(My First Solo Cross Country Road Trip: The Origin Story of taking my worldly education from the sheets to the streets)
I sat in a graduate level English class, comparing Shakespeare and the Bible, when I had a moment of clarity. I’m tired of reading about others going on great adventures. I want to go on one of my own. Thus, early exit from the M.A. program. Kerouac’s road called me from the sheets to the streets, but where to go?… (pause) I had a friend Jan who had gotten a job straight out of college working for Microsoft. He couldn’t stop raving about how much he loved Seattle. He said he was never leaving. I figured it was worth a try. And, just as Don Quixote had Rocinante, and Steinbeck also had Rocinante as an homage to the trusty steed, by way of a bus of sorts, I had my not-so-trusty transport named ‘Blue Velvet’, because like David Lynch movies, my 1988 Buick Riviera with a shot rear suspension, served up many issues I never fully understood.
Exit the S.L.O. life on the central coast of California, enter the fast lane of the Pacific Northwest. I could tell right away that I loved Seattle. Further north. Cooler temps. Green everywhere. I also knew that I ultimately wanted to cross the ENTIRE country on a road trip, so I needed to be able to get by without getting locked in anywhere. Two goals for Seattle: cheap basic place to live, and a temp job. Who here has ever seen the movie ‘Fight Club’ and remembers the house which became the headquarters? (pause) My first goal was achieved by calling the scribbled number at the bottom of the cardboard “For Rent” sign hanging in the window of its twin. (pause) I was a block and a half from the UW campus, I had two adjoining rooms to myself. Month to month. It came with furniture, and all the creepy-crawlies one guy could ask for. I was there for countless amazing walks, trips to the Pearl Cafe, and the turn of the millennium itself.
I achieved my second goal halfway up the tall shiny black building in downtown. Adecco placed me at an interview for the sole Customer Service Rep. position at Equilon Lubricants, purveyors of Texaco and Shell products. They must’ve liked the candidate I was, because I bridged the nine month gap between when my predecessor retired and when they finalized the centralization of all customer service to Houston, Texas. I was ready to continue what I had started. Onward.
I knew I would be taking 90 east. I knew the first place I’d stop for the night would be the inspiration for Norman Maclean’s ‘A River Runs Through It’, Missoula Montana. From there, where to go?… (pause) Being an old adventurous soul, I wanted to see what fate would have in store, and leave the matter for the universe to decide. The wheels were turning in the formation of a plan before reaching the first night’s destination. Outside Spokane, Washington while barreling down the interstate I called my dear friend Ned in LA. As soon as he picked up I told him that he needed to flip a coin for me (if he didn’t mind too terribly). I said it could be any value of coin, but that he couldn’t know what the flip was for until it was done and announced, as it might affect the outcome somehow. He found a nearby quarter, flipped it, and boldly announced ‘Tails!’ The poet in me had decided Austin or Boston. ‘Heads’ meant I would head across the rest of the northern US, all the way to Boston. ‘Tails’ I would turn tail, and head south to Austin, Texas. Hook ‘em Horns, here I came.
On my way to Texas, I went through West Yellowstone. I couldn’t figure out why all the cars were stopping in the middle of the road. Until I saw the first tuft of dark brown hair. Buffalo. Six of them to be exact. Three on either side of Blue Velvet came walking up, alongside, and passed within petting distance of the car. WOW!
I thought I knew what cold was, but the wind at the gas station in Cheyenne Wyoming blew through my bones and laughed at me as it went by. The miles were starting to stretch me out. The light began fading in the sky and distant rumbles grew closer while driving on 25 South through Colorado. By the time I had passed Pueblo, the sky was pitch, and the rain was dumping. The radio had been on seek mode for what seemed an eternity, and I wasn’t sure if I was even in a lane, let alone the right one, driving through endless construction zones and detours. I wondered where I would sleep that night, as the firehose was being released upon my windshield, and then, the radio stopped. (pause) Blue’s radio proved the precept ‘Seek and Ye shall find’ as the questions started. “Do you love adventure? Do you love camping under a thick blanket of stars? Do you love canoeing along a meandering river? Do you love helping kids? Come visit us at Eckerd Youth Alternatives. Counselor/Teachers are needed now.” One hand steadied the wheel. The other jotted the website down. The following morning I caught my first glimpse of purple mountains majesty as I pulled into the welcome center of Raton, New Mexico and asked to use their computer. I figured it was worth a shot to investigate the job.
