I was listening to President Reagan’s final interview in the White House with Tom Brokaw. The President was asked if he ever thought about people or memories of his past and how those events or people contributed to his path to the Oval Office. The President responded with, “I think it takes reminders”. Then he recollected some events of his past, being grateful for even the unpleasant things because it all comes together to become our story.
The older we get the longer that chain of events becomes. Factors multiply and the combinations of possible outcomes become incalculable. I think about the “what ifs” as I recall those events that seemed meaningless at the time but realize now that they were pivotal to where I am today.
I came from a large Catholic family. My maternal grandfather was one of 19 siblings. My paternal great grandfather was one of 10 children. His father was among 15 siblings. Both my parents grew up in crowded houses; my father was one of 5 siblings and my mother of 6. I was born the 7th of 8 brothers and sisters. And none of these individual families had more than one mother. Tough ladies. Much respect.
In 1958 Pope Pius XII spoke of large families as “the most splendid flower-beds in the garden of the Church.” He goes on to speak of many other large family benefits, obviously a proponent of procreation within the faith. This was in the 19th year of his papacy. And so, my parents had heard this kind of message all their lives, and it was around this glorification of large families that they had started their own family.
Not unlike today, a large family back then required financial resources and standard of living adjustments. My dad was employed as a railroad agent and my mother worked in the culinary field to supplement the family income. Both grew up during the Great Depression. They knew what it would take to make this all work out. They knew about sacrifice and the difference between need and want.
Sometimes I hear people suggest that they can’t afford children. But, somehow, for as long as humans have been on earth, parents have found a way to afford the next generation. I think the formula is simple. It was demonstrated to me by my parents. It takes courage, and it requires an unwavering dedication to things greater than self. It’s a life of virtue and honor.
I recall that all of us kids started earning money as soon as we could. Many of us started working in strawberry fields and other types of farms. We then moved on to working at local businesses such as grocery stores, hardware stores, and restaurants. It was our way of chipping in by earning our own money. It was also our training ground for how to be responsible adults. Everything we had was earned. We were grateful for it and proud.
No one in the family brought in a lot of money, but together we found a way. We also had a couple of large gardens from which we canned most of our vegetables for the year. During the spring we would forage for wild mushrooms and asparagus. We would pick apples, pears, and other fruit, which was canned as well in the fall. We would go fishing, not for sport, but for food. A couple of us would hunt, trap rabbits, or harvest game birds to help put food on the table. Having parents such as ours in those times helped us all understand the contributing value of a healthy work ethic. It never felt like we were in need. Credit to our parents who grew up during truly tough times and passed those lessons on to the next generation.
Obviously, we didn’t have much disposable income for luxurious vacations outside of maybe a couple hundred miles from our home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We visited family in Green Bay, Wisconsin, bunking with cousins, or at our uncle’s cabin near Florence, Wisconsin on occasion. We also went on camping trips to nearby lakes during the summer and we would spend a few winter weekends at a tiny isolated cabin near the shore of Lake Superior.
We were a typical low-resourced blue collar Midwestern working family in a quiet little town just trying to do what we could to create a healthy and happy upbringing for our family and community. It was a wholesome way to grow up.
In some respects, we lived an isolated existence. With our limited exposure to the rest of the world, we were left to our imaginations or what we could find in books and magazines to inform us about life outside of our little town.
The imagery in my head of a desert was endless miles of hot, wavy sandscapes with maybe an oasis comprising a few palm trees to relieve a weary traveler from the burning sun.
“The West” was represented in the movies, windy and desolate landscapes of sage brush and craggy rocks with an occasional tumbleweed bouncing through a dusty wood plank town.
None of these places seemed nearly as compelling as the familiar plush green forests and peaceful surroundings we made home. It’s no wonder our families, up until my generation, hadn’t given much thought to the idea of moving away to live in other places. We already lived the good life in a great place.
One early summer, however, changed everything for me. I was in my teenage years. One of my older brothers was getting married in Wyoming. He had joined the military a few years earlier and was stationed in Utah where he met a young hairdresser who captured his heart. He finished his commitment in the military and they both moved to her hometown in Wyoming where they would start their new life together.
Weddings are a big deal for Catholics. We are obliged to partake in tradition. A scripted church wedding, family pictures, the wedding reception, dancing, music, gift giving, and a little celebratory drinking were all part of the occasion. Everyone would proudly dress up for the occasion and put on their best face. For us kids, it was one of the few times we were allowed to stay up late in a social setting with the adults and be given enough autonomy to make us feel more like grown-ups. We would see cousins we hadn’t seen in a while and we would be introduced to a new branch of the family.
This wedding also meant that we would travel outside of Michigan and Wisconsin. That too was a big deal. My other two older siblings had been married in our hometown. This was going to be different. It was my first real experience of life beyond our little town. I was going to travel to and through places I had seen only in pictures or movies. It was all new, mysterious, and exciting.
During our trip we drove through the great planes. Along the way we crossed the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. We had only read about those rivers in schoolbooks. It was the first time I had seen such long, flat, and treeless terrain. Then we went through the Black Hills in South Dakota and saw Mount Rushmore, petrified forests, caverns and caves, and other tourist sites. We saw Devil’s Tower in northern Wyoming. We took in our first site of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. I couldn’t take my eyes off those monstrous peaks in the distance. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be surrounded by them. It was otherworldly for a kid who had never seen anything but the boreal forests of the Northwoods.
We spent several days in the high desert of Wyoming where the wedding was. There was a rock formation in Green River called Castle Rock. With its many strata layers and how it towered over the town was mesmerizing. I dreamed that one day I would climb up rocks like that one. I could only imagine the feeling of such an accomplishment and the views I would see from on top.
Little did I know that what I was seeing then I would later consider to be a mere warm-up exercise on my way to far greater heights within the wild places I would go. But this first site, that it was real and not a picture, lit a spark that would later turn into a flame, fanned by endless opportunity. I wanted to see and experience other places. I wanted to explore a much bigger world. The attraction was undeniable.
Fast forward over the past 40 years. I would experience several countries in Europe, the Near East, the ice caps of northern Greenland, atolls off the coast of India, Singapore, Japan, Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Mexico, Canada, and most of our United States. My feet would touch the waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, and Indian Oceans. My children would join me for a swim in the Mediterranean Sea, and I would walk along the shores of the Black, Adriatic, and Aegean Seas. I would wander nearly 200 miles along a path in the U.S. desert Southwest to realize all deserts are not Sahara-like as I once understood. My early attraction to far off places would become a reality.
After I settled with my own family in Colorado, I would climb those distant peaks I had seen and dreamed about many years earlier. I also spent a summer hiking 500 miles through the Colorado backcountry. In recent years I often found myself in an alpine valley surrounded by towering peaks as I had once imagined I would be, only the experience was even more astounding and indescribable than I had first imagined.
That little spark set off during that one road trip when I was young did indeed fan the flame of a deep adventurous spirit that has not yet fully burned. Neither do I sense any sign of it extinguishing any time soon.
All these places I’ve been would be far more diverse and wondrous than my once young mind could dream up, with more obstacles, challenges, and rewards than I could have possibly expected. Once again, nature would outdo my imagination. And still I continue to explore and push my personal boundaries. This story has not yet ended. It indeed takes reminders. We should pause along this path to be grateful that we are where we are because of all the small steps that led us here.