It might sound a little bragish, but I think our marriage is exceptionally great. There isn’t a single couple I’ve ever envied and thought, “Gosh, I wish our relationship was like theirs.” Not that I haven’t been miserable and desperate for change in my own at times, but I have always considered the one I have worth fighting and even dying for.
We’re also more than a little ridiculous together and we’ve accumulated a whole lot of NOT EASY in our 25 years of being hitched, but this is precisely what makes us so great together. We’ve managed to navigate some insanely treacherous territory as the perfectly dysfunctional hot mess we are. As I write this, we are bracing ourselves for yet another trip through the wringer, this one likely to stretch us beyond recognition into something quite different.
Painful as that sounds (and is), it’s more or less been our normal every few years. Several years ago I documented the first traumatic rodeo we experienced as newlyweds (Jimmy and Jennifer – A Beautiful Rowdy Love Story) and I was blown away at the response it received. Turns out when you dare to expose yourself with that degree of raw vulnerability, a lot of people feel relieved and free to say “Me too! I thought I was the only freak who couldn’t get their shit together!” I also understand it can be rather unsettling for those not ready to release their tightly-clenched turds or admit they even have any.
But for those who are up for another installment of the shit show that is Jimmy + Jennifer, come gather ’round the fire and snuggle up to your significant other as I recount more of our ancient history and what has become the great metaphor of our marriage…
THE CAMPING TRIP
It was spring break 1993, just a few months before I would graduate from college and all hell would break loose in our fledgling marriage. All I knew at that point as a grossly naive 22-year-old with 18 months of matrimony under my belt was that I hardly ever saw my husband, had no social life, and was very unhappy. So when Jimmy suggested we get away together for a couple days of camping in the Mojave desert where he grew up (and where we’d fallen in love 3 spring breaks before), I was thrilled.
Day 1: Trusting Jimmy that he knew what he was doing being on his home turf, we drove to the top of a mountain that overlooked a desolate valley and the Colorado River in the distance. The plan was to hike down the mountain and camp by the river, so we stuffed our backpacks with as much bottled water as we could carry, leaving more behind in the car. I asked Jimmy if he thought we had enough. He assured me that even if we ran out we could refill at the river. I wasn’t OK with the thought of drinking river water, even boiled, but Jimmy assured me we’d be fine.
As we peered down the mountain, one side had a relatively smooth, direct trail leading from a transmission tower at the top down to the base. The other was covered in large boulders. We headed down the side without the trail because – OF COURSE WE DID.
By the time we reached the bottom after an hour of slowly lowering ourselves rock by rock, fully loaded with gear on our backs, our thighs were absolutely destroyed, but as young seemingly indestructible 20-somethings we laughed it off and started hobbling in the direction of the river…at least as far as we could tell since we couldn’t see it once we were on the valley floor.
I asked Jimmy how we would know we were staying on track. He told me we’d find one of the many washes once we got closer and follow it down to the river. I thought a compass would have been a safer bet, but hey, I’d trust the guy who grew up running around in this dirt.
We spent the rest of the afternoon happily walking and talking and exploring, Jimmy reminiscing about growing up a desert rat. As it started to get late with no river in sight, we decided to set up camp for the night and hopefully reach it the next morning and spend that day and next night by the water. Though it wasn’t blistering hot (yet), April was still plenty toasty weather, and a refreshing dip in the river and resting my super sore legs for the day sounded mighty fine to me.
That night under a blanket of stars, and nothing else, just as Jimmy and I were getting down to romantical business, a large fleet of Apache helicopters descended low and began thundering across the valley directly over our heads before we could do much of anything to cover up. I’m sure if there were any young Marines who noticed us they enjoyed the show.
Day 2: We set out early eager to find the river and have a day of play and rest from hiking. Jimmy suggested we descend into and follow the nearest wash which would surely lead us there quickly. An hour passed…two…three…four. Our water was running low. I increasingly kept suggesting we give up on the river entirely, but Jimmy was insistent. We had to be almost there. We finally stumbled onto a road and another hiker who was able to tell us the river was still a good 5 miles away and our path had been running parallel to it.
Jimmy’s reaction: Great! We’ll follow this road and be there in a few more hours.
Jimmy: Fine. You stay here, I’ll RUN to the river and bring back water.
After unleashing another steady stream of expletives and screeching he’d do no such thing, I sat down in the dirt and refused to move. I was taking over this operation. We were going to stop, set up camp for the night, ration our water and head straight back for the mountain first thing.
Night 2, instead of romantical shenanigans, there was only seething silence and restless tossing and turning, trying hard not to think about the 10-mile hike back that awaited us the next morning or the 2 remaining 16 ounce water bottles that were going to have to be enough to get us through.
Day 3: We started out as early as we could to get as much walking in the cool of the day as possible, waiting as long as we could in between tiny sips of water. The only positive was being able to clearly see the mountain we were headed to and knowing an oasis awaited us at the top. By the time we finally reached the base of the mountain, we’d long since run out of water and were dangerously thirsty. We slowly began the tortuous ascent up the long, steep trail on the opposite side from which we’d initially come down.
Even though my legs and throat were screaming, I got a sudden boost of energy and moved briskly. The end was in sight, dammit, but Jimmy was failing. At about the half way point, he lay down unable to go any farther, dangerously dehydrated and risking heat stroke. It was up to me to make it to the top and get the water.
