Deep silence and heavy fog engulf this historic Adirondack lake. The lonesome and eerie call of the loons echoes off the distant shore, creating a beautiful harmony. The skin on my bare feet meets the moisture of the fog surrounding the dock, and my arms are covered with goosebumps from the brisk morning air.
I’m in my happy spot, and these happy moments with loons, fog, distant purple mountains, and the gentle slosh of water nudging the old wooden dock are the reason I have gone to the trouble to be here each summer, without skipping a single one, for 30 years.
The Adirondacks are my muse, a place I started out not wanting to love because it meant accepting change and giving up a three-generation family home on a lake in Indiana. Now our presence here is three generations, and hopefully more to come.
The Long Trip
The journey was an unusual one this year. My boys and I left Austin on Monday, flying to Florida to assist in the cathartic process of purging my dad’s home of his belongings. We loaded his car with a truckload of old family heirlooms, like the 1890s-era camera he used to start his photography career and his favorite etching of Abraham Lincoln, along with some practical items and a few little memory jewels. Then we spent three days driving to New York, making only one impractical stop … a visit to the battlefields of Gettysburg. A must with teen boys who need to learn the sobering facts of thousands of boys their age who died there. We arrived here, in paradise,on Friday.
Grime and Dirt
In the past I’ve talked about the value of looking backward so you can see how far forward you’ve come. I was reminded of this on our trip when one late night, about 1 a.m., we pulled off I-95 at a small chain motel in hopes of a few hours’ rest. As we entered the hotel, the smell of mold violated our nostrils, and the layers of grime and dirt in the carpet made us want to sleep with our shoes on.
One son spoke up. “Dad, we can’t stay here. We can’t sleep in this.” And though I knew he was right, I also knew this was the last remaining room, with no prospects of any other. And instead of instantly giving into this moment of being spoiled or entitled (or perhaps just good practical taste), I decided to make it a learning moment.
“Boys, your mom and I have taken you to some pretty wonderful places, and when I’m with her or you kids, I’ve spent the extra money, when I could, to give you a really nice place to stay. But you should know that for 30 years, building my business, I’ve stayed in hundreds of rooms worse than this, in some very sketchy neighborhoods, because I could afford nothing more.”
Though I expected some sympathy, it kind of fell on deaf ears, but I’m hopeful it will sink in at some point.
Driving down the highway for long stretches of time, with the boys sleeping or playing on their phones, my mind wandered back over decades of memories of making sacrifices, and I realized just how special those memories are.
A Necessary Evil
One year I hired a sales guy named Dick Downes to fix my sales problems at my one and only magazine, The Pulse of Radio. He said, “Eric, you and I need to go on the road for two months straight. We need to go visit every potential advertiser, entertain them, share our vision, let them get to know you, and hope they buy something.”
The Big Road Trip
I immediately responded that we couldn’t possibly afford to do it. “You can’t afford not to do it,” he said. So we set off on a two-month trip, with a couple of visits home in between. I took my last $20,000 for the two of us to live on the road for two months. (Do the math: That’s $333 a day for two people, including meals, airfare, rental car, and 30 cities.) We called it the road trip from hell. We made an agreement that we would not invite any clients to meals, and we would not tell clients we were staying in horrible cockroach-ridden hotels and driving rent-a-wreck rental cars. We saw hundreds of people over two months.
How Did That Happen?
Toward the end of our tour, no business booked yet, knowing we were playing a long game, we needed to crack this one big client who was spending big money elsewhere. They insisted we meet for dinner, and they picked the most expensive restaurant in Washington, D.C. And they ordered the most expensive wine on the menu. The bill came to $600. Gulp.
When my credit card would not go through, the waiter tactfully approached the table and said, “Mr. Rhoads, you have a phone call.” (Remember, there were no cell phones.) I had to cut a deal to leave my watch there until I could send them the money (which I did). The client never had any idea. We said our goodbyes, went back to our room, and cut our trip short. I had to call my dad to borrow enough money for us to get home. Oh, and that client never spent a dime with us for years.
The good news is that the trip worked, and our business was eventually thriving. No one at the time knew we were faking it till we made it. We were not rolling in dough, but we had enough to survive.
More Pain, Please
One of the things I realized is that my boys need to have more experiences like this, and it’s important that they know that all my years away on business trips were not at some luxury hotel sipping martinis by the pool.
As I look back on the memories, it’s the struggle that makes me the most fulfilled. It’s hundreds of nights of not sleeping for fear someone was breaking into the motel room or car. It’s eating cans of tuna between meetings because we couldn’t afford lunch out. It’s not being able to pay the bills, and almost not making payrolls.
Though these don’t sound very wonderful (and they weren’t), it makes looking backward so much sweeter.
What would we have to look back at if everything had been perfect? Some of the best memories come from adversity, and all the best lessons come from the hardest moments.
What about your struggles? Which ones do you fondly cherish? (I’d love to hear about them in the comments.)
It seems there is a lot of focus on “the good life” and living well. And though it’s nice to eventually get there, life is sweeter when we struggle.
Many of my friends don’t want their kids to go through what they had to go through. Though I can appreciate that, and though I love my kids, I pray that they will have struggles (but live through them). They make for great memories, they build great character, and they keep us humble. How can that be a bad thing?
PS: In the pre-COVID era, I was out on 40 trips a year by air. It was too much, and now that I’ve mostly been home for a year, I’m not going to become addicted to travel again. My plan … fewer trips, but more meaningful trips.
One of my favorite weeks of the year, my Adirondack painters’ retreat, starts on June 12 as we celebrate our 10th year. It’s a fun week of painting. Everyone wants to get out now; we’re all ready to return to life again. There are still a few seats. Maybe you should join us. If not now, I’m doing it again this fall.
In August, join our worldwide pastel conference online. No travel required.
In September I have one seat left for my Russia trip. And about 20 left for my annual European art trip (collectors and art lovers).
It will be fun to get out again.