My whole life has been consumed with adventure. I’ve always been on the lookout for the next new experience. The horizon and the mystery of what’s beyond it has always pulled me forward. One might think it started just before we moved to Alaska. Maybe it was when I hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier. It could have been the road trips out to the west coast or to the mountains of Colorado before that.
I personally think it happened when I was just a little kid hanging out with my Grandpa. Growing up, my grandparents lived one little town over from us in Stockton, MO. Many weekends were spent visiting with them or staying over at their house for the night. They lived near a beautiful, man-made lake aptly named “Stockton Lake”. Most of our weekends together were spent fishing, hiking, camping, riding bikes or just skipping stones.
One fateful afternoon as my grandparents and I were driving below the dam dividing the waters of Stockton Lake from the fields and farms just outside of town, I remarked that I’d love to climb all the way to the top of the dam some day. Looking up the huge wall of rock rising 153 feet from the road, I could only imagine having the strength someday to accomplish something like that. Having heard my desire and thinking for no less than a moment, by Grandpa hit the brakes and pulled off the side of the road. He turned back to me and said, “Let’s go take a look at it.”
Excited, I climbed out of the car and walked with him to the base of the behemoth. Looking back now, sure it was only fifteen stories high, but to a wide-eyed little kid, it was Mt Everest. As my Grandpa eyed the top up above and checked to make sure the rocks were stable, he said three words that changed the course of my life, “Go for it!”
Looking up again, I said something to the effect of, “I can’t Grandpa. It’s too big,” or something like that. He reassured me and said that I would never know unless I tried.
“I’ll pick you up on the road at the top,” he said as he smiled and turned back toward the car. I’m sure my Grandma was freaking out a little when she heard what he’d just set me loose on, but apparently, he persevered. My fire had been lit and I set my hands on the first boulder and, committed.
After I climbed up ten or twenty feet, I looked back down toward their car to see if they were still watching but they were gone. I was a little scared at first, but my choice to turn back was taken away. I had to make it to the top. I had a mission and I was going to accomplish it, no matter what.
Minutes stretch into hours when you’re a kid, so I can’t tell you how long it took me to reach the top, but I know that when I did, my own joy and feeling of accomplishment was only surpassed by my Grandpa’s pride and his celebration of my triumph. We drove back to their house and I was on top of the world. I would never be the same.
My Grandpa always spurs people on to create and do great things. He is an exhorter and encourager through and through. At least he was.
He died this morning at 11:43am.
I wasn’t there but I certainly wish I had been. When he started to get really sick a couple of months ago, I had to make the hard decision. I could go see him while he was still aware enough to have some quality time together. Or..I could go to his funeral (which would inevitably be arriving sometime in the months to come).
Making the trip from Alaska to the Midwest isn’t a trip we can do very often on our humble budget, so I knew I’d only get to go once. I chose to spend time together.
I’m glad I did.
When I saw him, it had been a couple years and he wasn’t how I remembered. He seemed frail. He looked tired and complete somehow, like he’d finished the last words of a great book and was carefully thumbing the pages, feeling the edges and cover before putting it back on the shelf.
As I walked into his room in my parents’ home, loud with the pumping and whirring of machines helping him breathe, I caught his eyes and they hadn’t changed one bit. Life, light and a little bit of kid-like mischief and excitement sparked in his baby blues. It didn’t take long before we were connecting just like the old days. He gave me the run-down of how everything was going and the events up to the day.
Then he started talking to me about Alaska. He asked how my wife and kids were doing. He wanted to know what the weather was like and if we’d seen any wildlife lately. It wasn’t long before we were talking about the dream of being in a remote cabin, deep in the wilderness and living off the land. He told me about solar panels and wind generators. I talked to him about gravity-fed water systems and we both talked about how we would run a copper pipe around the wood stove to heat up the water supply. It was just like the old days.
In the old days, he owned and ran a doughnut shop. As a kid, I’d go over with him on the weekends and get up early to help bake and cook, but mostly just eat the profits. He was more than happy to have the “help”.
Working for him was my first job. By the time I was 15, I was working some weekends during school, and the majority of the summers until I left for college.
