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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

Family Excursions

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

Tents in the midst of rocks and trees with a resevior in the background
Flaming Gorge Campground, UT

“The longest absence is less perilous to love

than the terrible trials of incessant proximity.”

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

Is the above quote always true? Growing up, I loved my family, and I loved being with them; but at the same time, I didn’t. Maybe I should say I loved each family member deeply, and I loved the idea of eternal family, but the reality of living closely with them revealed my own inadequacies to me like nothing else. Many days I couldn’t bear it, so I would isolate myself. By my early teens, I was not only going through the normal insecurities and confusion that come with early adolescence, which were difficult enough; but I was also beginning to have painful bouts of serious depression. What I brought to my relationships with all my family members except my dad (who was rarely home) generally added to my duress. It seemed I couldn’t help being impatient, irritable, overly sensitive, dissatisfied, and easily exasperated with them most of the time. Nevertheless, there were times of reprieve when I could be with my family and (mostly) enjoy being with them.

The times I liked being with my family the most were when we went on family excursions or vacations. On these occasions I was able to let my hair down, so to speak, and forget about all the other social pressures of school, piano lessons, and church. Though we’d be packed into the car together for hours at a time, and that was somewhat hard for me, I didn’t feel the pressure to do much besides keep my own temper and attitude under control. I could usually succeed in this “small” effort (not so small for those around me!) and life would be good for a time—mostly.

I’ve mentioned the memorable trip our family took to Italy one summer. One perk of my dad’s job with the National Bureau of Standards was that on occasion he got to travel to different places all over the world. Especially as his “Allan-variance” theory (in physics) grew in recognition. When we kids were older, my mom sometimes got to travel with him. But there was still one more work trip that he took our whole family on while most of us kids were still pretty young.

It was a road trip to Canada, centered around a short stay in Mount Morenci (north of Quebec) for a conference my dad needed to attend. My dad must have combined some vacation time with this work trip, which added up to a three-week adventure for us all. When we went on this trip, McKaylee (my youngest sister) was a baby, so there were six of us kids. I was in my early teens.

For the trip, my dad had purchased a used, pop-up tent trailer to use for camping. When we stopped for the night, that wooden, home-built trailer with its flaps folded out and stabilized, along with its heavy, army-green, canvas tent popped up and held up by metal poles we placed in pre-cut holes with supports, was our home. My dad and mom with the baby slept on one side, and the rest of us kids slept on the other, perpendicular to them. It had a cooking area that could be converted to a sleeping area when it wasn’t in use. This tent and our car were where we lived for the duration of our journey.

As we drove the many miles to and from our destination, we sang folk songs and rounds and played diverse travel games. Some of the games included finding each letter of the alphabet from “A” to “Z” on signs and license plates and trying to spot license plates from every state in the union. Some games were just between my sister Karie (two years younger) and me, like Old Maid, Go Fish, and Hangman. These were hard to play if our other siblings weren’t sleeping though. They’d want to play too, but weren’t old enough to understand how, or didn’t have the attention span for it. As for the toys we brought along, we fought over who got to play with what and when—especially the “Magic Etch-A-Sketch.”

At some point on the journey, I grew tired of all the songs and games and just wanted to be left alone to read and sleep. This attitude continued when we stopped to set up camp. With eight family members involved, the opportunity for conflict was greatest when we were setting up and taking down camp. This was when things came to a head. My dad and mom needed a better attitude from me and cooperation from all of us, or this trip would be one big disaster. As the oldest, I was chastened for my heedlessness, poor example, and lack of family spirit or cooperation. This didn’t sit well with me.

I had a choice to make. I could continue to be surly, or stop my resistance and cooperate. I did both. I cooperated sulkily—without speaking to anyone. Apparently, my angry silence was worse than my previous acting out. It shocked and propelled my siblings into attentively working together with my parents in a way nothing else probably would have for the rest of the trip. I think they felt bad for what my parents had to deal with in me.

As always, I slept a lot on that long, long drive, which must have been a blessed relief to my family. My bad attitude lasted into Canada, which was as long as I could maintain it. After that, my family’s cooperation with each other began to rub off on me, and I became tired of maintaining this ornery stance.

Before arriving in Canada, we stopped to see some LDS Church history sites. I remember wanting to be excited because of my dad’s zeal, but still being determined to make my defiant statement. I was also a little disappointed because most history, especially the viewing of historical sites, was pretty boring to me then. It was nice to be out of the car, walking around though. That was something I could be glad about.

When we got up near Montreal and were driving along the St. Lawrence River, we saw large ocean vessels going through the locks. It was fascinating. I could have watched the process all day long. The locks are considered one of the greatest accomplishments of engineering in the twentieth century.[1] This waterway project, which was completed in 1959, allows large ocean vessels passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes.[2] The locks lift or lower ships anywhere from 15 feet to 45 feet as water pours in or out of the lock. The filling or emptying of the lock generally takes only seven minutes, but from lock entry to lock exit takes a ship an average of half an hour to pass through.

