When I was little, I didn’t know what I wanted to be or do when I grew up, but I knew I wouldn’t, couldn’t be like you. You, with your 70-hour workweeks driving trucks, reporting to a boss you couldn’t stand. Your doing Every. Single. Thing with “elbow grease,” when all I wanted to do was slide by and find the easy, fun way out of a project. Your chosen lifestyle seemed like hell, and I didn’t understand you. I could only focus on the chasm of glaring differences that divided us.
On Sundays, you’d spend your precious little free time perusing National Geographic magazines, traveling far and wide for an hour or so, if only in your mind. You’d talk about distant lands with conviction and passion, like you actually knew the places you were talking about. It was painfully sad to me, realizing deep down that no matter how much money you and mom managed to save, it would always go to fix the septic tank or to buy me new skis. Never in a million years would you use it to get on a plane to actually experience those foreign lands that attracted you so. That’s another way we were different — everything you did was for the benefit of others. I already knew I was much more selfish than that. I knew as an adult I’d more likely say to hell with the septic tank and take off on the first flight to a place I couldn’t pronounce, and I felt like an outsider in our family because of that.
Our family vacations pissed me off, and I never told you. I didn’t want to go eat fudge yet again at Mackinaw Island. I didn’t want to go stand in three-hour lines in the scorching sun for the rides at Cedar Point, even though I logically understood that these were the vacations that were possible, time-wise, comfort-wise, and money-wise, for our family as a whole. I should’ve been grateful for these trips, but instead I was really mad at you that we couldn’t go dogsledding together in Siberia. Or spend the night under the stars in the Sahara. Or drink some interesting ‘voodoo juice’ together deep in the Amazon. I blamed your blue-collar job and your put-responsibilities-first attitude for my inability to travel how I wanted. Really, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get at the time that anything I sincerely wanted and actually voiced, no matter how grandiose, you would have bent over backwards trying to make happen.
It’s taken me a while, Dad, to realize that even though you’ve never been out of the country, you of all people made me the traveler I am today. In high school when I wanted an exchange student (I think at the time I wanted her almost like a pet, nothing more than something exotic to play with, to distract myself with), you instead made Sandra family. You took every opportunity to get to know her, to make food with her, to talk, laugh, and communicate with her family as though they were long-lost friends of ours. You took such genuine interest in getting to know her culture, and I saw how deeply you were able to connect with her. For the first time, I was able to admit to myself that you inspired me. You had a skill I knew I wanted to learn.
I know you had such high hopes for me, your National Honor Society golden student, signed up for the Air Force Academy. (I’m still laughing at the ridiculousness of the idea of hippie me, there, flying a fighter jet. Wtf?) Only I came home from school one day to tell you I called the Academy. I told them that instead of flying their planes, I intended to road trip solo, camping my way across the US. Instead of raging with disappointment in me, which I totally knew was well within the range of possible outcomes, you took me to MC Sporting Goods to look at tents. If your daughter was going to say fuck everything to camp, of all things, then dammit, she’d be doing so in the best tent you could afford! I take that lesson with me now, with my own kids. If my daughter wants to be a surfer, so be it. No matter that we live in the middle of the Andes. I’ll get that girl on a surfboard no matter what, because thanks to you I know how wonderful it feels to have dreams be supported.
When I realized that being a suburban soccer mom was not for me and bought one-way tickets for me and my family to Argentina (not knowing Spanish, not ever having been there, and not having a plan), you had the right to be mad. I was taking your beloved grandkids very, very far from you, and for what? A whim? But do you remember what you told me as you brought my luggage out to the car, when you were going to drive us to the airport? You stopped me in the stairwell, our last moments alone. You got choked up. You said one simple thing before your tears started to fall: “You’re doing something I never had the balls to do.” And I couldn’t stop my own tears for most of the four-hour car ride. Those words guide me today. I made a decision at that very moment to live, all balls out. Not just for me, but for you. Because you lived your entire life doing what you felt was best to support me and the rest of the family. It’s the least I could do in return. Living my dreams full on, following my heart, is my gift to you.
It couldn’t have been more than a week later, when I Skyped you the first time from Argentina, when I saw you’d already traded your favorite University of Michigan “Go Blue” shirt for one that instead said “Vamos Azul!” I told you how dorky it was, but I actually loved it. I knew you wore it just hoping, hoping, that some Latino somewhere would stop to chat with you, and it would give you the opportunity to tell them all about your daughter who was living in Argentina. Your pride warmed my heart, and I realized that even though you were thousands of miles away, we were in this move together.
After all these years, I realize even though when I was younger I wanted to focus on our differences, you get me at my core. You have the wanderlust deep inside. You feel the magnetic attraction to the exotic, to the unknown. You have the traveler’s spirit. When I had to return to the US to go through my ugly divorce, you gifted me, of all seemingly random things, Greek cooking lessons to cheer me up. It was perfect. You understood intuitively that my world would feel small while in your conservative Midwest town, that I’d want a foreign fix. We watched endless Anthony Bourdain reruns together, and I loved pointing out to you the places I’d been to. I actually felt much more accomplished in your eyes in those moments than had I turned out to be that fighter pilot. And in custody court, you stuck up for me, even though it could’ve been all too easy for you to try to convince the judge to keep your grandkids in the US. You said your grandkids would be healthiest when their mom was the happiest, and you knew I’d be happiest living like a free little bird in my mountain refuge on the other end of the world. That selfless support meant the world to me.
Sometimes I’m so happy I feel guilty. Sometimes I don’t even share with you some of the places I’m at while working as a travel writer because I know you deserve being there more than I do. You worked your ass off your whole life and never once got to leave the country. I want you to know I order scotch when I do restaurant reviews, even though I hate it, because they’ll give me “the good shit” that you’d appreciate and should be drinking. I order steak even when I really want hummus or quinoa, because it’s a world-class steak that you should get to eat that night. I go fly fishing, just because it seems like something you’d really like. I climb mountains sometimes for nothing more than to make you proud of raising the kind of daughter who climbs big mountains.
I know more times than not having a daughter like me is probably any parent’s nightmare. I do everything most parents don’t want their kids to do. I hitchhike alone. I sleep on strangers’ couches. I don’t check in nearly as much as I should. I walk myself home alone at night. I never know where my phone is. But rest easy knowing you raised me right. You instilled in me a good base of common sense (whether that may be apparent or not). The ability to stand up for myself. To see through people’s bullshit. And the feistiness to unflinchingly deck anyone along the way who may try to mess with your baby girl. I “keep my nose clean” (although until this last year I always thought that expression was just a way of advising me to not snort coke).
You’ve taught me to be able to shoot the shit with anyone, anywhere. You’ve taught me, when I do luxury hotel reviews in some pretty pretentious places, to keep it real. (“What, these people think their shit don’t stink?”) You’ve taught me what it means to celebrate people and to value friendships, both old and new, both lasting and fleeting. To be a good guest and an even better host. To have a plan B and a plan C and a plan D, and to know when to say screw it all, scratch all plans, drink that glass of scotch, and just go with the flow.
On the outside, you’re the antithesis of my ideal travel partner. Your back couldn’t make it one night sleeping on a hostel bed, let alone in a tent. You wouldn’t carry a backpack. Climbing a fence, running to get to the train on time — not likely. You’re a loud, larger-than-life, stereotypical gringo with too much luggage and probably too many scheduled plans. But the older I get, the more I’d give anything to travel with you, of all people.
While I know your bills at home and your declining health do not make international travel super likely, I have not given up on the idea. You always supported my dreams, and I want to support yours, no matter if we get there when you’re 90. Better late than never. I want to take you to Lithuania, help you find where your parents were born. We’ll eat kugelis and drink trauktinė. I want to take you to hang out with some shamans in the Amazon and be by your side when your mind is blown wide open and you end up giggling for hours at the wonderfulness of it all. I want to take you fishing in Argentina, followed by an asado de la puta madre, getting tipsy with you on malbec until we’re both singing Martin Fierro poems with the gauchos.
And if for some reason it’s not in the deck of cards for us, Daddy-o, I want you to know you’ll have traveled regardless. Your unconditional support constantly ignites my traveling spirit, and I feel your presence and your guidance no matter where in the world I end up. I really do consciously honor you with every adventurous step I take to follow my passion. Our passion. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for having sacrificed some of your own dreams so I could be sure to live out mine with gusto.