I passed New Year's Eve in the only occupied room at the Inn, the space unheated and so sending me under an incredibly thick comforter, a bare light bulb for illumination, the adjoining bath with a cold water sink and the "toilet" a porcelain lined depression in the floor. Sharing the room with me were my two twenty-something sons, uncharacteristically in bed and asleep before the midnight that marks the beginning of the new year.
We were the only non-Asians in the village in rural southern China and the accommodations were standard and welcome. There were no vehicles and no roads after a two hour ride in the hired taxi brought us to the outskirts. We had climbed the steep footpaths to the Inn, backpacks in place, enjoyed a sublime yet simple dinner on a rustic patio overlooking terraced hills and toasted, with bottles of local beer, my late parents whose bequest to me financed our trip. When darkness arrived there was nothing better to do than go to bed.
I slept well.
Inability to speak Chinese had not deterred my younger son from accepting a job teaching in Shanghai after college graduation. His time there was a happy one, and in anticipation of the end of his teaching year he thought to travel about, comfortable with the level of Mandarin Chinese he could now command. On a call home he asked that I travel to China so that we might explore it together.
What a wonderful expression of his regard for me that was. My extreme delight that he would wish me along did not prevent me from declining. I was in pretty good health for having entered my sixties but that was the point; I was in my sixties and thought I would slow him down or be a burden. He was not satisfied with that explanation and when he returned home for a brief Christmas visit continued to try to persuade me, finally relenting when I pointed out that my own folks were quite frail and failing and that while I might be willing to travel in America where I could be contacted and home within a day, travel to parts of China would not do -- just in case.
As he planned, he travelled through China for a number of weeks, sometimes alone, sometimes with others he met along the way, took marvelous photographs, ate new foods, climbed mountains, saw wonderful things. Following his meanderings in China he returned home. Listening to his descriptions and seeing his photos I thought that he had done things that I could not and so was happy I had not been there to hamper his activities or alter his goals.
After a time he returned to China to work at a consulting firm. Then graduate school in America followed, and while there, an autumn phone call to me. He told me that he and his brother planned a trip to China over the New Year break.
"That's great! You guys will have a wonderful time."
"And you're going with us."
"No, I'm not."
My folks had died since the proposal a few years earlier but I could again only imagine myself slowing down or hindering two vigorous young men, best friends as well as brothers. Their time together, having become less frequent with adulthood, jobs, and marriage of the older should be, I thought, a wonderful thing unimpeded by the presence of an old duffer who would simply be unable to keep up.
Conversations with the boys and with their mom, my wife of four decades, eventually convinced me that their wish to have me along was quite important to them. Agreeing to go and excited to share an adventure with the boys, I knew that while I was in good health, I had best get as fit as I could so as to slow them down as little as possible, to be as little a burden. In addition to the usual exercise, I spent time squatting -- I was advised that bathroom facilities where we might go would require such. The ability to squat comfortably for a certain length of time was a goal. Most important, I thought, was to not lose balance on standing back up.
By the time of our scheduled departure I had provisioned myself with what was suggested and all fit into the backpack I would carry. I hoped that I was personally hale enough. And then we were off to the other side of the world.
It was the trip of a lifetime. Best of all was the time in the small towns and rural areas, watching my son chat with the locals and bargain with the taxi driver, stopping at roadside stands, enjoying the wonderful food, especially the street food, and meeting people kind and friendly.
I kept up. I was not a burden. After the most vigorous day, climbing the steep paths though the terraced hills, my son confessed that he had brought along from home a "space blanket" to keep me warm while he went for help should I have difficulty; the blanket went unused. He admitted he had expected that he would be carrying my pack for a portion of the trip. But I had needed no assistance.
My squatting days are since passed. My memory of the trip is clear and sweet. I had discussed my quandary about participating with my closest friend, our friendship half a century long. During that talk I recalled when he lived in Alaska and took his dad, who at the time lived in the lower forty-eight and was about my current age, on a fishing trip. Both dad and friend were serious fishermen and my friend arranged for them to fly in to an otherwise inaccessible remote area. They camped and caught a number of very large salmon, a fisherman's dream. I remarked that I would have loved to have been able to take my dad on some comparable adventure.
"Yes," my best friend said, "and if you go with your kids they will not only be giving you a great gift, but you will be giving one to them."
Originally published in Meat for Tea: The Valley Review.