Traveling has taken on a new purpose for me recently.
Travel used to be a purely self-indulgent, almost hedonistic pursuit. I learn of a location that looks or sounds enticing, and I hop into my car to hit the road if the pull was strong enough.
From elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, and on and on, you go through this cycle of separation and renewal. The transition from graduating college to moving into the workforce really hit hard. The realization that all of my friends will feel compelled to move away for the best opportunities, get tied down to a job, and take on responsibilities was hard to swallow. If I didn’t live in the same area geographically as my loved ones, it becomes almost impossible to maintain a close relationship.
A few years back, I was invited to a Facebook event. The event was for Seoul and for a year in the future. Basically my inviter said, I’ll be in Seoul at this time, if you can come, awesome. If not, that’s okay, at least you’re aware this is happening and that the option is always open for you to join. This format of traveling really stuck with me. The idea of spending time with old (and new) friends in a novel location to maintain relationships is shockingly simple, but genius. There was no pressure to come or even respond to the invitation, but it was open-ended enough for people who are interested to commit without feeling awkward.
Friendships and relationships are the most meaningful aspects of my life. I decided this is how I will travel from that point forward.
The first “experience” I put together was a cabin retreat at Warren Dunes State Park in Michigan. It’s a relatively unknown location, but an absolute gem of the Midwest. I genuinely believe if more people from the Midwest knew about Warren Dunes, they would go there for spring break instead of Myrtle Beach or Florida. I finalized plans and made reservations two months ahead of time and go the ball rolling.
Ten people joined me at the cabin. Good friends from college and old friends from home. People rolled in Friday evening after work. The sky was clear and the weather was crisp. Signs of early autumn was in the air, patches of orange dotted trees nearby. Our cabin sat at the entrance of the park. A forest sat at the top of the dunes which separated us from Lake Michigan. A trail ran from the back of the cabin into the woods. We couldn’t help ourselves but check out route, even if it was already dark.
The walk quickly because a hike. Immediately after entering the forest, the gravel trail transitioned into a sandy dune path. All of us took our shoes off to let the cool sand sink in between the toes. We were steadily gaining elevation, walking deeper into the forest, and eagerly anticipating the lapping sounds of water. We broke through the tree line minutes later, but only saw darkness. There was no way to determine how far the shore was. It could’ve been a few feet or a few miles. Funny enough, you could see the glow of Chicago in the distance, looming across the pond. We turned back and decided it was safer to finish the trek in the morning.
That night we sat around the living room taking sips of cheap beer, snacking on fried slices of SPAM, and conversed while a documentary about bears was playing on the TV in the background.
I woke up first. This trip was to catch up with friends, but I love dunes and freshwater beaches too much. I rounded up the troops and over breakfast we planned a course of action. We were to separate into two groups. The first group, composed of those who did not want to hike, will drive into the park towards the main beach. The second group will hike through the forest again towards a supposed secluded beach and slowly make our way to the main beach.
The hike was gorgeous. Mysterious birds chirps echoed through the forest and the last of the surviving cicadas sang their lonely songs. The sandy trail that we walked on the night prior actually ran through the ridge of a massive dune, with steep gradients running down both sides. If any of us took a tumble down the hill last night, it could’ve been real trouble. We joked about our close encounter with night hiking statistics and pushed on. The forest eventually transitions into a hilly meadow. Soft winds blew through the plains, making it seem as if it was almost alive. In the distance, you could see a wall of water. Almost impossible blue. Chicago still visible even during the day.
Crisp, small waves greeted us as we made it to the shore. There were a few other folks around, they probably walked all the way out here from the main beach. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you could walk this beach all the way to the Upper Peninsula.
The rest of the afternoon was spent through carefree exploration, exhausting dune climbs, and ice water dives into the lake. We barely packed any food. The 10 of us were sharing one box of Chex until the sun hovered low towards the horizon. Unlike swimming in the ocean and getting covered in salt, a day at the beach at the Great Lakes leaves you feeling utterly refreshed and restored. With empty stomachs we headed back to the cabin. A grill, a bonfire, and seasoned meats were waiting for us.
Despite going to lengths experiencing the scenery, the lasting effects of this trip was ultimately the people and the memories we made. The retreat did almost exactly what I hoped it would do, which was to facilitate a weekend of responsibility-free catching up. In our world of one-hour coffee dates and interrupted dinners, you can spend more time with someone through a weekend excursion than almost any other circumstance.
I encourage everyone to try this type of traveling at some point in their life. Where the goal of the trip is not to seek something new, but rather to maintain something that is very precious.