It’s the Journey That Matters

“It is good to have an end to journey toward;
but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ernest Hemingway

This past weekend I attended yet another funeral–this one for a good man who fought a long, valiant crusade against the ravages of cancer. He wasn’t that old. And as I listened to the heart-breaking sobs of his gentle wife on the front pew, I was reminded of all the other funerals I’ve attended over the past year–so many funerals that I’ve lost count. Some of the deceased still wore the blush and promise of youth on their cheeks while others wore the battle scars of a long, productive life; some were the casualties of illness and disease while others were the victims of split-second wrong decisions–but all of them shared the common thread of leaving behind loved ones with heavy hearts and empty spaces that will never be filled.

How fragile and fleeting life is.

And the older I get, the more I think about that.

I doubt that I’m much different from anyone reading this. I don’t want to die, and even though I know an ending is inevitable, I still hope to put it off for as long as possible, in part because in my first five decades on this planet, I wasted way too many opportunities and too much precious time. I should have been chasing waterfalls instead of dust bunnies, I should have been spending less time grading papers and more time playing with my sons, I should have been eating fruits and vegetables instead of Ding Dongs and Cheetos, and I should have been offering more warm hugs and tender encouragement instead of cold shoulders and angry rebukes . . . and now I need more time to start living the life I should have been living all along.

Don’t we all?

As afraid as I am of dying too soon, though, I’m even more afraid of living too long–afraid of still breathing long after my health has failed me and my mind has vanished into parts unknown. And I’m afraid, sometimes, that I’ve waited too late to start worrying about such things–that the damage is already done and that the damage may be irreversible.

But just in case it’s not . . .

I’m trying hard to make amends, and I’m trying even harder to ward off any future damage. Oh, I know, that ruin and wreckage will come in due time–new lines and wrinkles, lumps and bumps, sags and bags have a tendency to materialize in front of mirrors where they weren’t visible just the day before, and the cells of disease sometimes patiently lie in wait for years before making their presence known. But maybe, just maybe, the good I am doing now will buy me a few more days, a few more years.

Before I retired a couple years ago, I wrote a preliminary “bucket list” identifying some of the things I wanted to accomplish in my hoped-for future. Many of the items were travel goals, and I have happily checked a few of those goals off my list–including a trip just a couple weeks ago to Key West, Florida. Now, I can’t tell you exactly why I’ve always wanted to go to Key West, other than in my mind I have pictured it as a place with stunning sunrises and vivid sunsets, a place where brilliantly colored roosters and iguanas and flamingos roam at large while happy-go-lucky, scantily clad natives sway to the rhythm of steel drum bands on the beach. (And it was something like that–although I never saw a flamingo, and most of the scantily clad persons I saw were most likely tourists and most certainly would have looked a little less frightening had they chosen to reveal a little less middle-aged skin.)

Before I put Key West on my bucket list and excitedly agreed to check it off that list via a 100-mile bike trip with friends, I should have first studied Florida geography. I honestly thought Key West was the southernmost tip of coastal Florida; I had no idea that Key West was an island, much less that it was the last in a long chain of islands–connected by bridges–and that in order to get to Key West from our starting point in Islamorada, I would have to pedal across dozens of bridges, including one that was SEVEN MILES LONG.

Have I mentioned before that I am truly terrified of bridges? If I have to drive across one, I white-knuckle the steering wheel and hold my breath until I’m safely on the other side; if I’m a passenger in a vehicle going across one, I close my eyes (and hold my breath) until I’m sure I’m back on solid ground. But now I was faced with riding a bicycle across one bridge after another after another . . . I obviously couldn’t hold my breath for seven miles, and I couldn’t close my eyes, either. I also couldn’t change my mind–I had committed, and I was too stubborn to back away from the challenge–but, oh, the anxiety and fear that kept me awake the night before we set out on our journey and rumbled in my stomach the next morning, the sweaty palms and racing heart that accompanied me as I pedaled across each bridge. Some of the bridges had bike paths and some of them didn’t, so in addition to dodging road debris, we were trying to steer clear of the steady stream of traffic (RVs mostly, I swear), and I was trying not to look left or right (nothing but water–sheer terror for this non-swimmer) or to look ahead (no end in sight). I tried to focus only on the back tire of the bike in front of me, and I silently repeated my husband’s instructions over and over: “Just pedal and breathe; just pedal and breathe.”

