“In 2017, my husband, Rob, and I sensed our life needed a little disruption. Married for 15 years, our lives had followed a seemingly stereotypical trajectory. We’d met, married, and had four children. We’d worked jobs, built a life, and invested in our church and community.
As we looked around us, though, we worried the life we’d built was starting to own us. Events stuffed our calendar days full to the brim, and the siren of upward mobility sang her alluring song. We sensed time passing quickly, and we wanted to somehow slow it down. Soon our children would be teenagers with jobs and interests of their own. We wanted to capture the present moment and live it for all it was worth.
That spring, Rob and I bought a used travel trailer on Craigslist. We retrofitted the interior designed for weekend camping into a home on wheels for six road warriors. I ripped out the little dinette table and sofa, and Rob built a bed that would fit our kids. I wallpapered a wall in the camper and hung a highway map of the United States. We would slow life down by accelerating to 70 mph. Together, as a family, we’d hit the road.
That spring and summer, we logged over 13,000 miles as family. Rob worked remotely, and I homeschooled our kids. We crisscrossed the United States from the Pacific Northwest all the way to New England and back again. We visited more than a dozen national parks, hiked mountains, and reveled in unplugged, uninterrupted family time together. Our son celebrated his birthday outside of Zion Canyon in Utah. Our daughter lost a tooth in the car as we drove across the Continental Divide in Colorado. We’d never lived outside so much, and we loved it.
Rob and I loved this adult version of running away. Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on their raft down the Mississippi, we found life felt easier when we were on the move, away from the hustle and bustle of regular life. Travel allowed us to focus on what really mattered most — the relationships we had with each other and our children. Not so secretly, we hoped our trip would last forever. Blessed with insatiable wanderlust, we dreamed that maybe we could sell our home and live on the road full-time.
While that first trip didn’t materialize into full-time road living, it planted in us the hope. Our family traveled another 7,000 miles in 2018, and the idea felt even more attainable. We learned to pack and live lean, and we discovered a new pleasure in disconnecting from the world and reconnecting with each other. If full-time road living was logistically too complex with four children, we’d save our dreams for another day. Maybe not now, but in retirement for sure, we told each other. ‘When we’re empty nesters someday,’ Rob said, ‘we’ll live on the road, just you and me.’
In 2019, Rob and I planned our third long road trip, another cross-country, all-summer adventure with our children. We’d moved across the country the year before, and this trip would give us the chance to retrace our steps and revisit home. We’d hit up old favorites — Yellowstone, the Badlands, and Olympic National Park. We’d explore new places — the mountains of Glacier National Park, the bison of Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. All winter Rob and I sat in the evenings planning. Me, with my laptop and a highway atlas on the sofa beside me. Him, with hiking maps strewn across the coffee table. Our move had been a tough transition; I was ready to be back on the road.
I called the trip the ‘homeward bound’ vacation, and I couldn’t wait to hit the highway. We left in mid-June and headed west. As soon as we crossed the Rockies, we felt like we’d come home. Twin Falls, Idaho. Pendleton, Oregon. Pasco, Washington. The miles flew by, and the excitement grew. I remember pulling off the highway in eastern Washington and seeing Mount Rainier on the horizon across the freeway. ‘I’d forgotten how big she is,’ Rob mused. ‘It’s good to be home.’
After three glorious weeks of camping in the Pacific Northwest, it was time to move on to our next stop. As a grand finale to our visit in our old stomping grounds, Rob had planned a last hike with his good friend and hiking partner in Mount Rainier National Park.
We were Montana bound the next morning, so I planned on staying at the campsite for the day to prepare for our departure. The kids and I would clean the camper and pick up some groceries, while Rob headed off to bag peaks in his favorite hiking spot in the world. That Friday morning, Rob quietly slipped out of the camper for the hike he’d been dreaming of since those winter nights on the sofa. ‘Have fun,’ I whispered to him as he leaned in to kiss me. ‘I will,’ he said.
There would be no story if Rob had come home safely that day. There would be no sorrow. No ache in my chest as I relive the hours I waited for his return, the texts and calls I made that went unanswered. There would be no children left fatherless, no wife suddenly turned widow. There would only be us. Happy, alive, together.
My conscientious and experienced hiker, my beloved husband, my partner in dreaming and driving, fell to his death that day. In a tragic accident that still blows my mind, Rob lost his life in the mountains he loved most of all. The place he felt most alive, became the place he met his death. The place he most connected with God, became the place he met his Maker face to face. All of the life we loved together vanished in a moment. All of our dreams for the future were erased suddenly when he fell to his death. ‘Homeward bound’ now felt painfully ironic.
A month after Rob’s death, I hitched my camper to my truck and headed back across the country with our four children. I left my husband buried in those mountains in the Pacific Northwest, laid to rest in the home he’d loved so much. When Rob died, my life, my hopes, and my dreams for the future all died too. Whoever I was now, I’d have to meet her for the first time. Wherever I’d go now, I’d have to go alone.
A little over a year ago, our family began that road trip west, the vacation that would end in death. That first night on the road, we walked down from our campsite to the shore of Lake Erie. The kids climbed around the rocks, and Rob and I settled in to enjoy the view. To some people, there might not have been much to look at. Just a big expanse of water. But for two parents with insatiable wanderlust and four kids who’d sat in the car for hours, the view was perfect. Nothing but water stretching on to the horizon.
I have always loved wide open spaces. In childhood, the blue sweep of the Atlantic Ocean; and in adulthood, the expansiveness of the American West. I love the feeling of freedom that comes with a horizon you can see hundreds of miles away. Whether it’s water or land, I love the possibility of faraway horizons and the scale of grandeur that reminds me of my smallness in the universe.
Since Rob’s death, I’ve felt that smallness acutely. Death makes you feel so powerless and little — a speck of dust on a hunk of dust spinning wildly through space. It’s easy to let death dictate that narrative for the rest of your days. ‘I will always feel powerless. I will always feel small and alone.’ It’s easy to let your experience of grief color the rest of your days with negativity — to convince you you’ll never really live again, that the rest of your life will always feel this small and wounded.
Fourteen months have passed now since Rob died. Many days I feel like his death has been the death of me too. In truth, a big part of me died when he died. There is no part of my life that is untouched by his absence. Sometimes I have to remind myself I’m still alive. That I still have so much to live for. That even though this loss has cut me to the quick, I can still survive and thrive again. Many days I must fight to believe that is possible.
Traumatic loss induces unique pain. The piercing emotions linger long. Sometimes I think the shock of Rob’s death has worn off. I think I’ve adjusted to his absence. And then, I sit beside a campfire on a chilly summer evening, and I find myself longing to feel his arm slide around me. I look over at the empty passenger seat as I drive down the highway and I expect to feel his hand reach out to rest on my shoulder. In those moments, my body wonders where he is. After almost 20 years of marriage, my brain can know Rob is gone, but my body doesn’t seem to have gotten the message yet.
I sometimes long for this pain of grief to go away. I want relief from the sorrow of Rob’s absence. But then, I remember my grief is a testimony to the love we shared. What a gift to have loved and been loved so deeply. I honor Rob when I turn toward my grief with compassion, instead of pushing it away. I love him every time I share openly that losing him has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to endure. When I allow grief to become my companion instead of my enemy, I find I am able to form a new love out of the wreckage of my loss. A new, deep love for Rob that can endure even though he is gone.
Yes, death makes us feel small. It wipes the slate, clears the table, removes everything we found familiar between here and the horizon. Death can make you feel like the one small person on the shores of a lake that seems to go on forever. It can be terrifying to feel so small and alone. I suspect it’s that same feeling that keeps folks at home instead of exploring, more comfortable in cities and suburbs than in the great wide open. The breadth and depth and length and width are overwhelming.
Nevertheless, I am convinced death will not have the final say in my life. Rob’s death will not dictate the boundaries of my life. There’s still a horizon out there calling me. My new empty-slate life can feel overwhelming, like staring out at the seemingly endless waters of the ocean. Or, if I’m willing, I can allow this new broad expanse to tempt me with the possibility to be found right beyond the curve of the earth. This same life that has dealt me sorrow is also still full of unexpected adventure. I may not be able to see it from where I stand on these shores of grief. But I do believe it’s still out there, maybe just beyond the horizon.
As we drove through Yellowstone National Park on our first road trip back in 2017, Rob glanced away from the road toward the shores of Yellowstone Lake. A retired couple sat in two camping chairs a few feet from the water’s edge. No books rested in their laps, no fishing rods in their hands. They simply sat, enjoying the silence, surrounded by stunning beauty. ‘Someday that will be us,’ Rob told me as we continued on our way. ‘Someday, I want to sit beside you by the shores of Yellowstone Lake with absolutely nothing to do.’
Someday, I hope to get back to the shores of Yellowstone Lake. I’ll park in a little pull out, grab my camping chair, and plunk myself down at the water’s edge. When I lean back and close my eyes, I’ll imagine Rob sitting there beside me. I’ll remember the beautiful dreams we had for our future together, and I will miss him with an ache that still defies words. In the quiet of my aloneness, I’ll imagine the silence is our favorite kind — deep, understanding, companionable. Even after all the years that have passed, I’m sure I’ll cry.
I will always love Rob; my heart will long for him to be beside me. No matter what I do, the new life I build will always be colored by his life in mine. As I chase horizons. As I live my life for all it’s worth. For the rest of my life, I will carry Rob with me on every road I travel, every place I ever go.”
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