My friend – one of my best friends – watched me slam my trunk on a cold, wet Christmas Eve at around 2pm. It was the last door left to close.
I’m not a particularly gifted storyteller, and when I do tell stories, I often fill in gaps. But I won’t do so here. We just embraced like brothers do. Someone may have said “Be well” or “Good luck” or “Peace out.” But the doors were all closed now. And my friend – an amazing friend – closed the door to his own car and drove off into the Winter abyss, back to his girlfriend, his life, his Friday afternoon.
I watched the car drive away. Now it was my turn.
I climbed into the driver seat and spoke a brief soliloquy to my cat, Oreo, all caged up in her cat carrier with enough food, water and catnip to distract her from the hostage situation. And we meandered down U.S. Route 62 for one last lap around the block.
When I next got out of my car, I was at my Nana’s house.
It was a home I knew very well. It was my home after home had left, my home away from home, my home for when I came back home and my home when home was lost. My centering point, no matter what other faces awaited my arrival, it was the one constant place that endured 28 years of address changes, a rotating cast of characters, ups and downs.
I trudged out of the car that afternoon around 4pm, and I unloaded two cardboard boxes of things and memorabilia my Mother had that belonged to my Nana and carefully set them on the porch, along with a Christmas Card about as eloquent as I could muster.
I rang the doorbell and waited. 10 seconds. 30 seconds. 60 seconds.
I peered inside and thought of all the times from all my years of peering inside that 6″ crack between the door and the doorway where all is transparent and the steadily decreasing heights from which I peered through that crack all the way back to being young, with a vibrant grandfather just a couple decades older than I am now and younger than my parents currently are hiding behind the door panel pretending not to notice us loud kids raising a ruckus, begging to be let in. No such pretending this time.
Nobody home. I stared right into that low, dull, wooden kitchen table and through the back window to the house I was born in, and through that window into my old kitchen, and my sight refracted through the glass backward through time back to when we were all very much alive, and close, and together.
I looked long and hard. 2 minutes. 3 minutes. And in the freezing cold, I turned away and shuffled off that porch one more time, the way I always did in the winter, whether I was ready to walk back through the yard or ride 176 miles back to Utica. I took one last look at the Christmas Tree in the front window. There would be a Christmas for her. Nana’s daughter and her grandchildren will burst through that front door and unwrap presents in joy. I’ll just look at that front door on my way out and put the car in drive.
I listened to the afternoon sports radio show on WGR, Schopp and The Bulldog – which, if you can avoid listening to them, you probably should, since they’re as bad as a Small City Afternoon Sports Radio Show could be covering a 4-12 football team and a hockey team that just lost their leading scorer for the season – and remembered. I remembered playoff post-game reports and late night ESPN radio updates driving home from parties and commutes to and from work before car CD players were a thing, peppered with fatalist football quasi-analysis.
As I crossed into Pennsylvania around 6pm, I listened to the eerie crackle and fuzz of the station fading away. Perhaps I should stay for the next segment when they interview that prominent coach of whatever. I hope that interview went well. I didn’t make it that far, because I had to keep moving farther.
Some time around 11pm, I called one of my buddies who lived in South Bend, Indiana at the time and let him know I’d be passing through. Earlier this year, we’d spent some time heckling drunk Notre Dame students while cheering for the wrong team at a football game at the hallowed grounds. He told me he’d have some Absinthe at the ready for me to ring in a very Merry Christmas.
I brought in my cat in her carrier into the spare room, and dragged in a change of clothes, and we played some NCAA ’11 and drank Absinthe and I called my dad to let him know that he’d see me for Christmas the following day.
I didn’t get much sleep at all. By 7am, my cat and I were gone. Split town again. The never-ending Quest For Something More must continue. I thanked my friend for his hospitality and wished him and his family well. And he drove a few miles up the road to Niles to celebrate another Christmas.
I drove past Chicago in a blinding snowstorm and made it to Iowa to visit my dad, his wife and my sister for Christmas. It was comforting to see so many faces I recognized and loved so far away from home. I spent four days in their company, equal parts nostalgia and euphoria. We opened presents, ate prime rib, drove a few golf balls at an indoor driving range. I felt at ease and briefly at home. My mind relaxed. My cat … not so much.
My cat barely picked at her food. She didn’t move much outside her carrier in the spare room. All rooms are spare rooms when they’re not yours.