It may seem silly to some, but successfully crossing that seven-mile bridge and ultimately pedaling all the way into Key West was one of the greatest mental challenges and accomplishments of my life. I can’t say I conquered my fear of bridges–that war will forever rage on–but for those few days in Florida, I at least confronted my fear and won the battle. And I felt tremendously, gloriously, giddily alive.

And that’s the lesson I took away from the experience: It is so much better to be out “doin’ stuff,” facing fears and accepting challenges (no matter how nauseating they may initially be), than sitting at home growing old and decrepit on the couch. Fortunately, I have a husband and a few friends who feel the same way, and they are my inspiration to keep pushing (and pedaling) forward. I was the youngest one in our bicycling group–and I’m certainly not young by society’s standards–but for those few days in Florida we were all young at heart and young in spirit, and any temporary pain in our feet and seats (and our backs and knees) was glossed over by the knowledge that we had just done something pretty darn cool (and for the other members of our group, this wasn’t the first time). And every time we met someone in Key West who had heard about our journey (all those bridges, all those miles!), the response was the same: “You did WHAT?! Are you crazy?!”

No, we weren’t crazy (well, maybe just a little). I can’t speak for the rest of our group, but I felt like a major badass (yes, me!), and the craziness that others perceived was more of a determination to prove to myself that I still have so much life left to live–a lot of magnificent challenges still to conquer, a lot of great memories still to make, a lot of beautiful sunrises and sunsets still to witness, a lot of great seafood still to eat, and maybe just a few more fruity concoctions still to drink.

And even though I checked off another item on my bucket list, I have already decided that every time I check off one, I will be adding another (and, believe me, some of them are going to be real humdingers–just you wait and see). I’ve been a list-maker for as long as I can remember, scribbling daily “to do” reminders of all the boring nonsense that I feel compelled to complete–lists that I occasionally, joyously finalize and toss at the end of the day. But I have no intention of ever getting to the end of that bucket list and accepting that there’s nothing more I need or want to do.

As much as I want to believe that I am the master of my fate, though, I am reminded today–of all days–that even I may not always have the final say. For you see, today should have been my mom’s 72nd birthday. I should have been spending this day with her, showering her with gifts she didn’t need and hugs she desperately craved, putting aside my dislike of germy buffets to dine with her at her favorite Ryan’s restaurant, and over-tipping the waiter to make up for her never-ending barrage of complaints. Unfortunately, a stroke stole her away nine years ago when she was only 63–another beautiful soul taken too, too soon, creating another empty space that will never be filled. I know I have no guarantees that a similar fate won’t claim my life tomorrow, next week or sometime in the not-so-distant future when I still won’t be ready to call it quits, but I also know if I keep getting off the couch and “doin’ stuff,” I can (hopefully) improve my odds.

And I know I can’t stop the march of time any better than anyone else, but I can stubbornly refuse to let it lay claim to my mind, my body and my spirit without putting up a darn good fight. So, who’s with me? Let’s fight this good fight together.

“Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, swiftly flow the days . . . “
from Fiddler on the Roof


My husband and me . . . at the end of the Seven-Mile Bridge . . .
breathing a very big sigh of relief.


Sunrise on Looe Key . . . 


Sunset at Key West . . . 

key 2

Sunrise at Key West . . . 

69Sunset at Key West . . . 

117And an iguana sunning in the treetops . . . 

About icedteawithlemon

I have recently retired from a 30-year career in education in one of the best school districts in the world. I hope to spend my second life reading, writing, photographing, traveling, biking, cheering on my favorite baseball team (the St. Louis Cardinals), and soaking up glorious sunshine. In my spare time I enjoy playing with my pet tarantulas, trying out new flavors of chewing gum, and knitting socks for prison inmates. I'm almost positive that in a past life I was one of the Seven Dwarfs (most likely "Grumpy"), and in my next life I'm going to be either a taste tester for Hershey's or a model for Victoria's Secret's new line, "Bloomers for Boomers." I want to travel country back roads, singing Vanilla Ice songs at every karaoke bar and rating bathroom cleanliness at every truckstop. And someday I plan to own a private beach where skinny girls aren't allowed. I want to be a writer when I grow up. "Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."--Henry David Thoreau
This entry was posted in Advice, Aging, bicycling, Fears, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to It’s the Journey That Matters

  1. Bob Gunkel says:

    Thank you Karen this was great.