I’d never seen anything like it. Large ships ascending or descending the river using these gigantic water steps. I really wanted to stop and watch these ships pass through the locks for as long as we could. I hadn’t earned the right to be heard. I was still sulking in silence anyway. Also, my parents had something else in mind. They wanted to see what was left of the 1967 World’s Fair (also called Expo67) held in Montreal about four years prior to our trip.

USA's geodesic dome Pavilion (with minirail), Expo 67, Montreal, Canada
“USA Pavilion (with minirail),” By CA2MI - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The remaining structures left from the World’s Fair were interesting in their own way. There were some eye-catching structures of unusual shapes and sizes. The United State’s giant, geodesic dome structure was still there like a magnet drawing us, in our natural curiosity, to itself. Arthur Erickson’s pyramidal Man in His Community structure, “built from hexagonal frames of Douglas fir,” was still there.[3] Several other peaked and pointy structures also remained, showing off the architectural acumen of the day, reminiscent of a former World’s Fair built on a truly grand scale.

Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada
Habitat 67, Montreal, Canada

Not all the exhibits were attractive. There was an especially ugly, cement structure called the Labyrinth that at one time housed an intricate, two-section movie theater with a “labyrinth” in between. And there was an equally unattractive, though highly innovative, disjointed apartment complex called Habitat 67 (where people still dwell). These two edifices were some of the initial installations built for the fair.[4]

Besides these, the “Man and His World” exhibits or pavilions were still open with limited displays. Originally, these intentionally themed exhibits had been interspersed on the grounds to exist among the ninety yet-to-be-built international pavilions. These primary exhibits still left on the grounds were divided into sub-themes: Man and His Health, Man in the Community, Man the Explorer, Man the Creator, Man the Producer, and Man the Provider. As we visited the exhibits, I, with my family, began to notice an essential element was missing. There were a lot of things to learn about and see, but “Man..., Man..., Man..., Man..., Man..., Man...,” was the only focus. There was no acknowledgment of God in the mix. From all these exhibits you wouldn’t know there is a God who created humankind, who made people to be ingenious and so much more. (Did you think I was going to say “Woman” was missing? I grew up counting women as being included in the word “man” or “mankind” and never felt excluded by this word use.)

The cumulative care to avoid the mention of God in exhibit after exhibit caused me, even as young as I was, to think of how small, temporary, and full of error even the greatest works of humankind are in comparison to the perfect works of God.

As we moved on from the World’s Fair, this theme of godlessness was reaffirmed in my mind when we encountered a unisex bathroom situation in a Canadian park. As a young teen, it was creepy and majorly disconcerting to have men sharing the same bathroom facilities as me. It was traumatizing to have no option but to go there. It felt like a violation, against my will, of my personal space and privacy. I did not like this Canadian aura at all.

I did like the forested area where we camped for the Mt. Morenci conference my dad was attending. It was beautiful and the air was clean and refreshing—though a little cold in the morning. At least one morning, we found a skin of ice on the tops of our water containers, even though it was summer! It did warm up as the day progressed. The other kids played in the tent, in the car, and outside while my dad was attending the conference. I sulked and read a book and avoided my family—until sometime during our stay I had a change of heart. My family’s ignoring me (as I deserved) finally brought me around. I couldn’t admit it at first, so I was just quiet without being sullen.

While we were there, we also got to see for the first time, one of God’s most glorious exhibits: the aurora borealis or northern lights. The ever-changing lights flowed and swayed in the sky like florescent-colored curtains under the influence of some heavenly breeze. That awe-inspiring sight alone was worth our trek all the way from Colorado to Eastern Canada.

Another highlight for me was that we did get to see—though briefly—more of the ships passing through the locks on our way home.

Overall, we spent so much time together on this trip traveling in our car, setting up camp, and taking down camp, that by the end of it, we all had learned how to work well together. We had become a unit and were enjoying each other’s company as a result. No one was looking forward to getting back home and back to “normal” again. But we did. Still, we had grown closer as a family for the time being.

We took many other memorable trips with that tent trailer in tow. One time, on our way somewhere else, we stopped at some sand dunes in Southern Colorado. There we spent a chunk of time climbing and sliding or rolling down the sand hills and getting plenty sunburned in that high altitude. I was thoroughly tired out but happily satisfied with the fun we’d had by the day’s end.

