How old was I then? 23? 24? I couldn't have been older than 25, because 25 was when I moved to Taiwan.*
It wasn't long after I came back from Montreal, Canada. I spent a week up there as part of some negligible TESOL course, thinking that the crappy certificate they gave me would somehow help me find a job in Asia. As it turned out, this certificate was about as much use as an eleventh toe, but I did have a great time in Montreal.
After arriving back in Seattle, I began going through one of the weirder phases of my life. I was desperately in love with this Indian girl I was dating, but the feeling wasn't reciprocal. I was also between schools, between jobs, and embroiled in one of those self-destructive "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" inner monologues that ruin even the most ideal situations. Oh, and I also got kicked out of the place I was living.
So what was I supposed to do? The thought of going back for another round of college didn't appeal to me, and any jobs I was qualified for seemed amazingly repetitious. I spent an afternoon mournfully staring at a wall, got in my car, and started driving.
In the beginning my plan was to drive to Florida. I suppose that if I really wanted to "get away" I would have driven to Mexico, but I didn't speak Spanish and I had seen too many Westerns. Florida was a safer second choice, and it was also the farthest I could get from Seattle and still be in the continental U.S.
Too bad I never made it that far. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had. Instead I drove to Idaho, where I lived for a short time, and then on to Montana, Oregon, Nevada, and California. All told I spent over a month living between my car, various campsites, and secluded spots near highways. I ate most of my meals out of cans, slept beneath the stars (if not beneath the roof of my car), and learned how to live upon the kindness of strangers.
I have two very strong memories of that time. One is driving up into the Cabinet Mountains on the Idaho/Montana border, looking down at sparkling lakes and screaming along with "Master of Puppets" as it blasted from the back of my car. The other is a slightly morbid episode involving a fireman, a guy who shot himself (in the balls) with a .57 magnum, and a search for his body at 1 in the morning.** As said above, it was a weird month.
I also met a lot of strange people during that time. I suppose this makes sense because I was in a strange place myself. I lived with a girl in Idaho who was slowly dying of some disease I'd never heard of. I met a guy in Nevada who'd been driving back and forth along the same highway for five years. I started up religious debates with park rangers, and went to a great concert where I met a bunch of truly odd concert goers.***
I learned a lot about myself during that month, and also a lot about my country. I learned that I could handle most situations as they arose, and I learned that worrying so much was often a waste of time. I learned that most Americans are good people, however arrogant, or racist, or downright strange they might appear at first. More than anything, I learned just how BIG the U.S. is, and how silly it was to focus so much on just one part of it. And I learned that beyond the U.S. lay Canada, Mexico, and the whole rest of the world.
I think it was that trip that really prepared me for the move to Taiwan, even if it was a while before I took the steps of finding work here, buying a plane ticket, and showing up. After that month of wandering I didn't feel like anywhere was so far, or that there were many things I couldn't handle. After that journey I was a lot more open to possibilities, and I knew that America - however far within it I roamed - was just the tip of the iceberg.
Yes, I spent parts of that month hungry, and lost, and looking for a corpse, but there were also the friendly smiles of strangers, the wind through the desert at night, and the hum of an engine as I followed an unfamiliar road into an unfamiliar state. Taken the right way, the whole of life can be like that single month - full of strangeness and exhilaration, full of bad things and good things, and full of wonder for those with both the right attitude and the will to see what lies at the end of every road, no matter how late it is, or how much gas you have left in the tank.
1. a. The World
1. c. My State
1. d. My City
1. e. My Neighborhood
**He bled to death while we were climbing down a cliff to look for him. We found him floating in the ocean not long after.
***Steel Pulse, in Santa Rosa California. The venue was only 1/4 full, but those of us who were there all really, really loved that band. It remains one of the best concerts I've ever been to.