d never done before?

The beach was an option, but everyone does that over spring break. So was skiing, but that’s expensive.

Looking at the map and using my rudimentary knowledge of the American West and National Parks, I put together an itinerary and proposed a trip.

With approximately a week and a day to work with, I determined that we could drive to Zion National Park (near Springdale, UT), camp there, and use that as a base from which to explore the park and the surrounding area. Both on the way there and coming back we would be able to stop and do things along the way to break up long stretches of driving.

I ran the plan by Dan the Man, and he liked it. We would spend spring break in the American Southwest, specifically in Zion National Park.

Daniel enjoying a dinner of beef ravioli, green beans, and Ritz crackers in the South Campground.

It would be a trip unlike any we’d ever done before. We’d be camping five nights in Zion, cooking our own meals every morning and evening, and over a thousand miles away from our family, or really anyone who could help us if something went awry.

Initially, the plan was to drive about eight hours a day to get to Zion and camp every night during the whole trip to save money. Mom and Dad (thankfully) steered us away from that option due to the sheer amount of time and effort required to set up and break camp. It would quickly get old. Instead, we opted to stay at motels and AirBNBs along the way, and set up camp only once when we arrived in Zion.

We left DFW on Friday the 8th and drove to Santa Rosa, NM, and then from Santa Rosa to Monument Valley, UT on the 9th. On the 10th, we drove to Zion, and then stayed there through the morning of the 14th. From there, we started back home, stopping overnight in Page, AZ and then in Albuquerque, NM. We arrived back home on Saturday the 16th.

Sunrise in Monument Valley, viewed from our motel balcony at Goulding’s Lodge.

During our trip, we did the following:

  • Ate steaks at The Big Texan in Amarillo (no, we didn’t try the 72 oz. steak challenge)
  • Visited Walter White’s (Breaking Bad) house in Albuquerque
  • Hiked the White House Ruins trail in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, AZ
  • Drove through Monument Valley, AZ/UT
  • Took lots of dam photos in Page, AZ
  • Tent-camped four nights in Zion National Park and weathered wind, rain, and frost
  • Conquered Angel’s Landing (1500 foot ascent with chains)
  • Walked through Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, NV
  • Climbed dunes in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Kanab, UT
  • Saw mule deer and bighorn sheep in Zion
  • Checked out Horseshoe Bend outside Page, AZ
  • Walked around the rim of Meteor Crater near Winslow, AZ
  • Took the obligatory “standin’ on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” photos
  • Successfully resolved a check engine light in Albuquerque on the way back
  • Built three campfires
  • Made numerous s’mores
  • Drove almost 3,000 miles in Vader the truck
  • Made memories we’ll never forget!
Looking out over Canyon de Chelly (Chinle, AZ).

Every evening before bed, I journaled the day’s events. Over the coming weeks, I’ll use that journal to help retell this epic trip, day by day, and all our escapades along the way. I’ll share the adventures (and some misadventures) that we got ourselves into, what we learned, and travel tips for those who wish to visit the amazing places that we did. I’ll also share plenty of the amazing photos that Daniel and I took along the way, because we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words (and, in some cases, ten-thousand words).

Stay tuned!

Stop Just Reading The Bible

I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.

Psalm 119:11, English Standard Version

For the past three years, I’d held to a “year through the Bible” approach to my personal Bible time. I’d wake up and get my three or four chapters in, faithfully, day after day. For a couple years, I kept a notebook at my side and wrote down questions that I had about what I read.

Last year, I started the Bible marathon again. I made it through the Old Testament well enough, but by the time I made it to Acts I was losing steam. I had a sort of Bible burnout.

It’s not that I didn’t want to keep reading God’s Word. I realized the problem was that, deep inside, I wanted and needed to slow down. Just like traveling, you can blaze from place to place and see a lot of things, but you really won’t appreciate what you see unless you stop in one place for a few days and take it all in.

I started the year by camping out in Ecclesiastes and letting Solomon’s profound, divinely-inspired wisdom soak in. I supplemented daily chapter and section readings with a devotional called 31 Days to Happiness by Dr. David Jeremiah that Amazon Kindle coincidentally recommended to me.

I will note that, while the devotional is good, it is no replacement for reading Ecclesiastes yourself, just like any devotional is no replacement for reading the Bible yourself. And as a side note, if anyone tries to put words into God’s mouth (ahem, Sarah Young, ahem, ahem), be on your guard. Of course, we Christians should always be on guard anyway (1 Cor. 16:13).