On one trip (maybe that same trip?) my dad got so tired, he just turned off at the next dirt road and pulled alongside the highway. We set up the tent trailer right there. Bushes formed the partial walls of each person’s desert commode. (“You can dig a hole with a stick and be sure to bury your paper!”) Early the next morning we were abruptly awakened by the ground rumbling beneath us and the sound of a train rapidly approaching. “Dad, did you park our tent on the tracks?” He said no. As the train whizzed by, mere feet from our shaking tent and selves, we were all saying prayers of thanks that he hadn’t.

On one spring-break trip, we left wintery Colorado and headed to Arizona. We didn’t stay with our relatives in the northeast part of the state, but we went all the way down to Mesa. On our way, we stayed one night near a dry wash, out under the stars instead of setting up the tent. In the morning as I was shaking out my sleeping bag, a small white scorpion fell out! That shook me up. For years I kept that scorpion in a small glass bottle as a memento.

When we got to Mesa, while my parents went to the Mormon temple there, we kids played in a large park that had been flooded for irrigation. It was essentially one huge, shaded wading pool with trees we could climb or sit in. We had the whole park-pool to ourselves. Apparently, Arizona kids had a different week off for spring break. We all would have been happy to spend the whole day playing in the water there. Splashing, climbing trees, jumping from them, water skiing by swinging on a limb, and swinging our smaller siblings between us. And adding to the joy, the orange trees in the area were in bloom and the smell of the blossoms filled the air with a glorious aroma. I had never smelled anything so wonderfully fragrant. We had a great time that went by far too quickly.

On our way from there to Disneyland, we briefly stopped to walk over the Mexican border into a small market town. It was so dirty and noisy and fly-infested and hot, we didn’t stay or buy anything, but shortly turned around and headed back to our car. I was disappointed I couldn’t get a keychain there, but it was probably just as well.

At a huge, open, Disneyland camping area (more like a parking lot), we set up our tent trailer amid a sea of large, deluxe RVs and luxurious camping trailers. I was extremely embarrassed by our small, used, wood and canvas pop-up tent trailer. Then, of all things, and despite all the odds, I saw one of the most wealthy, beautiful, and popular girls at our middle school there, camping a few rows over from us! She was sitting outside her family’s RV. She didn’t see me, so I meandered around some other campers, then went over to her to say, “Hi.” And how crazy it was to see her there in California of all places! She showed me around her RV and introduced me to her parents. I waited until she went back into her RV to eat before I headed back to my family’s not-RV.

With my family, I spent the whole next day at Disneyland. Among my favorite rides were The Pirates of the Caribbean, with its action-packed boat-roller coaster; The Haunted Mansion, with its continual surprises; and Autopia, where I prided myself on my quick learning and masterful driving.

It was fun being on a boat in the water for the Jungle Cruise, but the mechanical hippo and other “scary” animals along the way seemed pretty hokey to me. I liked traveling between the tiers and along the balconies of the Mark Twain Riverboat and watching its paddlewheels turn. I loved all the roller-coaster rides including Space Mountain, with its crazy visual effects; the very fast, ever-whipping-around-another-curve Matterhorn Bobsleds; and Splash Mountain, especially, of course, the big splash at the end. The Astro Orbitor was great too. I liked being able to control going up and down while flying in a spin around the center axis.

We left the park as the fireworks were going off, so we got to see many of them on our way out. I might have been able to keep going for a little while longer, but my younger siblings and mom were worn out by a whole day in the park. I took a few turns keeping an eye on my siblings to help my mom out, but most of the time my excitement for going on the rides and the desire for doing-it-all got the upper hand. My mom didn’t seem to want to go on many of the rides, so I didn’t feel too bad about leaving her with the smaller kids.

We drove up through San Francisco with its beautiful bridges, buildings, parks, and crazy steep hills. We stopped briefly at a wharf crowded with barking sea lions. Our car broke down on the highway near Sausalito, and we kids explored the underside of a bridge and waited for what seemed like hours before it was repaired. Then it was on to the majestic Redwoods. At the Redwoods, we walked around some, drove our car through the tree with a tunnel in it, and walked around some more. I wished we could have spent more time at either one of those places. It was a whirlwind trip, but returning to wintery Colorado, we were glad for the reprieve we’d had in warmer climes.

The most memorable trip of all was one we took in late summer when I was sixteen. My parents allowed my boyfriend to come with us. We were meeting Nana and Papa at a campground in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Because some of us kids had grown so much, we no longer all fit in the pop-up tent trailer. My sister Karie and I were sleeping in the back of the station wagon with the middle seat down. My boyfriend and my brother, Sterling, were sleeping in a tent. The rest of the family—my three other sisters and parents—were sleeping in the pop-up tent trailer. Incidentally, Mom was eight months pregnant.