That time was some of the best that a boy-turning-man could ever have with his grandfather. All of our time together baking and frying the sugar-filled delights that are doughnuts, cinnamon rolls and more was spent also dreaming about a wild, adventure-filled life. On our early morning, dough-rising breaks, we would take a quick drive down to the lake looking for wildlife: white-tailed deer, raccoons and the odd fox now and again. After work and before crashing hard into bed to recover from the early morning, we’d go on drives to new places, take hikes or go camping on our day off.
We spent a lot of time talking about Alaska. My Grandpa had always wanted to visit, but hadn’t made it yet. Whenever we could, we watched documentaries about Alaska: the Alaska Railroad, the Alaska Highway and the world-renowned bush pilots of Alaska. We consumed anything Alaska we could find.
When my Grandma passed away, it hit Grandpa pretty hard. He decided to take six weeks off from work the following summer and he embarked on a 4,000 mile road trip west to see his brother in the Pacific Northwest. Then he drove down the coast and came back through the Southwest.
He saw mountains, rivers, ocean coastlines, forests, canyons and more. He needed the time to clear his head and get away.
He came back reinvigorated.
The next year, when I was 15, he took my brother and I with him for a similar trip. We saw the mountains of Colorado, complete with elk milling about in Estes Park outside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Sulfur pools and geysers met us in Yellowstone. We saw the beautiful snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Peninsula. Huge forests of old growth welcomed us to the Pacific Ocean. We drove through towns called Zigzag and Rhododendron in Oregon and amazing views spread all the way down the coast to sunset-lit, giant Redwoods.
He led me toward open wilderness and amazingly wild places with incredible views and experiences. I’d never seen anything like it, and I knew I couldn’t live without seeing it again.
That trip became a tradition. We made the same trip the next summer, and the one after that too. We gained even more great times together and I started to find myself holding my breath during the school year, waiting to breathe in the wild air of the west during my summer breaks.
Our last trip trip out west was during my Christmas break while in ministry school. It was a great time to get together and reconnect with each other and the Spirit of Adventure he always led me into. He seemed different on that trip though. He was a little older and had a little less energy, but he was still the same inside. We had a great time and saw even more amazing sights together.
In the years after that trip, I met the love of my life. She and I took a trip to Alaska together with some friends and loved it. We got married. We moved to Michigan and started a family. After living there for a couple of years, we decided to start our own Alaskan adventure and moved here.
After our son was born, I talked my Grandpa into coming up to visit. We shared a week together exploring Alaska. He finally got to see the place that we had shared in our dreams and plans for the future. We took him to Talkeetna where he got to see the tallest mountain in the world. We went to Seward and took a boat into Resurrection Bay with puffins overhead, glaciers all around and whales, seals and otters below.
As we stood together on a glacier high in the Alaska Range beneath Denali (formerly Mt McKinley), I knew I was experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Something like that doesn’t just happen, it’s harvested after years of sowing and cultivating. In the words of my Grandpa, “This is a once in a lifetime thing for me.” And it was.
Sitting with my Grandpa who was now slowly heading down the road to leave this world, we reminisced about all of the great times we had shared together. Over the week that I stayed with him, he seemed to improve a little each day. The light and adventure in his eyes seemed to spread into more of his body.
Near the end of my trip, he said he wanted to go on a drive. I knew this would be our last adventure and happily obliged. I loaded up his oxygen tanks and wheelchair into his old truck. As I helped him outside, the cool November air gathered around me and as I stood beside him, I got the same feeling that this would be another one of the those special moments. It was no grand journey, just a small drive to some of his favorite types of places. We decided each new stop spontaneously as the opportunity arose. We stopped and listened to a small river flow. We went to a little gas station for a soda. We parked by the waters of Stockton Lake. And then we headed home.
It wasn’t an epic trip, or huge adventure on the outside. But it carried the spirit of one. And it was our last; a neat, tidy ending to our life together.
After we said our goodbyes, I came back home. Four weeks of updates and check-ins led to this morning’s news that my Grandpa passed away.
A small part of me slipped away too. It was that rare territory deep inside that can only live when two people share a common direction, vision and heart. Though we no longer share it together, I know that something greater has been passed on. The Spirit of Adventure, encouragement and exhortation that existed in him lives on in me. Now it’s mine to pass on to my kids and those around me, if I have the strength to carry, sow and cultivate it until harvest.
I hope and pray that I can have the same heart and grace to do for others what Gerald Roger Stephens did for me.
This piece was originally published on my Medium profile.