This is the real life. This is the fantasy.

It took me weeks to remember how to eat. It’s weird the way you lose certain things when you get out of practice. The first day after I was back I knew I had to go grocery shopping, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of what to get. I knew that before my trip I cooked all the time and had plenty of go-to meals I could make. I just couldn’t remember what any of them were. I had a lot of Thai take-out that first month.

There was much to do when I got home, which was good because it kept me busy. I was back at work within a week, but thankfully my boss agreed to have me be part-time for a while until my personal life settled down and we built a new position for me in the company.

I gave my tent a thorough cleaning in the laundry room sink and hung it out to dry in the sun.

I slowly remembered what things I liked to make and eat, and I filled the pantry and fridge again.

I put away all of the clothes I had been traveling with, and started wearing shirts I hadn’t seen in months.

I found homes in my apartment for all of my little specialty items, like my 5 gallon bucket and the last of my citronella candle.

And for a while, I felt terrible.

I certainly couldn’t have explained it at the time, and I can only guess at it now. There hadn’t been anything life-changing on my trip, and I hadn’t expected there to be. I came home to friends and family that I loved, and a job that appreciated me. Life was just as good as it had been before, but I was walking around in a daze.

I generally kept my feelings to myself, since I wasn’t sure what they were. My boyfriend Rob knew of course, since as my roommate he was present for all those times I just felt awful and didn’t know why. One such night he asked me if I thought a walk might make me feel better, since it usually does. He said over the summer he had found a little spot not far from our apartment that had a great view of the city at night. I told him I wasn’t sure it would help, but I’d give it a try.

It was October. Summer was over, and the Seattle evenings were getting chilly again. It was a clear night though, and the air was fresh as always. When we got to the spot we sat down on a bench. We were looking over the water as it reflected the city lights. There was a dull roar from the bridge overhead. He was right. It was beautiful.

I tried to tell him why I was upset, which was hard since I didn’t know myself. I started rambling about society and expectations and housing and marriage and worst of all – the 40 hour work week. There had been so many things I took for granted as normal before. I guess in my time away I’d seen so many people go against the norm – including myself – that I couldn’t bear to think I’d still have to live under it my whole life. I couldn’t bear to think that everyone else was going to do so without even knowing there was another way.

FootprintsThe blogosphere is saturated with people trying to tell you to go on adventures and live your life and give up your day job and make money online. I know because they all sign up to follow my blog, probably in the hope that I’ll follow them back. I don’t though, because most of them are trying to sell that life to you. They’re trying to convince you that for as little as following their blog or as much as buying their book, you too can live a life of happiness.

But it’s a lie.

You don’t even need to do that.

Nothing life-altering happened to me on the road, and that is the idea that altered my life. There was nothing I did that is not entirely achievable by the vast majority of people. We convince ourselves such things are out of reach because it’s so much easier to not do anything at all. It’s easier to take on the hardships that we recognize – the hours of monotonous work, the unending mortgage, the debt, the drinking, the kids, the suits, the air conditioning. And ultimately all of that is no more or less work than climbing out of a canyon or confronting your enemies or spending hour after hour with only yourself for company. Settling down is just as hard as staying rootless. There are so many things to do and be out there, and we choose so few of them. When I got home I couldn’t stand the thought that I was still a part of that machine. I won’t work 9-5 forever, but 9-5 won’t end when I stop. Because everyone I meet will still be weighed down by the expectation that this is all there is, and I’ll spend my days being told I’m brave or I’m lucky or maybe they’ll say nothing and just give me that same suspicious smile.

It’s been a year since I left. The world spins on and so do I. I have dreams that I’m working towards, and I intend to reach them. And in those dreams I’m doing that which makes me happy and fills me with joy, and I am not burdened with anything I don’t absolutely adore. In those dreams I work only as much as I need to, and never because I have to. And in the most fantastic of those dreams, no one thinks it strange.

The Boston Challenge: Part Two

Harvard GatesFor my second day in Boston I wanted to visit Harvard. I looked up the tour times and caught a train I thought would get me there just in time for the 10AM tour. When I arrived at Harvard Square Station I only had a few minutes to find the Harvard Info Center where the tours were supposed to take place. I took off immediately in one direction, but quickly realized I was going the wrong way. I began to speed-walk the other way and had gone a good four blocks before realizing that I was right the first time. I turned around and picked up the pace. I caught sight of the Info Center and practically ran through the doors and up to the woman at the counter as the clock struck ten.

“Unfortunately all our guides are students and we’re between quarters right now,” she told me. “Our summer tours ended yesterday.”

Rats.

“Do you have a smart phone?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said out of breath and masking my disappointment.

“There’s a free audio tour you can download if you’d like,” she said with a smile. “It will take you all over Harvard Yard.” I thanked her and ducked into the hall to download the guide.

