I am leaving on a trip, today, but the journey really began more than twenty-four years ago. I am going on a vacation which includes attending my twenty year reunion at the Coast Guard Academy. The four years I spent there were amazing, difficult, and life-changing. It is my first time going back since graduation, and it feels like I am digging up a time capsule. As the time draws closer, my excitement builds to see the place that shaped me and the people who shared so many experiences with me. This week it has been difficult to sleep. More and more I have been reflecting on the road that first took me to the academy.
In my tenth grade English class we read the novel, A Separate Peace, which recounts a young man’s experiences at a boarding school in New England during World War II. I suspect that the way that story made me feel was part of what drew me to the academy. I was seventeen when I left home, just three days after high school graduation. I remember that my parents woke me up early because they were too excited to sleep. The travel trailer was hitched up, and the three of us piled into the pickup truck, which had been purchased with this trip in mind. My parents were fulfilling their promise that, if I was accepted to the Coast Guard Academy, they would make a vacation of driving me there. Born and raised in California, I had never been further east than Utah, but I was moving to Connecticut.
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.
The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.
Psalm 121:1-2, 5-8
Dawn broke as we started off across the desert toward Nevada. We put in a lot of miles that day. Early the second day, we were into Colorado. I watched the Colorado river get smaller as our altitude increased, until it was just snow-melt along the side of the interstate. The third day, the scenery changed to corn fields. We spent a night in Iowa, and for the first time on the trip, I got out my running shoes. That first pair of Nike’s were the most expensive pair of shoes I’d ever owned. I still remember the trip to the only sporting goods store in town; the purchase was a big deal in my family. My father had taken up running at the age of forty-seven so that he could look after me while I exercised during our trip. We knew we were making lasting memories as we ran together along a road surrounded by corn fields. Back at the campground, I saw fireflies for the first time in my life.
After a week of driving, we arrived in my grandparents’ home town in Pennsylvania. We parked our trailer in a campground owned by my father’s elderly aunt and uncle. It wasn’t open to the public, so it was just us. We stayed and visited with family and friends that my father hadn’t seen since he was a teenager. My favorite memories of staying there are my runs with Daddy along the road behind the campground. It was wooded, and the air smelled sweet, almost like an artificial air freshener. Having grown up in the desert, that was where I got my first experiences with exercising in high humidity. But it was beautiful and serene.
We went on a day trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It rained, and we bought fudge. We spent a few days camped in Gettysburg, taking in the historical sites. I remember the hills, there. My father often recalls that as the point when I pulled away from him on our runs. It was sheer determination. Every hill was a mental battle, and I would not allow myself to quit. We spent the third of July in Philadelphia, taking in more history. The 4th of July we were able to spend with my father’s cousins. It was the first time I had been around fireworks on the 4th of July because they were illegal where I grew up.
The heart of man plans his way,
But the LORD establishes his steps.
We eventually made it to Connecticut. I remember the butterflies in my stomach as we first drove past the academy on our way to our campground. It was my first time seeing it in person, and I was excited and afraid. Looking back, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But I know for sure that God sent me there. In the tenth grade, the same year that I read A Separate Peace, I had plans to go to the University of Redlands and major in English Writing. I had never even heard of the Coast Guard Academy. Having decided on a major in the Humanities, I chose to skip math my Junior year. It never occurred to me that I would end up at an engineering school. But God closed the door to what I had thought I wanted and flung the door to the academy wide open. Moving three thousand miles from home was a step of faith. Life never goes according to our plans, and I can’t say that things worked out how I thought they would. But going to the academy is the best decision I ever made. It is the best journey I’ve ever taken. I see the overflow of God’s goodness to me in allowing me to experience that adventure of a lifetime. Now He is sending me back.