A good friend died this winter, as I’ve written before. He and I shared a common trait – you might even call it a value, or at least an organizing principle for our lives: we were both restless, driven, never-satisfied seekers of place. During his lifetime, he traveled widely. I have traveled widely in the U.S. and outside it four times, but my focus has been more on traveling deeply. As my writings show, I like to go back to familiar places many times to gain a deeper understanding of their people and natural features. We both believed that for us at least, a good life means not smothering your passions under the weight of others’ expectations. We understood that it’s a balance; but we also understood that given our countervailing traits – chief among them to pay too much attention to the expectations of others – we would have to err on the side of our dreams.
We were very alike in this way and many others. As he once put it, we “wash our laundry in the same machine.” We dated for awhile in high school, one of those sharp, youthful connections you sometimes have that marks you well into adulthood. My view is that our similarities both brought about that connection and, ultimately, severed it almost thirty years ago. We both chose to spend our lives with people who knew how to file down those edges, one way or another. My husband strikes the best kind of balance for me; we share the same passion for outdoor activities and travel, but he’s had a series of life experiences that apply subtle counter-pressure to my driven nature, without smothering it. And in turn, my driven nature has upended his assumptions about what is and isn’t possible. We keep each other on the balance beam. I’m endlessly grateful for that; that something is at the core of our marriage, and it’s what keeps my feet planted on the ground through the storms of long-term relationship.
But as it turns out, the similarities that snuff out an adolescent spark sometimes make for a deep friendship in midlife. My friend and I had no conscious awareness of any of this at 17 or 18; but when we reconnected seven years ago – on social media, of course – we couldn’t help but laugh at the similarities of the lives we’d crafted over the previous quarter century. And the mantra of our friendship was based in that shared sense of urgency about seeking, seeing, and recording the places we’d been, particularly in nature. We each enjoyed the other’s travels vicariously, and exchanged strategies and stories. I told him about the times I’d had in Montana and Oregon, and he shared his love for the Appalachian wilderness. Live now! Time is short! That was the common value underlying our friendship, and it only strengthened when he became terminally ill.
But even then, we understood the paradox of travel. As we sat at lunch one day, we discussed the reality I’ve long understood, which is that whether something is exotic is purely a matter of where you’re sitting. Travel is often about finding a thrill in another person – or creature’s – everyday surroundings. As we were talking, he said the first time he realized this was in Russia. “I looked down at my feet for some reason on Red Square in Russia,” he said, “and I saw the same damn weed I see in my yard.”
Still, there’s something about seeing as many everdays as we can during as many everydays as we are allotted.
But then, his death pulled me to the other side of that balance beam. The day after he died, I tried to do something in honor of our shared value of living and validating our passions; I took the day off, determined to go to the zoo and photograph the baby orangutan, perhaps. But I was moving through quicksand from the moment I woke up. I slept all afternoon instead. Not till ten days later was I able to get back to the work of nature and hiking, when I took yet another day off and went to Goose Pond, a restored wetland area, to photograph the migrating white pelicans.
When I went back to the Silver River in Florida a month later, everything felt flat. Things that used to send me into states of wonder felt out of reach. I couldn’t have the neat, predictable moment of feeling that thrill and remembering my friend; there would be no nicely, predictably constructed emotional moment. I did the things I usually do; I just felt like someone else was doing them. So I went home, feeling strange and drained, which is how I usually feel before a trip. I felt a little – not a lot, but a little – unable to live up to the ethic of a friendship I now occupied alone.
And then came the Badlands. I had put those feelings largely out of my mind, but the sense of flatness and indifference came roaring back to me, and I even panicked a little at them. It is unusual for me to feel most alive at a captive prairie dog town instead of a wild one, but that is what happened. Ordinarily I would be drawn to immersing myself in the vastness of the Badlands, but I wasn’t. It was as beautiful as always, but it felt like something I was watching on TV. In contrast, I stood for hours in front of the prairie dog town at Reptile Gardens, feeling like myself again – interested, engaged, amused, grateful; swimming in the stream of life and nature instead of blandly watching it. But even that wore me out, and Sean and I went home a day early.
The next week, I broke down and saw my therapist. True to form, what I saw as alarming, she thought was in line with the bumps and bruises of life. I’m always strangely surprised when something painful really, really hurts, and I guess this is no exception.
“You were exactly where you should’ve been in the Badlands,” she said. “The lessons of all this will become apparent later. But for now, it all just feels like loss.”
This makes sense to me, now, even as it didn’t while I was traveling through that magnificent landscape, seeing only a blur. My travels aren’t just about ticking off bucket list items, and they never have been. The reason I travel as much as I can, when I can, is because these trips peel my life’s onion in a way that almost nothing else does. They show me who I am, they teach me lessons, loosen up knots. Trips surprise me. They make me think when they pull the rug from under me. They remind me I’m human.
So I was living well, after all, when I drove all the way to the Badlands to find out I was hurting, still. And the friendship that reminded me of and encouraged the best parts of me is still showing me things, even as I carry it forward alone.
And the prairie dogs saw it all.