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The Power of Reflection: Pushing Pause so we can Move Forward

I'm not wired to slow down. But my 8-year-old son is. How do we make time to think and reflect—opportunities absent from today’s hard-driven, ambitious workforce—given the urgency of the challenges faced by our planet and its people? Here's how I am learning from my son to push pause, so I can move forward.

Nearly every day of my professional life, I’ve thought: I don’t have enough time to think, reflect, or process. At work we’re conditioned to double down and drive forward—especially those of us working in sustainability—because the urgency of the challenges faced by our planet and its people can’t wait. Even on our five-week road trip adventure, we were constantly on the move. I’m not wired to slow down. But my 8-year-old old son is.

When we hike, K lags way behind me (sometimes 50-100 yards behind me), his fingers dancing in front of his chest, and his mind whirling, as he weaves and slowly skips along the trail. At first, I was irritated by this drunken sailor version of hiking because I assumed he was lollygagging. On purpose! Resisting the healthy clip at which I wanted to move.

Let’s go, Little Man. We’ve only gone about a mile. We’ve got a long way still to hike today.

I could hear a soft “chi, chi” from his lips as he wiggled down the trail. When I’d stop at a big bend, or crest to wait, I’d watch. He was lost in thought; happy in a world of his own. He wasn’t dawdling to spite me. He was thinking. Playing out scenarios in his head for the games he wants to create. He was breathing in all the things I love about being alone in nature. It creates a space for my mind to ebb and flow.

I watched as my son allowed the forest to work its magic. The first few hikes, I worried I was too far ahead. We discussed the importance of staying on the trail. Of never, ever, wandering off if, somehow, he lost his way. I made sure he could find and use his whistle to call for help.

Eventually, I stopped worrying and walked the pace I wanted to walk. When I got too far ahead, I stopped. He caught up. We braked for water, or a granola bar. Digging our toes into the sand, or soaking our feet in the cold lake or river below. 

For decades, walking has been my road to thinking clearly. It is a gift that allows space for reflection and it is where my ideas are born. My favorite place in the world isn’t physical. It exists on any road or a trail covered with trees. Legs and mind moving forward. Ideally, I am alone. In COVID-19 time, ideal is not real. I’m on this journey with a partner. And he’s searching for something too. 

As we rounded into week three of our camping and hiking journey, we quite literally reached the apex of our trip, and turned around. We’d traveled as far north as we could legally go. I chartered a small boat to motor us out around Washington’s San Juan Islands, just inches from the Canadian border, and watched eight bald eagles and a host of sea lions cock their heads our way. 

“A teenager!” K exclaimed, peering through my dad’s old #Swarovski binoculars.

Indeed, he’d spotted a juvenile eagle sitting with his mom, I’m sure, watching us, watching him. 

Our guide, Captain Patrick Burns, half smiled, let the Grady White idle for a second, and then fired it up and turned left towards Waldron Island (population +/- 120). Waldron is off the grid, Patrick explained. Its residents keep to themselves, and buying property on the island is challenging. 

Patrick was an international equity trader in Chicago, he said, when he lost a friend to cancer and decided to make a change. He quit his job, moved to Orcas, hooked up with a friend, and bought an old U.S. Fish and Wildlife patrol vessel, the USFS Pelican

USFS Pelican. Photo: Captain Patrick Burns.

K and I had kayaked past the immaculately restored ninety-year-old boat in Deer Harbor just a few days earlier. Commissioned by the United States Bureau of Fisheries in 1930, she served with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1940 – 1956 as a research vessel.

At the time, I had no idea about the boat’s connection to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, where my dad spent the majority of his career before he died of cancer. But I’d been thinking of him, still. He’d spent weeks at a time alone, counting seabirds on the San Juan Islands when he worked with the Service in Olympia. My mom said it would take him several days to acclimate once he got home.

Having quiet time alone to think is something I crave deeply, and, post COVID-19, simply haven’t achieved. Even on the edge of the ocean, or deep in the woods on our hikes, we were never alone.

With Patrick, we were silent as we drifted with the current, listening for and watching the eagles. When K started to shiver, I added another layer to his mittens and rain coat. Patrick nodded and turned the engine once more. We were pushing time to get to the dock on Orcas Island so we could board our ferry to Anacortes, Washington. We had only a few more minutes before it was time to go.

Reflection time’s over. We’ve got to move.

Field Notes:

Port Townsend, Washington

After lunch in Sequim where much of my great grandmother’s family resides, we crested one of the larger, forested hills and rolled into Port Townsend with a smile. We were so close to Orcas Island; we could smell it! Here’s where we would catch a ferry to Whidbey Island, and then another to Orcas Island. We stood, lopsided on a

stony, rocked shore as we watched a sea otter bob and proudly shake her fish.

Downtown Port Townsend is straight up charming. And while not all of its shops were open, Nifty Fifties Soda Fountain was a hit. Hamburger, fries, and a root beer float to go, please. I was still content living from our cooler at this point, so we sat with my turkey sandwich and K’s burger at an outdoor picnic table along the seaside, watching couples zoom their dinghies to shore from the massive sail boats. It was heartening to see that #BlackLivesMatter in Port Townsend, with a mural that marked the entrance to Pope Marine Park, and an installation honoring black and indigenous communities in Washington and across the globe. 

