Lee Woodruff’s red long johns—a wedding present from her husband—went from a symbol of adventure to a sign of midlife stagnation… until one trip changed everything.

By Lee Woodruff
Updated January 15, 2016
Red long johns on clothesline
Credit: Design Pics/Darren Greenwood/Getty Images

Having grown up without sisters, my husband has always been intrigued by female gatherings. This was why, 28 years ago, he crashed my bridal shower to give me a store-wrapped gift.

The card read, “May our life together always be an adventure.” Inside the box was a pair of tomato red Patagonia long johns. They remain the most practical wedding present I ever received, aside from a fire extinguisher from my friend Rebecca.

We were married in a small stone chapel in upstate New York on the unremarkable (at the time) date of September 11. Immediately afterward, we headed to Beijing, where Bob would teach at the China University of Political Science and Law. This was a very lofty name for a cluster of concrete buildings and dirt piles we would call home.

Our tiny cinder-block dorm room was a meat locker in winter. Icy winds rattled the thin windowpanes and gusted through the cracks in the frame. The red long johns became my second skin as I trudged down the concrete hall to the toilets (which consisted of a series of holes in the floor) or curled up under the pile of padded cotton quilts on our twin beds.

We were eager travelers in that post-honeymoon, prekid period. With our metal-framed packs, we set off during university breaks and long weekends for far-flung parts of Asia. But our year abroad ended abruptly and tragically with the Tiananmen Square uprising: The government tanks fired on the demonstrators, killing students from our school. Shell-shocked and traumatized by the violence, we returned to California to make a new life, no longer welcome after the crackdown.

When we lived in San Francisco, and then in the northern foothills of Mount Shasta, my wedding long johns were regular companions on camping trips and ski weekends. In those years, they resided in the top drawer of my dresser, a grab-and-go location behind the lacy panties and bras.

The long underwear had come to signify many things–the enduring possibility of adventure, our enthusiasm for new experiences, and the belief that love really could conquer all, or at least keep you warm at night. But with time the long johns began a slow migration to the furthest recesses of various closets, mirroring my more sedentary life. Each time I happened upon them, they were a gentle reminder of our present stasis.

Four children, a career, and my attempts to be a writer in the margins of my life had predictably and wonderfully hemmed me in closer to home. I had ended up exactly where I was meant to be. Yet the passage of time had piled on possessions, obligations, and responsibilities. I was no longer the young bride who aspired to live like a turtle, with her house on her back, committed to a life of “adventure,” as Bob’s long-ago note had promised.

Oh, to replay that stretch of time, when planning involved only the two of us and our knees worked like well-oiled hinges. I was incredulous that we would be there again in a few years, as empty nesters, albeit without the knees.

This past spring, Bob and I attended a weekend in Virginia with the nonprofit organization Project Healing Waters. The group hosts injured service members at fishing excursions around the country, using nature to help heal the internal and external wounds of combat. As I packed, it occurred to me that long underwear would be essential in early April, with cooler spring temperatures and rain predicted in the mountains near Charlottesville.

It took me a few minutes to recall where they were. Poking around my closet, I finally located them in a ball at the bottom of a mesh bag behind a pair of boots, the way a much loved stuffed animal is eventually exiled to the attic. Years had passed since I’d worn them, and after I tugged them out, I examined the top and bottom with new eyes.

Despite countless wash cycles, the long johns’ red hue had barely dimmed. The waistband still snapped back, and over the years the fabric hadn’t pilled or run. This was gear made to last, utilitarian garments, designed for practicality and warmth, not for show.

I held up the top, with its bright red snaps at the neck, and highlights of my life flipped through my mind like animation frames. There I was as a fiancé, then a young bride in China, now a new mother on a ski trip, our son in a pack on his father’s back. The long johns appear in photos of us on a family winter camping trip in the desert. I had once worn them for a solid week, mourning a miscarriage and bedridden, losing hope that we would conceive again.

The long johns had been part of each physical move, as Bob changed careers from lawyer to journalist after China and we leapfrogged around the country to ever larger broadcast markets. Even if I hadn’t worn them regularly, they had been there for all of it, the sorrows and the celebrations.

The memory of an early camping trip in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula suddenly flooded back, making me smile. During a night of torrential rain, the tent tarp had collapsed, drenching our packs and sleeping bags in a wall of water. I was wearing the damp long johns under a pair of Bob’s boxers as we approached the portico of the swanky Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. We’d planned to meet up with friends for the more luxurious half of our vacation. The doorman moved to block our entrance, scowling as if we were covered in human feces. We howled, reenacting his expression later, under the spray of our room’s hot shower.

Folding the long johns in my suitcase, I felt a flash of excitement and anticipation. The coming weekend would be just the two of us on the road, like the old days, experiencing something new. The change of pace and springtime Blue Ridge scenery would do us good. And as it turned out, it did.

Until I stood, learning to cast, in thigh-deep water on that fly-fishing weekend, I hadn’t imagined the powerful magic that existed in the boil of a rushing river. It worked on my soul like a balm. We reverted to our old, silly selves, the adventuresome couple who had lain dormant too long, as we survived a day of hard rain, slept in a yurt, and fell for the romance of fly-fishing. This was a vastly different sport than what I had remembered from childhood recollections, which involved standing on the dock with a container of worms. Fly-fishing was more art and poetry, finesse and religion. I was hooked.

When we returned home to New York after the weekend, I washed and folded the long johns, purposely creating a new, more prominent place for them in my top drawer. No more exile. No more purgatory next to my breath-sucking Spanx and ancient capsules of L’eggs stockings in suntan and nude.

Secretly, I circled back to Dusty Wissmath, our teacher and guide from the weekend, and ordered two fishing poles as a birthday surprise. When I give them to my husband, I want them to mean something, to stand for more chapters to come. What could be a greater gift than the experience of learning a new, shared activity in this second half of life together?

When I open my top dresser drawer now, the flash of red catches my eye. I may not wear them as regularly as I once did, but they have become almost a symbol, a lucky charm or a rabbit’s foot. Instead of admonishing me, they represent the roads I wish to travel, the possibilities for experiences as yet untapped, a reminder that adventure isn’t something you lose or outgrow. It is ever present, there for the taking, as much a state of mind as it is the physical act of going somewhere.

About the Author

Lee Woodruff is a journalist and the author of three books. She is a cofounder of the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which assists post-9/11 injured service members and their families. She is a half-empty nester with four kids. Find her at leewoodruff.com.