Please welcome today’s guest writer, Ethan Stafford. Ethan graduated from Calvin University in 2020 with a double major in writing and economics. Originally from Pinckney, MI, Ethan spent five years living in Europe—three years in Austria and two in Italy. He learned to read and write in German before learning in English, which helped fuel his love for literature. He now lives in Dallas, TX and is working on starting his own editorial business.
Spring break in my world has always had the connotation of being a wild party where you get drunk for seven days straight in Florida or Texas followed by a 20-hour car ride home where everyone is on the verge of death. As much fun as that sounded to me, come my junior year, I threw some borrowed camping gear from my brother into the back seat of my beat-up Saturn Aura (the trunk didn’t work anymore) and drove straight south. There was no real destination in mind; whatever national forest I was close to between four and six PM would be the place I stopped and set up camp for a day or two.
I knew it was going to be a great trip when I stopped for gas just around the corner from my house in Grand Rapids. I pulled in, threw the car in park, and pulled the door handle. Nothing happened. I pulled the handle harder and harder, but the door latch wouldn’t move. Naturally, I was forced to crawl across the car and out the passenger side. A perfect start. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t contemplate the busted door as a sign from God that I should stay home, but I brushed that off right quick and finished pumping gas and hit the road.
As six o’clock closed in, I found myself near the southern tip of Indiana and decided to camp in Hoosier National Forest—not exactly a hot weather destination. I unpacked my car, grabbed my overly stuffed backpack, and hit the trail to find a spot I could set up camp. The sun was on its way down, so I turned into the woods—climbing hills and traversing a river that almost claimed me. The forest was made up of rolling hills, which made it somewhat difficult to find a flat spot for my tent. It didn’t help that it rained the day before, so a lot of the steeper hills were muddy and almost impossible to get up.
After a 20-minute hike, I finally found a spot flat enough for the tent and quickly started setting it up. It wasn’t long before I gathered enough twigs to start the tiniest of fires to cook a quick hot dog and then go to bed. The sun was down, and I quickly realized how much I had underestimated the weather. My breath slowly became visible as I scrambled to dress myself in every piece of clothing I brought with me. I wrapped my sleeping bag around my neck so only my head was exposed, but I kept shivering as the cold night air invaded my tent. I retreated deep into my sleeping bag, allowing me to capture enough warmth to doze off.
I awoke an hour later gasping for air. My heart was racing as my lungs struggled to find oxygen in the sleeping bag fortress. Without thinking of the cold, I yanked the blanket inside the sleeping bag and shoved my head through the opening. The cold air immediately rushed past my defenses as I sucked up the fresh air. I could breathe again, but I was shaking uncontrollably. Morale was incredibly low as I deliberated over how to proceed through the night. I could hike back to the car and sleep there or continue the cycle of suffocating myself to stay warm enough to get a few hours of sleep. Determined not to quit after a few hours, I pushed through and chose to continue suffocating myself in my sleeping bag fortress—waking up every hour or two to inhale the freezing air.
The next morning, I realized my sleeping bag was only rated down to forty degrees, and it dropped well below thirty that night. I decided if this trip was going to work, I needed to get as far south as I could. I packed up, hiked to the car, and drove to Tallahassee National Forest in Florida. By the time I got there the sun was almost completely set and it was raining. I had been documenting my trip through Instagram stories, and by the grace of God, I got a phone call from my friend Bryce telling me that our mutual friend Darek lived in Tallahassee. I hadn’t spoken to Darek for three or four years, but with nowhere to go I called him up. He answered.
Darek lived ten minutes from where I was trying to camp and was ecstatic to have me stay with him. He let me stay in his spare bedroom, and I spent the rest of spring break sleeping at his apartment and exploring the panhandle of Florida while he was at work.
I started the trip with no real plan other than driving south and camping whenever I stopped. After one night freezing and suffocating to death and driving to Florida only to be welcomed by rain, I was ready to admit defeat, get a hotel, and head home the next day. The trip was a disaster, but it blossomed into a reunion with one of the kindest people I have had the pleasure of calling a friend. It was a great reminder that no matter what my plan is, things will never go as I want or expect them to, but God will always find a way to guide me to something better.