Vacation or Necessity? Family travel matters, either way

It’s been a strange summer of firsts and lasts, of accomplishment and utter exhaustion, which is why I’m only getting to this story now, at the end of August. AK Kid – who recently announced he doesn’t want me to call him that anymore – graduated 8th grade in May and promptly jetted off to Germany for a cultural exchange with his language immersion school classmates. I got to travel alone for what initially was a much-anticipated, hardly-ever occurring series of opportunities that once I began them were not nearly as much fun as they could have been with my people along for the ride. For a family travel journalist, there wasn’t much actual family travel. Until a few weeks ago. 

Image courtesy the Kirkland family.

I’ve often said to people that the toughest part about living in Alaska is the sheer vastness of mileage between us and family in the Lower 48, particularly as our parents and grandparents age. For the past several years, vacations to a stretch of Pacific Northwest from Bellingham, Washington to Portland, Oregon are rushed affairs designed to squeeze in the most family fun and parental check-ins as possible in a seemingly-impossible period of time. Over the last 24 months, in particular, it became even more important as my father-in-law reached the age of 100, then 101. A World War II veteran of the submarine service and career Navy man, he was one of just under 500,000 US veterans of WWII still part of our living history at the beginning of 2019, with stories to tell and wisdom to impart. 

But then he was gone. My husband’s family, our family, would gather to honor his service, his accomplishments, and each other, and we needed to be there. 

Oh yes, it’s conceptually easy to travel from Alaska to Portland any time of year; the difference is whether one wants to spend just a lot of money, or a ridiculous amount of money, multiplied by two (plus one from Denver to Portland). My son had just begun fall cross-country practice and we were due on board an UnCruise vessel two days after our proposed return. One of our two dogs is himself reaching the age of ‘oldest old’ and needs near-constant support. Details, money, time. Could we do it? 

Alaska Airlines Companion Fares came to our rescue; the cross-country coach was sympathetic; two dog sitters worked out a schedule among themselves; and flights meshed well enough to give us an entire two days at home to regroup before flying to Juneau and the boat. 

We drove to Seaside, Oregon on a hot Portland morning, preparing to meet up with the rest of the family for a short ceremony in the water, because, really, where would a Chief of the Boat wish to be delivered from his earthly body than upon the foam of the Pacific Ocean? 

Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

It was beautiful. Great-grandchildren ran and shouted and jumped in the waves, my brother-in-law’s Labradoodle pranced right in the middle of the ash-dispensing, and the sun peeked out from behind a typical Oregon coast marine layer. After, once he saw the tears in his father’s eyes and the shaking of his shoulders, our teenager splashed through the incoming tide to stand close, one arm draped across shoulders he now nearly meets equally. 

Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

That afternoon and evening, the Kirkland clan drank Scottish whisky, pored over old photographs, and listened to my nephew strum memories on a guitar in front of a roaring bonfire. We had not all been together in one place, talked about so many things, or laughed so hard through tears, in a long time. 

Willamette National Cemetery back in Portland would be the next day’s destination for the pomp and circumstance of military honors befitting a man who joined the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed. There would be a bagpiper, sons and grandsons in MacGregor tartan kilts, and the playing of ‘Taps.’ 

There were legacies preserved, and new ones inspired through place, people, and a host of recollections. 

Many years ago, a family friend of my father’s passed away and we made the trip from Seattle to Portland to attend her memorial service. After the traditional Catholic Mass, and as my brother, sister, and I were preparing to make our way back to busy 20-something lives three hours north, my dad walked with us to the car. 

“Now do you see why I wanted you to be here today?” he asked, gesturing back to the house filled with sadly joyous mourners sipping coffee and telling stories inside. “I wanted you to see how important these people are. You probably won’t see them all together again, and I wanted you to really know.” 

Family travel is also THIS. Relationships, remembering, and honoring. 

May we never forget it. 

Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO




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