A little over 20 years ago Teresa and I spent our honeymoon driving from Phoenix to Bishop, CA to Yosemite on our way to San Francisco. I made a similar trip this last week to revisit some of the places we went to on our honeymoon and add a few in for my journey as it is now.
Teresa and I were married in October of 2000 but waited to take our honeymoon until May due to her school schedule. I had never been on a trip where I was so responsible for planning and executing it and, obviously, wanted the trip to be perfect. It was intimidating and scary. I had never been to any of these places before and didn’t know what to expect.
About a year ago or so I began thinking about Teresa’s ashes and where I might spread some (just me) and thought of our honeymoon. Yosemite in particular. It seemed like a good idea but I questioned my ability, both physically and emotionally, to make such a journey by myself. With COVID it seemed even less likely to happen. Then things started to get back to normal and I suddenly found myself planning this trip. The closer it came to go the more stressed and, fearful I became.
The more I thought about driving to San Francisco for our honeymoon the more worried I became. I’d never been there and didn’t know what it would be like. I wasn’t sure what it would be like in Bishop; in Yosemite. I didn’t tell Teresa that I was scared; it seemed like something I shouldn’t feel and therefore, should keep to myself. What if something went wrong, what if we didn’t have fun? What if my fear got in the way of being happy where I was and who I was with?
Was I making the right choice going on this trip by myself? Was I physically capable of making the drive? Was I emotionally strong enough to make this trip to spread Teresa’s ashes? How would it feel being in places that Teresa and I were at on our honeymoon? How would I handle being away from the kids for that long?
Truthfully, I don’t recall much of the drive we took on our Honeymoon, but I do recall the excitement/fear that I felt as we started out. We stayed the night in Bishop, CA at a hotel that promised a hot tub, which I really played up to Teresa. The hot tub was there, it just didn’t work; Teresa never let me live that one down.
The kids and I flew to Phoenix where they stayed with their grandparents and I then flew out to San Francisco the next day. It was hard to leave the kids; I had only been away from them for two days since Teresa passed away. As I left them to go to the airport I felt both fear and excitement. Since our honeymoon, we had been to a lot of places and had taken a nice road trip to Yellowstone a few years back, so I had the experience now, I just hadn’t been on a trip like this by myself. I knew I had to go. I needed to show myself that, while it’s okay to be afraid at times, it’s important to show your self, when you are best able to, that those fears can be looked at, understood, and set aside as you do the thing you were afraid of.
The first night in San Francisco I walked a bit and saw some places that Teresa and I had been to and decided not to go to them again; I wanted the memories to be separate; those with her and those of mine (with her very much on my mind).
I did that for most of the trip.
The second day in San Francisco I set off on the Crosstown Trail (a 17 mile trail that goes from the bay to the coast through the city). Starting at Golden Gate Park, at the beginning of the last seven miles of the trail, I set off with not a little trepidation but told myself this is my journey and I could stop whenever I needed to.
I couldn’t stop myself once I started.
It was a beautiful experience walking (though I wish I had been a bit more prepared and had brought water with me) through the park and seeing such amazing trees, lakes and roses. The smell of the rose garden really struck me. After the park the trail goes through small wooded areas between streets. The trees were amazing: olive trees, juniper, cedar, pine and redwood. I continued on the trail through the Presidio area and then on to Land’s End. I was struggling at that time, and very thirsty but the hopes of water at the Visitor’s Center kept me going; and I needed to finish.
I did finish.
Unfortunately the visitor’s center was closed on Tuesdays.
I took an Uber back to the hotel and the driver drove down Lombard street (the curviest street) for me; he was a good guy. After a much needed shower I set out to have some clam chowder in a bread bowl and then perused some shops before walking to an Italian place for dinner. I ordered what I thought Teresa would have ordered and struggled seeing the empty chair across from me. It was a beautiful evening that only her absence was able to mar. After going to a wine bar and a brewery where they made amazing beers and interesting beer/wine combinations I walked back to the hotel and was, admittedly, impressed by myself for having walked a total of 15.5 miles that day.