Harvard ChapelI followed my phone as it led me from building to building in the area I had so quickly ran past just a few minutes earlier. I listened as the polite voice explained the history of the structures and their uses. I couldn’t go inside any of the buildings, but the yard itself was littered with chairs for the tired student and/or tourist. As a professional tour group went by I overheard a young women explaining that the chairs were Harvard’s solution to the fact that they don’t really have a student lounge anywhere. My audio guide told me I could go inside the chapel, but there was a funeral going on and the place was surrounded by security guards tasked with keeping out lookie-loos like me. I found a set of steps nearby and took a few minutes to rest in the sunshine.

Big ChessI’m not really sure what I was hoping to get out of a visit to Harvard, but whatever is was I didn’t find it. I suppose it holds some strange Ivy League mystique, as through you will show up and magically look through the past at the hundreds of brilliant people who have passed through its gates. But in the end, it’s just a school. The same old buildings that undoubtably feel too far apart in the winter when it’s cold and you’re rushing to class. The same prospective student tours parading through. The same silence inside buildings when you’re in between academic quarters. And while I’m sure the education one gets at Harvard lives up to the reputation, in the end, the reputation is what it’s all about. That’s why it’s in our consciousness. That’s why you’ve heard of it. But you can’t really visit a reputation. You can’t get off the train and take a look at renown. Harvard is just a collection of buildings, the sort you might find at any old and decently-funded institution. I went to a public school on the West Coast. There was ivy growing on our walls, too.

By recommendation I went to Mr. Bartley’s for lunch. I sat at the counter and, like at lunch the day before, I was served by a man who seemed to own the place. The logo in the window was a clover leaf, and a sign above the cooking areas said “Irish NEED NOT Apply.”

Boston Tea PartyHaving completed my short tour of the Harvard area, I caught the train back into town to visit the site of the Boston Tea Party. Like happens sometimes, there is a highly visible area commemorating the event with a museum, a reconstruction of a ship, and plenty of ways for tourists to spend their money. However the actual spot in which the city has erected a plaque (and the site of the real event), is set off to the side and around the corner. In fact it’s a bit difficult to find the Boston Tea Party Plaque. It’s attached to a seemingly arbitrary building with no other stores or signs around it. But I suppose that’s what happens sometimes with historical locations. Simply because the area was important once doesn’t mean it can or will stay that way. In the case of the Boston Tea Party, the actual shipping dock no longer exists at all, having long since been replaced by more useful docks in other locations.

MassacreIn contrast, the site of the Boston Massacre is in the middle of a still busy and thriving intersection. It makes sense, as people rarely form mobs in out-of-the-way locations. The Boston Massacre is marked by a decorative ring on the ground, and is as easy to miss as the Tea Party sign for the complete opposite reason. A person could miss the Tea Party marker because it’s off to the side. A person could miss the Massacre ring because it’s so central. The intersection is packed and moving at all times, and it’s easy to let your eye move onto one of the impressive nearby buildings or an eclectic passerby.

I crossed the city to Newbury Street to see the shops. Shopping holds little interest for me normally, and no interest for me while traveling. Still, it’s sometimes fun to see the ways different stores appeal to different cities. I never miss an opportunity to slip into a comic book shop, and I saw a sign for one on Newbury. To my surprise, there were almost no comics in the entire store. Most comic book stores these days have large selections of related merchandise, and many make more money selling Superman action figures than Superman comics, but I’d never seen such an extreme example. I managed to find an aisle or two of comics in the back, and the rest of the store was music, movies, and clothing. I wondered what kind of transition such a place had to go through to start out as a comic book store but end up selling everything else. I wondered if they ever thought about changing the name.

Leif EricksonWith some effort I managed to find the statue of Leif Erickson on the nearby Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Per instructions from a priest/judge I know, I stood in front of it and sang “I’m a Little Teapot.” I like to think of it as a sign of respect to the first European to land on North American soil.

It seemed a bit early for dinner, but I was too hungry to care. A friend had mentioned the “Daily Catch” in the north end, and I hopped on the train again. The restaurant was very small – there were only five tables. One such table was extra long and had one couple seated at the far end. I took a seat on the opposite end as it was the only space available. The menu was written on the wall in chalk. The one and only waitress said hello and, upon request, endorsed the black pasta with ground squid. By her tone I could tell she got asked the question a lot, and that she rarely had complaints after patrons followed her standard recommendation.

As she went to hand my order to the one and only cook, a family walked up to the restaurant door. The man asked the waitress how long they would have to wait for a table of four. She turned around to look at her five full tables and told him at least a half an hour. In normal circumstances the wait times given at restaurants seem very abstract. I always imagine a series of equations involving the flow of staff and the time it takes to turn over a table. Of course in reality these calculations that are based on guessing how long it takes people to eat dinner. When this waitress said the wait would be 30 minutes, I knew exactly which table she was thinking would be finished around that time. And the people at the table knew, too, since the restaurant was so small we could all hear the conversations she had at the door. I think most people understand intellectually that restaurants know how we eat better than we do, but there’s something strange about seeing a group of people and knowing you are the only reason they are still waiting.