On the evening of December 28, I left Des Moines, Iowa and headed for St. Louis, Missouri, where I would spend the evening with a friend of mine I’d only briefly met a few months prior – she was the new roommate of a friend I’d met through her former roommate. Another familiar face in an unfamiliar place.
The trip was cold, dark, and haunting.
I stopped briefly in the Middle-of-Nowhere-in-Winter town where the American Gothic House stood. I pulled off course through the small village to see it first hand. It was every bit as unimpressive as it was painted to be. It was just the type of cold, creepy thing that absolutely would be a must-see when you’re pumping gas in total darkness and at some undefined coordinate between home, nowhere, sanity and your destination.
By the time I’d reached St. Louis, it was almost midnight. My friend had just gotten home from a Blues game and wasn’t feeling well, but she offered me a couple beers and let me crash on the couch in her basement.
When I woke in the morning, her mom made me some breakfast – eggs and potatoes and some meat for the road, and I shared some stories with these kind strangers I’d never have the chance to thank again in person. The family told me before I left I needed to try some Pizza on The Hill and check out The Arch and Busch Stadium, which I did since I was there and because how will I justify being in St. Louis and NOT doing these things and I don’t want to get hit by a bus and think, “Shit. I really under-valued the St. Louis Experience.”
It was a cold, grey, sleeting morning. Couldn’t have been more than 40 degrees outside and a very depressing, mid-life crisis 40 at that.
My friend and I embraced one more time before I hit the road, some time around 11am on the morning of December 29. As I pulled away from the home, I watched her turn back inside, and continue on with nursing her way back to health and making small talk with her mom and sister.
Missouri is a big state. I mean, it’s technically not that big – not that I am a cartographer or anything – but driving through it felt like driving through the past and into the future.
There were towns called “Sleeper” and hills they called “Ozarks” and a Steak-n-Shake just outside of Springfield where I stopped to grab some lunch because I’ve heard of Steak-n-Shake and hadn’t seen anyplace here on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives before which is pretty much the only way I determine if I should eat some place is if some bleach-blonde porcupine in a bowling shirt calls it the “Mayor of Flavor-Town.”
As I drove through Missouri, I watched snow-cover dissipate into the past. I watched the cold gradually, painfully cede until I reached Joplin and within spitting distance of Arkansas.
My mind wandered a lot as day turned to dusk and each exit went from being an unknown to a reality to a distant memory faster than my brain could process each. “What if I stopped here? What is life like?” How could I be sure? I felt like I was leaving reality in the dust – a village on the road to somewhere else.
I stopped for gas after crossing into Oklahoma. Ordinarily, this isn’t an important detail, but it is because you all know that thing that immediately hits you when you go on vacation somewhere South of home. That first loving caress of nature’s calming breath upon your face. And you take your jacket off because you’re not home anymore. And you let it marinate through your nasal passages and reverberate through your pores.
It was probably in the mid-50s at around 7pm on I-44 in Oklahoma. But it felt like I had just ascended into heaven. I was now officially, purely, finally in virgin territory – in a wilderness far from home. I was a pioneer destined for wherever I chose. A pioneer. With a house cat.
I stopped into Tulsa and downed a short pint of Pyramid Hefeweizen at a downtown bar, decked out in an Iowa State sweatshirt, peering around in awe at total strangers. I made no talk except “please” and “thank you.” I chuckled under my own breath. When I returned to my car to let the cat out to do her business, she ducked under other cars and I was petrified I’d leave this poor, defenseless creature in Tulsa, Oklahoma alone to die. But we made this journey as a team, and we would complete it as a team. And for 35 agonizing minutes, I kept watch while she eventually returned to me – ready to continue onward and westward. We stopped in Oklahoma City, where a sign greeted us asking if we’d like to exit to U.S. Route 62. Same road as home. Different home … that wasn’t nor wouldn’t be home to me.
Around midnight, I pulled into an unassuming hotel that only takes cash in a place called Paul’s Valley, the type of place you’d forget about even if you lived there.
I brought my cat inside and turned on ESPN. I was exhausted, but I could not sleep. This is where it hit me, finally, that I’d willingly and of my own design uprooted my entire existence just because I could. That everything I knew, everything I was, everyone I’d grown up and old with, are now somewhere else. And that I made this journey alone. Sorry … alone, with a cat.
