The Trip That Changed My Life

In 1971, I was three years out of college and working as head of the operations department for a major department store in Dallas, Texas. A coworker with whom I had become a good friend who worked in the sporting goods department had acquired a large camping tent. We eventually formulated a plan to use it on a camping trip to the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone national parks that summer.

That was my first ever camping trip and re-ignited within me a love of the natural world that was first kindled when I briefly lived in rural east Texas, shortly after my grandfather’s passing in November, 1955. My grandparents lived on a 40-acre farm in Cass County. After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother didn’t want to leave the farm, but the family didn’t want her to live there by herself. I was chosen to finish the school year down on the farm to keep her company and provide whatever help an eleven-year old could supply (which wasn’t much).

What’s a city boy to do when he suddenly finds himself in the country? I reveled in it! On weekends, my grandmother would pack a sack lunch for me and I would head off through the piney woods and spend the day absorbing nature—and loving it.

That same love lay dormant for over fifteen years until that July camping trip to the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone. That trip began the process that the Lord was using to change my life. He “knows our frame,” and He knew exactly what it would take to pull me out of the world and set me on the straight and narrow path.

The summer following the trip to the Rockies and Yellowstone, I wanted to experience the beauties of another national park—but which one? Being a fifth-generation Texan (and misguidedly proud of it), I thought to myself that there must be a national park in Texas I could visit. Back in 1972, there was no web to surf to answer that question, but somehow I discovered that there was indeed a national park stuck way out in west Texas, in the bend of the Rio Grande, southeast of El Paso. It is aptly named Big Bend National Park.

So in August 1972, I borrowed the tent from my friend that we had used the summer before and packed up my camping gear in the trunk of my Pontiac Grand Prix—not your typical camping vehicle. But I was living the high life in Dallas, occupying a luxury apartment, driving a fancy car, doing all the preppy things a successful corporate executive was supposed to do. By then I was in charge of the receiving department, supervising about 30 employees, with two assistants.

This vacation, however, was indeed the trip that changed my life. I was smitten with the incredibly wide openness of Big Bend, the vistas that stretched for miles in every direction, without a single golden arch to be seen. The nearest town was 108 miles away. The nearest Walmart or McDonald’s was a bit farther. The nearest airport was 225 miles away. It’s about as remote a location as one can find in the United States.

I spent a week camping in The Basin campground, which is nestled in a huge igneous bowl about a mile in diameter in the heart of the Chisos Mountains. The campground occupied the site that was used by a 1930’s Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Late summer is the rainy season there, and every afternoon there were fascinating thunderstorms that dumped buckets of rain in short order, giving life to the intermittent waterfalls that cascaded off the mountain ridges that surrounded the campground.

That week, I explored remote trails, soaking in the beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and the astounding Chisos Mountains—the only mountain range that is wholly contained within the boundaries of a national park, whose highest peak tops out at 7,825 feet.

When I got back to Dallas, I bought every book I could find that had anything to do with Big Bend and read them voraciously. I couldn’t get enough. The memories of that trip haunted me day and night, to the extent that I made plans to leave Dallas and move to Big Bend. The only hitch: to live in a national park, you have to work there, and in the early 1970s the park service was under orders to diversify. Consequently, they were not hiring white Anglo-Saxon males under 40—the only unprotected class under anti-discrimination regulations.

Then I discovered that there was a concessioner in the park that was always eager to hire minimum wage workers. I applied, but never received a job offer, only a letter asking me why I wanted to quit my present job.

I’m sure it seemed a bit odd to them for someone who lived in a big metropolitan area and held a responsible, well-paying position to want to go to work in a very remote location for minimum wage. I responded with what to me was a plausible explanation, but never received a response.

Unable to get my mind off Big Bend, I eventually traded my Grand Prix for a Volkswagen, sold everything I had that wouldn’t fit in it, quit my job, and headed for the park.

When I got there, with great anxiety, I went to the office of the concessioner and introduced myself, asking for the manager by name, which I knew from the last letter I had received from him a few months earlier. He came out immediately, saying that he knew who I was and why I was there. Whew—anxiety relieved a bit!

After a brief interview with him and his assistant, I was offered a job as a desk clerk for the lodge. Because I had a college degree, they agreed to pay me fifteen cents above minimum wage. The job came with free housing and three meals a day for one dollar per meal. What a deal!

So I moved into the men’s dorm with seven or eight other workers, only one of whom spoke English. It was quite a difference from the luxury apartment I had lived in in Dallas, but it was in Big Bend!

I stayed there for a total of thirteen years. I met my wife there. We had three children there. We all still consider Big Bend our special place, although none of us lives there anymore.