After camping out with Solomon for a couple months, I felt that I should start memorizing some Scripture. When I was in junior high, I learned at a church retreat that young Israelite boys, particularly those preparing for the priesthood, would memorize whole books of the Bible. I figured that if a thirteen-year-old kid from two-thousand-plus years ago could memorize whole books, I could at least memorize some verses and psalms.

Last week, I memorized all of Psalm 1, which makes two psalms I know by heart (the other being Psalm 23, which seems perpetually burned into my memory from childhood). In doing so, I reflected on what I felt were the benefits of memorizing a passage of Scripture, and I concluded three things.

1. Memorizing Scripture is not hard. Like any task, breaking it into manageable chunks makes it easier and more fulfilling. For Psalm 1, I focused on one or two verses a day, reading them from my Bible in the morning, reciting them aloud or in my head throughout the day as best I could, and referencing my Blue Letter Bible app as needed for a refresher. I felt very accomplished when I concluded the day by thinking, “I now know one more verse by heart than I did when I woke up this morning.”

2. The momentum builds. Once you start memorizing Scripture, it gets easier to memorize more. I find that this is especially true with passages such as Psalms and Proverbs. You’ll find that, in many cases, each verse ties into the next, and so you’re not just memorizing words, but whole, coherent thoughts. Getting the ball rolling can be difficult, but once it’s rolling, it’ll keep going.

3. You gain a deeper understanding of the passage. It’s one thing to read verses on a page, like you’d read words in a novel. It’s another to slow down and dissect them for meaning, like you might a classic text. It’s a completely different thing to commit them to memory, because then your mind starts to sift them and process them and your understanding and appreciation of them will increase.

Let’s take Psalm 1:3 for instance.

He [the righteous man] is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

Psalm 1:3, English Standard Version

Pause for a moment and think about that imagery. A tree planted by streams of water might initially conjure up an image of an idyllic, sylvan scene: a tree in a grassy forest by a riverbank. When you consider that the psalmists lived in the Middle East, where water is often a luxury and there is plenty of desert and wilderness to go around, that mental picture might change to one of a Joshua Tree with little other life around (at least for someone like me who’s never been to the Holy Land!).

Let that last sentence sink in: “In all that he does, he prospers.” Isn’t that something you want to commit to memory and meditate on as you go about your day? It might be something you want to think about when life gives you lemons, a Biblical truth you can cling to when the chips are down. It might be something you can turn back to praise when things go well: “Lord, thank you that you have allowed me to succeed in my work!”

To continue this example, let’s take a quick look at the following verse.

The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Psalm 1:4, English Standard Version
This is some sorghum chaff. If it weren’t piled high like this, imagine how easy it would be for a strong wind to blow it away. Photo by sarangib on Pixabay.

Here we see the contrast. In the previous verse, the psalmist talks about the vitality of a righteous man (or woman) and compares him to another living thing, a tree. In this verse, the psalmist compares wicked people to the remnants of harvesting grain: useless and left behind. Note also that the wind doesn’t just blow them away, it drives them away. They are not wafted along in the breeze but are gusted out of existence.

I don’t think there’s anything really profound in what I just wrote above, but these are things that I would have (and actually have) overlooked in daily Bible readings. Even though I believe every Christian should read through the whole Bible (it is God’s Word, all of it!), I also believe every Christian should slow down and smell the roses that God has planted along the way.

As for memorization, I believe there are two things it will do to your spiritual life. Firstly, it will draw you closer to God (James 4:8) as you put a larger focus on His Word. Secondly, it will aid you in times of need. I know there have been times when a verse that I memorized a long time ago pops into the forefront of my mind and sustains me through a time of distress or guides me in making a critical decision. I don’t know that God would bring them to mind if I hadn’t read and remembered them.

If you’d like to start memorizing more Scripture, the best thing to do is to just start today. Start with the Psalms, because they’re poetic and are fairly easy to recite. Start with Psalm 1, even. Do one verse a day until you’ve memorized a whole passage or chapter. Write your verse on a sticky note or notecard or even create a reminder in your phone so you can work on it throughout the day.

And just think: If you memorize one verse a day, you’ll have memorized three-hundred-sixty-five verses in a year. If you memorize one passage a week, you’ll have memorized fifty-two passages in a year. The best part is, you’ll have drawn closer to God and hidden His Word in your heart in the process.

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
and his tongue speaks justice.

The law of his God is in his heart;
his steps do not slip.