Eventually, I dozed off to Neil Everett’s soothing baritone. And life, in those twilight hours of consciousness, briefly regained a somnolent semblance of sanity.
I rose before dawn and drove into Texas. I hit Dallas morning rush hour. These are people going to work on a Thursday. There is routine here. But routine was foreign now. This commute is anything but routine.
I stopped at a Starbucks and drank coffee outside on December 30. At 8am. I texted all my friends to taunt them. But it was I who was teased, for none of them could join me. Bragging is no substitute for sharing.
I saw a sign: “Round Rock Next 6 Exits.” For the first time, my journey felt like it had a definitive end. I had heard of Round Rock, and knew it was close to where I would settle. I passed an Ikea, where I would shop for furniture, because I would need some.
And then came Austin. A land of opportunity. A city of ideas. A place plucked from a short list of six as “The Very Best City To Live In Given The Choice To Live Anywhere – and I Had The Choice To Live Anywhere.”
I pulled into my apartment complex just before noon and breathed the morning air. It was 70 degrees and I worked up a sweat lugging my things up three flights of stairs into my empty new home. I dropped off my cat. I dropped off everything that traveled with me – some 500 pounds of streamlined clutter that now came to define my very existence.
Now that I’d come that far, it was time for me to go the rest of the way.
A gal with whom I’d become friendly waited for me in San Antonio, to host me for New Year’s. I grabbed a rose to say “Hello”, and “Thank You,” then made the 80-mile drive down I-35 in insane amounts of traffic to meet her and her friends at a local brewpub.
And when I opened the car door and she came out to greet me, I saw the way her face lit the night sky and it made me as warm as the first breath of fresh air west of Missouri. The car windows in my heart had all been rolled down. And I knew at that moment there’d be a warm, comforting place for me in a cold, isolated pasture. There still is.
I’ve never once retraced my steps backwards.
I’ve never been back to Oklahoma. I’ve never returned to St. Louis. I’ve never seen that friend I stayed with. I haven’t been back to Iowa. I haven’t seen my dad or his wife or been at that home. I once saw Chicago 5 times in 14 months, but I haven’t been back since. I’ve never returned to South Bend, and my friend who lived there is gone. I’ve driven through Ohio scores of times but haven’t seen the state since. I haven’t listened to WGR. I haven’t seen my Nana. I’ve never seen any of my friends from Buffalo and I’ve never been back home.
Life, man. It gets in the way of life. And there’s a lot of it that needs to be addressed in the here and now. There’s always too much to do and not enough to share.
The entirety of the trip, from the bit players to the major scenes, lies dormant, untouched and collecting dust. That life. That thing that happened that led up to this magical quest to somewhere New and Exciting. It’s crystallized in the back of my mind. Frozen. In my head, when I return, it will be December 25, 2010 in Buffalo, New York. I’ll be 28. I’ll be expecting big things from the world. I’ll talk about a girl I know in San Antonio and how sweet she’s been to me, and I’ll sling drinks with my pals and stare through that window at my Nana’s house back through time again back to a time when everything felt so close and the future felt so far away and probably somewhere warm.
And then I turn to my left, right now, present day, and my cat snuggles up with me in my new bed while I type onto this new computer while I watch ESPN and Neil Everett on this new TV and that same girl from before who I can now pretty safely call my girlfriend and I text on this new phone I have. And this new city is not so new anymore, and these new people aren’t so new anymore and I have memories and a new job with a daily commute and places to go and drive golf balls. And I can still chat with my friends on Facebook and call my parents when I feel like saying “hey.” And life’s not all that different than it was before. Just with new stuff and a new return address.
But the old life, the old haunts, the old people and places and things I held dear – they’re growing up, growing old, moving on and moving out. They’ve got new homes of their own and new jobs and new friends and new families. And their lives are different, and their lives have changed.
And I realize I traveled 3,000 miles to not change with them. We really do this life alone, and our every step and every choice are ultimately experiences we can never fully share no matter who we’re with or where we are at the time. We can’t retrace our steps. We can’t un-see where we’ve already been and we damn sure can’t travel back through time or skip ahead to the good stuff.
We can only step out of the car every chance we get, let ourselves get overcome with joy and confidence despite the omnipresence of the unknown, and smile while we let the wind wash over us like an exfoliating scrub.