About a decade ago, my husband and I took a trip that was part dream, part fantasy and entirely life-altering.
Some friends of ours were living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and one day, I was hit with the most undeniably grand idea that my husband and I should go visit them before they moved. I told my husband about my idea, and he was a little hesitant. I was pregnant with our first child — about four months along — and he had never been to Asia. Yet, here I was asking him to board a flight that was longer than 20 hours and fly to a country he knew nothing about for thousands of dollars.
Despite his initial reluctance, my husband went along with every single arrangement I made from flights to trains to hotels to sightseeing excursions, and when everything was said and done, he admitted it was worth it. On that trip, we summited one of the tallest buildings in the world, rode elephants, ate dinner by candlelight on the beach, snorkeled with black-tipped reef sharks and got red-cheeked and sweaty as we gulped down deliciously spicy local cuisine off of a wide, flat, banana leaf. We visited mosques and open markets, rode in a bi-prop plane that had at least a 60 percent chance of crashing, got ripped off by a taxi driver, got sick, lost, tired, hot and frustrated. But in the end, it opened our minds, expanded our experiences and drew us closer as a couple.
It's hard to say how much it's worth to be able to tell our children about seeing that reef shark or to imagine that beach at Bagus Place when life is stressful, but I'd say the cost of an airplane ticket comes pretty close.
So about a year ago, I started planning another part dream, part fantasy, life-altering trip that I thought would be hard but worth it. This time, the stakes were higher. The cost was higher. Everything was higher. We were going to take our three children to Alaska.
Again, my husband was somewhat reluctant, but I remembered our trip to Malaysia and I waited for him to come around. I scheduled plane tickets and boat rides and hikes and rental cars, and occasionally my husband would look over at my computer screen and see the total on the receipt and he would pause, as his heart nearly stopped, and say something about what else we could do with that money.
I carried on, planning glacier cruises, river rides, a visit to the IdidaRide husky dogs in Seward, and as the totals flashed on my screen, the other ways we could spend that money, as my husband would say, grew in proportion. I waited for him to come around, but I admit, even I was starting to wonder if I was being wise.
Would it have been better to buy a new kitchen table instead?
Eventually, we made our way to The Final Frontier, and the adventure began. We watched sea otters play in kelp, witnessed a real-life chainsaw carving competition, saw red salmon fling themselves over and over against insurmountable boulders in an attempt to get upstream, and we saw the blue-green glow of our first glacier within an hour of our arrival to the state. We saw tufted puffins on their turf, and I huddled with my 6-year-old son on the bow of a ship as it heaved in the waves and rain as we waited for a humpback whale to break through the water and expose the entire length of its back and fluke of its tail as it dived back down.
On that trip, we saw a disappearing glacier, ate burgers and fries in an old bus and braved the rain every day. My mind will go back to the sight of a hundred white birds floating on the wind in front of a mile-high waterfall into glacial green waters when it wants to take a break from the beach in Malaysia and the stresses of life. On the last day of the trip, my husband took a picture of my sons sitting in a raft as they watched bald eagles nesting in the branches above and a bear swimming beside us. In the end, that photo and the look on their faces said a thousand words — an opus about how they grew, a poem about how we came together, a book of stories to tell around the dinner table. It was enough to inspire my husband, last week, to come around and admit it was all worth it after all.
Research shows experiences are more valuable to humans than objects, but I wasn't sure why until now. According to a 2014 article in The Atlantic written by James Hamblin, humans are happier when they have something to anticipate, something to imagine.
"Looking back on purchases made, experiences make people happier than do possessions," Hamblin wrote. "It's the fleetingness of experiential purchases that endears us to them. … Our memories and stories of them get sweet with time. Even a bad experience becomes a good story."
And so, in another 10 years, it will be time for another epic trip. By then, the old kitchen table may be more rickety and uglier than ever, but the stories we'll tell around it will be a thing of beauty.