As a kid, everything seems to have a hint of magic to it. Something mystical, even otherworldly. I’d be lying if I said that I never felt the magic of going somewhere like an amusement park, or a long-anticipated end of the summer vacation. Growing up, at least for me, my magical experience was my family’s annual week-long trip to Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border. My family has been going on this trip for the better part of forty years. My grandparents bought a time share on a houseboat in the late ‘80s and we’ve been using the same houseboat ever since: Moki Sunrise. I’ve been going on this trip since I can remember. In my twenty-two years, we have only missed the trip maybe three times. Every time we go down, I have been filled with excitement that can only be compared to opening gifts on Christmas morning mixed with going to Disneyland. It was magical. It was a week full of swimming, playing in the sand, tubing, wakeboarding, hiking, jumping off of the houseboat, and – one of my personal favorites – playing Phase Ten and Yahtzee with Grandma. The trip always takes place between the last week of July and the first week of August. It has always been the last hurrah before school starts. This added to the mystical and surreal nature of the trip. Time seemed to slow down. Summer was put on pause for one week while we enjoyed the activities and above all the company.
I’m not going to say that the magic has totally disappeared now that I’m older. What I will say is that there is a definitely different feeling being on the trip as an adult. This year, I was the only unmarried adult on the trip and there were fifteen kids under the age of eighteen on the boat. I did feel a bit out of place. One of my cousins that I am close with got married earlier this year and she came with her husband, my younger brother came with his wife, and one of my other cousins came with his girlfriend. I was just there. I guess, in a way, I didn’t have to worry about anyone other than myself but seeing two of my closest cousins and my younger brother enjoying the company of their significant others really put me in a weird position. Anyway, I was an adult on the trip but not quite an adult. I definitely wasn’t a child. That time is long gone. With being an adult, and especially a male adult, it was my turn to take on more responsibility. I was reluctant to do so because, you know, this is a vacation! I’m here to relax and have fun! But, I realized that this trip was no longer a trip for me. It wasn’t a trip for adults. Just like a trip to Disneyland isn’t generally a trip for the parents, I was beginning to realize that this trip wasn’t my trip. It was a trip to make the kids happy. So, I rolled up my big boy sleeves and set out to help the younger kids have a fun time.
Some of the responsibilities I claimed as an adult on the boat were bringing some snacks for after meals, watching younger kids, finding a spot for our houseboat, helping with putting the anchors down and making sure that they’re secure, and the occasional gas and water run back to the marina. We were prepared for the trip. We had more than enough food; we had sunscreen, gasoline for the boats, and water. Although we had made the necessary preparations, we ran out of fresh water on Wednesday. Conveniently enough, my younger brother and his wife had to leave the same day. So, we loaded him and his wife up on our speedboat with their luggage, the trash we had accumulated over the last few days, two coolers, a couple of those orange Gatorade water containers that get dumped on football coaches after victories, and five 5-gallon gas cans. Aside from my brother and his wife, my parents and one of my uncles were on the boat with us. Our plan was to drop my brother and his wife off, help them unload their stuff, get water, ice, and gas for the next three days. After getting the married couple on their way, my uncle and I were assigned to gas and ice duty while my parents disposed of the garbage and got fresh water.
We got to the marina a little after six in the evening. There was still light out, but it was getting darker. It wasn’t a problem. At least not yet. We were able to get through the Castle Rock Cut before the sun started to set. The sky was a gold-purple hybrid; the color of the Los Angeles Lakers. It was an awesome gradient that faded from gold to dark orange and then to violet and finally to the color of the purpling night sky. We anchored the houseboat on a beach about an hour away from the marina, so we still had a good forty-five minutes before we would be back at the houseboat. While we were futilely racing the sunset, we took a wrong turn. I had used the GPS feature on my phone to help my dad find the spot where we ended up anchoring the houseboat, but I had left my phone to charge on the houseboat. Plus, I knew that I would be in the water a lot because I needed to help push our speedboat off the beach. When I got into the boat after pushing the boat off, my Dad asked, “Did you bring your phone?” I told him that I left it on the houseboat to charge. My uncle said in a surprised voice, “Are you serious?” I was serious, and when the sun finally started to set, I wished I hadn’t been serious.
We took a wrong turn and went about halfway down a channel until I realized that we weren’t going the way we came. I asked my Mom if she had brought her phone with her. Thankfully, she had. I asked her if I could use the GPS app on it. She gave me her phone and I waited as the GPS picked up a signal. The map came up slowly, frame by frame. It was blurry at first, but after about a minute, a clear aerial view of the lake was in my palm. We saw that we had to turn around and head down the right canyon instead of the left that we had accidentally gone down. The darkness was creeping in. It was dark enough that it made everyone in the boat a little uneasy, but it wasn’t so dark that we couldn’t see. What made things a little more difficult was that my Dad had only brought his prescription sunglasses. The dark was that much darker to him as he piloted the boat.
As we rounded the corner and entered the main channel, my Dad said that it was getting harder and harder for him to see. I told him that I could drive if he needed me to. In the meantime, I used my Mom’s phone to both navigate and shine a few feet ahead as we made our way cautiously through the channel.
