January 19th: We pull out of Salt Lake City on a quarter-tank of gas, and I convince Lyds it’ll be alright. It’s not alright, as we fly through the desolate swamp of sadness
that is winter salt marsh Western Utah. We red light 50 miles from anywhere, pull over to call Jane who suggests we turn back toward Salt Lake. We coast silently, desolately at exactly 52 miles per hour in fifth gear for miles and miles without radio or windows or A/C. We saw two or three broken down cars on the side of the road, waving furiously at us to stop; we couldn’t stop, we barely had enough ourselves. It’s every car for itself running out of gas in the salt flats. The engine started to putter as we coasted down the off-ramp of the blessed gas station. I run into the owner of a truck we saw on the side of the road ten miles back, clutching a red gas can and asking if anyone was heading east. Wendover, Utah. Jesus. We drive on through Nevada, talking about lost romance and our fleeting emotions, my short-lived and best college relationship with Blair, the inaccessibility of Rohde, Hurricane Camp, etcetera, etcetera, on through the small lights of Reno and past the seasoned rim of Tahoe and on past the fleeting thought of Sacramento into the descent through the hills of California and the Frisco Basin. We’re staying with Nina Barrett that night, and pull into her Mission area apartment, I set my alarm clock and sleep on the couch.
January 20th: Friday, but she has the day off. I wake up at 8 a.m. and call Blair, who takes the bus to the Mission to meet me within the half-hour. I trot out of the apartment, walk over to Valencia where she’s walking toward me on the sidewalk, brunette that’s her natural color but I mostly remember her with green hair from my senior fall but great dark brown hair and perkiness in her voice and I am thrilled to have crossed these cities and states to be walking next to Blair, aimlessly, wherever, to a coffee shop near her internship, on a bus downtown where she talks about hurricane cycles, to the piers of the bay, through Fisherman’s Wharf, where we get tickets to the aquarium and talk about trips, to shrimp basket lunch, where everything she does is so delicately perfect, to the candy store and the manatee factory, through the John Deere gift shop and past the parks and schools getting out. We walk up the hills of San Francisco and the quaint shops and lounge in her apartment where I play with her music and see that of her small selection, she has burned the CD I made her over a year ago onto her library. I have nostalgic glimpses of her in Collis Augusts ago, green hair flailing over the place to “Take Me Out,” where for the only time in my life I saw something I didn’t know, an energy I hadn’t touched and when it floated close again I grabbed it and loved it and hated myself for loving it because I was not worthy of such things as this green-haired beauty. So I played “Mexico” by James Taylor and the afternoon passed into evening at the Thai restaurant and a walk through the hilarious poodle shop and then back to her apartment to say goodbye at the door, and a great hug and a great time and I walked to the bus station.
Then I was grabbed, or I decided it was time to be grabbed, I don’t know, but I ran through the sprinkling rain of Uptown, to the apartment, where I called Blair and asked her to come downstairs to let me in. She did, and I told her I needed to know and I put my palms on her smooth cheeks and moved to kiss her but she turned away and told me, “Will, no.” My heart was pounding and all I could pound out in the moment was
“Never?” I looked into her sparkling eyes. It was the only word that instinct brought, damn instinct forever because I didn’t want to know but I did and whether I did didn’t matter because she
“Never.” She looked at me as if I were a child who had studied so hard for the multiplication test but got my times and fives mixed up in front of the whole class. So simple, so easy.
“O.K., um…” I felt emotion pour into my throat, which never happens to me so I handled it pretty awfully. “Well, o.k., I guess I just had to know. But,” I backed away and threw on a false Guillermo face, smiling into the vestibule of the building and into her sympathetic, beautiful face, and continued.
“I guess I just needed to know. That’s all.” I backed away, smiling like an idiot, like Alec back in October but damn it all this was so much more important why couldn’t I stop smiling? To make sure I kept my eyes clenched by circumstance. “I had a great time though. This was great. I’ll give you a call sometime soon, O.K.?”
“Yeah, no it was great. I had a really great day with you.” Blair nodded slowly and I paddled backward further, toward the door, trying too hard to be smooth before leaving with my hands in my fleece, walking down the San Francisco street in the sprinkling rain. I rode the bus silently back to Valencia, drank at a bar and met some computer programmer anarchists, made up some story about how I hitchhiked on a regular basis, and fell asleep in Nina’s apartment.
