It is the early days of a new year, and typically I would eagerly be looking forward and planning the trips Leslie and I will be taking with Next Chapter in 2023. Instead, although I have been making halfhearted attempts at this, I am being drawn ceaselessly into the past, to memories of trips long ago, even to journeys undertaken by others before I was born.
There’s a reason for this dislocation: My earliest travel companions, who introduced me to the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and all the possibilities for joy, adventure and solace it contains, left us in the waning days of 2022. Mom went first, on the winter solstice, Dec. 21. Dad followed her six days later. They had been married more than 65 years and were inseparable. As their health deteriorated, my siblings and I wondered how either would survive without the other. It is of great comfort to us now to know that neither of them will have to.
Their deaths did not come as a surprise. Mom was injured in a fall at home nearly a year ago, and although there were many ups and downs over these months, the overall trajectory of her health had been one of decline. She was two weeks shy of her 85th birthday when she passed. Dad was 93, and although sheer stubbornness had kept him relatively active until just before the end, he was unable to argue his way past multiple bouts of infection. Bacterial pneumonia, layered atop pre-existing emphysema, carried him away.
Both my parents died peacefully, free of pain, in their own beds with their children by their sides during the final hours. While I am grieving, I feel also a sense of relief and gratitude that they were granted the kind of deaths they wanted and deserved.
They also lived rich, full lives, and I am focusing on remembering that as 2023 gets under way. Fortunately, I have a robust photo archive to rely on for help.
Time machine in a box
I seem to have inherited the role of family historian, and one of my projects in recent months has been to conduct a sort of archaeological dig through stacks of photos accumulated over the past century by at least four generations of our family. I retrieved them all from my parents’ house last summer, promising to scan and digitize a representative sample. Albums and loose prints now occupy about seven banker’s boxes in my office, and although I will never know who many of the subjects are — labeling was inconsistent over the years, and the only people who might help me name them are no longer with us — there are plenty I can easily identify.
In this new chapter of my life, when I am able to build weeks and months around adventures on the road with Leslie, the archival images to which I am most drawn are those of travel: camping and hiking outings, snapshots of wild animals and wild flowers, of forests and beaches, of rivers and rainbow trout, of our family enjoying the natural world over many decades. Mom and Dad taught me my earliest lessons about how to be outdoors and why it matters. And although I have learned far more in my adult explorations than they were able to teach me as a child, their lessons laid the foundation. Their example sparked the desire that still drives me to wild, lonely and lovely places.
When I began leafing through the albums, the first set of photos to grab my eye were labeled “Camping trip — Memorial Day 1957 — Silver Lake.”
It is almost certainly the first camping trip they took together. Mom and Dad met and fell in love when they were both playing in the band at Santa Rosa Junior College in Northern California (Mom on clarinet, Dad on trumpet and accordion). They were married Feb. 24, 1957. Judith Lorraine Tibbetts was 19 years old; John Peter Krist, a Navy veteran, was 8 years older. It’s unlikely they would have camped together before they were married, and the three months between their wedding day and that Memorial Day would frequently have been inclement. They’d borrowed all the gear in the photos from Mom’s parents, and their unfamiliarity with it shows in the picture of Dad struggling to erect the canvas tent.
You can’t tell from the photos, but Mom was almost certainly pregnant with their first child at the time. I was born January 6 the following year, meaning I would have been conceived in April 1957, a month before their holiday in the Sierra Nevada. So, in a way, those are pictures of my first camping trip as well.
In all of the shots they both look very happy. That’s pretty much the case in all of the camping-trip photos I have of them. They clearly loved being out there together. Really, they loved being anywhere together.
Lessons in the woods
I’m not sure how long my parents waited after they began having children to return to the mountains. I know there is 8mm home movie footage of me as a toddler stomping Dad’s fishing hat into a shapeless mess, and Mom admonishing me (invisible inside what looks like the same canvas tent they’d used in 1957) to settle down for my afternoon nap. I have some actual memories of subsequent trips to Silver Lake, their early favorite destination. The documentary trail does not really become robust, however, until we began spending summer vacations in our beloved Lassen Volcanic National Park’s Warner Valley, which I have written about before.
Our family has been camping regularly in Warner Valley for more than 50 years. It was there that we learned lessons from my parents that still influence how I experience the outdoors:
How to build a fire.
How to catch, clean and cook a trout.
To use your indoor voice in the campground, because you are basically sharing a living room with all the other campers and it’s rude to make them listen to your every utterance.
To pick up trash whenever you see it on the trail.
To trade places in line during a hike, because everybody deserves a chance to set the pace and no one should have to eat dust the entire day.
To pay attention, with all your senses, to the signals the mountains send you: the vanilla scent of sun-warmed Jeffrey pine bark, the music of creeksong and wind in the trees, the hyper-saturated blue of an alpine sky.
To always pack a tent (or other shelter).
OK, that last one was something they taught us inadvertently during a wet week one long-ago August.
The photo archives also record three trips I organized in celebration of landmark birthdays Mom and I shared. We were born 20 years and 2 days apart, and she really loved watching wildlife. So, to mark our 40th and 60th birthdays, we traveled together to Laguna San Ignacio in Baja to get close to gray whales. For our 50th and 70th, we (along with my dad and brother Joel) traveled to Alaska to hobnob with brown bears in Katmai National Park. For our 53rd and 73rd (OK, not really landmark numbers, but whatever) we journeyed to Nebraska’s Platte River to take in the sights and sounds of half a million wintering sandhill cranes.
Those were remarkable trips, and I will always cherish the memory of Mom’s joy and awe in the presence of those stunning wildlife spectacles. I wish we had shared more of them.
I am grateful, however, for the opportunity I have now to continue traveling the road my parents set me on 65 years ago. Next Chapter is a far cry from that old canvas tent they struggled with in the summer of 1957, but Mom and Dad recognized the continuity of experience that linked those dissimilar shelters. They loved hearing stories about the places Leslie and I visited in the van, and seeing the photos we took along the way. And Dad, particularly, loved reading this journal during his final months on Earth.
As we move further into 2023 — this strange new land in which I am an orphan — Leslie and I will again hit the road, continuing our exploration of this beautiful world. We’ll appreciate the vanilla scent of sun-warmed Jeffrey pine bark, the music of creeksong and wind in the trees, the hyper-saturated blue of an alpine sky. And we’ll carry the memory of my parents, and the lessons they taught, with us to every campsite and every trail.
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This is beautiful. Thanks for being our family historian and the keeper of our shared memories.
The line about being an orphan hits home, my friend. In another context, however, that is inaccurate for the parental imprint is eternal. And those of us blessed with stalwart parents are lucky. Take cure, John. I'm thinking of you.