“We do not remember days, we remember moments.” – Cesare Pavese
“Daddy, is Grammy goin’ to Goosa?” my three year old daughter McKinley asked me when I roused her from her bed early on a May morning.
“What?” I replied. I had no idea what she was talking about. She reiterated, but it was of little help. Besides, I was distracted by the fact she needed to get dressed and ready for our annual trip to Sonlight Christian Camp that morning. Over the course of the next hour or so, I think she asked the question another two or three times. Frustrated with me, she finally asked her grandmother, my wife Liza’s mother Barb.
“Grammy, are you going Goosa today?”
Barb looked as perplexed as I did. “No, we’re staying at your house to look after the doggies while you’re gone,” she explained. Somehow satisfied with the answer, she didn’t ask again that morning. Instead, she focused her attention on her Elsa doll while Liza and I hurriedly finished our last minute packing. We were on the road by 10am for what has become one of our most anticipated rituals.
My parents have been participating in their church’s yearly volunteer work trip to Sonlight Christian Camp in Pagosa Springs for close to twenty years now. I joined them for the first time in 2008, the summer after I moved to Colorado from our family’s hometown of Wichita. Liza joined us in 2011, and along the way we’ve only missed one year—2015 when my our son Denali blessed us 3 months early and spent 51 days in the NICU.
Sonlight’s location, hidden away in a corner of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado, is reason enough to visit each year. But it’s really the friendships, the fun, and the work of supporting an exceptionally good cause which keeps us coming back. And to be honest, the awesome drive to get there, through some of the most scenic landscapes in Colorado, doesn’t hurt either.
We planned to stop at the Coyote Cantina near Buena Vista, a favorite Mexican joint at the foot of the dramatic Sawatch Mountains. We were aghast to find it closed—repossessed by the county for failure to pay their taxes. Lesson for restaurant owners: Pay your taxes; don’t leave people hanging for good Mexican food. Plan B for lunch ended up being K’s Burgers in Buena Vista, which gives its customers an order pick up name of a famous person instead of just an ordinary pick up number. Ours was Antonio Banderas, and it was indeed a badass feeling to walk up to the counter after hearing over the loudspeaker “Antonio Banderas, your order is ready.” I was thankful for the good fortune that our pick up name wasn’t Richard Simmons, as that would ordinarily be my luck.
Over Poncha Pass to the San Luis Valley we drove, flanked by the rugged Sangre De Christos, then into the San Juans up Wolf Creek Pass, one of the great mountain drives in the United States. Atop the pass, a recent spring snowstorm laid a soft blanket of fresh snow, pristine and unusually void of ski tracks or footprints.
Miles later, as we slowly navigated through Pagosa Springs’ quaint downtown, McKinley asked, “Mommy, is this Goosa?” We finally realized what she had been asking that morning. Unable to pronounce Pagosa, she had shortened and slightly modified it to “Goosa.” In the days leading up to the trip, Liza and I had many conversations about Sonlight within earshot of McKinley, and the always observant munchkin soaked up every word.
This is anticipation. This is Sonlight.
Our one year old son Denali might have been the first one to make new friends at Sonlight. Not long after we arrived on Wednesday, shortly after the rest of the group from Wichita, one of the new staff members vowed that he and Denali were going to be best friends. Jake, in his early twenties, had a faith as deep as his desire to make Denali his best friend ever. They sat together for lunch and dinner every day in the camp’s lodge.
Like a good best friend should be, Jake was a positive influence on Denali. Denali had developed a habit of throwing food instead of eating it. He would grab a handful of whatever he was eating, slowly turn his head to look directly at me, give me a wry smile, and swiftly chuck his food into the air behind him. I would have to scold Denali and apologetically explain to whomever was sitting at the table behind us that, no, that was not manna from heaven. After which, of course, more of Denali’s dinner would come raining down on them. Despite the age and language barrier, Jake worked with his new best friend and, by the end of our stay at Sonlight, convinced him eating food was better than throwing it.
It was fascinating to watch McKinley bond with the other members of our group as well. “Would you like to dance?” she asked Virgil on Saturday after dinner in the lodge. Virgil is a sprightly and good-natured 80 year old with a full head of white hair and always—always—a joke to tell. McKinley’s random request seemed to surprise Virgil at first, but almost immediately his look transformed to pure delight.
“It’s been fifty years since a young lady asked me to dance,” he said, laughing. Two years ago, God called Virgil’s wife, Donna, home. She was one of the most gracious and joyful souls I’ve ever known. The main path linking Sonlight’s buildings is now called “Donna’s Path,” and a plaque next to the path near the parking lot commemorates her many contributions to the camp.
Decades faded from Virgil’s face as he and McKinley danced to a song only they could hear. I’m not sure who was leading whom, but I don’t think it mattered. McKinley had a new friend, and Virgil’s huge smile indicated he was lost sometime in the 1950s again.
This is friendship. This is Sonlight.