On the ferry to Whidbey Island, my car battery died. Because of COVID-19, the ferry rules are that you must stay in your car. You can briefly leave if you need to use the rest room, but gone are the days of hanging out on the top deck to take in the views. I had the key in the ignition while we were idling so K could watch something on the iPad. When the ferry personnel started to move traffic, I heard that all-familiar and stomach-churning tick-tick-tick as I turned the key. I jumped out of the truck and flagged down an operator, all while hollering at the driver behind me that I’d killed my battery. Before my line of cars began to push off the ferry, the staff gave my car a jump. An engineer took one look at my corroded battery terminals and told me to head into the shop. He might not have been much older than I am, but he landed a “dad look” that was somehow 100 percent concerned and zero percent condescending.

Ferry Engineer: Get this battery looked at, okay? Right away.

Me: Yes, Sir. Thank you for the jump.

Ferry Engineer: Right away. It doesn’t look good.

Me: Phhhfffff…(Que air deflating noise.)

After we disembarked in Coupeville, I drove around the marina, pits sweating. We both had to use the restroom. I was afraid to kill the engine in case my battery died again. What are the odds someone will carjack my car in this rural marina with my kid inside while I use the restroom? With no boat on the hitch, close to zero, I figured. I parked and negotiated with K. 

Me: Bud. Hey. Bud?

K: Uh, Yeah? (Oblivious to the fact that we just had a mortifying experience on the ferry where his mom, again, exposed herself as a rookie traveler.)

Me: I’m going to run in and use the restroom here, but I need to keep the car running to save the battery. The doors will be locked. You need to unlock the doors when I’m back, and don’t let anyone in, okay? Do you know how to unlock the doors?

K: Uh…Yeah.

Two minutes pass.

Me: K. Lemme in. (Knocking on his window.)

K: (Smiling, and shrugging, while definitely NOT moving to unlock the doors.) Mom, you said not to let anyone in! Are you sure it’s safe to let you in?


Oak Harbor, Whidbey Island, Washington

A sheriff deputy, who just happened to be circling the Coupeville marina, (See? I told you it was safe!) told me to head to Les Schwab in Oak Harbor so I could get my battery checked. After about an hour, and mad thanks to fellow fan of The Goonies, Sean at Les Schwab, I had clean and safe battery terminals, and recommendations on our next camping spots.  

Orcas Island, Washington

We arrived a few hours early to check into the only VRBO of our trip, so we hung out along the shore of East Sound, scavenging for flat-topped porcelain crabs. This is the last image I have of K’s flip flops before they disappeared with the tide. Given that the water was approximately one inch deep, it seems nearly impossible to me that they were washed away. But they were. He searched. I searched. I went back the next day to scour the tide line. Nothing. I wondered if we’d somehow just misplaced them until I found an image and video of our arrival with the flips in the shot. After months of me manically sanitizing every surface we touched, K walked the 0.5 miles or so back to the car on sidewalk and asphalt barefoot.

Just don’t put your feet in your mouth, kid.

We stayed in a hand-crafted log cabin not far from the ferry terminal. While the exteriors of the island are heavily forested, much of the interior has been cleared for agriculture. The roads from the ferry to East Sound are dotted with cherry, apple, and lavender farms. Our VRBO house was huge. Tons of windows, firewood, flowers, and gardens. We lugged K’s football, baseballs, mitt, bat, and some plastic practice balls thousands of miles. Orcas Island was our first chance to play ball.

I’d spoken with several friends about the ocean currents around the San Juan’s. They were in agreement that novice open water kayakers should consider a guide. Our #VRBO house manager, Sherri, recommended Shearwater Adventures, and we booked a three-hour guided paddle out of Deer Harbor. With a child, tandem kayaks are the only option for rentals. After several years of rowing in #Orangetheory, I thought I was conditioned to paddle open water. It wasn’t enough. While much of the trip was calm, when we hit the rapids of the ocean currents, I was glad to have an extra set of motivated arms. Thank you, K.

At low-tide in East Sound, you can hike to Indian Island, where we hit to ochre star jackpot. We hopped across the bigger rocks and mined the tide pools for marine life. We must have spotted 500 sea stars in an hour.

Moran State Park, Orcas Island, Washington

Spanning more than 5,400 acres, Moran welcomes campers, kayakers, and swimmers to its five lakes and 38 miles of hiking trails. Many of its trails and structures were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. Rich purple foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) grows wild across the meadows here. We hiked a four-mile loop around Mountain Lake on a path flanked by redcedar, lodgepole pine, Western hemlock and Douglas-fir. Mountain Lake and the loop trail were much less crowded than Cascade Lake, located the base of the park. K took a short swim after our hike. Biggest bummer of this visit was that another driver backed into my SUV in the trail head parking lot. No note. Just a series of dents, long scratches, and remnant blue paint. 

I’m on a 30+-day camping and hiking trip with my 8-year-old son along the Pacific Coast. This means that for the first time since high school, I am officially not working. Harvard Business Review assures us resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure. We’ll see.

Miles Traveled: +/-2,200­

To catch up on our journey, here are the posts from Week 1 and Week 2.


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