I wrote this a while ago but held off posting it. Now, on the eve of starting my journey West, this feels like the right story to share…
I didn’t know Tyler well but we were a part of the same family of sorts in college. A really rambunctious, adventuresome family — known affectionately as “PWild” — that loved to take incoming freshmen backpacking every fall.
I got my first taste of PWild as a nervous, wide-eyed freshmen in 2003 when they bused us off to the wild woods of Kentucky to hike around for a week. I came back dirty, confident, and with the key to fall quarter freshmen happiness: friends.
I was hooked, became a counselor, and was out in the woods every fall for three more years to help a bunch of really great kids jump start their own college experiences.
PWild was more than just these trips to me. It became my lifeline in college. It was my bat phone to like-minded, loving-life people who knew when to take a break, when to get serious, when to reflect, and when you were in need of just a really good big spoon. It’s also the family that showed me what a marvelous place the woods can be and how it can open you up in ways that is sometimes harder to do in the day-to-day spaces of life.
This spring brought devastating news that Tyler, a former PWild counselor too, had died in a sailing accident. Words can’t really express how news like that hits you. The overwhelming feeling was this: “please no, not Tyler.”
Because Tyler was special. He was warm, fun, smart, strong, handsome, and wise. Most importantly, he was someone who, in the instant you met, you knew had a grasp on life. He found joy in everything and everyone. And it radiated out through his big smile — one friend called it his “soul shine.”
He touched many. This was never more evident than in Chicago last May when many of his friends and family came together to lean on each other and to remember and celebrate a wonderful man.
There are many things that stand out about that day in May. The beautiful testaments to his character. The stories from close friends. The “shake-down” we all did in one big circle — a throw back to the warm up we’d do in PWild before hitting the trail — to honor Tyler. But there’s one moment that feels especially like a gift, hand-wrapped by him, with a note that reads “here’s my secret.”
It’s a story from his friend Meredith. And that’s this: anywhere he’d go, Tyler would say “it’s a great place to meet someone.” He’d say it going into ordinary situations that most of us wouldn’t even think to look forward to — like a grocery store or an airplane. But he’d go and come away with an amazing connection. He’d turn strangers into friends.
I don’t know why but, these past months, Tyler’s phrase just has spoken so loudly to me. It’s strengthened my resolve to lead a fuller life; to have a curiosity about the world around me and the people in it — and to act on that curiosity and to see where it takes me.
In Alaska this summer, on the coast in Seward, it took me into a local bar where I sat at the counter and got to know Malcom, sitting next to me. Malcom went from a stranger to a hiking buddy to one of the most generous people I have ever met as he gave me his sailboat to live on for a week and stocked the fridge with all the beer a girl could want.
It stuck with me on the flight back to Chicago as I turned to the woman next to me and found out she was flying on to New England where she lives just 20 minutes north of where I grew up in western Massachusetts and told me I should “stop by for a visit sometime!”.
And here tonight, in sleepy rural New Hampshire, the back dirt road became another great place to meet someone. I was out for a twilight run up the hill where I’ve seen plenty of cows but never a person and all of a sudden a woman comes jogging down it. We stop and marvel because, it appears, we both have never seen anyone on the road with us and of course it turns out that she knows my aunt and asks about my cousin who went to school with her twin boys.
It’s in these moments that you realize the humanness of those around you — that they are not all just characters in your own story but living, breathing protagonists of their own. And that it is worth breaking away from your routine or your skepticism or judgement or fear to hear those stories, to make a connection, and to feel like maybe we aren’t so untethered in this world after all.
I don’t know how to thank Tyler for this gift. I wish more than anything that we all could tell him face to face how much he’s touch our lives. But all I can do is take this gift of his and try to live it everyday. And I can say this: the times I’ve made an effort to see the opportunity in everything and to meet someone new have truly shown me the sweeter side of life.
My thoughts go out to all he touched and I hope that by writing this, even those who never knew him, can take his secret to heart and see the world anew.
Let your soul shine, / It’s better than sunshine, / It’s better than moonshine, / Damn sure better than rain. / Yeah now people don’t mind, / We all get this way sometimes, / Gotta let your soul shine, shine till the break of day.