The most influential man in my life, my grandfather, passed away this week at the age of 93. I’ve never known a time when my grandfather–“Father” to my mother and uncles, “Grampa” to my brother and me, and “Papa” to the younger generation–wasn’t the center of our family. So much of who I am comes from him—both the good and the bad.
I can be stubborn like him. I’m reserved. Public displays of affection don’t come naturally to me. I keep my feelings bottled up inside, too much. But I also got my work ethic from him. . .and my Yankee frugality. My sense of humor, my strength, and my sense of right and wrong all come from him. I’m more of a listener than a talker.
It wasn’t until this year that I realized he and I had something else in common, too. I was told that when my grandfather saw a photo of me in a race car at the Richard Petty Driving Experience in Las Vegas, he perked right up and said “Gray’s adventurous, just like me!”
My reaction to that was, “Uh. . .say what?”
I suppose by Vermont standards I’m adventurous. Many Vermonters are born here, live their whole lives here, and die here—having never left the borders of the state. Not only have I traveled internationally, I’ve done so alone (gasp!). Still, I don’t consider myself all that adventurous. And I certainly never thought of my grandfather that way.
Then again, I didn’t know him when he was a young man. He could have been a real hellraiser back then for all I know. I know he enjoyed winter sports more than I do–skiing, snowmobiling, and ice boating. Perhaps we just had different definitions of “adventurous”. To me, an adventure is something you go on by leaving home and going on a journey. My grandfather didn’t have a lot of opportunities for those kinds of adventures.
Grampa grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. According to my mother, the only chance he had to travel when he was young was a trip to Kansas City with Future Farmers of America. He couldn’t join the military because of a bad knee. So he grew up to live the life he already knew in Vermont.
His was a life of hard work. He was a farmer and then a foreman for the state highway department. During every snowstorm, he would be out on the roads, plowing, even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when everyone else was celebrating the holiday with their families. On his time off, he worked around the farm, mowing acres of fields, trimming brush, and working in his vegetable garden, among other things.
He had to work hard, because he raised three families: His own children (four of them), his stepchildren (three of them), and two of his grandchildren (my brother and me). To be honest, I wasn’t convinced my grandfather liked me all that much when I was a child. Our interactions usually revolved around him having to discipline my brother and me for fighting or things like breaking my bed by jumping on it like a trampoline.
I was too young then to know what an introvert was or consider that he might be one. Or that he was probably very tired all the time from working. By the time the next generation of grandkids came along, he was retired and his personality loosened up quite a lot. Regardless, Grampa did right by all of us. We always had shelter, food and clothing, but there wasn’t a lot of money for extras.
So Grampa didn’t have the opportunity to go on travel adventures very much. But he took advantage of the opportunities he did have—mostly road trips to visit relatives out of state. During the summer I was eight, Grampa came into some money from the sale of his parents’ farm. Finally, this was his chance for a big adventure.
He used the money to fly the four of us—him, my grandmother, my brother and me–to Germany to see my father, who was stationed in the military in Stuttgart. We stayed with my father for a month, exploring Germany and Austria: We rode cable cars up mountainsides and toured castles and cruised down the Rhine River; visited ornate cathedrals with gorgeous statues and stained glass windows and palaces with vast, colorful gardens. None of us had ever seen anything like it before.
I think that trip was what kicked off my own passion for travel. That, and our semi-annual road trips to stay with relatives out of state.
It’s funny how I don’t like long car trips now, because I loved every one of those road trips when I was growing up. My grandparents would wake up my brother and me in the pitch-dark and bundle us into the car to start driving at three a.m. because Grampa wanted to avoid rush hour traffic in the cities. We would fall back to sleep and wake when daylight broke, and then play car games or loudly try to kill each other in the backseat.
I loved looking out the window and seeing tall buildings and highways and billboards, which were completely foreign things in rural Vermont. My city cousins lived in a neighborhood with an honest-to-God ice cream truck. They might as well have lived on Pluto. Even the air smelled different out of state. It didn’t smell like streams and forests and small towns. It smelled like endless possibilities.
Other times, Grampa’s adventures were small and close to home. Often, on a Sunday afternoon, he would suddenly say “Let’s go for a ride.”
We’d all get in the station wagon and he would start driving, turning off on some random dirt road, and then another, and another, and we’d wind up deep in the woods somewhere I didn’t recognize. I would start to worry.
“But what if we run out of gas in the middle of nowhere? What if it gets dark out? What if I have to pee? Where ARE weeeeeee?”
We all do what we can with what we have and who we are. Grampa’s way of expressing his sense of adventure within the framework of his life was to drive down some random road just to see where it led. With an attitude like that, imagine what his life would have been like if he’d gone against the grain of his upbringing and led a romantic life of constant travel instead of settling down and raising nine children. The things he could have seen.
But then he wouldn’t have had all those hours to spend on the farm he loved, in the woods, in the fields, with the family dogs he held so dear. And he might not have been Father and Grampa and Papa to three generations, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have traded those things for the world.
The travel lesson I take away from my grandfather’s life is that everyone’s definition of “adventure” is different and we can’t judge ourselves by someone else’s definition. You can be a homebody and also a traveler. (And you can love both equally.)
You can stay close to home and family and friends and have all of those things in your life, yet still make your own adventures when you are able. Your adventures don’t have to be expensive, or epic, and you don’t have to travel to the far reaches of the globe. Adventure is more about attitude than geography.
From now on, whenever I step outside my comfort zone and do something “adventurous” whether at home or on the road, I’ll think of him and know that wherever his spirit is, he’s getting a big kick out of it.