What counts as a life well-lived?
I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot lately (even more than usual!) and wondering whether I’m making the most of my time. I keep remembering a great Seinfeld scene where George meets Jerry and Elaine right after attending a funeral:
GEORGE: They always make me take stock of my life and how I’ve pretty much wasted all of it, and how I plan to continue wasting it.
JERRY: I know, and then you say to yourself, “From this moment on, I’m not going to waste any more of it.” But then you go, “How? What can I do that’s not wasting it?”
ELAINE: Is this a waste of time? What should we be doing? Can’t you have coffee with people?
I feel pretty confident there’s no universal truth waiting to be uncovered. Something deeply meaningful to me might be a waste of time for you. But I do find it interesting that common themes tend to pop up when the elderly share their biggest regrets in life. An article I read recently listed the five biggest regrets of people on the brink of death:
- I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
- I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
We can all agree that #2 isn’t a problem for me, and I’ve done my best to tackle #1 head-on. But #4 is a concern. For the most part I’m terrible at keeping in touch with people. Texting and the Internet have made it easier to maintain a least some kind of connection with very little effort, but I’m often guilty of letting too much time pass without seeing good friends in person.
Earlier this year an opportunity came up that gave me a chance to improve. My mom asked if I’d come to Denver to stay with my dad while she, my sister, and my brother-in-law go to my niece Kate’s college graduation in Montana. My calendar was almost completely open (who would have guessed?) and I realized I could use the Denver trip as a starting point for catching up with friends.
I planned to drive to Denver by way of Zion National Park, and then after Denver make a 4,000 mile loop around the Midwest that would mix visits with people I wish I saw more often with stops at National Parks. I figured I’d be on the road for at least a month.
I kicked things off in late April with the long drive from Mountain View, California to Zion National Park, Utah. I camped for a night at Zion and planned to hike The Narrows the next morning. The Virgin River, unfortunately, had other ideas. Heavy snowmelt made the river as fast and angry as I’d ever seen it, and The Narrows was closed to hikers. Thankfully my backup hike – Angel’s Landing – is another of my all-time favorites. I’m not particularly scared of heights but hanging onto the chains during the final part of the climb is always a little nerve-wracking.
In Denver I had a really nice visit with my family. Everyone enjoyed Kate’s graduation, which I was sorry to miss. But it wasn’t long before I made it to Montana, too. May is one of my favorite months in Yellowstone. The bears have emerged from hibernation, some with newborn cubs, and the park isn’t nearly as choked with crowds as it gets in the summer. I drove straight to Yellowstone from Denver and spent four days photographing the park.
For the first three days I didn’t have much luck with wildlife. Things finally changed when I traded messages with a Yellowstone friend, Jort, who I’d been hoping to see at some point. “I was with the grizzly coy all PM!” he said. “Near North Twin Lake. I’ll be there tomorrow again.” So before sunrise the next day I parked at a pullout by North Twin Lake, side-by-side with an eager crew of Yellowstone regulars cradling big cameras, and waited.
At first, no bears. We hoped they’d show up in the morning, but noon came and went without an appearance. Another hour or two passed. A few of the regulars called it a day, and I worried that I’d wasted a fourth of my Yellowstone time. And then I noticed some slight movement behind the pine trees… The grizzly mom – officially designated as bear 815 but sometimes called Mini Mom or the Obsidian sow – finally made her debut. Close behind were her three adorable cubs-of-the-year (COY), on what had to have been one of their first handful of trips outside the den. The rapid clicking of camera shutters filled the air.
It’s always a rush to see a bear cub, let alone three. In the full year I spent photographing Yellowstone I didn’t manage to get a single good photo of grizzly COYs, and now right in front of me was a whole family posing on a log. Before long the bears vanished back into the trees, but soon they returned for round two, and eventually round three. Yellowstone definitely didn’t disappoint.
The next day I drove to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where I photographed wild horses at sunset, spent a cold night camping, and then photographed the horses again at sunrise. I haven’t seen many wild horses and they were a lot more entertaining to watch than I expected.
From there I drove to Fargo, North Dakota, and the next day to Voyageurs National Park before dropping down to Milwaukee to meet up with Joe, a good college friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. We had a great time catching up over dinner. Joe always amazes me with his memory, which seems especially keen when it comes to embarrassing things I did thirty years ago.
The next morning I made the short drive from Milwaukee to Chicago to meet Lori, a friend I grew up with in Kansas who also went to college with me at Michigan. It had been much too long since I’d seen Lori, and it was really good to spend some time with her.
After Chicago I drove to Kansas City, my hometown. My parents moved from KC to Denver in 2012, and I hadn’t been to visit since. So it felt particularly good to finally get back and see so many of my longtime friends. I stayed the first night at my friend David’s house and got to experience 24 hours in the life of his family. The next night I had a great dinner with my friends Michael, (a different) David, Sid, Kevin, (a different) Rob, and Gordon.
Marie flew in to meet me the next day, Saturday, and that night (after dinner at Winstead’s, a childhood favorite) we had drinks with my friends Laura, Christine, and Dan, along with David and Michael. Marie hadn’t been to Kansas City before, so it was especially fun to introduce her to my friends and show her around. I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.
On Sunday morning Marie and I woke up early and drove all the way to Austin, Texas. Neither of us had been to Austin before, but we’d heard good things and wanted to check it out. I can’t say we liked it as much as we expected, but we were glad to have seen it. Marie flew back to California on Monday night, and the next morning I hit the road again.
My plan had been to head from Austin to Big Bend National Park and then on to White Sands and the Four Corners region, but that morning I found out my dad had broken his hip, so I drove back to Denver to try to pitch in. I didn’t end up doing much more than walk dogs and house sit, but I was glad my hobo lifestyle gives me the flexibility to so easily help out in a situation like that.
After about 10 days in Denver I hopped in my car again and started the drive back to California. I wanted to get there before the day Marie and I celebrate as our anniversary (of our first date, nine years ago!), which meant I needed to make the drive in three days. But that still gave me plenty of time to do a little sight-seeing.
On my first night I stopped at Monument Valley. I’d already visited a couple times but it was my first time camping there, which turned out to be a perfect way to experience the iconic views. The camping area is perched on the slope of a hill that overlooks the Mittens, which I could see outside my tent as I fell asleep.
After sunrise photos the next day I made a quick stop at Horseshoe Bend before continuing on to Death Valley, where an unusual sandstorm entirely blotted out the Mesquite sand dunes.
I had better photo luck at sunrise the following morning, with perfectly still air and a beautiful clear sky. There was only one other photographer on the dunes that early, and, thanks to the total lack of wind, I was able to experience the unusual phenomenon of being outside in nature with incredible views stretching miles in every direction, and yet engulfed by complete silence. Nature is usually noisy, but nothing in the environment made any sound at all. Putting my hand in my pocket created such a relatively loud noise it startled me. I tried my best to take it all in.
After sunrise the wind picked up and blew sand across the dunes, erasing my tracks.
That afternoon I rolled back into Mountain View. It felt great to be at Marie’s place again and to see her and her two dogs. My month-long odyssey had taken me across 7,000 miles and 17 states. Parts of the trip didn’t play out as planned, and there are more friends I wished I’d been able to see, but overall I can’t imagine many better ways to have spent my time.