Yellowstone: A Trip Taken

She was 52 and gone in 35 days. I couldn’t get it out of my head. A woman here, then gone.

I was holed up in a coffee shop, clicking away at my keyboard, trying to make my cappuccino last the full three hours I had a sitter. I get a few uninterrupted mornings to write a month, and this session was evaporating quickly. I glanced at the bottom of my laptop. A half hour until I had to pack up and race home to babies demanding lunch. I still needed to wrap up a conclusion and give the latest essay another read-through.

“Do you use the internet in a place like this?” An older man had pulled up the neighboring chair and leaned over in my direction. He was somewhere in his sixties.

“Yea. I do, but just to update my blog and check email.”

“And you feel safe doing that here?”

This was going to be a longer conversation than I was intending.

“Safe enough. I wouldn’t check my banking details or submit my taxes, but this little stuff I don’t worry about. I figure if someone is going to hack into my personal information, it can happen if I’m sitting at my dining room table. Nothing feels truly safe anymore.”

He turned to face me. “Yea. I know just enough to be dangerous, I think. I don’t really understand all of it, but it sounds like those identity thieves can get you anywhere. I heard you can be paying for your gas at a pump and somebody across the street can steal your credit card number just like that. Nothing you can do about it.”

I wasn’t getting those last thirty minutes.

“It feels that way, doesn’t it? Everything is computerized now, and when it all comes crashing down, we just better hope we have enough cash stuffed under the mattress.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry to bother you. I didn’t mean to pull you away from what you were doing. I’m just killing time before I head back to the Secretary of State to figure out my boat registration. I have a dinghy that I got out of storage and can’t find the paperwork. I’m heading out on a sailing trip.”

I watched those last 30 minutes dissolve into the foam at the bottom of my cup. I love a good travel story, and he seemed like he needed to tell one. I took my fingers off the keys.

The man walked me through the newest purchase, a sailboat with refined finishes, teak flooring. He talked about his upcoming sail, a two-week trek to the straits of Mackinaw where he would meet up with a friend and see where the waters took them. He talked about being on the lake, alone, nothing but boat and sky. He’d worked for the same company for 40 years, he said, and figured he deserved to treat himself now.

But as he talked about his sailboat, he kept going back to this tug that he owned previously. The power and durability. The ease with which it took the unforgiving waves of a winter storm. He talked about the places it had taken him and pulled a wrinkled photo out of his wallet to show me the old boat.

“And then my wife died, and I sold it. Cancer.” He looked down and then out the window into the busy street.

I offered quiet condolences and stared into my empty mug.

“Yea. She was 52. Went in for a check-up, got the diagnosis, and was gone 35 days later. She went from a beautiful healthy woman sitting there, just like you. Then gone.”

I knew women who barely made 52. Their blood is my blood, and I often wonder if mine will stop short like theirs. Years of cancer eating away at my body. Years of decay eating away at my mind. Gone before I see what beautiful souls descend from my beautiful souls.

He went back to talking about the tug and all the work they’d put into it together. “She wasn’t like one of those women who thought boating was laying on the sundeck and shopping. She liked to get her hands dirty. And she was always up for an adventure.”

I watched him bring her back to life in the empty chair that sat between us.

“We were always going to take the boat up to Alaska. Never did.”

A trip not taken. The worst kind. I pictured them crashing along the Pacific in the mighty tug, laughing at the waves tossing them about.

He changed gears and started yakking about his new wife and their refurbished farmhouse south of town. She was his third wife which struck me sharply given the way he spoke about the one in the middle, the second wife, the one who was up for anything. He spoke of her like the only one.

We chatted about other destinations, a drive around Lake Superior, a journey to Nova Scotia. The conversation continued until I didn’t have any minutes left to spare. I shut down my laptop and collected my things.

“Do you ever think you’ll take that Alaska trip?”

“No. I could only do it with the tug. She’s the only one that could make it.” I wasn’t sure we were talking about the boat. I smiled and waved good-bye. He thanked me for my time, and I returned the gratitude for our brief chat. Our conversation lasted a lot longer than the hurried half hour, though, and over the past few weeks, I have continued to hear his voice shake out the details of her unexpected death and that trip not taken.

We are in the midst of a trip to Yellowstone, an idea tossed out casually last summer around a campfire, but that seed took root and by winter I was making reservations. That’s how trips usually take shape for me, quietly at first and then growing in volume until I can’t tune them out any longer. The urgency starts to interfere with my everyday routine until I grant the trip its rightful place on the calendar.

Not everyone is like this, I understand, and many of us charge through life making plans we will get to someday, making the assumption that somedays are plentiful, believing our bodies and minds will be in working order, assuming the people next to us today will be next to us when someday finally arrives. We have no right to assume.

The truth is that those people, the ones we feel in our veins like blood, those people might be left staring at that someday with a grand plan and no one to travel beside. Or worse yet. We might be the ones left to voyage on alone.

As each day of our Yellowstone adventure passes, and my new little family of five joins my original family of five to form one giant mess of dirt and tears and laughter and love, I keep thinking of trips not taken by families who didn’t make it to someday in one piece. I keep thinking of a friend who took this very same trip 25 years ago, a 14-year-old kid without a care in the world. Two years later, his mother was gone. Cancer. There were no more family vacations. I invited him to catch a flight and join us out here to which he politely declined. “Sometimes your memories just need to stay the way they are. Sometimes they are better than the real thing.”

These memories are all we’re left with when the unexpected comes. The ones we are about to make and all the ones we’ve already been gifted are everything. We are not owed some pre-determined allotment of days. We are owed nothing, and there are times I count the seconds, holding my breath until my lucky streak comes to a crashing halt. I watch people around me, friends and strangers suffer through unimaginable loss as I draw my family close and pray – maybe plead – over them until I fall asleep late into the night.

When I can’t sleep, I start planning our next adventure, and we rearrange our lives, sometimes to the point of near combustion, in order to make them happen. There is a relentless force pushing me to log miles and memories with these people, my blood. When I stop to wonder too long why I feel such urgency, I go right back to praying over these babies until sleep comes. Then, we awake and head out into the world to see as much of it as we can together. Because the luck will end eventually, and when it does, whoever is left to sail on alone can be lulled to sleep by the memories, ones that are better than the real thing when the blood is gone.




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