On the Road with the Archangel by jane mulkey


by Christina Mulkey (experts from blog On the Road with the Archangel)

I’ve been posting pictures of our family travels for several years. I love to capture and/or stage a moment of sweetness and light that’s fit to gaze upon with a happy sigh. I wouldn’t dream of posting a photo that hadn’t been cheered up by one of the editing apps on my phone, either; I want to record how vivid the moment really was, and filters help me do it. But like everyone else who struggles with the blessings and curses of social media, I often feel false when I think of all the things viewers will not see when they look at my dolled-up images. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but some important ones are still omitted from my photo stories. I thought writing about our adventures would provide a fuller description of what actually happens when two middle-aged parents, six kids, and a dog roam the country together in an RV.

I thought writing about our adventures would provide a fuller description of what actually happens when two middle-aged parents, six kids, and a dog roam the country together in an RV.

I just read a great little book by Frederick Buechner called On the Road with the Archangel. It’s a retelling of the apocryphal Book of Tobit, which I’d never heard of, since my Protestant-oriented Bible doesn’t include it. (I started out reading the book to my husband, Brandon, and neither of us was sure what was and wasn’t “apocryphal,” so we wikkied it and took a delightful side trip before we ever got to the story. We found a chart that listed every book included in the Bibles of all the various Christian tribes. I don’t care what anybody says, wikipedia is great, and it is as expansive as the library of Nineveh, as long as your battery holds out.) Anyway, the Book of Tobit and On the Road with the Archangel are set during the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the stories feature parents, children, a dog, and a journey. There’s also an angel, sent by God, to aid the other hapless characters. I like reading Buechner because he writes about people with affection; he makes them likable despite their foolishness and frailty and obliviousness of the jaw-dropping kindness God is extending to them.

Based on the chaotic exit we made from Lubbock on our departure day (one week and one day late), we don’t expect to appear any less ridiculous than the folks in Buechner’s book. Like Tobit, we trust “how, though never condoning the shadows that dwell in the human heart, [the Holy One] is forever dispatching angels of light to deal with them mercifully.”


by Christina Mulkey

Day 1: Groggy after a late night of RV doctoring with Jason (installing a new battery and an alternator), Brandon chauffeured us west toward Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest corner of Colorado. The little girls watched eagerly at the windows for “purple mountain majesty,” but the rest of us were preoccupied with home. We were determined to take one final road trip together, the northwest loop we had delayed last fall because of forest fires. However, our minds had already moved on to the next thing–resuming the routine of school and church and work. It was hard to leave Lubbock. That first night in the campground, we snapped and grumbled in the hot, cramped RV and wondered, some of us quite loudly, why we were still doing this.

Day Two: Scaling wooden ladders and squeezing through rock tunnels to visit cliff dwellings helped revive our sense of adventure. Once we started to unwind, we grew friendlier towards each other, and I remembered a “why” of these trips that is more satisfying than any of the learning moments I’m always struggling to organize; we enjoy each other. I tend to stay focused on the schedule of activities I have planned, and I get antsy when the morning prep drags on or when everyone wants to hang out around the campsite instead of attending an evening ranger program. Brandon keeps me at bay, hoping I’ll eventually notice the richness of the relaxed family banter. It’s hard for me to recognize because the talk is mostly debates about the legitimacy of various comic book heroes or lengthy arguments over which Disney princess a sibling most resembles. When I’m willing to drop my agenda for a little while, I realize how funny the kids are, each in his own style, and how much I like them.

Day Three: Next, we traveled through the Martian landscape of southern Utah. We watched 127 Hours, the gruesome story of a climber who amputated his own arm after it was pinned between a boulder and the wall of a remote slot canyon in a Utah park. This is not necessarily a family movie night recommendation; we hoped the kids would remember the cautionary tale as they scrambled over high, rocky places as if they were invincible. (Jane was practically a teenager before she caught even a glimpse of the scary witch in Sleeping Beauty; now Nan declares proudly that her favorite part of the movie was all the blood.) I tried to stay calm as I watched one child after another disappear over a high ridge above me. It’s the conundrum of the helicopter parent; I want the exhilaration of adventure and exploration for them, but in a careful, antiseptic way, so as to avoid any injury!