January 21st– January 23rd:
Talking about Mexico. I take the BART to Oakland/Berkeley and meet up with the good Paul, friend of old, Teach For America soldier trying to make it in the Public School system of the East Bay.
To be honest, if I wanted to make it seem pretty, I’d do it and lie to whoever and myself, but I won’t because it was miserable and this book is the truth. I left my mind in Oakland for three days in a depressed stupor of cocaine and insomnia, played Literati until 8 a.m., threw up outside a Chinese restaurant, played darts, walked a dog, and hit on some girls. This could have happened in any order, I’m not sure about it. Misery mostly, and I’m sorry to Paul and Greg for not being a better visitor. I boarded at their home for 3 days, slept maybe 4 hours total over that time, and then headed back to San Francisco. Lydia and I took a walk out to a park on the hill near Nina’s place, and we sat on a hill overlooking the Mission and the city and recapped our time spent apart. I decided to seriously revaluate my intake of recreational alternatives, faxed my lease to a housing agent in Portland as per Bethany’s request. Portland was the last stop, where a better future awaited, I hoped.
January 24th: Lydia and I leave the Mission after thanking Nina for her hospitality. Andre 6500 is excited to meet up with us, so we leave San Francisco. As I drive past Golden Gate Park I start playing the CD I was going to send Blair. This would be the sixth mix I made on the trip, and as Brian Shingledecker would tell me 6 months later, one of the best mixes I’d ever made. We ascend into Marin County and meet Sixty-Five-Hunskie outside the Santa Rosa Community College.
6500 is a tall, amicable looking fellow with loose curly hair. His face was always slightly dirty, and his hair always slightly out of place. The three of us walked happily back to Lydia’s Subaru across the main avenue of Santa Rosa, and drove off to Hunskie’s new place out in the suburbs. We chatted it up for a bit, and then made plans for a dinner with some of his friends living out in the redwood forest areas typical of that county.
We bought groceries at Trader Joe’s, good salad and two-buck chuck, and while we were walking out to the parking lot I got a call from Janos. We caught up, and he relayed that he was in conversations to possibly take over the director position from Dingo. Hands On Network was in the process of replacing Hands On U.S.A. at Pass Road, and they were putting together their leadership staff. I wished him luck, and thought about the future of my old organization as we made our way into the California forest. Lydia’s Subaru ascended and ascended; in the darkness, every twist and turn seemed treacherous. Finally, we crested up onto a tall hillside and approached a single small house.
Andre related the story of his two married friends that lived here, maintaining parts of the park. The cabin was “off the grid,” and the maintenance head allowed them to live there for $300 a month— a price absolutely unheard of in Marin County. The friends were kind, we ate together, and spent time that night playing with a large laser pointer system that they had. The night was black and clear, and I strayed a bit from my friends, sitting on an old bale of hay and reflecting on the beautiful sky. The adventure would continue North the next day. We thanked the Californians for their hospitality and returned to 6500’s home in the city.
January 25th: We started our trip north on the 101, but the maximum speed we could sustain in the twists and turns of that road were not reasonable; we turned east about an hour north of Santa Rosa, and soon caught the I-5 outside of Reading. Flat fields of trees and irrigation systems lined the horizon as we turned north on the Interstate. From there, the landscape was less than notable, and I secretly wished we’d take one more day just to be able to drive the Coast instead of this additional faceless interstate. But that was the way of things, and once we reached the Shasta region I became more content. The lake was beautiful, the mountains around it just as notable. We drove on and on, crossing the border into Oregon and passing through Bedford as it began to rain. At one point, Lydia insisted we stop in an old town she had worked in some years before, and we bought hummus at a health food store. The miles passed easily with conversation and good music and it wasn’t too much more time before the southern suburbs of Portland began building up on the periphery of the Interstate. A short while later, I was dragging my things out of the Subaru and moving them upstairs into an apartment where one of my future housemates was living.