Nana and Papa planned to return home after a couple of days. The morning they left, my dad wanted to hike down to a great fishing spot with us all. He thought he knew a shortcut. We “hiked” down to the fishing spot by maneuvering down a large boulder field and through the woods—all helping my super pregnant mom through this obstacle course—until we finally arrived at the bottom of a canyon where we spent the rest of the day fishing. My dad found a trail that went up out of the canyon on the other side. In the late afternoon, he hiked back up to our campground by himself, brought the car around to the top of the trail on the other side, hiked down, and then near twilight got us all on our way hiking up and out to the car. My boyfriend and I, engaged in a lively conversation and hiking faster than everyone else, made it up to the car in good time. We waited and waited, and then decided we should go back and help the rest of the family up the trail because it was getting dark.

My dad and mom had been delayed because my mom would start cramping if they pushed too hard, so she needed to rest often on the way up. The whole family finally made it up to the car. My dad drove his exhausted family back to camp. No sooner had Karie and I laid down to sleep than Dad woke us and said Mom was in labor! Her water broke while they were saying their nightly prayers.

Dad told Karie to stay in the back of the car where Mom was going to lay on our sleeping bags. He asked me to sit up front with him while he was driving to help him spot deer and other critters. Before we left camp, my dad stuck his head in the tent and told my boyfriend he was in charge.

We were all silently praying. The car’s brakes had been giving signs of going out. We had a very windy, downhill, mountain road to drive to get to the nearest hospital in Vernal, Utah around forty-five minutes away. At one point my mom asked my dad: “You’re not speeding are you?” He just laughed a wild man laugh.

Finally, we made it to the hospital safely, in record time, but not before my little brother decided it was time to come into the world. He was born as the hospital came into sight. Karie was the unofficial midwife, who encouraged and helped my mom merely by her words and presence, while my mom tried to keep from pushing. But then, when the baby was determined to come, Mom gave Karie instructions on how to best help her and the emerging baby. Mom and Karie ended up being a great team. The baby was born healthy and strong. Karie climbed from the back of the car in a haze of wonder and awe after Mom and our new baby brother were transferred to a stretcher and wheeled into the hospital. (Later in her life, Karie studied to become a doula.)

Karie and I were so excited to have a healthy baby brother! We’d all been hoping for a boy. We celebrated with soft drinks the hospital staff gave us in the waiting area.

When Dad and I returned to camp in the morning to pick everyone up and bring them to meet our new baby brother, they were all still sound asleep. My boyfriend didn’t even know we had been gone!

Nana and Papa came back to join us, and we spent another day or two there in Vernal, Utah. My baby brother was almost named Flaming George. Almost.

(This baby brother, later named Nathan, became my best buddy. We would hang out together whenever I was home from college or work until I left home to be married.)

There were many other trips I could tell you about. A visit when we were much younger to Yellowstone National Park with its “troll toll bridges” and stinky geysers, interesting formations and colors, and bear and buffalo sightings. There was a fishing trip to Wyoming, where we inadvertently left behind at a gas station an accompanying friend (until someone noticed); where we lost many of the myriad fish we caught to hungry bears; and where I spent a day wiped out, dozing in my sleeping bag, face swollen with allergies. But none of our trips were nearly as memorable or rewarding as that last family trip to Flaming Gorge campground.

It united our family as no other trip had. We were grateful to our Heavenly Father that He had given my mom a safe delivery, despite the circumstances, and that the baby was healthy. We were grateful to Him that the brakes on the car held during our mad, windy, downhill rush to get to the hospital. (My dad got them fixed before we headed home.) We were grateful for all the people in Vernal who gave us a place to stay, provided food, and helped us while my mom and baby were still in the hospital. We were glad to see our Nana and Papa again when they immediately returned to see us and meet the new baby. We were floating on a cloud of joy and even humbled a little by all God had done and provided—and then some—in answer to our prayers. I was already on my best behavior since my boyfriend was with us. That may have helped the trip go more smoothly too, regardless of these wondrous events. All the way home we pampered our mom and enjoyed our new baby brother. We didn’t even fight over holding him—much.

“There is beauty all around, When there’s love at home;

There is joy in every sound, When there’s love at home.

Peace and plenty here abide, Smiling fair on every side;

Time doth softly, sweetly glide, When there’s love at home.”

(From a well-loved, often-sung hymn we used to sing entitled:

“Love at Home,” by John Hugh McNaughton)


[1] United States Department of Transportation, Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, “The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System,” accessed 5/15/2023, [2] Camu, Pierre and Roger William Benedict, Britannica, “St. Lawrence Seaway: waterway, North America,” accessed 5/15/2023, [3] Lambert, Maude-Emmanuelle, Britannica, “Expo 67: world’s fair, Montreal, Quebec, Canada,” accessed 5/16/2023, [4] Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, “Expo 67,” accessed 5/16/2023,


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