Day Four: In Salt Lake City, we enjoyed a reunion with Matt and Michelle Salada, friends we hadn’t seen since we lived in Nashville, and their son Miles. It’s funny to hear other Southerners describe the transition to western living. They echoed our longings for various elements of the old home while appreciating refreshing aspects of the new. On the road, we listened to Unveiling Grace, the story of former Brigham Young University professor Lynn Wilder’s thirty years in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It is a helpful book for someone like me, who never knew any Mormons growing up, but is now surrounded by friends and family members who are LDS, and who wants to understand the cultural and doctrinal distinctives of the LDS church. Wilder finds herself in the uncomfortable position of having to entrust her child to God when the exercise of his young-adult independence seems to be dividing him from his family. It’s a theme of this the exercise of his young-adult independence seems to be dividing him from his family. It’s a theme of this trip, rightly managing the panic that erupts in my belly every time my children cross some invisible boundary I’ve set, whether I’m anticipating a misstep on the steep mountain trail in front of us or considering the looming separation that college will bring in a few weeks. If southern Utah is Mars, then the terrain around the Great Salt Lake is the Moon. Driving over the long causeway to Antelope Island, which is in a corner of the vast dying lake, ghostly clouds of salt blew across the white flats all the way to the horizon. The state park maintains a parking lot with showers for visitors, but getting down to the water is not for the faint of heart. We dashed across hot sands, stumbled through rocky exposed lake bed, and tiptoed through a graveyard of tiny brine shrimp before stepping into the chilly water. Once we waded in, though, it was marvelous to find tiny brine shrimp before stepping into the chilly water. Once we waded in, though, it was marvelous to find ourselves effortlessly bobbing like corks. It’s all fun and games until you swallow a mouthful of salt.

Day Five: In what will probably be recalled as the VERY BEST STOP ON THE WHOLE TRIP, we spent several hours in Preston, Idaho, scouting out film locations from Napoleon Dynamite, a family favorite. Giddy, and communicating primarily in quotes from the movie, we drove up and down the streets of the little town and out into the surrounding countryside, occasionally pausing for a photo. We read online that a local farmer, Dale Critchlow, was persuaded by his neighbor, director Jared Hess, to participate in the movie, and Critchlow welcomes visitors to stop by his home to chat about his role. We had to pay him a visit. When it came down to knocking on the door of a stranger’s house in the middle of nowhere, we felt a little sheepish, but Mr. Critchlow cheerfully donned the hat and shirt of Farmer Lyle and came out to meet us. He’s still farming at 86-years-old, and he’s still full of the same sage advice he offered Kip and La-Fawnduh while presiding over their movie wedding. Hearing that Jane is headed to college, he cautioned, “I hope you’ll go for more than the recreation. If you just go for recreation, you won’t get much out of it.” She’s thinking of cross-stitching that piece of wisdom on a pillow for her dorm room.

“I hope you’ll go for more than the recreation. If you just go for recreation, you won’t get much out of it.”


by Christina Mulkey

At low points during our travels, I’ve wondered, “Why are we doing this?” Especially when the source of the dark moment was a sullen, tearful, or frightened child, the patent “It’s for them!” didn’t always sound convincing. This summer, I blushed to see an answer to my question in print when I read Adam Gopnik’s Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York. In one chapter, Gopnik describes the earnest, hilarious efforts of private school parents to produce the best-yet kindergarten production of Peter Pan. The parents are captivated with the idea of making their little actors fly on stage: “The flying children haunt us; we see them hovering overhead at night, free of wires and entanglements, launched without obvious trickery or cheap effects.” The ridiculousness of the situation is not lost on Gopnik. He asks, “But do the children really want to fly? This is kindergarten, after all, they’re doing well just to tie their shoes and use the bathroom. Is the whole elaborate apparatus we construct ‘to keep from disappointing them’ for us or them?”

“The flying children haunt us; we see them hovering overhead at night, free of wires and entanglements, launched without obvious trickery or cheap effects.”

It’s a question I frequently ask, not only when planning routine-disrupting, year-long excursions across the country, but whenever I’m slogging through the various rituals of “the good life” as prescribed by suburban American culture. Is all of this necessary? Gopnik continues, worrying that the child’s response may not be what we hope for at all, but something more like: “You made me fly, and there I was, so happy on the ground.” Gopnik has hit the mark; this is the exact response of one of my children to our great adventure. He tells people, who ask how he liked our travels, that he will never leave Lubbock again.