At this point, I should pause and explain how tricky this situation suddenly was. I had arrived before both Josh and Ryan; Josh’s band in New Hampshire had a gig opening for B.B. King in Concord at the end of January, and he wouldn’t be able to get out to Oregon for another week and a half. Ryan, on the other hand, had through an unfortunate turn of events had his truck impounded in Chicago and was short on money to get it out. Bethany, our third roommate and my friend from Biloxi, was in Portland, but was there rooming with another friend. Our lease didn’t start until February 1st, which meant I was to crash on the couch of a future roommate, who I’d never met until this very night.
I moved my guitar, two bags, and myself up to the third floor of this apartment building. Lydia, Bethany, and I sat and caught up for a bit. I walked downstairs and looked Lydia dead in the face, studded nose piercing, beautiful eyes, and all and suddenly secretly wished so much that she was staying with me. It was Lydia with whom I’d adventured around the country, Lydia who had become my surrogate big sister in that time, Lydia who I knew better than anyone in Oregon. But Lydia was off to crash with Marianna’s family for the night before continuing up to her Seattle adventure, and I did not want to intrude on Marianna in Portland; thus, we hugged in the drizzling rain and said good-bye. I watched the green Subaru pull out, around the block, and out of sight.
I never saw Lydia again.
January 26th– January 30th:
Bethany had a job of some sort, so I spent the next morning waiting for her to get off. In the meantime, I perused Craig’s List for potential employment.
I spoke with Erin as I searched.
“So what do you do here?”
“Oh, I’m unemployed.”
“Have you been the whole time?”
“No, I had a coffee shop job. But I’m looking for something else now.”
Her cupboards were evidence enough of the level of poverty that this shy hipster had lived in for the last year. The apartment itself was small and made for one, possibly two if neither minded sharing the bed every night. There was a futon, which was comfortable enough for one sleeping on couches and floors for weeks.
I looked over the jobs, and began to realize more and more how different a level of efficacy this was going to be. The best of the options were unattractive at best. Barista. Bartender. But I suppose I had known those would be my options, at the end of the westward road; I would be living my adventure and in turn, likely doing something I didn’t enjoy to pay the bills. Of course, there were more grandiose hopes. I told people before I left that I wanted to open a Used Book Store. I had grand plans for my book about my three months in the South.
I applied for a position in the City Planning office of Portland, and spruced up my application to reflect the extensive experience I had acquired with the City of Biloxi (i.e., gutting City Hall.) I spent the rest of the first day visiting the outside of our new house, relaxing in a dog park with Bethany and Erin, and eventually meeting other friends they had from St. Lawrence. Bethany was crashing with a couple from Hampden, Maine that knew my cousins up there in Bangor. We went out to Lebanese, and the first night ended uneventfully.
The second day, I think, was when it really started to hit me how inconsequential my existence was potentially going to be in Portland. The city itself was ripe and saturated with individuals like myself; there was general agreement among my generation that that case could be made for the big three, Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and Madison, Wisconsin.
Thus, when I broke it down, I was going to be a struggling artist in Portland, and was going to have to be more regimented than I’d ever been should I: (a) sustain income, (b) finish my book, and (c) stay happy with my life. I pondered this as the Craig’s List, Monster, and Jobs.com listings for Portland failed refresh time and refresh time again to pique my interest. I shouldn’t be in the city, I thought painfully on the futon over a drizzly afternoon, Rogue bottle between my legs. I should be in some fire tower somewhere, and just Dharma Bum it. But how could I figure that out? I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t exactly have the strongest environmental action background. On top of all that, I was running out of money.
I called friends over my time there, Lydia, Janos, discussing my malaise. To be happy and content. Janos was busy with the changes on the Coast, and Lydia was struggling herself in Seattle. When I expressed my doubt in the sustainability of my choice, she said follow your heart.
One night there I went out to a show, Hot Buttered Rum; they were a bluegrass folk group with a sick violinist. Bethany and the St. Lawrence kids danced around, enjoying themselves, but I found little contention in the music. I wanted to dance and be happy, but there was something under my skin at all times. I sipped my rum and Cokes and watched for a bit before making a decision to walk back home.
We had taken a taxi about two miles to get to the theater, so it was a long walk back in the rain. I huddled my shoulders together and charged down the street south. I walked past happy couples, homeless men, dissatisfied patrons staring listlessly out of fried chicken joints, and continued on in the rain. At one point I was under a bridge, and sat down to get dry for a moment.
