- Michael Thompson
“We gotta get moving!”
I woke up to find my dad standing over me. My bedroom was dark. 6 AM. My groggy eyes could only make out his silhouette. But it was clear he was ready to go. His backpack leaning against the door.
“Give me five minutes,” I grumbled before slowly making my way to the shower. “Can you heat up a coffee?”
A decade has passed since that encounter.
Despite my bad memory, I can see every detail of our subsequent steps.
This is because what I witnessed that morning forever changed my life and my definition of how to live a good one.
My dad had just retired.
From “work” at least. Being that he spent thirty years traversing the globe in the Air Force and another twenty years teaching military strategy, rather than kick-back in a Lazy-Boy and enjoy his spoils, he wanted to spend his third act much like his second act — emersed in adventure.
For two years leading up to his retirement, he became a hiking machine. Every day before work, he’d kick the dirt in Central Pennsylvania logging a dozen miles before breakfast.
His goal: the moment his retirement was made official, he’d hop on a plane to visit me and my wife in Barcelona and then head North to spend a month on his own walking the “Camino de Santiago.”
I love hearing the stories he collected on his adventure.
Asking police officers where to find his hostel after one too many glasses of wine only for them to point to the sign above their heads that read “Hostel.” Getting lost and then found by an ex-bullfighter a few miles outside of Leon who treated him like royalty. The pictures he’d send once a week when he could find an internet cafe of him camping alone in the rain. The food he ate. The people he met. Especially a Scandanavian couple who has one of the greatest love stories ever known.
But out of all the tales he told once his walk was done, the one that hit me the hardest took place before his adventure had truly begun.
My dad’s a quiet guy.
Intense. I could tell he was nervous as we made our way to catch his first train of many towards Saint Jean Pied de Port, a town in France that many say marks the true beginning of the Camino. Unlike me who babbles in the face of uncertainty, my dad does the opposite. Soldier mode. He holds it in.
“You alright?” I asked, sensing his nerves.
“Yup,” he nodded.
The time had arrived. The train was coming. And as soon as it stopped and the doors opened, my dad grabbed my shoulder, looked me dead in the eyes, and said—“This is the most scared I’ve ever been” — and then without hesitation, he got on the train.
I stood there paralyzed as early morning commuters rushed past me.
“The most scared I’ve ever been?” I said to myself.
“How could this be?”
My dad’s the kind of guy who’s six-foot-five when you close your eyes but five-eleven when you open them. Vietnam. Pakistan. Eastern Europe during the Cold War. Throughout his career, he learned how to make brave his baseline. Navigating hot zones during some of the world’s most trying times.
Between this and living through cancer at an early age and all the twists and turns life has brought his way, I struggled to make sense of what was so scary about Spain.
But the longer I stood on the platform, the more I began to get it.
Retiring on its own has to be terrifying. Some people look forward to it. People like my dad though, have zero interest in moving to Florida.
He was starting a new chapter.
No friends were waiting. He didn’t speak the language. Nor did he have any reservations. A 73-year-old American making his way through two foreign countries with a backpack and a tent.
I love the idea that to confidently take his next life steps, he chose to get lost.
I love the idea that no matter how scared he was he never once doubted his decision.
I love the fact that choosing to come to Spain and get on that train was his quiet way of saying — “I’m just getting started.”
Life is short for some.
While it’s long for others.
To buck the former and be a latter, save your words and speak with your actions.
At that moment, my dad taught me that it’s up to us to make our own green lights in life no matter how scared we are.
His time on the Camino was far from perfect. It rained for days on end. He twisted his ankle alone while climbing a mountain. He made wrong turns that led to places that didn’t show up on the map.
All of those imperfections he experienced though are his favorite stories today.
That’s what happens when you develop the “get on the damn train” mindset.
You learn to smile at trouble.
And you also learn that the best way to laugh tomorrow is by facing your fears today.
Be bold in the moments that matter.
All the other ‘rules for life,’ are worthless without it.
As my dad would say, “Our lives are defined by the times we put our fears aside and get on the damn train anyway!”
Thanks for reading — Michael