Sometimes, it’s delightful to find kinship with a character or situation in a book; other times it’s horribly convicting. “Oh, no,” one shudders, stomach sinking, “That’s me.” I laughed to see myself in Gopnik’s ambitious kindergartener parents, but I’m shaken to think about the implications of another book we listened to recently. Toward the end of our final road trip, we played some stories to prepare for the upcoming start of school. Tom and Jake will read Inferno this year, and I thought listening to Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life would help them see how relevant the poem can be to modern readers. What I didn’t realize is that the context for the story is Dreher’s personal battle against making an idol of his family. In the book, Dreher confesses that he has made family relationships, rather than God, the object of his worship to the point that he is physically ill. I’m not new to this dilemma! I have a difficult time loving a thing without enthroning it in my heart. Think Gollum, moaning after his “precious.”

Had the prospect of family change–Jane leaving for college–so terrified me that my instinct was to shoo everyone into an escape pod and exit the situation? I thought this must be at least a little true. It didn’t invalidate the experience; there were many rewards over the course of this year, but it disturbed me, nonetheless. And now, like Job, the thing I dreaded was upon me.

The week before Jane left was mercifully busy, and the parties, visits, notes, and texts from well-wishers were a soothing balm. I kept my tears in check.

Like many parents, I slept more soundly before having children. Now, I often wake in the night, for no apparent reason, and feel compelled to check on the kids sleeping down the hall. There I was, at 4 A.M. on Jane’s last morning at home, peering worriedly into her dark room. It was still remarkably messy despite being almost empty! This made me smile, but I couldn’t go back to sleep.

The narrow ribbon of highway winding through the Texas Panhandle is loooong. We drove in silence for awhile, still recovering from the first wave of grief that followed last goodbyes to Tom and Jake when Jane dropped them off at school, and the waving, receding figure of a friend, who lingered in the driveway as we pulled away. I kept thinking that I should be imparting some nuggets of wisdom, since it was our last stretch of time together for awhile, but nothing sounded right in my head, so we turned on the radio and sang loudly. Thank goodness for 80’s pop.

As we pulled up to Jane’s dorm, cheers erupted, and a hoard of undergraduates surrounded our cars. In thirty seconds, Jane’s belongings were lifted from the vehicles and deposited in her room. Buoyed on their cheerful greetings, we floated into her room and rushed along the rapids of freshman orientation. It was loud and friendly and busy. No one seemed to notice that Jane trailed an entourage of small children wherever she went. We met nervous parents, giddy students and cheerleading RAs, DDs, and OLs. A staff member, who used to work with a friend at our Lubbock church, stopped by the room to meet Jane and invite her over for dinner. The owner of a shop we were visiting downtown offered her a part-time job. Strangers everywhere, on campus and off, said how glad they were she’d come. The much-adored president of the University, Dr. Pollard, provided one of his signature welcomes, quietly inspiring and reassuring.

All the younger kids liked Siloam Springs. Nan, especially. As soon as she got out of the car, she announced, “Is this it? I LOVE it. I’m definitely going to college here.” I’m choosing to dwell on the cuteness, rather than the possible reality, of this statement for now. In typical Mulkey fashion, we were so busy enjoying our inn room that we missed a couple of parent events, one of which instructed parents that it was now time to leave. Oops.

Back in Lubbock the next evening, I stood in the doorway of Jane’s room, which was soon to be overtaken by eager brothers who’ve been (in their opinions) stacked like sardines in one room for twelve years. A low moan rose out of my belly, one that’s only familiar from the few times in my life when death has visited me closely, and I began to cry. Should I be this overwrought? I wasn’t, like David, being called to entrust my child to God in death, merely to sleep peacefully in Texas while she sleeps in Arkansas. Yet, I couldn’t shake free of fear.

I watched nesting birds fly in and out of the eaves outside Jane’s window. I hate fledgling time. It makes me terribly uncomfortable watching all those ill-equipped babies hopping around on the ground and flapping weak, uncertain wings. I keep my cat on house arrest, and I wonder how the bird mothers can push them out of the nest. I know, as well as their mamas do, that they can’t survive in the nest forever. They have to fly.

How to cope with the sadness that has inevitably arrived, despite my 10,000-mile long escape plan? Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshiped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat. (2 Samuel 12)

In his welcome to students and parents, Dr. Pollard addressed the anxieties of leaving home and starting something new. “Be at peace,” he urged, “You are a beloved child of God.” These are not idle words; Dr. Pollard, like so many other parents, has actually walked David’s road: I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.

So, I will wash my face and worship. I’ll teach math and reading and go to swim team practice and football games in Texas. Jane will wash her face and worship. She will go to class and work and make friends in Arkansas. We will be at peace. We are beloved children of God.

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