Portland looked gray and foreign all around me. I had this strange sense that it wasn’t even a real place, that this municipality tucked here in the Pacific northwest couldn’t be real at all. It was so easy here, to escape into this scene and be pseudo-hipster, real hipster, live the dream and just be. I thought about Biloxi and what I had left behind. The meritocracy. The sense of ownership and purpose to one’s day to day operations in the routine of waking up and making use of your time. It was the exact opposite of what I felt in Portland, living on a couch without friends. While I knew things would look up as soon as Josh and Ryan arrived, I also knew that their arrival would only solidify my own place doing whatever it was I would do in Oregon.
I called my father up the next morning and talked about my concerns. He encouraged me to fly home to consider the next step from there. I thought about it for the rest of that day. I didn’t want to feel like I had bailed out of the great adventure, but I didn’t want the great adventure to trick me into languish. No, it wasn’t right for me to be here. I did not want to be a city planner or a barista. I did want to be a writer, but I knew this wouldn’t be all, and I was not satisfied with subscription to the service industry. And this was especially true considering I had left behind so many important people, missions, paths, and influences in my journey to the Northwest.
It was not the Northwest at all I had to realize. It was the time it took me to get there, and the experiences along the way that I needed to consider, the cadre of colorful characters, the ups and downs. There was a reason for all of it. I booked a flight home with a chunk of my waning savings account, paid Bethany the rest for the first month of rent and the security deposit, called Ryan and Josh to relay the news, and a few days later, retraced my way to the East Coast and flew into BWI.
I didn’t know what I was doing next, but I knew that I did not want to settle into the melting pot of streetlight dreams and latte resilience that awaited my future in Oregon. I had been exposed to something better than that, and I did not want to turn back now. I felt somewhere that I was capable of more. So, to Maryland to regroup.
Maryland, Dartmouth, Maryland
January 31st— February 22nd 2006:
I spent my first week and a half catching up with the few friends I still felt comfortable with. Many of my old crew from high school had moved on to Oakland (Paul,) New York, and Boston. I only had a trio of friends left from high school and an ex-girlfriend from the past summer in school at Towson.
Nikki was mostly the same as I’d left her— a beautiful, kind-spirited sorority girl with a ton of charming sarcasm. The welcome back was good, and got my mind off of San Francisco; however, there was an aspect of being in the Towson dormitories that did not sit right with me. I drank harder than I had in awhile, and wandered from party to party with Nikki. One night I got in an argument with her roommate’s cousin, who I discovered had been making out with Nikki, and put a hole in the wall of the hallway with my fist. Nikki didn’t seem to really care, but I did. I never went back to Towson after that.
On the home front, it was much of the same. Stephen, for example, was overly excited about getting a floor to himself in his parents’ new million-dollar condominium in the Tower Oaks complex off Montrose Road near I-270. We smoked cigarettes on his rooftop balcony as he pointed the homes of his neighbors, various professional athletes and Ferrari owners.
“So what now?” Stephen asked. I had no clue what the answer would or should be, so I never said anything besides law school in the fall. And even that didn’t seem so appealing. So I shrugged. I didn’t know.
That traffic ticket from Staunton caught up with me; I got a letter at home stating that I owed either $850 to Staunton County or five days in jail, and that the Commonwealth of Virginia had suspended my license for six months. I borrowed off of my graduation gift and paid the ticket. Then I researched shared information law on whether having an out-of-state license meant that I couldn’t drive in any state. There seemed to be a variety of opinions here and there on the issue; my final conclusion was that I was fine, and I would just avoid driving in the state of Virginia until July.
I perused Monster job listings, but the whole while I was still in touch with Janos. He didn’t end up getting the Director position once Hands On U.S.A. left, but was Assistant Director. The transition had happened pretty smoothly, Hands On Gulf Coast was the new name. T.C. and Kristen had headed out to New Orleans to help begin HONO out there. Carrie, Suzanne, Becca, Beth, Mark, and Mike were still out there. And new long-termers too. Another Dartmouth alum had rolled in, a guy named John Harlow, and he was set up to stay awhile.
