About six months ago, I received an offer from my grandfather that was just too fantastic to decline. I never really knew him growing up, and for years we lost touch completely to the point where I couldn’t have even told you what state he called home (he’s a bit of a rambler, so that’s not quite as crazy as it sounds).
Turns out he was living in a small sustainable community in Arizona, and he contacted me anxious to reconnect and share stories of our lives and travels.
Per his suggestion, my family and I would fly to Arizona to spend some quality time and get to know the beautiful place he calls home. After our visit, he would pack his Prius tight with camping supplies and send us off on our own, so we could seek our own adventures exploring the Southwest, as simply and economically as practicable.
What my grandfather didn’t know when he urged us to visit is that I’d been fantasizing about a road trip through the Southwest for years, well before I had any clue I had family in the area. I had been thinking about it for so long that I already had a pretty decent idea where I wanted to go.
OK, let’s be honest. Not only did I already know precisely which places I wanted to see, but I already knew exactly what song I wanted to listen to the first time I watched the sun set over the Grand Canyon, which trails I wanted to hike in Sedona, and the closest place to buy firewood when camping in the Utah desert. Heck, I even knew what I wanted to order for dessert at the cute little roadside diner I’d pass on Route 66. This was, essentially, my dream vacation.
But it was so much more than a vacation. It was a journey. Maybe even a rite of passage. I’ve always felt so drawn to those places, almost as if I NEEDED to be there, although I could never fully explain the reasons. I’m not a religious person, nor do I tend to put much faith in superstition.
Nevertheless, something inside me believed that if and when I made this journey and spent time in these places, I’d be “better” somehow. Happier. Wiser. More at peace.
Sadly, I put it off for years, for a hundred different reasons. Money, time, kids, and a variety of other practical concerns. All of a sudden the opportunity was right in front of me, as easy and convenient as it will ever get, and with the major added incentive of building a meaningful relationship with my grandfather, who had always been an enigma to me.
My response to his generous offer? Get the guest bedroom ready and let’s see how many extra blankets we can stuff in the Prius. It gets COLD in the desert at night!
I did the things I needed to do. I not only watched the sun set at the Grand Canyon, but I returned at midnight to watch a total lunar eclipse, a rare bonus resulting from random lucky timing. In both cases, I discovered music was superfluous.
I was dwarfed by the mountains of Colorado and camped in the Utah desert under a canopy of a billion stars, and felt, as I had at the canyon, somehow bigger and smaller than I’d ever felt before. I meditated on a rocky cliff in Sedona and hiked its beautiful landscape until I was so exhausted I nearly had to crawl to bed each night.
Best of all, I got to spend some time getting to know the mysterious man that raised my father, finding answers to so many lingering questions about where I came from and why things turned out the way they did.
I’m back now, and it was truly everything I’d dreamed. There wasn’t a single place that was overrated by my wistful imagination, and I felt every bit as peaceful and happy as I’d always imagined.
Then again, I was pretty happy and peaceful before the trip. So did it work? Am I a better person somehow for having gone on this journey? Objectively, I’d say yes. I learned a lot about myself and my country. I bonded with an amazing relative who made me feel like I’d know him for decades and simultaneously wish I really had. I created magical memories to share with my family.
And as a wise friend pointed out, I got a chance to see a breathtakingly beautiful part of our world with the fresh and hungry eyes of a tourist. With any luck I’ll hold onto that renewed sense of wonder and awe for as long as I can, seeing even my own back yard with the purity of a traveler.
I scratched a Top 5 item off my bucket list, and as silly or trivial as it might sound to some, accomplished a major life goal. Thusly, I feel a profound sense of peace and contentment and I suspect it will continue sending warmth and joy through my veins for quite some time. And it takes absolutely nothing away from my recent experience, but yet, still…
The longing returns already, never for material things but always for new experience. I want — no, NEED — to go backpacking at Yosemite and Glacier National Parks and all along the Pacific Northwest, to stargaze and climb volcanoes at Haleakala, to snorkel my way through the Florida Keys and kayak in the Adirondacks. And so much more. Will I ever be satisfied that I’ve seen and touched enough of my beautiful planet?
I sure hope not! Perhaps George Eliot put it best. “It seems to me that we can never give up longing and wishing as long as we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we just hunger after them.”