Two weeks ago, I received a call that I'd been dreading for a long time. As soon as I heard my father's unusually fragile voice, I knew what he was about to say. Immediately, I started to cry – sob, actually – before he'd even finished telling me the news.
Earlier that morning, he'd received his own terrible call. While he was vacationing with his wife's family in Florida, one of his father's neighbors had tried to reach him on his cell phone. Apparently, she was concerned because my grandfather had failed to place her newspaper on her doorstep that morning – something he'd done every morning for years. Unfortunately, my father's cell phone reception was poor in the Florida Panhandle, so after several attempts to contact him, the neighbor had called the police, who were unable to breach the burglar bars on my grandfather's doors and windows. Before alerting the fire department, however, the police tried to contact my father once more, and this time, he answered.
Not knowing whether my grandfather, who was incredibly hard of hearing, was simply unwell, incapacitated, or something worse, my father decided to leave my stepmother at the family reunion in Florida while he made the four-hour trip back home to New Orleans. Knowing how compassionate my father is, I can only imagine how difficult this solo trip must have been for him, especially with Father's Day only a few days away.
As you've surely guessed by now, the worst had, in fact, happened. My grandfather, at age 86, had passed away alone in his house – from which he'd rarely emerged in recent years, especially since my grandmother's passing in the fall of 2004. Although I understood, in part, the source of his unhappiness, it still saddened me that he'd chosen to live like that, locked within his fortress of solitude, emerging only to collect the newspapers, check his mailbox, visit the doctor, grab a few items from a nearby grocery store, and, occasionally, join the family for a meal.
While Dad and I comforted each other over the phone, we lamented the fact that Grandpa, despite our best efforts to help him, had chosen to live such a lonely life. As we talked about all the things he could have done with his time – from volunteer work to travel – we both recognized that, despite our great sadness at having lost him forever, his death had been a merciful release – at least for him.
After ending the call with my father and sobbing for a good, long while, it occurred to me – as it often does when we lose someone we love – just how precious, fragile, and ephemeral life is, and though none of us know how long we have on this earth, we simply must make the most of the time we have. While there are unfortunate things – like diseases, accidents, and the maleficent actions of others – that can adversely affect us, there's also a lot we can do to improve our quality of life and perhaps, barring catastrophe, even extend our lives. Although I have no way of knowing how long my grandfather could have lived had he taken better care of himself, I'm confident that a healthy diet, regular exercise, and proper sleep can improve most people's odds.
Of course, diet, exercise, and rest aren't enough. Although it's critical that we take care of ourselves physically, our mental health is equally imperative. It's no wonder, then, that stress has become the number-one killer in America. In my own life, I'm often plagued by stress and anxiety – especially when book deadlines loom – so I know that stress relievers like laughter, meditation, reading, playing games, watching movies, and so forth, are absolutely essential to good health. As many studies have concluded, having a pet can help, too – something I definitely know to be true. I can't even count the times that Ruby, my beloved furry feline, has positively altered my mood – or at least helped me to forget life's daily struggles for a while.
Even more, though, it helps all of us to step away from our routines for a time, cease the daily grind, and embrace a change of scenery. That's why travel is so essential to our well-being, providing a kind of medicine that our bodies, minds, and souls utterly crave and absolutely require. Travel enables us to embrace other cultures, experience other places, and, in turn, learn to appreciate home again. Travel recharges the mind, rejuvenates the spirit, and releases the unseen tensions that can plague us on a daily basis.
True, some vacations – such as family trips to Disney World or whirlwind bus tours of Europe – can induce more stress than they relieve, but most of the time, travel can offer a much-needed break, especially when you take the time to appreciate your surroundings. Some of my favorite travel experiences, in fact, have been the spontaneous, leisurely ones – like the time my husband, Dan, and I drove from San Francisco to Napa Valley in a rented convertible.
Indeed, that's the great thing about travel. You don't have to go far or spend a lot of money to have a good time and reboot your system. Even close-to-home travel – or “staycations,” as they've come to be called – can work wonders for your soul. The day after I found out about my grandfather's passing, in fact, Dan and I decided to take a short road trip to Petoskey, Michigan, a charming coastal town that lies only an hour west of our summer residence. Although I'm currently working on the fourth edition of Moon Michigan , I chose not to work that day. Instead, Dan and I simply strolled the quaint streets of downtown Petoskey , relishing the pleasant weather, reminiscing about my grandfather, and wishing that he'd gotten out of the house more often. Despite the incredible sadness I was feeling that day, I nevertheless had a wonderful time – partially because Dan and I didn't have an agenda and just let the day's events unfold. We walked down to the marina in Bayfront Park, dined in a Thai restaurant we'd never tried before, stopped to listen to some amazing percussionists, and participated in the annual art gallery walk that just so happened to be occurring that evening.
While our trip to Petoskey lasted only a day, it served a much-needed purpose, giving us a chance to shut down our computers for a while, put aside work, grief, and other stresses, look at life from a new perspective, and remember to count our blessings – including the simple gift of being alive and having the chance to experience this marvelously diverse world. Although I realize that life has a way of making us forget such lessons – especially when the stresses start to pile up again – I also know that it's rarely too late to break unhealthy habits... or, at the very least, “recharge your batteries.” Even a short trip to a familiar place can serve as a gentle reminder that life is indeed worth living.
So, I hope that, wherever you are this weekend – whether you're celebrating Independence Day in America or experiencing another part of the world – you'll take some time to put aside your day-to-day cares, enjoy your friends and family, and relish a different place, even if it's close to home. Life is too precious, after all, to squander. So, happy trails, everyone – and, to my fellow Americans, Happy Fourth of July!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me via laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.
Disclosure: While I occasionally accept free or discounted travel assistance when it coincides with my editorial goals, my opinion is never for sale, which means that everything written in my American Nomad  blog and my Moon travel guides is my unbiased reflection of the things that I see, do, and experience while traveling across the United States.
Photo of Petoskey's Bayfront Park / Text © 2010 Laura Martone