Monday, February 27, 2012

How to Survive when the Unexpected Strikes

When mentioning Leavenworth, Washington in casual conversation I find I get two responses, the person has either never heard of the Bavarian-like village located near Stevens Pass, or if they have they’ve never visited. I’ve had the incredible pleasure of staying there the past two Presidents Day weekends as part of the leadership for a High School Winter Retreat, but this year was far more of an adventure than last. I would like to share four important things I learned through my experience that will help in my writing career.

1. When we pick up a book it’s generally because we want a break from our normal. We crave something new, something unexpected. That generally isnt the case when in a van full of teens.

When it comes to a 9-hour roadtrip in a van full of high schoolers, you try to plan for unexpected contingencies such as extra bathroom/snack stops. But it doesn’t matter how early you leave when nature decides to dump a winter’s worth of snow on you and stretches that last 100 miles into an additional 3 hours of travel time because you’re forced to crawl at school zone speeds or risk becoming one of the several overturned cars you pass on a highway where there is little-to-no cell phone reception.

2. When the unexpected happens you have two choices: Try to pass the job off to someone else or adapt quickly.

Despite the whining and cramping of major groups of muscles, we did make it to our destination sooner than some of the other churches (who lived closer to Leavenworth than us Southern Oregonians), however, when it was time to head out the next day to enjoy the aforementioned dumped snow I was unexpectedly asked to help shuttle the students 5 minutes down the road to the snowpark.

I’ve driven in snow and ice before, but it’s been several years (I happily don’t live in a location where that skill is overly necessary), and I’ve never driven a 15-passenger van in those conditions. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having a sudden stomachache, sweaty palms, and a very pale face — and it didn’t get any better when I turned the key in the ignition and nothing happened. A third try had more success and I managed to safely ferry a group of crazy boys to the slopes while I myself curled up in the lodge and kept an eye on anyone who preferred staying warm to freezing their toes off.

3. When the unexpected suddenly compounds itself you have two more choices: Become a complete basket case or find a guy with mechanical skills and hope a text to your support group back home gets through.

Getting a little help from a friend. Photo ©John Bates 2012
When a van doesn’t start the first time you pass it off as a fluke from the cold. When you need to get frozen kids home and all you hear is a click when you turn the key you imagine yourself running through the woods from a pack of wolves. Grab a couple of guys to check the battery and discover that’s not the problem, you panic. When someone mentions a mechanic is needed and your starter is probably bad you picture yourself up a tree with the wolves circling below. Open your wallet to pull out the church’s debit card so you can go get parts if necessary only to discover it’s not there and that tenuous bough breaks right under you.

I checked every pocket, every bag I owned, and retraced every step from the night before and throughout the day until I was dizzy. All I could think of was having to make a phone call to the head of the church board to have the card canceled and wondering if I had enough money in my bank account to get everyone back home again. The only thing keeping me from bawling was that I was wearing non-waterproof mascara.

Fortunately for me, I wasn’t lost in that frozen wasteland alone. My friend Phil, who was there with his group from Seattle, is an amazing mechanic and showed me how to get a starter to unfreeze by banging it with a rock. We were then able to get the van under a covering so we could get out of the slush. Once there he was able to determine the culprit was a loose starter cable, not the starter itself. A screwdriver and a Northface snow coat used as a tarp soon had us up and running again.

Oh, and in case you’re still wondering about that lost debit card. It was safe and secure in the wallet of the man who drove our group from Grants Pass to Leavenworth and back again. His elderly mother lives there and our trip gave him and his wife an excuse to spend the weekend with her and to take care of a few projects around her home that needed to be done. Had I thought to call him first, I would have been out a ton of worry.

4. Tension sucks in the moment, but boy does it make for a great story later on!

Despite the panic, the retreat ended up being an incredible success. I was able to build new and stronger relationships with some of the students. I was able to share things about my life at their age that will, I hope, help them through some of their own struggles. And, as I mentioned before, I learned some things about myself that will help make my writing better.

We spend so much time trying to avoid tension and stress in our personal lives it’s easy to forget that we pick up books because those are the specific situations we’re looking for. We want to see how someone responds to a bad situation that is bound to get worse before it gets better (or not). That tension is something the first draft of my WIP was sorely lacking. Like the van, it’s not a total disaster that requires an entire rebuild; I just need a rock, a screwdriver, a coat, and a willingness to be out in the cold for a while to get it up and running properly again.

So now, with those stomach cramps, nightmares, and sudden panic attacks still fresh in my mind, it’s time to go back to those wimpy chapters and put my own protagonist through a nightmare or two of his own. He’ll hate life now, but he’ll be grateful for the experience later on.


  1. Great story. Glad you and all the kids survived. I could almost feel the panic. I'm so glad you didn't have to scurry up any trees.

    1. You and me, both! It was an incredible weekend that stretched me in more than one way. I'll most likely be sharing more down the road.

  2. Great mission story, Jen. Greg