What would you do if you found a stuffed animal, in a tree, on the side of a road, that had the following note attached to its collar:
This belonged to baby James who passed away Dec. 31, 2012. Take it on your journey with you – wherever you may go.
Would you take it with you? Would you leave it for someone else?
On January 20th, 2013 my friend, Joe, and I pulled off Highway 1 to take a photo in front of the “Welcome to Oregon” sign. I had been living out this van, and off of donations, for nearly 18 months at that point – attempting to live out a dream of my own: to visit all 50 states while also aiming to eat at and write about every single vegan restaurant in the United States.
During the entirety of my road trip I had yet to take such a photo since I was almost exclusively traveling alone. But I was eager to get to Oregon. After a beautiful coastal drive through northern California, and with the rare time of having a friend with me, we chose to stop here for a classic photo sesh.
Joe snapped my pic and then we traded places, and I took his. As I walked away I caught a glimpse of something in the trees. I thought maybe it was a shirt that someone had left there so I kept walking. I climbed back into the van scanning my new pictures for the best one to share on Instagram. I looked up and Joe motioned for me to come back out. He was standing among the trees now, just off the clearing. I walked over and he pointed at the shirt in the tree. “Look,” he said. I stepped closer and as my eyes adjusted I realized that it wasn’t a shirt at all, not even clothing. It was a teddy bear. All of a sudden the air felt still. I walked closer and noticed a note pinned to the bear’s collar:
Before I could process what was happening I looked back at Joe. “Should we take him?” I asked. Without hesitation Joe said, “yes absolutely. He was meant for you.” I took a deep breath and gently removed James from the tree branch. I brought him inside the van and noticed that he wasn’t weathered at all. The teddy’s coat was soft and glistening. He must have only been there for a short while.
Lesson # 1: Always take note of your surroundings.
I’ve only ever heard this lesson as a means to caution others about potential enemies (“be aware of your surroundings”). After relying wholly on the kindness of complete strangers throughout the duration of my road trip, while traveling primarily alone, I can honestly say that most people are good people. If you choose to be emotionally or physically closed off to seeing these beautiful souls as you pass, perhaps on a daily basis—like, during your commute to work—then you might share some missed opportunities to meet people who could possibly change your life.
Everyday take time to be mentally still. As you walk or drive around, use all of your senses to take everything in. Look people in the eye and smile as you pass. Hold the door open. Be observant and helpful when you can. And remember to always look up and around. You never know what might be waiting for you.
I took a few photos of James to document the day that we met, and put together the above collage. I shared it with my friends on Facebook and Instagram. The responses were more than overwhelming (click here to read the responses from the original Facebook post, and here on Instagram).
A few days later I was in touch with James’ family and learned that they had taken a road trip, shortly after James’ passing. They left behind a number of his stuffed animals throughout their journey in hopes that others would find them, and take them along on their travels.
Lesson # 2: Absorb the pain of others.
When we hear about painful situations that others are experiencing it can be very emotional because we feel deeply for them and in some ways might be grateful that we aren’t experiencing the same agony. ‘Things could always be much worse’ than your current situation, right? But what would happen if instead of being thankful it’s not us, we tried to alleviate that suffering of others.
Here’s how you can:
Extend your thoughts and concerns to other people whose discomfort you know or can feel. Take a deep breath in with the wish that all of us could be free of this particular pain. Then slowly breath out, sending ourselves and others thoughts of whatever relief we think might help. “Through this practice we are able to appreciate the basic goodness of ourselves and others. We’re more able to appreciate the potential of all kinds of people: those we find pleasant, those we find unpleasant, and those we don’t even know” – Pema Chödrön
Lesson # 3: Acknowledge and be grateful for all things.
