Let go, live your life, the grave has no sunny corners.Charles Wright
When I was ten years old my grandfather retired from his decades long job as a pressman for Tacoma’s morning newspaper. I did not know him well. He had worked nights those many years, so when we visited he was often asleep in a quiet bedroom in a corner of the house. He and my grandmother had purchased an Airstream trailer and were looking forward to traveling and camping with their new free time.
That event changed my life in ways I could not understand completely until many years later. I did not know much about cancer but learned that day that my grandfather had it, for I eavesdropped outside the kitchen door while he talked to my father and gave him the sad news. The day after his last night of printing Tacoma’s newspaper he had gone to see the doctor to find out why he was hoarse all the time. A week later he had his larynx removed and spent his remaining time breathing through a hole in his neck and speaking by swallowing air and propelling it through his esophagus. Because he feared that his wife would not be able to manage on her own, she came to live with us for that difficult last year of his life. Grandma moved into my brother’s bedroom, and Pat and I had to share a room. I slept on a small cot where the electric train used to be spread out on the floor. I wanted the train back, but family needs took precedent. It did not last long. Grandpa succumbed to his illness in less than a year. The Airstream trailer was never used, not even once. I had lost interest in the train by then. Grandma returned to her home, where she remained for only a few years before giving in to dementia, which I always believed had been caused by her unrelenting grief.
But this is a blog about hiking, and yes, this post has a happy ending. Ten years later, while still in his fifties, my father retired, though there was no sinister diagnosis to darken the mood, and instead of an Airstream trailer he and my mother had a cabin cruiser they lived on for much of the year and in which they travelled the inland passage to Alaska each summer. When my mother’s arthritic hands made it too difficult for her to handle the lines, they sold the boat and bought an RV. They were healthy and happy for about thirty years until their mid-eighties. They were the best grandparents a single mother could ask for, and my daughters loved their time with them.
My grandfather never got to enjoy his Airstream, but he left a legacy that reverberated through the generations in my family. I was in my early twenties when my father retired, far removed from my own departure from the working world, but I got the message that life is brief, and I needed to spend as much of it outside in the mountains as I possibly could. As a single mother with a demanding career it was not easy to set aside the time every summer for an extended backpacking trip, but I made it happen without exception and always returned renewed, ready to take on the world with its many demands. I always worked as a contract employee, which meant no paid vacation, so I had to carefully budget in order to take that time off without pay. Instead of an Airstream trailer or a boat I had my backpack. It was all I needed to find my place in the sun, and it is all I need today.
Retirement for me came in my early sixties. Since the last day of work ten years ago I have made two long distance thru hikes: the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail with my daughter Leah and the Pacific Northwest Trail. Those long hikes were amazing, but more important for me has been the daily ways in which I find myself on trails. After the PNT hike my husband and I moved to one of the trail towns on that route, where I am surrounded by mountains to the east and west, and the trails are never crowded. On my daily walks I pass beneath pine trees. It is what I want to do, what I must do. I am chasing the Airstream.
Our language is filled with reminders of this important life lesson: Make hay while the sun shines, and my favorite from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: The bird of time has but a little way to fly. And lo, the bird is on the wing. Only it is not a bird. It is an old Airstream trailer. I will not let it fly away, not for awhile.