Psalm 37:30-31, English Standard Version

Don’t Let Them Steal Your Joy

We all probably know at least one person who has a glass-half-empty perspective. Some of us may even know someone who always think the glass is completely empty. These people are often tough to be around because they can be more depressing than Eeyore!

If you deal with people like this on a frequent basis, no matter who they are and what your relationship with them is, it is taxing in many ways. I believe that a person’s overall health can be quantized to four components that make up a greater whole: physical health, mental health, emotional health, and spiritual health. Being around negative people, or being negative yourself, adversely affects all four.

I’ve noticed the effects of other people’s negativity on my own health. Instead of getting out of bed ready to carpe diem, I find myself dreading the day because I have to deal with that person. Or, an otherwise great day is upended by that person’s comment. At the end of a day dealing with that person, I feel emotionally drained or on-edge (emotional health), am unable to get my mind off of what they said or did (mental health), can feel physically weak from the stress (physical health), and often don’t feel much like talking to God (spiritual health).

I’ve decided that, to the best of my ability, there will be no more of this.

While I can’t be “master of my feelings” (can anyone?), I can make an active choice every day to be joyful. And I can choose to remain joyful even when people around me are walking around with rain clouds hanging over their heads. Even when life taxes me to the limit, I will choose joy.

I will always associate the phrase “choose joy” with a girl I went to high school with named Taylor. I didn’t know her very well, and I only spoke to her a handful of times, but I thought she was a happy person. I remember that she smiled and laughed a lot.

Taylor battled cancer throughout high school before eventually succumbing to it not long after graduating. Through it all, she kept smiling and laughing. She could have become a very pessimistic individual (and I’m sure she felt that way many times), but ultimately she chose joy instead. Now she is experiencing the eternal joy of our Lord, free from the pain and anguish of our limited time on the earth.

In Nehemiah 8, the scribe Ezra is reading the Mosaic Law (the Torah) to the Israelites in Jerusalem, the first time it has been read in years after it was lost during the Game of Thrones-style drama between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. (Read all about it in I and II Kings.) The Israelites at this time had never heard the Law read to them before, even though the Law was, to them, what the Bible is to Christians today.

Think of what it would be like for your great-great-grandchildren to only have knowledge of Jesus Christ through word of mouth because the Bible had been lost to the sands of time. Then imagine that, one day, someone uncovers a pristine copy of the Bible, calls everyone into a great assembly, and begins reading it aloud. That’s approximately what’s happening in Nehemiah 8.

The people begin weeping as they hear the words of the Law (8:9), and that’s when Nehemiah, the governor, steps in and makes what I think is a profound statement. He commands the people to stop crying, to go eat good food and drink good wine, and to rejoice, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10).

Think about that. The joy of the Lord is our strength. God is joyful, and He takes pleasure in His creation, which includes us lowly humans. Even despite our screwups, He loves us so much that He sent His own son, Jesus, to pay the price once and for all that we would each have to pay for our screwups (John 3:16, Galatians 3:13-14). All we have to do is believe in Jesus and follow him.

Photo by Edgar Chomba on Pexels.com

And if we accept that truth, that God is joyful, we will be strengthened by it in all four aspects of our health. We will renew our strength and “mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31, physical health). We will not be conformed to the world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2, mental health). We will cast our anxieties on Him instead of bearing the burden ourselves (1 Peter 5:7). And we will

It’s very easy to get mired into the drama of everyday life, to be like a ship blown about by the waves of circumstance. Life might really be pitiful for you right now. Just remember that there is a God whose joy is your strength, who walks with you and guides you even when you “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). And ultimately, we will be filled with the Holy Spirit (John 14:16) and equipped to endure the spiritual warfare that we all face (Ephesians 6:10-20).

Joy is strength, and joy is vitality. The Lord’s joy is even more so. And I’ve decided that I’m not going to let anyone take my joy away from me. I’m not going to let the Sally Sobstorys of the world bring me down to their level, because if I do, they win, and it gives them license to keep acting that way.

If I lose my joy, it will be on my own terms, not someone else’s. The Lord’s joy will be mine and will give me strength in all aspects.

Choose joy because, even though life is full of pain and hardship, we serve a risen Savior and have hope for an eternity spent with Him in true joy. Choose joy because so many people aren’t joyful in this world, and someone out there needs your joy to give them hope as they struggle. Choose joy because you’re alive and you can start working to make things better today, for yourself and for others.

As for me, I will choose joy. And I won’t let you steal it from me.


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