Winter Carnival at Dartmouth was coming up, so I called Finch, Stephen Clarke, a few other friends to see whether or not I could catch up with the good ones while I was up there. I could, and I had nothing better to do, so one Wednesday I borrowed one of our cars and drove up to Hanover, New Hampshire from D.C.. I arrived at Chi Gam at 2 a.m. or so, marched straight into the basement, and played pong until 4 or 5. I remember throwing up in a stall of our always unsanitary bathroom, and staring down at the cap I’d bought in Santa Fe. And realizing no one would understand why I took it out, washed it by hand in the sink, and hung it up to dry.
It was good to see some old friends, but I felt out of place all the same. There was great juxtaposition in bumming around the frat house and simultaneously knowing that the work was still going on day by day in the South. I played video games, drank, ate food, and talked with the 06’s and 07’s. Eventually other alums showed up and it was good to catch up with those guys. But I felt different…even more so than when I came up for Homecoming with Janos. In talking with everyone around, I silently realized what a mess of a legacy I’d left for myself up at the Scam. While I had been playing ship, drinking, ordering food, and doing nothing productive, Kate and Sara had been making real memories across campus. I’m sure a bunch of people were. I felt strange being in a place where no one around me knew where I had been and what I had been doing. They remembered a different me. The same me that disappointed Blair, the same me that didn’t really do a whole lot with his life besides skate potential. I even stumbled upon an e-mail chain that this kid Schriff sent out making fun of me being up in the first place. To some people that operated in the standard fashion of success=job=money= togetherness, I was failing. I shook it off my shoulders, played more pong with Finch and the rest of them, and then got myself back down to Maryland.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that whatever life I was going to carve out for myself in the East would pale in comparison to what I could do in the South. The pitch back home was really more of a slingshot of pitching back to the South. Yes, sure, I could get that legal assistant job and commiserate with Abbey over drinks at Hard Times Café in Germantown, recounting the ho-hum apathetic stasis of our lives and talking about how it was all going to be better some day. But here and now, I was talking to Janos and Carrie O’Neil and the rest about what was going down. There was always a place for me down there. And that was hard to negotiate internally, when I knew that above all else, from my conversations with my peers, no one outside of Biloxi was doing anything they absolutely loved. Everyone was in a period of their lives where they were sloughing through the days, trying to have as much fun as they could in the night, but for the most part doing it for a better future. I knew that if I took a job in D.C. it would be the same. And ultimately, it was silly work. It was too many degrees out from the world, or helping people that had been through the shit. I had no ins that would let me do anything tantamount to what I had done in Mississippi.
So I thought about this, and sat around my house having dinners with my family at Chinese restaurants around Maryland. I would talk to Janos now and then, and get loose relations of what the life was like down there. Transitions. Changes. But nothing huge. Just ownership, the operational facets were the same. Crews. I missed crews, I missed swinging a hammer, pounding a crowbar, doing it like it was supposed to be done. I missed all of that and then some.
On one hand, I had outstanding resumes and applications to said law firms around D.C. They had nothing to do with Mississippi, they were mostly about how great I would be at analyzing addendums and grabbing coffee, all the same things I had run away from six months before. I sent these applications in with a reserved commitment to what was happening in front of me. One night I found myself staring at an Orbitz screen: one-way D.C. to Biloxi-Gulfport. One night is a lie, it happened many times. But the night it finally happened, I called up Janos one more time.
“Can you use me?”
“Of course we can. We’ll plug you right in. We have 200 people at camp at all times come March. It’s college spring break. It’s crazy. You would be a huge add. Let me know.”
The only place in the world that needed me and didn’t make me dance around the gamut was the place I loved the most. I booked a plane, and left home a week later. On the way out, my mother grabbed me. We’d been on better talking terms since I came back, but it was always strained.
“You’re going back.”
“Nothing I can do will change your mind. Of course it won’t. You do what you want these days. Go. Go.”
I booked a flight on February 23rd. I saw Nikki and Stephen on occasion, to say I’m going back, to say take care of yourselves, you are good people, best of luck, but I have to go back to Mississippi. How long am I going to be there? I’m not quite sure. Long enough. Long enough to do what’s right. That’s right. Everyone said, Jesus Christ, Will. Do what you want. Follow the path, but I don’t understand it. I said you don’t have to. This is what I’m doing.
I was going back to Mississippi.