The Power of Words, of Yosemite, and love

Alden Olmsted
10 min readDec 11, 2022

This is about my mom. About leaving Nashville and writing down goals.

And about Yosemite.

And about payback.

and about love.

Once upon a time I was a car salesman.

During my second week on the job they had us write down our goals for the year, both personal and professional. Naturally I balked. I resisted. I internally refused to participate in this self-help-positivity-Tony-Robbins-ish ritual. After all I had just cut my shoulder-length hair to get this job — my first true sales job — so my only goal at the time was to make some quick cash and get back to the hair-growing profession I’d become so good at.

But of course I relented and filled it out as asked.

I wrote down my ten goals. Financial goals, saving a certain amount of $, buying my dream guitar, figuring out how to go back to the college I’d dropped out of, etc.

And darned if those goals didn’t pretty much all come true.

And yes, I got good at selling cars.

I was salesman of the month in April of that year, bought my dream guitar the very next month, and left for college the following August, graduating two years later with a (for me) decent gpa.

On the car lot we had some characters, oh believe me we had ’em. But my manager Steve, who I clashed with at different times, was the one who rode my a** to write down those goals and I won’t forget that.

That’s one reason when I order coffee my name is always ‘Steve’ — easier than Alden and a nod to my favorite Hollywood Steve — McQueen, but also in acknowledgement of my sales manager, Steve Herzig, who made me write down my goals on a faux-wood desk that fateful Spring afternoon at the GMC-Hyundai dealership in Santa Rosa, California.

Mom’s husband died in May of this year, just a month shy of his 92nd birthday. A twelve-year marriage was a blessing for each of them, albeit in different ways. Mom (at the time) with both of her sons out in the world, one sister in Texas and the other in Palm Springs, was dying for a new chapter, needing to retire from her low-pay-high-annoyance office job, and yes maybe most of all needing to step out from the small town of Sonoma we’d lived in since ‘77.

Gordon, pastor of the tiny church we’d attended in Glen Ellen, had lost his wife to cancer a few years back, and still had a sister in the Central Valley town of Turlock, who’d given him a house.

What’s that opening line from Pride and Prejudice?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Good fortunes aren’t usually found in Turlock unless it involves an almond ranch, but Gordon was in fact single, and was in possession of a house.

And mom said yes.

Nashville for me has been a strange experiment. Mostly good but I’ve always known there wasn’t a “lay down roots” feeling there, just that there was a lot to like, it’s a good spot in the south, and most of all the people are great.

That sounds cliché I know, and I have found good people everywhere, but there does seem to be something in Tennessee that keeps people cool, not thinking too highly of themselves, and most of all wanting to slow down and hear what’s going on with you.

I liked that.

After Gordon passed away I knew mom alone wasn’t going to last. What I didn’t know was how many hurdles there are for seniors. Three-year waiting lists for senior apartments, waiting lists altogether closed for Section 8 housing (at least in Sonoma County), and nightmarish avenues for just getting ahold of someone to help — partly post-pandemic-related and partly just the reality of being a senior in an online and fast-paced world.

The letter Brooks writes after getting released from Shawshank comes to mind.

“Dear fellas, I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry.”

And then mom’s closest cousin, Nancy in Sebastopol, died in July. A cousin she’d walked the streets of the Sunset District in San Francisco with as a six-year old. Not like they talked every day but little by little any hopes or possibilities mom had of getting out of the empty house in Turlock were fading.

Fast.

The morning after my birthday —

On September 15th, I looked at the dry erase board I use for keeping track of my side-hustle art biz and saw it for what it was. A scribbled mess of lists, some checked off but too many and with no direction.

Now halfway through my life I figured it was time for less goals, less clutter, just what matters. I thought long and hard about goals I’d written the past few years, about all the different plans I’d had and tried since dad died in 2011 but also about the accomplishments.

After all I’d made four movies and shot three others. My bmx-memoir 30 Bikes made it on Amazon, and the most recent documentary is premiering on PBS in Sacramento (Dec. 14th btw). I’d traveled to Europe again, and taken more than my share of amazing road trips around the U.S. — only three states to go for those counting.

So although financial goals were on the light side, I realized I had actually done a lot of what I had planned.

But something felt different this year.

Even that day felt different.

I wiped the dry erase board clean and wrote the simplest goals I could think of:

1. Give my life to someone else.
2. Get on top of my finances (as opposed to them being on top of me).
3. Land a ‘career’ job.

With an upcoming premiere of the latest film I shot with longtime friend Don Johnson, I booked a plane ticket to California with added days given to checking in on mom.

Dysconnected film premiere, Orange County Calif. 10.6.22

*Also of note was that my coffee-sales day job in Nashville, which I’d hoped would flourish, was doing the opposite. It was fading. Fast.

The phone call did it

Just two days from my flight to California I noticed mom’s voice, normally cheery and encouraging, was fading. Something was off. Energy level was down.

“Are you eating enough, mom?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t need much,” she said.

Not the answer I was looking for.

“Do you have a cold?” I asked.

“No.” Her voice wavered.

“Are you tired?” I said.

