Last month, my husband and I took our kids on vacation to a national park. We were all itching to escape the Midwest humidity and camp in the mountains. We pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead for our first day of hiking and stared at each other. Dozens and dozens of people were spilling out of vehicles and trekking toward the trail. Not a single empty spot was to be seen.
My husband and I discussed driving back down the road 15 minutes to the shuttle bus or making a lap around the parking lot in hopes that a space would open. My husband suggested he drop me off at the end of the lot so I could watch for anyone about to leave. Just as I hopped out, I saw a couple getting into their car.
“Do you mind if we have your spot?” I asked.
They said we were welcome to it.
I thanked them and stepped into the empty spot to wait for my family.
“Hey!” A park ranger suddenly appeared, briskly walking towards me. “Hey! You can’t do that! You need to move! You can’t save parking spaces!”
“I understand, sir, but my husband is just right there,” I said, motioning to our truck coming around the far side of the parking lot.
“I don’t care! You can’t save spots! Nobody can save spots! You need to move right now!” he said waving his hands as if to shoo me along.
I wanted to laugh. His voice and the intonation of his words reminded me of the gate guard from The Wizard of Oz. “Nobody can see the Great Oz! Not nobody, not no how!”
Then I wanted to yell, “Give me a break, dude! You have no idea the amount of time and effort it took to get here. I am physically tired from planning, packing, and repacking then driving eight hours with four children who ate through all the snacks within the first 100 miles. And now I’m emotionally overwhelmed. We were hoping to enjoy the mountains as a family, not share the park with half of America. I was not expecting all of this!”
But I stopped myself. And I prayed, “Hail Mary, full of grace. Please lend me some of yours.”
I looked at this man. He was not expecting all of this. This crowd. This parking lot. This new job description. The eyes from behind his neoprene mask looked tired. The white hair under his park ranger hat was dripping with sweat. His sturdy brown boots showed wear and tear. I’m sure he never expected to manage people in a pandemic during his park service career.
I stepped away from the empty parking space and onto the sidewalk with him. “Sir, we are all just trying to do our best.”
A minivan slid into the spot I had hoped to save for my family. Everyone inside was smiling. I could see kids in the back bouncing with anticipation. I was genuinely happy for them.
“What?” he took a step backward.
“We are all just trying to do our best right now,” I smiled at him.
He raised his arms up in the air and let them fall to his sides in exasperation. Then he turned on his heel and walked toward the other side of the parking lot.
My husband drove around the corner just as an SUV backed out of a space.
“Good job, dear! Did you find this spot just now?”
Something like that.
We unloaded, grabbed the CamelBak and sunscreen, made sure the youngest was actually wearing shoes, and took off for the trail. We stopped by a little bridge at the trailhead to admire the water when a voice asked, “Would you folks like a map?”
I turned to see the park ranger. I smiled. He nodded at me.
He offered my kids maps and explained how the stream under the bridge was fed by the waterfall which in turn was created by the mountain snow melting. One of my children noticed the number of long sticks piled at the bottom of the stream.
“Those are from people who decided to toss in their hiking sticks once they got down the trail,” the ranger said.
“Doesn’t that make a mess after a while? Doesn’t it dam up the stream?” my daughter asked.
“Sometimes. But the water just does the best it can to go around the sticks and make its way downstream.”
Indeed. We are all just doing the best we can to make our way downstream.