I’m certain I couldn’t have done that at any other point in my life. I wasn’t strong enough. I thought about that a lot at the end of the walk as the Pacific Ocean came into view. I’m stronger now. Both emotionally and physically. I’ve lost 50 pounds over the last six months and exercise regularly now; something I never did. I continue to go to counseling and continue to learn a lot about myself; things I hadn’t been ready to learn until now. I thank Teresa for this; I want to be better for her. I thank the boys for this; I want to be a better father for them. I also thank myself for this; I want to continue to learn how to have more love for who I am; even when I forget to pack water for a long hike.
The next day, before setting off to gold country, I went for a walk to get coffee and learned that my right knee wasn’t impressed by my 15.5 miles of walking the day before. In fact, it was downright pissed at me. I limped along in search of a coffee shop that I never found and managed to get back to the hotel. The drive to Jamestown, was very pretty and just the beginning of many miles of two-lane roads that may have permanently turned my knuckles white. The hills were beautiful though and after a brief visit to Angel’s Camp I took the wonderfully named, Jack-Ass Hill Rd to pay homage to the cabin where Mark Twain wrote his first published short story (The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County). There wasn’t much to see there; just a small cabin and one jack-ass whose knee still wasn’t feeling great. From the cabin, I went to Sonora and had lunch at a great little brewery and had a nice conversation with a guy that lived there. He was very kind and we enjoyed our food and beers while talking about life. I told him about the purpose of my trip and he told me about his journey and recommended that I go to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest. He was the first of several to do so.
From Sonora I went back west a few miles to Jamestown, where I was to spend the night. Jamestown was a nice little town and the hotel, built in 1859 was beautiful. While I was having dinner at the hotel a couple, who were also staying at the hotel, came in and we struck up a conversation. They were on their honeymoon and had just come from Yosemite, my next destination. While Teresa and I did not visit Jamestown on our honeymoon, I saw a lot of her and I in this couple. We later sat on the deck outside of the rooms and shared a bottle of wine. The woman was an accountant and her husband was a physical therapist. They were very kind and it was nice to have some company that night knowing that I would be spreading some of Teresa’s ashes the next day (on a hike that this couple had completed earlier that day).
It also made me think about how Teresa used to always kid me because I would always end up in conversations with old guys wherever I was. I felt like I was providing them an outlet for their stories and I couldn’t help but wonder if I am now that old guy who needs that outlet from others. Either way it was nice to talk to this couple and also a little difficult. I was happy for them that they had each other and more than a little whist full for the companionship I had with Teresa.
The next day, I bought some supplies from a nice little market down the street from the hotel and a cup of coffee from a beautiful little art/coffee shop and began my journey to Yosemite. Before going I sat for 20 minutes and did a meditation that has helped with my grief over the last year and a half. I also asked Teresa to be with me that day; I wasn’t sure I could do it alone. I believe she was there.
On the drive I listened to a playlist that I had made for her years ago as well as the playlist that was put together for her Celebration of Life. I was definitely on edge as I drove into the park and quickly drove through the valley (Teresa and I spent a lot of time there when we visited and I, again, felt like I wanted to keep those memories separate) and drove to Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. I had a quick snack and waited patiently in the long line to the restroom before starting out on the trail, a trail that Teresa and I had started but not finished. While standing in line my mind began questioning if spreading her ashes here was the right thing. Would I spread them in the right place and honor Teresa in the right way; the best way I could? At that moment I heard this in my mind:
The journey is the ceremony. Spreading the ashes is an act along the way.
With this thought playing through my mind, I started down to the small grove of Sequoia and stared in awe of their size and majesty as I came across the first one I had seen in my life. They are unbelievable in size and beauty and I am thankful that I was able to be there at that moment.
Continuing along the trail, I came to a felled Sequoia and a sign describing how the fallen Sequoias give birth to the new trees and felt it was the right place to spread Teresa’s ashes. The experience was heartbreaking and beautiful. I felt so much love at that moment and can’t describe the feelings and emotions that I experienced.
I lingered for awhile, not wanting to let go, but I knew this was right, this was the place where, this part of her physical form, was meant to be laid down to rest, and then continued on the rest of the trail and back to the car. That was the purpose of the trip and I had accomplished it. I was strong enough and I knew that I had honored Teresa in a way that I needed to do alone.
After finishing the hike I continued my drive to the other side of Yosemite and took time to walk through the Tuolumne Meadows where John Muir spent much time while in Yosemite. Exiting the park and starting the trek to Bishop, I felt a shift, a healing shift, a shift that would become greater further on in my journey.
As I drove the same road, going the opposite direction than Teresa and I drove on our honeymoon, I felt like I could see us driving by on our way to Yosemite and wondered what CD we were listening too; what were we talking about? I waved to my younger self and wished him well on his journey ahead. I know it will be full of beautiful moments and a number of bumps as well but, ultimately, this is the path that we are traveling and, when we are able, we will learn a lot about ourselves.
I booked a room in Bishop at a hotel that I thought was the same one that Teresa and I had stayed in but it wasn’t – the hot tub worked.
For dinner, I went to the local brewery, Mountain Rambler Brewing Company, and had a nice conversation with the bartenders. Something I, again, needed that night. As I explained where I was off to next (Flagstaff – via Death Valley) I was again told, with a bit more urgency this time, that I should go to the Ancient Bristlecone Forest.
Looking back, we were kind of lucky to be able to go through Yosemite in May the way we did on our honeymoon. The road is typically closed at that end of the park until the beginning of June but wasn’t that year. I remember stopping at a lake outside of the park and staring in amazement at the snow on the mountains and the ice on the lake. We stopped at a number of viewpoints and made our way to the Valley, where we spent most of our time. I was in awe of Yosemite Falls and wanted to get as close to it as I could; I had never seen a waterfall like that before. It wasn’t often that I let my guard down but the place captivated me and I wanted to spend the rest of the day just staring at the falls. There is such an acceptance of the situation embedded in a waterfall. It flows along through the rapids and shallows and then takes the dive – it has no choice and so it does – before reforming itself in the pool below and flowing on to it’s destination. It’s courageous and inspiring, that acceptance and doing.
From the falls, we began our journey out of the park, but stopped at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias where we planned on eating our picnic lunch. I was excited to see Sequoia trees in person for the first time but our picnic lunch was in a really big cooler; a really heavy cooler. We each took a handle and began the trek down to the grove. We didn’t make it far.
We turned back and decided to eat at the picnic tables at the beginning of the trail. Lots of mosquitoes.
We ate in the car and then counted the number of mosquito bites Teresa had to pass the time on our way to San Francisco. We finally finished counting them by the time we got to our hotel, some four hours later and then counted the one bite that I had before showering and getting out into the city for dinner.
I remember being surprised by how nice the city was and how I felt very comfortable there. We ate at The Stinking Rose and went to City Lights bookstore. We went to Alcatraz, and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. We went to Lombard St and drank Irish Coffees at Buena Vista cafe. We went to Chinatown and ate at a vegetarian friendly restaurant there. We went to a brewery (Steelhead) a couple of times and it kindled our love for visiting breweries where ever we went. We had a wonderful time and I was so happy to be there; to be with her. I was excited for the life her and I would have together. I was excited to think about what we would achieve together. I was excited to spend the rest of my life with her. I always felt safe with her by my side. I was excited.
Teresa and I met at a bookstore in Phoenix and, as I was in charge of making the schedule, I would always give her and I the same day off so that we could spend as much time together as possible. I remember our boss saying to us, “You will have plenty of time together! Why are you in such a rush to get married, to be together all the time?” She suggested we read ‘Time Enough for Love” by Robert Heinlein. I still haven’t but maybe I will someday; maybe the book title has stuck with me for this long for a reason.
As we wandered around San Francisco I knew I wanted to be with her as much as I could for as long as I could. I had no doubt that we would be together forever (unless she got tired of me). I had no doubt.
Leaving Bishop, I was torn on where I would go that day. I had planned on going to Death Valley but also was considering just driving on to Flagstaff without visiting any other places. As I looked at the route to Flagstaff, though, I saw that the Ancient Bristlecone Forest was on the way. So I stopped there.
At 11,000-ish feet in elevation it was a bit of a harrowing drive and only served to lighten my already white knuckles. I didn’t have time to do the long hike but did manage to force myself to walk the 1 mile trail. The trees were amazing, some being almost 5,000 years-old; the oldest living things in the world. The hike became a microcosm of my trip. I was worried that I couldn’t handle the hike in the elevation and was a bit terrified of the steep ledges on the trail (I also just happened to remember at that time a recurring nightmare I used to have of falling off of a steep trail). But I did it and, again, was thankful for who I am becoming and the fact that I was able to set aside the fear in order to enjoy the moment.
I was very thankful to be there. These trees are ancient. They are twisted and gnarled and so very amazing. They are a reminder of how our lives, from a certain perspective, are a blip in the grand scheme of things. These trees have existed through so much more.
That’s it. That’s all they need to be. The serve as a reminder that growth is possible even under the toughest of conditions.
As I drove back down the hill and started my journey to my hometown of Flagstaff, AZ, I was glad that I stopped and tried to remember the tenacity and stillness of these trees when I became anxious to finish the longest drive I had to do on this trip.
From San Francisco we drove down to Los Angeles to visit a friend of ours, a friend who, in no small part, led to us meeting each other, for the night and then drove on to our home in Phoenix. We were looking forward to the journey ahead of us and, while we didn’t know what was ahead, we knew we could do it together.
Going to Flagstaff was another challenge. It was where I grew up and lived until I was 22. Teresa and I also visited often and had fun going to the places that she liked and those that I had liked. My love for the city grew with her there with me. I drove towards Flagstaff and saw places that my dad used to take me to along the Beale Wagon Road where we would go metal detecting, mark the path or just look around. Those were great times and I miss them. As the San Francisco Peaks grew closer I again felt the fear/excitement creep in.
I also began to feel that this part of the journey, returning home, would present an opportunity for me to lay aside some of my regrets; some of the feelings of self that didn’t serve me. It would be an opportunity for healing in a myriad of ways, if I was ready for that.
The first night in Flagstaff I spent visiting places that I worked at and places that I used to go to. I did FaceTime with my kids to show them an old movie theatre that I worked at and talked to an employee there who had no idea that it used to be a movie theatre (it is now a concert venue). I saw the apartment I lived in downtown that is now a tattoo shop. I saw an Irish restaurant that I used to go to that is now the same restaurant by day and a night club by night.
The town has inevitably changed but, to be honest, I liked it a bit better; it seems to be finding it’s way.
The next day I took a walk at a place called Buffalo Park. As I started on the trail I came up to an older gentleman who struck up a conversation (Teresa was surely smiling at this) with me. We walked along the trail talking about our pasts and what we were doing now. He was 92 and was born just a bit before the market crash in 1929. I would have liked to have talked to him more but he could only go so far on the trail these days. After I fist-bumped him goodbye I continued on the trail and had a thought: I came home in hopes of finding myself again and found someone different.
Someone I like a little more.
Someone that I’m proud of.
Someone who has had handled some big things and has done it the best he can; not perfect but the best he can.
Someone who is learning how to live his new life and who is understanding that it’s okay to be good to himself.
That it’s not selfish to do so.
That it’s okay to be who I am.
That I can continue to learn to be still when I need to and be accepting and ready to regroup when life sweeps me off a cliff in a cascade of big emotions.
That’s who I found there and I’m pretty damn glad to have met him.
As Teresa and I continued on our joined path our journey brought us to Oregon, where we picked up a couple of amazing kids on the way, and then started that steeper climb of life. Growing older. Being parents. Demands of work. Demands of personal time. It’s a climb that you hope your engines are strong enough to make without overheating so that you can enjoy the easier road ahead.
I spent the rest of my time in Flagstaff wandering through the shops, visiting some new breweries and writing. Before I left I visited the place that Teresa’s friends spread some of her ashes . It was an emotional experience and I’m grateful that I was able to visit this special place.
After stopping at one last brewery in Flagstaff I made my way back to Phoenix. The drive was familiar but I felt foreign to myself. I heard some songs in a different way on the drive.
I cried a lot.
I cried for not being better for Teresa, for the boys and for myself, while she was here.
I cried for not giving Teresa more attention, more love.
I cried for not being more engaged.
I cried for not being more kind to former iterations of myself.
I drove and I cried. And as I did these regrets began falling behind me on the road. I started moving forward with a bit more compassion, a bit more love, for myself.
The journey that Teresa and I were able to take together had it’s shallows, moments where the rapids of life were much more difficult to handle and moments where I pooled up and frothed in a snarl of rock and debris, not being able to move forward as fast as those around me. We also had times where the waters were deep and still; times that seemed to linger and were filled with comfort and peace.
When Teresa passed away we were swept over the always inevitable cliff and, as we fell to the unknown below, I wondered how far this fall would be; how hard the impact would be when we hit the bottom.
It was far and the impact, hard.
But as we swirled in the spray of life and began searching for the way forward, we regrouped and started down a new path, one very different than the one we had been on, but ours just the same.
We had to.
When I made it back to Phoenix and to my kids I spent the night splashing in the pool with them and felt that both had changed on the journey they are each on individually and as brothers. We talked about what they did while I was gone. We talked about history. We talked about my lack of swimming skills. We talked as the night, and our journey as a family, continued to move forward.
The two days after returning home to Portland I was caught off guard by how intense the feeling of missing Teresa was. I wasn’t surprised in the sense that I felt I had moved on from missing her (that will not happen); it was the quality of the feeling. I thought the strength that I had gained on this trip would, perhaps, have steeled me, if you will, against the emotions. It was only later that I realized it was because of this journey that the feeling was different.
It was the purity of the feeling this time that made it feel different. It was missing her without the taint of regrets. It was missing her without also wishing I could have done things differently, been more supportive. I do wish those things had happened for sure but I don’t want to hold on to them anymore, I don’t want them to interfere with the healing that is still to come.
I just miss her.
There was a lot that I became aware of and learned on this trip, a trip that started with much fear and trepidation:
I learned that my love for Teresa will go on and on like the height and width of the giant Sequoia trees we had tried to have a picnic at all those years ago.
I learned that the perseverance of our kids is equal to the river that continues on it’s path despite the massive fall it just found itself tumbling down on.
I learned that life can be found, and even thrive, under even the toughest of circumstance like the ancient bristlecone pine trees I had the honor to visit.
I learned that, if we listen to each other’s stories, if we take notice of and appreciate all that is around us, if we are still when we can be still and let go when are able to let go, we can see the beauty of life; the preciousness of all that is around us. How special each thing is individually and how each is the perfect fit in the whole. When looked on from the viewpoint of a 5,000 year-old bristlecone pine our lives take on a much less significant meaning. When looked at from our individual perspectives life is imbued with loss, love, sadness, anger, happiness, laughter, peace and so much more; each so intense and all encompassing at times that it seems impossible that anything else could be real; that anything else could be more important.
Life is both of these perspectives and every line-of-sight in between.
In Flagstaff, I was walking around downtown and came across this quote on the back of a building:
I believe this is right and I believe that without Teresa in my life my journey would have been much more impoverished. I wouldn’t feel the power in my soul, my spirt as much as I do now. I wouldn’t feel the connectedness with my children and all around me as I do now.
I look forward to meeting Teresa again one day and thanking her for this, assuming, of course, that an old guy doesn’t start a conversation with me first…
I love you, and I thank you, Teresa.