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Plan? What Plan?

I have been having a tough time trusting in the unknown. A vacation broke me of that fear. This is the story of how our recent trip to Mexico had no plan. Normally, Kurt and I work full time and the only difference between summer and not summer is the kids are not awake before we go to work.

This year was different. It felt important to do something together as a family to mark nine months since our lives were turned upside down by this brain-stem tumor. And since I felt that the secret of healing was letting go of control, we intentionally created a vacation that left plenty of room for the unknown.

We flew to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico on points with Southwest. When we stepped off the plane, we had no idea where we would sleep that night. We knew we wanted to camp in the two 2-person tents we brought with us, but where? Was it safe? What would we eat? Would I be able to sleep flat on the ground?

We had a map. We had a few scribbled tips from friends on a notepad. We rented a mini-van from a super-enthusiastic young woman at the airport. We had sleeping bags and I had an inflatable pillow that I clung to like a security blanket. We had a phone with a Mexico data plan. The kids had no screens. They entertained themselves on the long drives by blowing into empty glass Coke bottles.

Twenty years ago, before cell phones and Google, Kurt and his friend Scott kayaked the entire length of Baja, on the Sea of Cortez side. It was a two-month journey steeped in trust and the slow pace of a hand-powered boat. They moved through a curious new landscape with Cardón cactus as tall as NBA stars, jagged mountains sliding into the water, Frigate birds with a wingspan of seven feet, and flying fish slapping them in the face. When they were too tired to paddle any further, they pulled their kayaks ashore and ate whatever the locals had to offer. That was the last time Kurt had been here.

Things had changed a little since 1997; the roads around the southern tip of Baja were crowded with cars and construction. There were condominiums and conference centers where there were only cactus and quail before. This time, Kurt also had a wife (that’s me ?) and two kids, aged 11 and 13, none of whom knew anything about where we were.

We opened the map, and aimed for areas off the beaten path: sheltered bays on the east coast, out of the wind and away from other spring break tourists. The first night, we didn’t have enough daylight to make it to the coast, so we looked for a place to sleep inland. We had heard there was a waterfall nearby. But we didn’t know where.

When we had been driving on a dirt road with no road signs for an hour, I imagined us stranded in the desert, so I pestered Kurt with questions.

“Do the cactus hold water in their trunks?”

“Not really,” said my biologist husband. “You have to pummel their pulp for a long time and chew on it, spines and all, to get any water.”

I looked out the window at endless dry desert and thought about how crazy it was to deliberately bring my family into the unknowns of this risky landscape.

Just as I was about to ask Kurt to turn around, we made it to the end of the road. A tall, local man in a cowboy hat and handlebar mustache stood there like a mirage, and greeted us warmly in Spanish.

I am Prisciliano Elehazar de la Pena Ruiz. Would your family like to rest? I have cabins you can rent near the waterfall.” I almost kissed him.

Pretty much the whole trip went like that. We pointed to a place on the map and always seemed to find remarkable, empty beaches, and generous locals at the end of the road. One day our son said, “I know we’re getting close to something good when the minivan door squeaks like crazy.” What he meant was, when we left the paved road for the dirt, the bumps in the road shook the whole van. I thanked my little inflatable pillow and always found a way to sit in the car comfortably, without rattling my neck or head.  We didn’t know what we would find at the end of the dirt road, but after several teeth-chattering kilometers, we’d arrive somewhere spectacular: white sand, green water, gorgeous seashells, mangrove trees and ibis birds, plus islands to snorkel around, all to ourselves.

One night we slept on a beach in a town with a sign that said “Población: 41.” But we only counted seven people. Later we found about thirty donkeys wandering around our tents.

Another time, we heard of some hot springs up the next canyon, but the beach “road” to arrive there vanished at high tide. Kurt taught the kids how to spearfish and they hunted for our dinner, while I chatted up the locals to find out where I could buy fish. Let’s just say I liked to have a solid back-up plan. Every night, we ate Barred Snapper and Triggerfish tacos, either caught or bought, and cooked on our Whisperlight stove, powered by gasoline fuel.

Then we’d wash our fish bones back into the ocean and look at the stars. Before this trip, the kids knew two constellations: the Big Dipper and Orion. We brought with us a classic book from 1952, The Stars, by H.A. & Margret Rey, the authors of the Curious George series. The Reys use simple, stick-figure illustrations to connect the stars into the classic Greek characters. Their brilliant mix of art and science gave our kids the tools and curiosity they needed to find over thirty constellations and the permission to make up their own. They were so engaged in their surroundings. Cole had me set an alarm for midnight so he could try to see Scorpio and the Southern Cross, Hazel had fun inventing a giant three-tentacled octopus constellation.

Meanwhile, I slept like a baby. At night, I’d lie there grateful that I could lie flat, headache-free, and take in this beautiful world of stars and sea and family. I didn’t know where we would be the next night, but it mattered less and less. Trusting in the unknown was becoming easier for me. Nine months have passed since I first found out about my brain-stem tumor. I guess I had to slowly birth the discovery that there is a plan, there always has been, it’s just not mine.

Join the discussion: Share (in the comments, below) your stories of times when you let go of control and found something better in the unknown.

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