Dad stopped by a couple days before we were both going off on vacation trips—him to Ocean Shores, Washington, a gorgeous peninsula he loved just south of Olympic National Park, and me, my husband, Pete, and our three kids on a 1,400-mile odyssey.
Our plan was to visit 19 lighthouses, leaving from Olympia, Washington, and ending in San Diego, California. Of all the vacations we’d ever taken—and we were a traveling clan—this was sure to be the best. “I wish I was going with you to Ocean Shores,” I teased.
“Not really, you don’t,” Dad said, laughing. “You guys are going to have the time of your lives. Nineteen lighthouses! That might be some kind of record. I wish I was going with you!”
I gave him a great big hug. It was Dad who instilled in me this great love of travel, this joy in discovering new people in new places, of discovering yourself in your journeys.
And he loved lighthouses. He’d recently given me a painting of the Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, lighthouse, built like a barber pole with a thick, black spiral stripe. “Take it easy,” he said, hugging me back.
“You too, Dad. I love you,” I said.
I was glad I gave Dad that extra big hug because it was the last time I would ever see him. He died of a heart attack sailing on Black Lake, off Olympia, Washington, two days later, right before we were to embark on our lighthouse tour.
Summer Travel: National Parks, Trails, and Wilderness Areas
I knew Dad would have wanted us to go on our trip anyway. He would have insisted on it if he could. But my heart just wasn’t in it. Dad was so young, too young to die. It wasn’t fair. For the first time in my life I had no interest in hitting the road.
Which was very strange. Travel was a grand tradition in our family. When I was a kid Dad used to haul my two brothers and me all over the country in a 27-foot travel trailer that he hitched to our old Mercury station wagon. We’d pile in with all of our stuff, ready for adventure.
That trailer was Dad’s pride and joy. “All aboard!” he’d cry on those mornings when we were packed and he was itching to go. The day he bought the trailer was the start of the best part of my life.
For many summers we traveled the West in that crazy contraption—down the Oregon coast, to Eureka, California, to Lake Chelan in central Washington, to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
It had a front room with fold-up tables that converted into beds, a little kitchen area, a bathroom with a handheld shower and a room in back with bunk beds.
We kids always knew when it was time to hit the road—Dad would beep the horn and it would blare this goofy tune he called “Ol’ Dixie.”
Nothing could dampen Dad’s humor, and he’d let nothing diminish ours. On gloomy afternoons, he’d hook an old black-and-white TV up to a makeshift antenna, so we could while away the afternoon.
When driving grew tedious, he’d pull off the road in a park that wasn’t even on our map. “Picnic!” he’d shout, and out would come sandwiches and soft drinks and fruit.
One stop, I’ll never forget. Dad was driving us to Sol Duc Hot Springs, in the Olympic National Forest. We pulled off the road for a picnic lunch. Dad passed out peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. The last sandwich—his—was a little thin.
“How come there’s nothing in your sandwich?” Mom asked. Dad admitted he’d been in such a rush to hit the road that morning, he’d neglected to put peanut butter and jelly on his.
Dad ate a bread sandwich that day, a little payback for his always being in such a hurry to get us moving. We kidded him about it for years and it always cracked him up.
Even after my siblings and I were grown, Dad kept traveling. His great dream was to go to Russia. He’d studied Russian in college and finally flew there a few months before he died. He couldn’t wait to show me his pictures.
“Oh, Laura,” he told me—he was the only one to call me by my given first name—“the world is so full of amazing people and places. You should try to see as many of them as you can.”
He didn’t have to worry about that. I was a chip off the old block. My husband, our kids and I spent as much of our summers as we could taking family trips.
Dad helped me plan some of them. He didn’t have much opportunity to travel with us anymore because he was so busy with work.
Still, there were times on the road when I’d look to the seat beside me and imagine he was there, my wingman, pointing to some fabulous, unexpected vista he’d insist we just had to stop and see.
After the funeral I brought some of Dad’s ashes home with me. It didn’t seem fair, Dad all cooped up in a box. But what could I do?
“You should reschedule your lighthouse trip,” my brothers urged me. But every time I sat down to plan it again I just couldn’t. A trip made me think of Dad. I missed him so much!
Sometimes I’d wander around our house gazing at all the paintings and models of lighthouses and seascapes we’d collected. Dad loved the sea. He loved its briny smell, the waves crashing against the rocks, squealing gulls wheeling overhead.
I could almost see him in those paintings standing on a distant point of land far out in the sea. Lord, I prayed, make my soul ready to travel the world and see its beautiful canvas.
A year passed and slowly, like a morning fog, my grief began to lift. One day I eyed the little ceramic container where I kept Dad’s ashes. If only I could take one last trip with him.
Then it struck me. I knew just what Dad would want me to do. He was an adventurer. He’d want his ashes spread around the world.
I hauled out my old map and Pete, the kids and I headed down the coast highway, to Battery Point Lighthouse, off Crescent City, California.
We had to wait a while to make it out to the lighthouse. The only time you can walk across the inlet that separates the rock pile the lighthouse sits on from the mainland is at low tide.
“Say a prayer for Grandpa,” I told the kids, once we’d made our way to a cliff overlooking the ocean. I took a handful of ashes from the container and tossed them into the air. We watched them drift, like a cloud made from a soul, toward the open water.
We stopped at 19 lighthouses, from Battery Point to Old Point Loma, in San Diego. There was a dirt trail leading to Old Point Loma. The kids danced ahead of us down the trail, stopping to play in little tide pools leading to the sea.
I carried the container. I squeezed Pete’s hand and walked alone to an outcropping overlooking the water. Over the next year, we’d spread Dad’s ashes at sites around the world, but this lighthouse ceremony would be for Dad and me.
I wanted to let go of my grief by letting go of Dad. You showed me the world, I thought. What could be better than that? Now you are on the greatest journey of all. Someday we’ll meet again, farther on down the road.
The sun was dipping below the horizon, splashing colors all across the western sky. A beautiful canvas. I threw the ashes high in the air. A breeze caught them and they swirled aloft, almost circling overhead, before settling gently over the sea.
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