Monday, September 26, 2011


My grandfather died two years ago. My grandmother died this past May.

My uncle from Japan visited here in May. It was good to see him; I hadn't seen him for nearly 20 years. He was one of my favorite uncles when I was a kid -- about 10 years older than me, and about 10 years younger than my mom, he was old enough to drive and young enough to be lots of fun.

My uncle from Texas visited here in August. It was good to see him, too; I hadn't seen him for about 20 years, either. He was another of my favorite uncles when I was a kid, a year apart in age from my favorite uncle from Japan, and also lots of fun. He plays the guitar and sings (has made money at it, at times over the years) and even taught my son a couple of chords on the guitar while he was here.

My grandparents raised good kids. Both of my "favorite uncles" were kind and playful and funny, and just generally good with younger kids.

When they visited here, my kids loved them just as much as I did when I was a kid. They haven't changed a bit, my favorite uncles. Still kind and funny and playful, they both know just how much to tease and when to let up and how to keep a kid laughing and smiling. It was fun to watch.

My uncle from Japan went back to Japan, and I haven't heard much from him since then. It may well be another 20 years before I see him again. He has his own family, friends, job, issues.... I'm sad my kids won't know him better, but I'm glad they at least got to meet him.

My uncle from Texas, though.... I'm worried.

When he visited, he had sold just about everything he owned. He bought a van, and had decided to drive from Texas through Arizona to California and up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco, and then continue north to Oregon or Washington or perhaps even as far as Vancouver. He wasn't quite sure where he planned to settle. His plan was to camp along the way and basically live out of his van. He had his four cats with him, and a decent amount of money in the bank to support his travels, but not enough to live on forever. The plan was to eventually settle somewhere, rent an apartment, get a new job....

He has worked most of his life in the computer field, but he wanted to try something new -- selling food at art festivals, for example. Something totally different. It sounded a little radical, but he isn't married, has no kids and no responsibilities other than his four cats, so if he wanted to follow a dream, why not?

He had built some shelves in his van to store his few remaining belongings, food/cat food, camping equipment, and other supplies, and also a roof rack to carry some clothing / luggage.

He had his computer with him, and his cell phone. He planned to stop at McDonalds and/or Starbucks along the way to use the free wi-fi and communicate with friends and/or check on his mail (which he had forwarded to a UPS store, which could then ship things to any UPS store nationwide as needed). He did not, however, have any sort of car charging cord for his cell phone or computer.

For the first couple of weeks after he left here, he called my mom every two to five days. He would let her know where he was and what his next plans were. Last she heard, he was at the Grand Canyon, camping, hiking, and exploring, and was thinking of exploring the North Rim and then taking a different route to California than he originally planned, but might head back to Flagstaff and then on to California.... sort of uncertain plans at that point.

That was almost four weeks ago.

He hasn't called since then. He hasn't responded to my mom's emails or calls. Even the ones where she is increasingly worried and saying, essentially, please call to let me know you are still alive.

When my grandmother was alive, he used to talk with her at least once a week by phone, sometimes two to three times per week. He didn't keep up with anyone else in the family, but he would call her.

Of course, she isn't there anymore.

On the one hand, it's not unusual for my uncle to go years without calling me or my mom.

On the other hand, the situation has changed. The family member that he did contact regularly is gone, and he set off into the wilderness, essentially, with no really set plans... and started off by calling my mom pretty regularly, and then just stopped. Also, all of the siblings are still in the process of settling my grandmother's estate, and he knows that some paperwork still needs to be filed that will need his signature, so he had promised to stay in touch to make that process easy.

It has left my mom (and now me) wondering if something awful happened. Did he have a terrible car accident? Did he get injured or killed (snake bite? bear attack? fall?) while hiking in the woods or the canyon, and have no way to call anyone because his cell phone battery was dead? Did he get mugged and injured or killed, with all his things stolen?

Or is he simply being a bit of a loner and enjoying the solitude?

When my mom first told me last week that she hadn't heard from him and was worried, my first reaction was, hey, he went years without calling you before, try not to worry....

But she's right. It's different this time. He doesn't have his parents to contact any more. He is not married and does not have kids of his own. He quit his job and moved out of his apartment in Texas, so he doesn't have co-workers or neighbors to notice if he doesn't come and go as usual. He recently broke up with his girlfriend. He doesn't get along well with his other two brothers, so he probably would not call them. My mom and my kids and I were the last family members he contacted, as far as we know.

I'm sure he has friends, and might even have talked with them. But we don't know their names or any contact information for them, so we have no way to know if he has kept in touch with them.

And although it isn't unusual for him not to spontaneously call, it is unusual for him to not return a telephone call within a few days. Unless (maybe?) he's camping in the woods for two weeks with a dead cell phone battery and no internet access.

I hope he's ok, and just enjoying the solitude.

But I'm worried he is dead somewhere and we may never even know where. Or when. Or how. I'm worried I may never hear his voice again, may never see his smile...

How does one know when to start calling the missing persons organizations, or the police, or... who? And which ones would I even call? He could be in Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, Washington, Oregon or possibly even Idaho or Canada at this point, depending on whether he stuck to his original plans or changed them.

How long do you tell yourself not to worry, before you start to really worry?

Am I being ridiculous to even think there could be a problem? I'd hate to start a huge "manhunt" for a guy who was just wanting a few weeks with no telephone calls in the woods.

Or am I being ridiculous not to have called the police already? I'd hate to think he died waiting for help after falling or being bitten by a snake, all because I was too timid or too stupid to make the call.

God I hate not knowing what to do.

Update: Thanks to all for your kind comments. We finally heard from my uncle. He made it to San Francisco with no problems at all. And since he is no longer potentially traveling across a huge, extremely hot, very underpopulated desert / mountain area, I'll be a lot less worried about potential disasters. He still wouldn't promise to check in regularly, but at least there's less cause for worry. At this point, I'm sure he'll be fine. Hopefully he'll let us know when he settles somewhere.