Do you remember the very first book you read? What about your first kiss? Did your parents ever tell you what your first word was? What about your favorite movie – what is it? Do you love the textured, green smell that fills the air from a freshly mowed lawn as much as I do? The difference between beach sun and city sun, arguing with your parents, making and losing friends, walking across campus to your first college class, the first crazy snowfall of each season, being too nervous to raise your hand in class, or what about signing the lease of your first apartment.
These seemingly simple, individual things make up the whole of our lives. This is who you are. Revel in both the happy and sad experiences. These small things have shaped you. Be grateful that you had and continue to have the ability to understand, and know what these things look, sound, smell, touch, and taste like. Not everyone gets that chance. Love that you do.
Since then James and I have shared some wonderful adventures! We visited the Herbivore Clothing Company in Portland, Oregon; stayed overnight at Someday Farm B&B on Whidbey Island in Freeland, WA; filmed a music video in Oakland, CA; hiked the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon; and made it all the way back to New York.
During my drive to the Grand Canyon I also took a pic of James by the “Welcome to Arizona” sign and shared that on the Will Travel For Vegan Food social media pages as well (screen capture below). The next morning, after our hike in the Grand Canyon I noticed that someone had shared that photo. Along with that share they wrote the following:
What happened After James left us? We were devastated as a family. The unthinkable had happened. How could we cope with it? How could my daughter and her husband cope with knowing her son would never have a life, never see the ocean or a forest or a lake. Right after the funeral she packed up a bag of his toys and took a trip. She and her husband just drove as far from the sadness they could get… to where?? Grand canyon was on the destination list then it changed to the opposite direction. Portland. To Portland then home. She took James spirit with her on her first trip away from home since he was born, she knew he was with her and she packed up his stuffed animals and fastened a little note to each. Stopping a leaving them to be found and taken to even more destinations James would never see in life. They were found and James is seeing the world. Guess where his Teddy was headed today…. The Grand Canyon… I guess James really wanted to go there after all. – James’ Grandmother
Lesson #4: Become comfortable with uncertainty.
Through routine we attempt to control what we cannot. We seek predictability and security in our daily routines out of fear of the unknown. But uncertainty is most certainly unavoidable. Not knowing isn’t “half the battle,” but part of the adventure! Embrace this reality as a positive. Becoming comfortable with the unknown is scary, for sure but once you break through the first iteration and into fearlessness you’ll find that you grow stronger and more adventursome. It’s a powerful and beautiful way to view your life and the lives of others. Nothing is by chance. All things (that can feel good and feel bad) happen to and with and for us because they are necessary and important. Accept, learn, grow, and venture on.
Even if things don’t go as planned you’ll end up exactly where you were meant to be.
5. You have the ability to change the lives of people you may never meet.
I have never met James. I have never even met his family but I do stay in touch with them. We’re all Facebook friends – me, James, his mom, his grandmom, and even his aunts. We’re all connected now because of James.
This experience alone has brought new meaning to my travels, to my family, and to my life. The moment I set that teddy bear on the dashboard of the van my entire perspective shifted in a massive way. Hundreds of people have since been moved by James’ story and his ability to carry on and continue his journey, all while bringing others together.
So remember to look around, be observant, remain open, practice alleviating the pain of others when you can, be grateful for both the happy and sad things, and become comfortable with uncertainty because you just never know how or why or when your life could change, or in what ways you could change the lives of others.
James’s teddybear is still in my care here, in NYC and will be making an appearance at my end-of-road-trip party this August. Come say hi and meet the stuffed animal that changed my life.
I am immensely grateful to my dear friend Joe, for introducing me to James. If he wasn’t with me on that remarkable day I might never have this incredible story to share with you all. James, thank you for coming into my life. I’m honored that you’ve chosen me and look forward to more adventures together.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Kristin Lajeunesse has been traveling around the US since September 2011, in an effort to eat at and write about every single vegan establishment she can find. Kristin is also a lifestyle and business coach, specializing in helping others discover how to earn a living doing exactly what they love. Follow her foodie travels and business adventures on Will Travel For Vegan Food.com