“Well I haven’t been sleeping I guess, you know just all this..” she answered.

I knew well what “all this” meant. It meant an empty house. No friends. A well-meaning family member who’d thrown out her address book (I’m serious).

Goodness.

Add to this that she doesn’t always hear her cell phone and the home phone is an incessant parade of scammers that too many seniors deal with. The neighborhood is safe but nobody stops by. The tiny church they had been going to has a nice enough pastor but during the pandemic their social life, already lacking, had all but disappeared.

In short. This couldn’t last.

And although my teenage years included more arguments with mom than I’d like to admit, for me this just wasn’t acceptable.

I tossed and turned that night. I was sick to my stomach wondering what to do. I prayed and thought and prayed more and woke up determined to move back to California and help, though I had no idea what helping would look like. After all, when I’d left California in 2020 I had zero plans of returning, except to visit.

But the nudge I needed came no sooner than I’d woken up — my Honduras-based farm-to-cup Coffee job called and said the Nashville region wasn’t working and they’d have to let me go.

I walked into the kitchen and looked at my dry erase board and there were my own words clear as day:

“Give my life to someone else”

I’d written that just two weeks before. Then I looked at my phone records and listened to voice mails from mom. Can you guess when her voice started sounding different?

Just two days after I’d written that goal.

Growing up mom would talk about ‘the power of words,’ which as you may guess I dismissed quicker than a Three’s Company misunderstanding. She’d mention someone’s name she hadn’t spoken to in years, and then the next day bump into them at a store in Sonoma.

“Power of words, Alden. .” she’d say.

I used to scoff but now I gotta admit— maybe mom was onto something.

Thanksgiving in the valley

After a three-day drive from Nashville (a little above the speed limit), a job recommendation in Sonoma from a friend, and an early-morning hustle to get a cool little house in Santa Rosa, everything was coming together.

It was Thanksgiving morning and mom and I didn’t have anywhere to be. Couldn’t quite move out. Couldn’t yet move in. We were alone in a half-empty house that neither of us wanted to be in.

“Let’s go to Yosemite,” I said.

“Ok,” said mom and started to get ready.

A clear marker of someone who was married to John Olmsted is that they say yes to adventures.

With little hesitation.

She’d lived just 100 miles from the Yosemite Valley she’d enjoyed visiting so much growing up, and although Gordon went once or twice, the outdoors just weren’t his jam.

We had a beautiful and easy drive in, the snow was in the shaded side of the steep valley, the waterfalls were wispy, and Half Dome and El Capitan were gorgeous and the leaves were beyond colorful.

Mom hadn’t been smiling when I showed up in Turlock. Weak and stressed and lonely I kept reassuring her we were going to get through this. It was going to be ok.

We sat in the crowded lodge cafeteria with mostly tourists (it seemed), eating a butternut squash soup for her and hot chicken sandwich for me, and she said the words that made the entire trip worth it. The moving, the packing, the driving across country, the job interviews, the medical appointments. All of it.

“I have to pinch myself that we’re really here” she said.

Her eyes were wide as she looked around with — you guessed it — a huge smile.

I had to stop the tears as I remembered where my own spirit of adventure had come from. Not actually from my dad, though I’m sure there’s huge bunches of it in our dna but no, my daily spirit of adventure was modeled by mom. My mom who would announce we were leaving early, and off we’d go to visit family in the Bay Area or Los Angeles, stopping along the way to learn about California history and local spots. Despite our income level we never felt left out of growing up in such a state, we felt blessed.

Fortunate.

At least I did.

And now I get to give this spirit back — to someone who needs it more than ever just as every human needs family, friends, a community, love.

All the things she’d been deprived of for the last five months.

As I write this

We’re settling in. I have a job that if it develops as it should, can be a career (goal no. 3). Money is already less of an issue. Last night we went to a new home group at a friends’ house, which mom had a great time at and where she began to meet new people, people who will get to know her as more than just “Alden’s mom,” a moniker she’s endured long enough.

The picture above isn’t what you’d think of as amazing unless you knew the backstory. That it represents moving out of Nashville and getting mom back to Sonoma County and turning in rental applications and landing an affordable house in the neighborhood mom used to walk in as a little girl and finding furniture and setting up internet and cancelling all mom’s services and switching both our addresses and yada yada yada.

As I take this picture mom is asleep in her new room, warm and safe and closer to family and so glad to be done with that awful five months.

I wonder why I didn’t think to move back sooner but I guess it had to happen this way.

I had to realize how bad things were, how much she needed her family, and I had to be reminded of what really matters.

Nothing else matters much when your mom is dying of loneliness and lost hope.

Not the world and its’ cares, not politics, not the opinions and ramblings of the super-rich or their latest missteps.

Because even billions can’t buy youth. Money can’t buy friends — not real ones at least, and try as we might, we still can’t buy that most important of all currencies:

Time.

Here’s to mom. Here’s to right priorities. And here’s to a new chapter.

For both of us.

Merry Christmas ya’ll

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Alden Olmsted

I was born in a small town in Northern California just another latch-key kid obsessed with BMX and Tom Petty. Now I make films and travel and write when I can.