Thanks to a one-armed, bearded geologist who died 117 years ago, my wife, Sam, and I are moving 1,700 miles across the country next week.
Allow me to explain.
I long despised the desert. A pudgy Midwestern son, I swell and sweat in 80-degree heat, much less 120. What is to like about dirt, tumbleweeds, and coyotes? I would not dare voluntarily travel to Phoenix, much less move there.
Early in my career, work required me to travel west on occasion. The Rams play the Cardinals home and away each season. My first trip (of many) with U.S. Soccer was to Phoenix in December 2015. Three years ago to the week, the U.S. Men’s National Team’s success in Copa America Centenario took me to Houston then Glendale; the only pair of destinations that could make you appreciate the Phoenix heat.
Still, I would never move there.
I met Sam on February 3, 2018, and immediately fell in love with her. On our first date, she shared her love for Phoenix, having previously spent four years teaching there. She loved the foliage and friends. A month into our relationship, she returned for a friend’s wedding and sent me a postcard detailing how much she would love to move back, more as a joke than a serious claim.
Still, I would never move there.
Last summer, as things got serious with Sam, I dreamed of our future together. The formula was clear: grow up in the suburbs, attend a state school, move to the city, get married, buy a house in the suburbs, and pass the cycle on to the next generation. Confident I would soon propose, a move to the suburbs felt imminent but hardly exciting. There had to be more, right?
Perspiring after walking one block in the West Loop, my good friend Matt called. An established church in Mesa wanted him and his family to move to a radially growing corer of Mesa called Eastmark to plant a church. He asked for prayer and discernment.
Despite Matt’s request, my mind raced to the possibility of Sam and I joining them. I mean, a week earlier I unknowingly told Sam I would follow Matt anywhere. And she wanted to go back to Phoenix, right? Maybe this is the adventure we longed for! But helping a church plant? We certainly hadn’t discussed that. And Eastmark? What is that? Is it still hot?
Ok, maybe I would move there.
In September, fresh off a RHTYHMinTWENTY gathering in Colorado, Matt sent a text to declare his family was indeed moving to Arizona to plant a church. Excited for Matt, I immediately shared the news with Sam. Then he suggested we join them. I gulped. I looked down at my car stereo. “Phoenix” by Slaughter Beach, Dog was on. Weird.
Yet I was hesitant to even consider moving there.
Over the coming weeks, I intentionally prayed about the opportunity to move west. God began to shift my heart toward the desert. Conversations with Matt were enriching and inspiring. But Sam and I were only dating and despite all signs pointing toward marriage, we still had a ways to go. Finally, one Sunday afternoon in Wicker Park, I broke and shared my excitement about the possibility of joining Matt and family to help with the church in Arizona. Sam struggled to hide her enthusiasm but maintained her stance that we should hold off on any big conversations like this until engagement. Alas, I felt energized, but uncertain it was what God wanted for us.
Finally, I thought about moving there.
From what I recall, October 24, 2018, started like any other day. Likely a quick breakfast while reading, in this case, Play the Man by Mark Batterson. He began a chapter with the brief story of John Wesley Powell. I was intrigued but hurried, so I opened a new browser tab on my phone to Google his name and come back to it later. This tactic is common but rarely followed up on, proven by the 350+ tabs currently open on my phone.
Sitting at a table near the windows at Front Bar — the same one I am typing at now — I opened my browser to search for something. My query for John Wesley Powell was still waiting for me. I paused my task to scan his Wikipedia page. I beg you to do the same.
Hardly a history buff, I was enamored. How was I learning of Powell for the first time?
Powell grew up in the Chicagoland area, just like me. Upon joining the Union in 1861, he was stationed in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the town in which I attended Southeast Missouri State for my first semester of college. He lost most of his right arm during the Battle of Shiloh. After departing the Army, Powell taught at Illinois State, where I graduated more than 140 years later. Save for my fully functioning right arm, we’re practically the same person, right?
Except Powell did not carry on with the suburban spiral. Rather, the man sought after adventure more than few, if any others have ever dreamed.
By 1869, few parts of the country were left unconquered. Powell, of course, took on the most difficult remaining territory: the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He, along with four wooden boats and nine men, traveled down the unknown Green and Colorado Rivers over a span of three months to become the first to explore the base of the canyon.
Who does that?
As I read Powell’s story, something moved inside of me. I felt alive. I longed for adventure of unknown canyons myself.
I hurriedly texted Matt and others about my findings. If this guy went from Chicagoland to Cape Girardeau to Normal to Arizona, was I supposed to do the same? Always a skeptic, I battled the certainty of the coincidence. But I kept reading.
Then, hidden near the bottom of his Wikipedia page, I found this:
God met me here in this coffee shop. He gifted me this thin place moment. John Wesley Powell’s legacy carried on to Mesa (Note: the school closed in 2010) and so will mine!
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! We may conjecture many things.”
I told Sam we had to get together that night. I shared everything I knew about Powell, including the quote. I boasted about the Mesa real estate market and the possibility of buying a house.
Sure, we were months away from engagement, but at this point, I knew: We had to move to Arizona.
Along the way, a series of reminders reinforced the plan. I proposed in late December and we married a month ago to the day. We are all in on Arizona.
The realist and skeptic in me want to assure you the story of John Wesley Powell is not the only reason we are moving. Sam has plenty of close friends (and plants) she can’t wait to be near. We are excited to explore the mountains. Rhythm Community Church presents an amazing opportunity for us to serve a rapidly growing community with no established Christian churches. The confident, spiritual Kevin assures you God is calling us to the desert one way or another.
So what’s the plan?
We are renting a beautiful home ripe for visitors on the border of Chandler and Gilbert. Our movers depart Chicago on Tuesday, then we head out by car(s) on Friday. We will take our time getting there, stopping to see friends, features, and holy ground along the way. Do you think we are going to skip on past the Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon?