The happy trails between life and death

Published on: July 29, 2010



This is one of a photograph or two of my happy trails. The destination didn’t really matter, the journey was important.      Mitch Traphagen photo

By Mitch Traphagen

mitch01Michelle and I met Art and his wife in the Ruskin marina where we lived. Art had a beautiful boat and he owned a small business in Tampa with his brother. “I’m going to sell my business and go cruising,” he said.

Over the years, like our other friends in the marina, we all worked towards that goal. Going cruising was the fulfillment of living aboard — untying the dock lines and sailing off into the sunset for adventures “out there.” Finally, Michelle and I reached our goal. We waved goodbye to our friends and we puttered off towards the Gulf of Mexico in our boat overloaded with everything we thought we would need (and, it turns out, a bunch of stuff we didn’t) for six months sailing through the Bahamas and into the Caribbean. When our adventure was over and we returned to the little marina, Art and his wife were still there. They had a bigger and better boat and their adventure would certainly be more comfortable once the work of preparing it was done. “I’m going to sell my business and we’re going to go cruising,” he said.

A few years later, Michelle and I moved off our boat and into a house a few miles away. Over the passing months, we lost touch with some of our marina friends until one day I heard that Art and his wife did finally leave. But their dream of cruising was cut dramatically short, ending aground not far away near Sarasota. It turns out that Art discovered he was dying. They made a last ditch effort to live their dream, but they were too late.

Art was a good and generous man. He was a man of faith, he worked hard and he died young. He died before he could realize his dream.

I’m not afraid of dying – it is, after all, one thing that all of us have in common. No mortal has ever survived life — everyone eventually dies. I am, however, afraid of attempting to live when it is too late, afraid of making that last-ditch effort at living while life escapes me. I am afraid of being on my deathbed with thoughts of, “I wish I would have…”

I learned a lot from Art. Over the years, we talked about religion and lines (“ropes” for the land-bound) but the most important thing I learned from him is what scares me the most. I learned that someday it will be too late. The worst part is, that it may be something that catches me by surprise.

The economy is — for the moment, anyway — in the tank and we all have complaints about this guy or that guy.  It turns out that all too often we see our fellow man as either lunatics or idiots. But there is nothing happening in the economy that is preventing me from holding on to my friends a little tighter, a little longer. There nothing a politician has said or done that prevents any of us from telling our kids or our spouse or our friends, “I love you.” No lunatic or idiot has prevented me from at least trying to pursue my dreams.

I’d been given this lesson before when my father passed away at the age of 43. At 15-years-old, I was almost completely unaware of my surroundings yet I knew that he had dreams. In retrospect I see that he fulfilled many of them. My Mom, was left financially secure and each of his four children graduated from college.  We’ve all been blessed to carry his passion in our hearts. But I also know there were things he wanted to do; things that will forever remain undone.

That, of course, will almost always be the case. It seems that as humans, we are unfinished works. Yet if we learn from those who have gone before us, perhaps we can see the fallacies of the things that cause us angst.

The headlines today are streams of bad news: foreclosures, layoffs and predictions of other horrific things. Put down the newspaper, shut off AM radio or close your Web browser once in a while, and hug your wife or husband — and hold on a few seconds longer than you normally would. Go to the beach, watch St. Petersburg light up in the sunrise, and greet a friend with a handshake – using both hands. And then say your dreams aloud: “I’m going to…” Those dreams may not be fulfilled in the way you envision — after all, an old saying is men plan, God laughs. — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make plans – or that you shouldn’t take steps towards making them happen.

We’ve all been given the gift of life and it is up to us to decide how to use it. We can make a last ditch effort while life escapes us or we can do what is possible to enjoy the journey. Thanks to Art and my Dad, I have learned that the adventure is not in the destination; but in the experience. Laughter, joy and tears are earned along the way and the things we pick up on the journey are the things we carry with us for life. The destination is merely a milepost with, perhaps, a photograph or two.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans apparently knew all of that. They didn’t sing about a happy destination or a happy fulfillment of dreams — they sang about happy trails. The journey itself is what leads to the fulfillment of our dreams. Let your journey begin today.

I wish you fair winds, smooth sailing and happy trails.