On Thursday I began the 2,200 mile road trip across the country along with Webber, our 60-pound bundle of canine orneriness.
On Saturday I lost my keys in a field in Nebraska.
It was our third day of the trip. We'd been spending 8-10 hours in the car together on each of them. Our only stops had been gas stations, fast food joints, and the hotel rooms we'd stumbled into after dark. Tiny patches of crunchy, frozen grass alongside convenience stores had been the dog's only exercise, and all things considered, he was doing remarkably well. Except for an occasional half-hearted whimper from the back of the car every couple of hours, Webber was resigned to his fate.
That's why this afternoon, after the snow-covered mountains and tundras of Utah and Colorado gave way to the straw-colored expanses of Nebraska, I decided to let him have a little run. I spied a rest stop along I-80 that sat adjacent to a wide open field and thought it looked like a perfect spot. Before I'd even half-opened the lift gate Webber had leaped down, and with ears flat against his head, sprinted into the open field. Only when he was way out in the middle did he stop and look back at me. His ears were now alert, pointed straight up to the sky, and his mouth was open in what looked like a grin. He was ready to play.
And we did. We ran. We chased each other. I threw sticks. He failed to fetch them. (Any of them.) We jumped fences and explored.
A little more than half an hour later we made our way back to the car, breathing in the cold in quick gasps. Webber jumped up and I closed the lift gate. I climbed into the front seat, patting my coat pockets. Nothing. I looked around me in the ignition, on the passenger seat, the cup holders. Nothing. I opened the door and stepped outside, patting my pants pockets. Nope. I checked the pockets of the light jacket I was wearing under my coat. Empty.
I suddenly had a fleeting memory of stuffing my hands in my pockets as I'd traipsed out into the field after Webber, and I had felt them then in my left-hand coat pocket. But now they were definitively not there.
With horror I raised my eyes to look out into that wide open field, and a whispered curse turned into a puff of vapor in the cold.
I began retracing my steps, an impossible task. It seemed there was not a patch of turf we hadn't touched. When had they fallen out? Was it here where I'd picked up the stick? Or there where I'd tackled Webber? Or maybe over there where we'd jumped the fence?
I suddenly remembered my AAA membership and ran back to the car for the card. After more than 40 minutes on the phone with them I'd learned a few things: 1) I was in the middle of nowhere. 2) There was not a locksmith within a hundred miles. 3) They might have to tow me, but there wasn't more than a lonely gas station for 50 miles in either direction.
They wanted to explore some other options, so they said they'd call me back in 5 minutes. Okay.
5 minutes passed. Then 10. Then 15. Then 25. I looked at my phone. No service. "What? I just made a phone call and now nothing?!" I wandered around for the next 10 minutes, looking like an idiot holding my phone in the air (as if the extra 2.5 feet of elevation could make all the difference). No luck.
As I watched the sun sink lower toward the horizon minute by minute I began what I'll call the "frantic phase." I started by crossing back and forth through the field in an orderly way, but it quickly turned into wild zig-zags. I was on my hands and knees in the field sweeping my arms around in panicked motions, hoping my hands could find what my eyes could not. I kept looking and re-looking in the same spots. I checked the ignition no less than fifteen times.
With crushing failure falling heavy on my shoulders I sat down at the edge of the field and stared unseeingly at the acres and acres of open grass in which Webber and I had played. Then I closed my eyes and prayed.
"God I know you can see my stupid keys right now. Can you give me eyes to see them, too?"
I sat there a few moments longer. And then I decided to check an area I'd already checked a dozen times to no avail. I stood up and walked nearly 200 yards. I stopped. I took a deep breath and, still standing, looked down.
There they were, right at the toes of my boots.
My vision suddenly blurred with tears. I was crying out of excitement. Out of relief. But even more out of a realization of God's love for me.
Had I never lost my keys, had I found them in a minute or ten or even thirty, had I not come to the beginning of panic and the end of my rope, God wouldn't have gotten to show me his love nestled there in the dirt and grass. He wouldn't have gotten to say, "I see you, and I hear you. I can always pick up where you leave off. And I am with you in much more than this."
I feel as though I found buried treasure in that field because I walked out of it with far more than my car keys.