  2. tsotse says:

    This is Jane…my user name is a little trick I have. Anyway, I agree with everything you said. Each time I say good-bye to a friend or loved one, regardless of the age or circumstances, I make the same vow. I WILL live each day to its fullest. Being a little older, but not any wiser than you, I still struggle with making myself take chances. Of course, buying 50 acres and building a new home out in the country when you are past 65 is a pretty big stretch. But there are still so many things I want to see and do. My mother, who made it to 95, was an adventurer. For example she was staying with my brother in Virginia one year. She saw an ad in the local paper inviting people to come to a mountain wedding. Off she went in her little car(she must have been 80 something). And someone took her picture…she had a garland of flowers in her hair and a glass of wine in her hand and she was toasting the couple…whom she had just met. She was quite the lady and she never stopped living…even when her body betrayed her and she was basically confined to her chair. Her mind was always seeking new things. So, take heart. You will be fine. And I also have a terrific fear of bridges… are my hero!

  3. Barbara h says:

    Karen, Beautifully said .. Keep pedaling… Look at each moment … So precious is moment.

  4. bronxboy55 says:

    Beautiful post and, as always, amazing photographs. I would buy Sunset at Key West.

    Hope to see you, pedaling and breathing, in Atlantic Canada next fall.

    • Thank you, Charles. I’d love to publish a book of sunrises and sunsets from my travels (and from my own backyard), but I’d have to sell a million of them just to cover the cost of full-color publishing. Shall I put you down for the first thousand copies?

      And that possibility of “pedaling and breathing in Atlantic Canada next fall” is inching ever closer to becoming a reality. 🙂

  5. emjayandthem says:

    Look at you .. out there .. living! 🙂 Bravo, sister!


  6. liliofthefield27 says:

    “Time flames like a paraffin stove, and what burns are the minutes I live.”
    Irving Layton

    Wonderful post, Karen, as always. Your opening words and thoughts instantly compel and arouse curiosity as to where you shall lead the reading eyes. Literal wanderlust through cedar and oak woods.

    My dear! We both have been cursed with an illogical fear of bridges over both calm and troubled waters! Yikes! When my husband and I were in London, UK last year, we came to a long and high pedestrian bridge on the Thames River. It being a rainy, windy, dark and foreboding day only served to enhance my phobia. With shaking limbs, I managed to climb the steps to the bridge; once on it, I clung to my husband and stayed dead center, not daring to approach its sides. Several side-eyes in each direction revealed the turbulent, grey and fast flowing Thames. That was it. I couldn’t cross that damn bridge…only a few feet we walked it. If my husbands’s arm wasn’t there to guide me back down I swear I would have been on my hands and knees. No foolin’.

    Ah, I love your “passage of time/inevitable death/live the moment posts (and I am not being facetious). Like the Thames River on that cold April day, your words are brooding and are carried along a strong current. You DO have a tad of Poe in you.

    Uh huh…my mom also complained – endlessly – at restaurants (accompanied by her numerous infamous Star Wars “Darth Vader-Death Ray” stares and glares galore) which explains why I am so overly polite and gracious with waiters to this day…I can so relate.

    Your Key West cycle venture sounds tres cool, and, but of course, love your pics. Funerals…love them and loathe them. So Poe…so Poe.

    Tiger Lil

    • liliofthefield27 says:

      “Husbands’s” !! Tch…tch…tch. One eye on the screen – the other on my border collie, Gus, who is achin’ to get into the garbage bins outside! LOL

    • Thank you so much, Tiger Lil. Those darn bridges! I can certainly imagine your terror on that pedestrian bridge, and I would bet that my reaction would have been much the same. The only thing that really kept me pedaling across all those bridges in the Keys was the knowledge that I had no other way to get to where we were going.

      I worked as a carhop and a waitress for three years when I was younger, and that, combined with my mother’s poor example, has guaranteed that every waiter and waitress who keeps my tea glass full will be most generously rewarded.

      I rather like the idea of having a touch of Poe pulsing through my veins–and you, with your “rainy, windy, dark and foreboding day” seem to be equally touched!

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