The lousy cell phone service at Sonlight is one of its greatest assets. It’s a place you can get away from the normal distractions of the world, where we are forced to break off the relationships with our devices and start forming bonds with other actual human beings. Liza and I spent all three days replacing the deck in front of the camp’s lounge and lodge, working closely with my dad and our friend Larry Newland, and getting to know new Sonlight staffer Jake Schroeder. Replacing decking and joists in the harsh high attitude sun can be exhausting work, so Liza and I retired to the camp’s hot tubs almost every night. There we sat in the rejuvenating warm water, under a blanket of a billion stars, and talked about things we almost never have the time or opportunity to discuss. We talked about our hopes and plans for the future, and for the first time I was able to ask questions about Liza’s then budding foray into Beach Body and life coaching. We talked about the challenges of parenthood and our strategies to overcome them. We talked about our philosophies on life, things that we believe in, dreams we share.
Nightly Mexican Train domino games are one of the hallmarks of our group’s time at Sonlight. While everyone is a good sport and the primary goal is to have fun, they are at times pretty competitive. In a way, they remind me of the joke, “How do you get a sweet little 80-year-old lady to say the F word? Get another sweet little 80-year-old lady to yell BINGO!” My own mother is either the most skilled or the most diabolical (maybe both?) domino player on this planet. Whoever sits to her left, thereby playing the turn after hers, is doomed to a night of satisfying doubles, drawing new tiles, ludicrously high points, and just generally losing.
Stories are a recurring and favorite activity at Sonlight. This year, Sonlight co-founder and Executive Director Winston Marugg shared one about a trip he and his wife, Sonlight’s Co-founder and Doer-of-all-Things Mary, took high in the Himalaya when they were young adventurers. Called the Annapurna Circuit, this 100-mile, 20-day hike sits just one notch below Kilimanjaro on my adventure to do list, so I hung on Winston’s every word. “We were hiking up a pass near 18,000 feet,” he recalled, “and we were really struggling. We were just huffing and puffing—exhausted. We would take one step and have to rest–we weren’t sure we were going to make it. Just then, we noticed coming down the pass was a guy with one leg and on crutches. And he was moving fast. He was probably about 75 years old, and he had a Sherpa carrying most of his stuff who was struggling to keep up with him. Well, we figured if this guy 50 years older than us could do it, so could we, so we kept going. We finally reached the top of the pass, and we stopped to do a selfie. This was in the days before cell phones or even digital cameras, so Mary set up our film camera on a rock a few feet away and set a 20 second timer. But because the air was so thin and we were moving like slow motion, Mary couldn’t make it back in time to pose with me. It wasn’t a digital camera so we couldn’t instantly check the picture, so when we had the film developed later we found out we got a great picture of Mary’s back side.”
This is unplugging and reconnecting. This is Sonlight.
We could see the glow of Denver’s lights on the horizon for almost an hour, speeding back towards the city on highway 285. We’ve seen it many times before. Tonight, however, it made both Liza and I feel a little different. As we crested a hill and saw the expanse of lights of the southern metro area before us, Liza broke the long silence.
“Isn’t this a little overwhelming compared to where we’ve been the last few days?” she asked. I had been thinking the exact same thoughts. “I’m not sure I appreciate the frantic, hectic pace of all the people around here anymore. Everyone is so worried and so caught up about where they’re trying to get to that they don’t give a damn whether the person next to them is having a good day,” she added.
It was an astute observation. For instance, riding the light rail into downtown during the morning commute is a case study of people building invisible barriers between themselves and others who are sitting or standing just inches away. In the eight years I have lived in Denver, the metro area has added more than a half million people, and in the past year or two the area has become the fastest growing city in the United States. Traffic has become noticeably worse since I moved here, and this is an observation from a relatively new resident. I can’t imagine the perspective of someone who has lived here for thirty years or more. It’s ironic to me that as our cities become more crowded, we become less connected to each other.
I was reminded of an experience that very morning at a gas station in Pagosa Springs. Three people wished me a good morning or asked me how I was doing—and only one of them was an employee of the station. Leaving the station, one guy held the door for me and talked to me like he had known me for years, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have a secret twin that lives in Pagosa. I thanked him for holding the door for me. “Yeah sure, no worries. Have a great day,” he said. In Denver, you may get a “sure”, or if you’re lucky, a “you’re welcome.”
I realized there’s a difference between politeness and friendliness. Modern 21st century life has its advantages, but one of them is not the connection between humankind. Despite globalization making the world seem smaller, and your friend posting hundreds of pictures of their kid on Facebook, we are somehow growing further apart. But then, there was the guy who held the door for me at the gas station in Pagosa, and the people inside who asked me how I was doing. I guess there are still places we can go where we don’t bury our faces in our phones, where we smile at each other and say hi, where the main concern for all of us at any moment is not where we need to be in ten minutes.
This is perspective. This is Sonlight.
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It’s moments like these that will make us return to Sonlight year after year. There is more to our work trips than just supporting a worthy cause, which normally would be reason enough for us to go. But Sonlight is special; managed and staffed by extraordinary people. I’ve always thought it is a place that cannot be explained, it must be experienced. It also cannot be contained, as its spirit extends far beyond the camp—it can be found in the anticipation we feel every year, in our relationships with camp staff and our work group, in Pagosa Springs, and most importantly, in our hearts.