What followed was probably the longest 15 minutes of my life. I’d never experienced such desperate thirst, and I hope to never do so again. About 2/3 of the way someone’s old Big Gulp cup tossed on the side of the trail cruelly mocked me.
As I approached the summit with relief just a few more yards away, a horrible thought struck me. What if for some reason the car wasn’t there? What if someone had stolen or confiscated it? Suddenly the hope that had been giving me almost superhuman endurance was sucked right out of me and replaced by terror.
As I rounded the last bit of the hill full of dread and the summit came into view, I was startled to see the entire mountaintop crawling with Marines. The Boys had used our mountain to set up operations for their desert training drills. And there was our car, right where we’d left it, except now surrounded by military vehicles buzzing about. As I stumbled through the surreal scene toward the car, a cute guy in desert camouflage gave me a cheerful, “hello ma’am” and continued on his way. I tore open the trunk and inhaled at least 3 bottles of water, letting the relief wash into and over me. It felt like heaven to finally sit down and take my time with bottle number 4.
But crap! Jimmy was still half way down the hill. I suppose I could have asked a Marine to help me go get him. I’m not sure why I didn’t ask the cute one. I did actually contemplate rolling some bottles down the hill rather than have to go back down there. After a very deeeeeeep sigh, I put my backpack in the trunk, tucked a few bottles of water under my arm and reluctantly headed back down the hill, my thighs loudly protesting being forced to do the downhill thing again.
Once Jimmy got a bit of hydration, he perked up enough to walk to the top, but I had to carry his pack. I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking on that second climb, but I imagine it was something along the lines of,”‘Let’s go camping’ he said. ‘It’ll be fun’ he said…grumble, grumble…City Slicker wife had to save Mr. Desert Expert Sissy la-la Pants.”
I then drove us down the mountain to the nearest town where we stopped and eagerly consumed a bunch of Carl’s Jr. cheeseburgers in stunned silence, until Jimmy piped up, “That was a great trip.”
Sigh…was it too late to go back for that Marine?
We Are Who We Are
We learned some things about ourselves and each other on that camping trip and have watched them play out time and again in our relationship over the years.
Jimmy values the big picture, not so much the details. We went camping, we came back. It was an adventure. That’s a win in his book and the experience itself is the reward and totally worth it.
The details are where I live so that we CAN live. They matter to me, and it’s good that they do. But I can lose sight of the big picture quite easily and without his adventurous yin to my play-it-safe yang, I’d miss out on much of the richness of the human experience if left to my own devices.
I never would have initiated going camping. Never would have seen the breathtaking view from the top of the mountain. Never would have made love under the stars. Never would have learned what a complete badass I can be when pushed to the brink.
Being extremely intuitive, Jimmy is a brilliant dreamer and a fantastic implementer but rarely has any kind of exit strategy.
I’m horrible at planning or initiating, and I’ll commit loyally (to a fault) to his plans and often marvel at his genius, but it usually falls on me to recognize when we’ve hit the end of the road and I simply can’t and won’t go any farther. Then, and only then, do I assert myself and pull the plug.
We do our fair share of butting heads along the way, me fixated on the details, him with an eye on the big picture. To carry the camping trip metaphor into what we are facing right now, we’ve been in the thick of it for the last year.
I went into our latest big adventure of planting and pastoring Four Creeks Church with Jimmy with my whole heart and soul, fully trusting in his plan, and its conception and implementation were truly brilliant. But no amount of good intentions or brilliant planning could save us after we were abandoned by the church that sent us out, left in the desert to fend for ourselves with very little water. We eeked out an existence for as long as we could, but our resources eventually dwindled down to nothing. We kept walking thinking surely the river was right around the bend…but no. Relief just wasn’t going to materialize no matter what we did.
Jimmy and I are ridiculously stressed and have been for an extended period of time. We’re butting heads dealing with it the only way we can…as ourselves. True to form I pulled the plug on Four Creeks. I pushed through so much for so long until I simply could not take another step. I also realized I could not continue to live in this town, this desert, where we’ve been utterly despised and rejected. I need my family, my children, my parents – my oasis – and I have to get to them to live.
It’s me this time who’s stalled out half way there and it’s Jimmy who’s going to do more than just climb the mountain for me – he’s gunna sacrifice himself and move the damn thing. He’s masterminding and financing my exit strategy and rebirth.
I’m relocating to Nashville in a few short months with our 2 youngest to be near our 2 oldest college kids. I’m going to be living right around the corner from my parents when I’ve never before lived within driving distance of them my entire adult life.
Jimmy is going to stay behind in California to work and recover financially from the last few years – in the desert alone without the comfort and affection of his family. We don’t know for how long…at least a year, probably 2.
And once I get out there, I’m going to have to get in touch with my inner badass once again. I’m going to have to figure out how to do things on my own I never felt capable of or allowed myself to do before without my yin and Jimmy without his yang, but for the first time ever I’m going to have abundant resources and support to figure it out.
I suppose most couples go on a cruise or something for their 25th anniversary. We’ll be spending ours 2000 miles apart, ’cause that’s just how the shit show that is our life seems to roll.
Even so…I don’t regret a minute with this man. Not a one. The big picture, the views from the mountain I’ve experienced together with him are breathtaking, as is making love to him under the stars. Every aching muscle, every scarcity, sacrifice and near-death experience is more than worth it for this adventure.