LAX’s coffee lines are short at 4:00 a.m.; the kitchens won’t start stuffing breakfast burritos for another 15 minutes, and the passengers ordering ahead of me sound too tired to argue this.
I, granola bar stashed in purse, am wide awake. For the first time in over a year, I’m flying without a child or companion. And I as sip the latte I probably don’t need this early in the morning, my brain circles tirelessly around the idea that today’s journey is one of a thousand – but my grandfather will never leave South Dakota again.
He died five days ago, and I am going home to say goodbye.
Grandpa Johnson rarely traveled – his biggest domestic adventure being a road trip to Yellowstone, seven kids in a VW Beetle, driving eight hours to discover one son didn’t pack any shoes.
Yet there’s Guadacanal, his station in World War II – a first international journey involving crocodiles, enemy aircraft and the promise that survival would bring a long and quiet life.
I wonder: did he ever regret his proximity to the little prairie town settled by his own grandparents? Did the man who volunteered to fight strangers on a Pacific Island ever wish he’d ventured further?
I can’t imagine him happy abroad. “I don’t care for Chinese – the food, I mean. I don’t mind the people,” he’d tease, in that unintentional racism most of us notice from the generation who believed they’d made the world safe for their kids (for us, their grand-kids) to explore.
But does all this home-body happiness make him less of a man? Does his barely visible distrust of foreign places make him a character to pity? Did I cry at his funeral because I thought he’d missed out on the Eiffel Tower and Rome?
Or did I cry because, simply, I loved him, and all the far-to-near places encompassed in his living?
Travel is meant to open our eyes, but it also blinds us by comparison. We judge where others have not been, or the experiences they have yet to try. We assume that the only way to Be is to quit work and write our way around the globe.
But there are many paths to move forward. A million directions we may turn to see the wider world.
When Taps sounded at Grandpa’s military funeral ceremony, and the great Johnson clan clung together, I thought, this is why people never leave home.
Because it estranges them from the soil that supported three generations. Because it means missing out on holidays and celebrations and daily moments shared with people who know you and love you because – again, you are, simply, family.
Let us respect those great men and women everywhere who spend their years within a few miles of the homestead. As long as they view their horizon with the same awe and joy that a constant nomad does, then in my opinion, they’ve covered an equal distance.
At 4:00am on the day of our own funerals, it will be the travels of our hearts – not our feet – that matter …