Now, I’ve read that Benjamin Franklin once quipped that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. I’m here to say that the stretch of I-10 from El Paso to San Antonio in Texas is proof that we have options besides happiness and love from which to choose. However, I would honor the coin toss. I sallied forth to the state capital. It had been nearly three thousand miles (not the most direct routes taken) since the Emerald City. I knew my car needed a service, and I needed a shower. As a wink to my previous employer, my first stop in Austin was a Texaco Station for I knew the Star Mart wouldn’t disappoint.
Social pleasantries ensued, between Paul (the attendant) and I. He told me a little about the University and the best places to get sweet tea. I told him about my road trip and my plan to come to Austin by way of a coin toss. He mentioned that he had a place where he’d usually get drunk and pass out on the couch and that he didn’t really ever use the bedroom. I connected the dots and asked what he might think about a roommate for a bit, while I used the address and phone there as a base camp of sorts to pursue the job from the car radio ad. While he finished his shift, I had the car serviced, went to the bank, sold some music, and grabbed a quick bite before picking up my new roommate from work. Paul Niswander and I sure spent a lot of nighttime on Sixth St. in the month I lived there, and I rapidly progressed through the many steps of the employment process with the company during my days. I had to head out east.
I knew the straight shot across the bottom of the US, near the Gulf, would put me through NOLA and I had to see what the French Quarter was all about for myself. New Orleans, Louisiana did not disappoint with regards to music, food, and fine spirits. I didn’t anticipate learning a lesson in humility along the way. I found a lot to park in that was off the beaten path, and changed into my dress clothes. The suit hadn’t cost me much secondhand, but it was the nicest threads I owned for a night on the town. Jazz Club. Karaoke. Country bar. Different Jazz Club. Night Club. I had drink specials. I laughed with a Lady from Arkansas, and playfully arm wrestled a man from Nebraska. I settled my final tab, hugged new friends goodbye, and made my way to the door.
I walked for a while when I realized I was gradually getting closer to the Super Dome and had gotten disoriented enough to have walked for seven or eight blocks in the wrong direction. Shortly after, I noticed two figures in the distance which crossed the street and changed their direction to pursue the same path I was on. I walked for a little, looked back to see that they were gaining ground, and one of them gestured at me individually. I walked more. I wished I wasn’t dressed nice. I glanced back. No denying it now, the two of them are trying to get to me. I was scared. I wanted to scream out. I wanted my head to be clear. But perfect love casts out fear, and they were faster than I was. I stopped, turned around, and said hello. “You’re not from around here are you?” I lowered my head and shook it no. “Because a guy like you….(finger wagging downward at my face)….. is gonna get hurt around here.”
They weren’t going to hurt me, rob me, or mislead me. They wanted to help me, and they were hurrying to do so. After giving them both a thankful handshake and a hearty hug, I found my way back to my car as fast as I could and quickly changed into my sweatpants and T-shirt. I don’t know what happened to those two helpful souls, but I imagine this country could use more of what they have, and I’m thankful for their undeserved assistance.
I passed through Biloxi Mississippi and Mobile Alabama as well as the Florida panhandle on my way to Savannah Georgia. That seemed to be a good enough place to hole up for a couple nights, within striking distance of the majority of camps on the company’s website. Plus, I literally wanted to spend Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Spanish moss in the weeping willows entertained me as I traversed cobblestone streets, along with echoes from ghosts. After the second night spent in my car near Forsythe Park, I received the call. I had been given the opportunity to have a camp visit and a face to face interview with my first choice of the bunch. Camp E-Hun-Tee in Exeter, Rhode Island. I was excited and ready but my body was dirty. Along the way I snuck into a dorm building on Yale’s campus in New Haven Connecticut to commandeer a shower and shave for my interview the following day. Go Bulldogs!
The following morning, I parked in the visitor spot closest to the main office, laced up my boots, and checked in. The interview lasted a while and included time spent with two different groups. By the time my visit was finished, I had a starting offer to accompany the handshake. It was nearly Memorial Day by this point, and I asked If I could start after the long weekend. I grew up watching the TV show Cheers and wanted to see where the outside parts were filmed. Plus, Roger Clemens and I have the same birthday, so I’ve been a Red Sox fan (second to my beloved Giants) since early childhood. While throwing back a pint of Sam Adams, humming the tune to ‘Where everybody knows your name’, I thought back. Austin or Boston?
Both. In alphabetic order. And my coin is still spinning to this day.
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