Before we knew it, the gradient that painted the sunset sky was now wholly devoid of color. The moon wasn’t out yet, and clouds closed in to create a cold canopy over the channel. Absence. Complete absence of light. Shapes of rocks, cliffs, and the water blended together to further the blackness that was contained under the clouds. The only lights we could see were blinking buoys that marked miles through the meandering muscle ridden lake. They blinked every two or three seconds. Dad couldn’t see anything in front of the boat and passed the steering wheel to me. I hadn’t really ever driven a boat before. I had taken a few of my cousins tubing the day before, but it was only for a few minutes. Now I was given total control over the craft. My mouth dried up and I started to panic. I couldn’t do this. I’m an adult, yes, but this was not one of the responsibilities of an adult as far as I was concerned. No where in the job description did it say, “Once you’re an adult male on the Lake Powell trip, you need to drive a boat through a channel in the middle of the night.”
Although we could see exactly where we were on the GPS, we were lost. We knew where to go, but the way ahead of us was so dark that we couldn’t differentiate between the night sky and the water. The only thing keeping us afloat and drifting in the right direction was the blinking buoys. We stopped for a second and talked about what we should do. Dad was saying that we needed to just find a beach and stay the night in the boat. Everyone agreed. The only problem was that according to the images on the GPS, we were surrounded by fifty to seventy-foot cliffs and boulders. As far as we knew, we were nowhere near a beach. We decided to proceed slowly toward the buoys and use those as our destinations. We passed the first one, a green one. Then the second. But, when we got to the third one, we noticed that there were two other lights, one red and the other green. We didn’t know if they were in the water or above the water. As we got closer, the two extra beacons were indeed above the water. They marked the cliffs that were on either side of us.
After passing this point, we could only faintly make out the next buoy. My heart had been beating like the drums in a Hans Zimmer score and my mouth was getting dryer. I had been praying the entire time, pleading with God to show us, and now me as the driver, where to go. I felt impressed to ask my parents and my uncle to turn on the flashlights on their phones to shine at least a few feet ahead of us. I felt more comfortable knowing that I had some sort of light in front of me, even though it was accentuating how dark the water and the sky now were. At least I could see the darkness better. I could only see as far as the light penetrated the darkness, and that wasn’t that far. The next buoy seemed so distant almost beyond physical reach, and I didn’t think that we would be able to make it. I gave one last prayer: “Heavenly Father, I need to know where to go. Please show me where we need to go.” As soon as I closed my prayer, a pair of headlights turned on. They were brighter and considerably closer than the far-off buoy. They were shining right at us. Mom exclaimed, “The lights, head toward those lights!” I positioned the boat in the direction of the lights. Not only was the boat shining its lights at us, it was shining its lights at a beach as well as potential hazards near the beach, showing us a clear path to the beach between two houseboats. As we approached the boat, we were surprised to learn the driver wasn’t all that interested in us. He drove off into the dark. I later found out that they were just fishing late at night and happened to be facing our direction with their lights on.
We approached the shore and about thirty feet from the beach, we ran out of gas, so my Dad and my uncle had to hop out of the boat and swim the boat to shore. I got out when we got to the beach and helped guide and anchor the boat to a sizable rock near the shore. We were shaking, cold, wet, and most of all safe. Mom was able to send a text message to my older sister, who was on the houseboat with her family, letting her know that we were safe and that we would be back in the morning. My parents and I divided the boat into thirds and claimed them as our sleeping quarters for the night and my uncle slept on the beach with a beach towel. It definitely wasn’t the most comfortable sleep I had or any of us had, but I slept soundly knowing that we were safe and that we would be able to make it back in the morning. The clouds cleared as we started to get ready for bed. As I awkwardly contorted my body to fit the shape of the nose of the boat, I gazed up at the stars. God knew me. He was aware of my predicament. He helped me in a time when I needed it. God, the Creator of the Universe, knew that I, a scared twenty-two-year-old in the middle of a lake in northern Arizona, needed His help. The coolest thing was that He gave me an answer. It wasn’t a word. It wasn’t a fireball from heaven, an earthquake or a tempest. It was the lights of a fishing boat.
The next morning right before dawn, we took the anchor out and headed back to the houseboat, which was only about three miles away. As we cruised through the channels, we witnessed the sunrise with a newfound appreciation for light. We had experienced complete darkness in a boat and were it not for a pair of bright fishing lights, we would have drifted, not knowing where to go.
God answered my prayer. I know it. That was not a coincidence. He helped us when we needed it most. Some say that you grow out of magic and see reality for what it is. Some decide that they’re too old or too mature to believe in things they can’t see. I wouldn’t say that what happened on the boat in that pitch-black channel was magic in the Harry Potter/childhood sense. But, I will say that God was watching over us and protected us as we found our way back to shore and ultimately back to the houseboat, where our families were waiting for us. And that, in and of itself, reminds me that there is a Being, more powerful than magic, that cares about me. He cares about you, and if you ask for help, He will be there to help.