It wasn’t one of my better days. I was 2000 miles into my bicycle tour. I was in Yellowstone National Park and there were more people and rented RVs than I cared to deal with. This was not my idea of how to enjoy nature. I had just sat elbow to elbow on a crowded bench watching Old Faithful erupt. When it was over all I could think about was riding hard and fast to get out of there. It was one of the very few times of my 3600 mile trip that I wasn’t happy. On my hasty exit of the park I passed up seeing nearly all the geysers and scenery that people from around the globe travel to see. I didn’t care. I just wanted away from the crowds and the traffic.
Suddenly as I rode, a bright orange object caught my eye. It was an orange dragonfly on a near collision course with me. As I watched it pass barely two feet in front of me it triggered a flood of thoughts and emotions. I had only seen one other before and it was in my brother’s back yard.
When my brother Dean was dying of cancer he found solace in his backyard that he named Shangri-La. He and his partner Randel had built a large deck and a large water garden there. In between trips to doctors and treatment centers he would take great joy in simply sitting on the deck and observing nature as presented in a backyard ecosystem.
Besides the goldfish and birds, there were butterflies, chameleons, honey bees, and dragonflies. In many of our conversations Dean would shift from the topic of his illness to the activity centered on the water garden. Most of the time he talked about the chameleons but from time to time he was quite excited to tell me about an occasional bright orange dragonfly. On many of my visits I would sit with him and observe as we talked. Most of the time we watched the birds and the chameleons but one sunny day I finally saw one of the orange dragonflies he had been so excited about. It was a brilliant orange. It was so bright in the sunshine that it seemed to glow. It was remarkable.
Prior to his illness my brother had little time for such simple things. He was several years past eligibility for retirement but kept working because as he put it he didn’t know what he would do. So it was extraordinary when Dean slowed down and began to notice and enjoy the simpler things in life. At Dean’s funeral Randle spoke of this. He stated that in the last 6 months of his life Dean “had learned to slow down and notice things like… orange dragonflies.” Randel’s words seemed to really stick with me.
Shortly after Dean died I quit my job. I had watched friends and co-workers work their lives away thinking and hoping that once they retired they could slow down and begin to enjoy life. By the time many of them reached retirement they were either dead or too ill to enjoy it. Long before Dean’s illness I had already been making plans to try to have some adventures before waiting for retirement. Dean knew of my plans and when he was diagnosed with cancer he began to strongly encourage me to put those plans in motion. “Go have your adventures now while you have your health” he would say, “You can get another job later”.
Not long after quitting my job I began a solo bicycle ride that would last two and a half months and take me through 8 states. My ride was never for the purpose of trying to find myself or the meaning of life. It wasn’t a pilgrimage nor was it a way to run away from anything. I simply wanted to have an adventure, and an adventure is what I truly had. I saw spectacular scenery that words and photographs can only weakly depict. I met many wonderful people and made new friends. Every day brought something new and exciting. I felt very alive!
There was another unanticipated benefit to my ride. It served me well in dealing with the death of my brother. There were times on stretches of long and lonely highway when there was only me and the occasional hawk or buzzard flying overhead. On those roads I sometimes reminisced about the good times Dean and I shared. The tears would flow freely, the wind and the sun dried them, and somehow I found much comfort in that. I felt close to my brother and was thankful that I had had him in my life. I was also thankful that he had encouraged me to seek my adventures but I wished that he had slowed down earlier in his life to have adventures of his own. Often I thought of the orange dragonflies that had captured Dean’s attention. Though, I mostly thought of them metaphorically and equated “noticing orange dragonflies” with “stopping to smell the roses”.
Had it hit me right between the eyes my attention to the orange dragonfly could not have been any more focused that day in Yellowstone. In an instant I felt that it’s timely appearance and near collision had some meaning, a sign, a message maybe. But what message? At the very least it served as a trigger in my mind to remind me to slow down and pay attention. I had been upset at the crowds and the traffic and I had allowed that to keep me from enjoying a truly spectacular national park. Maybe the thousands of people there didn’t share my view on how to enjoy nature but at least they were taking the time away from work to be there with their families. It was something Dean can’t do now and something I should have felt privileged to be doing.
I did slow down. Before I reached the exit to the park I tuned out the traffic and began taking in the scenery again. I stopped to photograph a bald eagle sitting beside a stream and later an elk grazing just feet from where I stood with my bike. Still, I wondered if there was something else, something more to the orange dragonfly encounter. Over the next 1600 miles of my trip there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t wonder if there was more to that encounter that I should understand. I couldn’t shake it.
My trip took me from my home in Oklahoma, through Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon. When I reached Oregon I had a short visit with some family there. Before going home I got back on my bike and rode down the Oregon Coast and into California. On the last day of my ride I met a young woman who was on a bike tour of her own and riding the same road as myself. We had the usual exchange of information that travelers usually share. Her name was Vanessa and she was riding from her home in Vancouver British Columbia and would finish her trip in San Francisco. As we continued to ride she began to tell me about her trip and what it meant to her.
Vanessa explained that she and her fiancé had planned it two years earlier but before they could take the trip he was killed in a plane crash. She talked a lot about how close they were, about his career as a commercial pilot and the events that led to the crash. She told me how after two years the trip was helping her to put some closure to his death and was helping her to feel better about moving on. In turn I told her how my trip was helping me to grieve for my brother’s death, about how the lonely highways seemed to help. She told me how there were times on her trip that things were hard for her and she wanted to quit. Then she would remember the things her fiancé used to say to her in those situations. His words would challenge and motivate her to keep going. She said it almost as if he were there with her on the trip helping her to ride on.
By then we had stopped at a scenic overlook and were eating our snacks. With some hesitation I began to tell her about the orange dragonfly. Until then I hadn’t told anyone about it because I was still trying to understand it myself. I began by saying that I too had had an experience on my trip relating to my brother that had encouraged me. I stated that I didn’t know whether I believed there was anything mystical about dragonflies but… And with the mention of dragonflies her jaw dropped and she said “I can’t believe you are about to tell me about dragonflies”. We both paused and then she said “Some people believe they are mystical.” She said she had an experience with them also but insisted I continue what I was saying first.
I told her the significance of the orange dragonflies in relation to my brother and how the encounter with the one in Yellowstone had certainly gotten my attention. I told her what I thought it meant but that I felt there was still more I didn’t understand. Then she told me there were many times spent with her fiancé where they enjoyed the presence of dragonflies. Since his death seeing dragonflies brought back strong memories of him. After he died she spent some time in India where there were many dragonflies. She said it was as though she could feel his presence there with them. She said it left such an impression on her that she had a special tattoo done to honor and remember him by. It was a tattoo of a dragonfly with aviator wings.
I honestly don’t know the full meaning of what happened. I know there is something significant, maybe even mystical about my experiences with orange dragonflies now. Maybe it was simply to remind me to take the time to see the little things. Live in the present. Enjoy the wonders of life. Slow down to share something meaningful with a stranger. My feeling is that there is more to this, more to learn, more to benefit from and more to share. Maybe it’s my calling to keep riding. Keep seeking. Keep learning. There will be more adventures ahead and it’s my hope they will include orange dragonflies.