Unlike most of our family vacations, this one had three well-defined goals:
• Find a college for our 17-year-old son, Ben, who isn't interested in the same colleges as his twin brother, Ross.
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• Make good on a long overdue promise to make sure our son, Will, 14, finally catches a fish.
• Find some activities where the whole family can have fun together.
None of those seems likely given the mishaps as we load up our old minivan for our 1,500-mile odyssey.
I can't find my key chain. I've carried this tacky, brass Rolls-Royce key chain since the day I received it as a high school graduation gift from an aunt who harbored hopes that a luxury car key chain would inspire me to become something better. That key chain, or at least its minivan remote fob, became even more dear in the years since my wife lost her uninspiring key chain, and we discovered that these devices to unlock minivan doors are insanely expensive to replace.
Using an old-fashioned key (the only remaining option to unlock our minivan), we aren't even out of the garage when I discover that my cellphone screen shattered during our packing process. This makes it impossible for me to text, take photos or see who is calling. But neither of these setbacks rises to the level of Ben dislocating his shoulder at the end of our white-water rafting trip on the Menomonee River in the remote wilderness on the border of Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Sitting in a rubber raft in the middle of the river, a grimacing Ben, who first dislocated that same shoulder during a soccer game last spring, asks Will to pull on the displaced arm as Ben uses his free hand to pop his shoulder back into the socket. Now they both have a vacation story to tell.
Catching a fish also is one of those things that requires help. In a flurry of phone calls and emails with an extremely responsive Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, we get hooked up with the appropriately named Rodney "Rod" Lange, a fisheries technician who loans us five rods and a tackle box at no cost through a state program. An hour later, our boys are catching fish on the Fox River in Green Bay and Will poses for my wife's unshuttered cellphone camera with the white bass he catches and releases.
Reeling in the right college will take longer. Official visits to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., and St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and unofficial tours of schools such as Minnesota's Carleton College and Macalester College make us confident that our son will find a small, liberal arts school that will be a good fit for him. My wife and I (adjusting our bill-paying schedule and juggling finances to make sure we don't bounce checks on the day we return from vacation) don't know how we'll pay for our sons' college educations. But we are rich in gratitude that comes from knowing that Ross and Ben are passionate about taking that next step.
One of the lessons we've learned is that passion is an important ingredient in any recipe for success. Passion, more than money, is the thing that encourages a person to work hard when the path isn't easy. Our kids witness that firsthand when we visit my wife's lifelong friend, Sue Elias, from their days at Buffalo Grove High School. Making a courageous choice some years ago to leave her life in Montana and start anew in Minnesota, Sue ended up marrying Mark Stutrud, a family counselor who indulged his entrepreneurial passion by opening a microbrewery in an old transmission shop in St. Paul, Minn., in 1986.
Today, Summit Brewing Co. makes award-winning beers, employs more than five dozen loyal employees, and recently expanded its multimillion-dollar state-of-the art facility. On one wall hangs a framed letter from the Brewers' Association of America in 1983. "I am not encouraging you to do so," the letter says of Stutrud's plan to start a microbrewery, "because it is a long and hard road that you are planning to go down." The description was apt, but Stutrud's passion and hard work propelled him down that long, hard road.
Whether it is launching a business, starting a new life, finding the right college, catching a fish or simply taking a moment to enjoy the whole family sitting around a campfire playing cards and looking up at stars instead of down at hand-held devices, good things often can be found at the end of a long and hard road.
Our vacation turns out to be one of them.
But I'd still like to find my old key chain.