By Ziad Youssef
When I set out on the road, I look forward to the adventure and feel like a child exploring a playground for the first time. Every encounter is ripe with a new friendship or an interesting story from someone’s life experience.
This summer, my wife and I packed our luggage, two dogs and ourselves into a cargo van bound for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It was the first time in my 15-year career that I committed to longer than a two-week vacation, and it wasn’t easy to disconnect.
Eventually, I let go, and the excitement began to fill my heart. I looked up and saw the playground filling with new faces and I wanted to meet them all. Come with me now and experience a few of the people and stories from the happiest smiles of America!
First stop: Idaho
Randy Priest is also from Donnelly, where he’s been a longtime hat-maker and craftsman in a store that captures the feel of an old western movie.
Over the Rockies
Stopping in Billings, MT to visit family, Betty Jean – 95-years-young – shared that the secret to growing young is to not hold on to the past.
In Red Lodge, MT (one of my favorite stops) the biggest smile came from Venucia, who immigrated from Brazil. She bakes and serves delicious food in a small café in town, and loves meeting all her customers.
I’m 6’2” but Ritch Rand has six inches on me, even if you take off the custom cowboy hat. He’s been making them for over 40 years at the Rand Hat Company in Billings, MT. (I get my hat just after Thanksgiving!)
Welcome to New Mexico
One of the highlights from our time in New Mexico was meeting Autumn Deer who enchanted us with his drum and song. Like many elders, Autumn Deer had important stories to share. He’s a member of the Pueblo Tribe, in Taos, NM and served in federal government the majority of his career.
Emily, an acclaimed goldsmith and artist has carved out a space for herself and her art in Taos, NM. What a treat it was to listen to her stories!
Emily’s friend Candyce does the real carving. She’s a nationally recognized stone carver who has expressed her service in the most creative ways and against all the nay-sayers who believed she’d never “make it” or support her family as an artist. She worked the art jobs that paid while honing her craft until she found the opportunity to do the work she most wanted.
Taos was also home to “the Professor” who invited us to return to enjoy some time in his garden. He has a PhD in geography and in our short visit I learned that to truly understand places, I must learn the history of its population.
Now, meet Henry George, a musician, artist and humble philosopher in Old Town Santa Fe who encouraged us to share the planet, gifted me some art, and says you can’t out give the Giver, so be humble and share.
In Yellowstone, we met Dale who had just flown in from Florida to work on a construction project. He’d just started his lunch as we approached and our young golden-doodle, AJ, was eager to help him finish.
Toward the coast and home
In Palm Desert I met Cesar, a young man excited for the opportunities in his life to serve. He wants to support his family, has served eight years in the Army, and was going for an interview at the Riverside County Sheriff’s office the next day.
It was back to family in Redlands, CA. My family likes to stay close, which is hard when they live in a different state, but I’ve always felt at home when I arrive, and I count that as one of my greatest blessings.
As I write this two months after returning home and I reflect on the experience, what brought America’s happiest smiles? I thought it would be one thing we all shared, but in fact, several things made us smile, and that means we all have options.
For some, like Hector or Venucia, it was service. Others, like the Professor, Henry George and Autumn Deer, found it in sharing. For others still, like Ritch Rand or Candace Garrett, it was doing what they loved that put a smile on their face.
Can you tell how much I loved the trip? I’ve practiced law in Whatcom County, WA for almost 16 years and find my desire to serve has only grown during that journey, and I’m now exploring ways to make a greater impact. Through Mytrafficman Corporation, I’m discovering how leveraging technology can increase access to better legal care for my local and national community.
LESSON: America’s happiest smiles are inspired by service, sharing and doing what we Love! Find your smile with a little bit of each and maybe I’ll see you on the playground.