As I look back on this wonderful experience, I don’t think I’m stretching it too much to view my years in Big Bend as perhaps similar to Moses’ four decades of tending sheep. The Lord knew that I had too much worldliness in me to walk the narrow way successfully. He lovingly ordered the providences in my life so that I could begin my exit from Babylon.

Because the school at Big Bend only went through the sixth grade, the family had to move as our children grew, first landing in San Diego. Talk about culture shock—moving from a remote residence with about a hundred neighbors to a metropolis of almost six million! We could tolerate that change for only about a year and a half and when I was offered a job in Tucson, Arizona, we gladly accepted and relocated there. And it was in Tucson that the Lord helped me to take the next step in my exit from Babylon.

I was the chief financial officer for a multi-million-dollar non-profit corporation that operated book stores in National Park Service visitor centers. At that time, we had 66 outlets in 11 western states. I got paid to visit some of the most beautiful sites west of the 100th meridian. To this day, I continue to be awed at the gracious manner in which the Lord worked to lead me to His loving and patient side.

After I served several years in that position, the need arose in the organization for a controller, who would report to me. It turned out that one of the individuals who applied, a recent college graduate, asked in my initial contact with him if the job would require that he work on Saturday. I was puzzled by his question, but told him that I had worked there for eight years and had never had to work on Saturday. He responded that if that were the case, he would agree to an on-site interview.

During that interview, he again stressed that he would not want to be considered for the job if it would ever require him to work on Saturday, explaining that he was a Seventh-day Adventist.

I had initially heard of SDAs in 1975 when I spent the summer working in a seafood processing factory in Alaska. One day I saw the plant manager talking to three young men who had entered the plant. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but I saw the manager shake his head and the three fellows leave. Later the manager told me that they were Seventh-day Adventists and wouldn’t work on Saturday; so he wouldn’t hire them.

The next time I heard of Seventh-day Adventists was following the siege at Waco in 1993. When we saw the story on the news, my wife wondered what her aunt thought about the incident, as she was a Seventh-day Adventist and the Davidians were considered by some to be an off-shoot of the SDA church.

On a later business trip to Washington, D.C., I stayed with my wife’s aunt, who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, and with her attended the huge SDA church there on Sabbath. There was nothing particularly memorable about the service, other than that it was on Saturday. So I didn’t make any inquiries about her faith.

Well, we ended up hiring the young college graduate as the controller, admonishing him beforehand that he had to keep his religion to himself and not evangelize in the workplace—a stipulation to which he agreed.

One of the National Park Service outlets we operated was a trading post on the Navajo reservation. At the time it was our largest source of revenue. Since the controller was responsible for the financial accounting for that operation, it was important for him to become familiar with it right away. Because of its remote location, the only way to get there was to drive. So a day or two after he was hired, we began the six-hour trip.

As soon as we got out of town, I asked him about this “seventh day Sabbath thing.” He reminded me that he had agreed not to discuss his religion and didn’t want to violate his agreement. I assured him that since I was the one who brought up the subject, he wouldn’t get in trouble. He cautiously began to explain that the Bible was very clear that the seventh day was the Sabbath and that there was nothing in Scripture to justify worshiping on the first day.

Being a faithful SDA, he had his Bible tucked in his suitcase, brought it out and used it to skillfully address every question I raised — questions that every SDA is asked sooner or later. The two things he said that impressed me the most were that Seventh-day Adventists believe the whole Bible is true, and they believe that God has had His hand over the Scriptures to prevent any material changes from happening to them.

When we reached our destination, I got the Gideon Bible from my motel room and joined him in his. We conversed and read Scripture until 11:00 that night. And at 11:00 that night, I became a Seventh-day Adventist.

I returned to Tucson with the joy of my new-found faith beaming from my countenance. Unfortunately, that joy was not shared by my wife. When my son, who was baptized the following year at the same camp meeting I was, later expressed a desire to become a Bible worker, my wife filed for divorce, declaring that she couldn’t handle two Christians in the same household, admitting that she was a convicted atheist and always had been, a fact that she had concealed from me until I accepted Christ as my Saviour.

As I look back over the journey that brought me to where I am today, I can only praise a loving God who knew exactly what was needed to draw me closer to Him and set me on the path of truth and righteousness, although that path has had a few bumps. I have no doubt that He is equally interested in the salvation of everyone. My prayer is that all will respond to the pleadings and leadings of the Holy Spirit and come out of Babylon.


My ex-wife has since passed away. Two of my children who were baptized into the church have since left the church and returned to the world.

John R. Pearson is the office manager and a board member of Steps to Life. He may be contacted by email at: