Up until last April, I had never touched the ocean.
I had been close to the ocean. I had travelled under the ocean. But I had never actually ventured out to it – never tried to take in its size, or let the salty remnants of millions of years of biological change wash over my feet. The ocean was a thing outside my realm. The ocean was as foreign as India or Japan.
Last April, I finally did it. I touched the ocean. The Pacific Ocean, scene of a million surf wipeouts and Instagrammed sunsets.
And now, here I was. Ready to do the same on the opposite coast. I got out of my car and walked toward the water.
I used to dream of airports. Each was something new – a way to experience the thrills I had only encountered in a Choose Your Own Adventure. There was freedom in knowing that, given the right situation and the right funds, I could go anywhere. ANYWHERE. Any damned where I pleased, with just a few hundred dollars and the proper identification.
I still do dream of airports, but in a different way. Now, they’re weird nightmares, where I miss my flight or I show up too late to conduct a meeting.
At some point last year, travel became an occupational hazard; each ticket was a debt to my life, and though I enjoyed myself when I was supposed to enjoy myself, I had unwillingly traded my dreams for anxieties. I measured each new city by the number of days I had remaining – the number of days until I could return home. And I began to fear the consequences of enjoying travel too much, of getting too comfortable being on the road.
There’s no way to be peaceful with a new city if you’re rushing to do business and counting the days. There’s no more discovery: there’s only debt.
When I was in grade school, I almost drowned at Wall Lake. I was floating on a neighbor’s inflatable pool lounger when, as I reached for a toy in the water, I fell off. The water was shallow enough to stand in, but the wake and action of thirty other swimmers forced the inflatable pool lounger away from shore.
As I chased it, the water became deeper. Each grasp pushed the lounger further away. Each step I took increased the panic, until, flailing around, my host for the day – our neighbor, who moonlighted as a lifeguard – saw me struggling. She dove in and saved me.
I had graduated from swimming lessons a few years before. I knew how to swim. I knew that I was in danger. But I still kept trying to make things right, to prevent loss, to be safe instead of smart, pushing myself just a little further into the water. In doing so I nearly lost everything.
I was still a kid. I never knew how much this would haunt me.
I neglect to tell Sierra and Isaac about my work travel until the last possible moment. Sierra is riddled with the same anxieties I am: an irrational fear of natural disasters, a belief that when her loved ones leave they may never come back, a super-sensitivity to being embarrassed. Isaac carries those same concerns out of love for his sister; he’s concerned when she is, over-exaggerating each issue in the way a four-year-old does.
My kids become irrational when I’m ready to leave – clinging to me as if I was joining the foreign legion – and they become pills when I’m gone, pushing buttons on every issue. Each trip is a change to routine. Each trip is an added level of stress for Kerrie. Each trip forces the questions I never thought I’d ask.
Do I want to do this?
Do I want to travel?
Am I doing all I can to be a good father?
Of course I am. I never doubt my efforts for long. But that doesn’t mean the same thoughts don’t creep in every time I stand in a security line, one hand throwing my belt and shoes into a bucket, the other chancing upon a bracelet Sierra made, or a few coins I found hidden under Isaac’s rug. I collect these things as I toddle around the house, picking up after myself, but I always assume there’s a bigger reason they end up in that security bowl.
Then I shake it off and shove them back in my pocket as I walk to my gate.
I parked a block away from the Atlantic Ocean, near a beach that shared my name. I stumbled through the sand, wondering how I would remember this moment. I felt proud. I was charged. I was going to surprise my kids by saying LOOK AT WHERE DAD ENDED UP! because I had already decided that the ocean was too much for this bummer of a weekend. I felt empowered by my sudden change of heart. I felt like the lead role in a Springsteen song.
Until I instinctively checked Foursquare.
If I hadn’t tried to check in, I’d have never known that I wasn’t at the ocean. I’d still think that Corey Beach is on the Atlantic and that I’d scored a completed pair. I’d never know that, despite that sudden change of heart, this wasn’t one of the fun Springsteen songs.
I did check. And the ocean was over there, in the distance, on the other side of the outer barrier across Patchouge Bay.
I got back in my car and stared at the beach.
I was afraid of water until, one day, Kerrie forced me to buck up and jump in.
I was afraid to travel to a conference and speak until, one day, my boss told me to just go do it already.
I was afraid to leave home until, one day, I came home and my kids were cool with it all and excited to get presents.
But I still remember the time I pushed it too far. I’m still afraid of going too far past the buoy. I still stay up at night wondering when one step will be one too far, when my charge has slipped past my reach, when my energy has run out and all I can muster is a hand raised in the air as I slowly sink.
When I was a kid, I took one trip a year. My family would pack up the car and we would head to Jackson. It would be stomach-turningly early when the lights came on to leave – a feeling I still encounter on the eve of a trip, where the excitement of discovery is mixed with the fear of the unknown, a queasy churning that’s only solved through a few cups of coffee and an hour of driving into the sunrise.
I knew what travel was, but my scope was limited. It included a car. It included going west. My destination was filled with loving family. It was safe, and it was comforting, and it was always beautiful.
My destination moved wherever my grandparents did, whether it was Wyoming or Kentucky or Minnesota. It was college before I knew what real travel was. I found myself in Paris, struggling with a new language. I found myself in London, seeing things I’d only seen in movies. I was in Seattle, taking mini-pilgrimages to the sites of my favorite bands. I was in Washington DC. I was in New Orleans. I was everywhere.
I wasn’t comfortable, but I was willing to learn. I was an anomaly, I think: my desire to keep moving overcame my fear of the unknown, so I just jumped on a plane and did it.
I want my kids to have a enjoy that kind of movement. I don’t want them to fear the unknown.
I want them to fall in love with countries I’ve never visited. I want them to go on trips that expose them to great friendships. I want them to wonder. I want them to understand that the Midwest is beautiful and perfect in nearly every way, but that they’ll never understand just how perfect it is until they’ve stepped outside its border.
I don’t want travel to be a fearful thing, despite the fact that I now dread traveling without them.
Because instead of enjoying the time I spend in a new city, I now fear the nights they crawl into bed and I’m not there. I fear the dinners when they ask when we’ll be a real family again. And I fear the point when I hate traveling by myself and, as an extension, hate what leads me to travel in the first place.
More than that, I fear that they will see that fear, and they will understand it as a part of traveling. I fear that I will affect their sense of adventure. I fear I will kill discovery before it starts.
My heart sank.
This wasn’t the ocean. I drove here for nothing.
I saw that my short car ride had been for naught, that I had fooled myself in thinking that I was close, and I saw that my only real recourse was to head back to the hotel and watch Netflix and drink a beer and feel shitty and disappointed. It was Labor Day weekend, and I was working, and I thought I didn’t really care but suddenly I did.
But everywhere I looked I saw small people spending the holiday on the beach, making castles and diving into the waves and doing other cliche small people things as their parents looked on, exhausted from the wind but happy that they could sit back and look on. Those small people on the beach reminded me of my small people back home, which reminded me of everything back home, which reminded me that I would be doing my entire family a disservice to ditch this mission – to shake my head and give up, to admit failure. To let the pool lounger go.
So, for once, I refused to give up.
“I’m going to the ocean.”
And I got in my car and drove south.