Line out the DoorThe man’s wife took the kids across the street to pick up some pastries for later. More people got in line behind them. By the time I left the Daily Catch, there were more people in line than inside. I walked down the street to pick up a treat from Modern Pastry. They packaged it up in a box and wrapped it in string with the same quick dexterity I had witnessed the day before at Mike’s Pastry. On the train ride back to the hotel I checked my list. I was proud of all that I had managed to see, and mournful of all the things that had been left unseen. Should I have spent more time on the Freedom Trail? Was one scoop of ice cream at JP Licks really enough? Had the New England Aquarium really been worth the two hours I spent there, or should I have spent some time at M.I.T.?

AquariumThe problem with The Boston Challenge is that it goes on forever. Boston is a packed and beautiful city. There’s long history at The Old North Church and short history at Fenway Park. I think of it like Rome and Seattle. Some cities have too many nooks and crannies to ever get old. And even if they do, it’s so easy to find a new favorite park or restaurant or cafe. There’s always somewhere you want to go back to. And I will go back to Boston.

If nothing else, I still need to watch the Red Sox play the Yankees.

The Long and Winding Road Towards Leaving on a Jet Plane

We interrupt your regularly scheduled road trip to bring you a wedding.

I’ve known Shannon for many years and have had the chance to work on some terrific theatrical projects with her. She’s helped me through my relationship woes, and I’ve watched as she systematically narrowed down the field of available men until she found one she wanted to spend her life with. I’ve been excited to see Shannon get married since long before she was engaged. Since long before she was dating her would-be husband, in fact.

So when she announced her wedding date earlier in the year and I realized it would be smack in the middle of my trip, it took me all of five seconds to respond with a shrug: “I’ll just have to fly back then.”

Trip EstimateMy plans started, as they so often do, with math. I looked up the distance between each of my 24 benchmark cities and used them to calculate the overall milage of the trip. Then I took that estimate and split it up into milage markers by percentage in intervals of 10 percent. I then matched up those milage marks with the matching cities, and with a corresponding set of percentage markers for calendar dates. It sounds like a lot of work until you realize how much I love making referential fields in Excel. The end result was a date for every city on my list. As I traveled I would know if I was running ahead or behind my goal of getting back home in four months. This list was helpful for a lot of planning on my trip, but it was crucial for the wedding. It showed me that to stay on track, I should be near the mid-atlantic coast by the weekend of Shannon’s wedding.

I looked up flights online, utilizing my years of practice as a personal assistant booking flights for my boss. I tried a selection of major airports in the area, and all signs pointed to Baltimore. Every flight I could find was cheaper flying out of Baltimore. This included one flight that went from Baltimore to New York and then to Seattle, but was still cheaper than taking that same plane straight from New York. I guess they have trouble selling those Baltimore flights. The wedding was on Saturday, so I booked a flight for Friday evening. Because the time change would be on my side, I could leave at around 6PM and still get to Seattle before midnight. For the flight back, a red-eye was my only option. Nothing left during the day on Sunday, and I knew I didn’t want to try to fly out the night of the wedding. So I would leave Seattle late Sunday night and arrive back in Baltimore early Monday morning.

Now for my car. I knew several people who lived in the greater D.C./Baltimore area, so I considered asking one of them if I could park at their place. But I figured it couldn’t hurt to look up airport parking and I found that at the Baltimore airport, long-term parking is only $8 a day. They really want people to fly out of Baltimore.

Before I left I explained my plans to my boyfriend Rob. After I said everything he repeated it back to me to make sure he had it correct.

“So you fly out of Baltimore on Friday evening and get to Seattle that night. You’ll have the morning to rest and then we’ll go down to Tacoma for the wedding – ”

“Wait,” I said, “How will we get to the wedding?”

“Drive?” he said, a bit confused.

“In whose car?” I asked him.

There was a brief pause as we both realized that out primary means of transportation would be 3000 miles away on the day that we had to dress in fancy clothes and travel an hour out of town. Luckily we had plenty of friends who would be making the same drive from Seattle to the wedding that day, and before long we had managed to secure two spots in my friend Carrie’s car.

In packing for the trip, I had to decide ahead of time what I would wear to the wedding. If I knew what I was wearing, I could bring back any needed purses/jewelry/shoes I had brought with me on my trip. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. The last time I went to Europe I had to fly straight from Rome to L.A. in order to be at my cousin’s wedding. I had to choose my outfit and give it to my mother two months in advance so she could bring it down with her and I wouldn’t have to lug it around the European continent. But these are the things you do when important stuff is happening to those who are important to you.

By what could be described as either luck or misfortune, four days before my flight I caught my tire on the sharp end of a curb while pulling off at a viewpoint on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The scrape wasn’t severe and didn’t seem to be leaking air, but it wasn’t pretty and it made me nervous. At the same time, I was about to hit another 5,000 mile mark on my odometer and felt like an oil change and checkup might be in order. As I drove through Virginia I tried to figure out when might be a good time to take my car in to the shop. Ideally I would do it while staying with friends who had a vehicle, which would allow me to drop it off and not worry about timing. Alternatively I considered trying to schedule an appointment on a day when I didn’t have much planned, and I could hang out at the shop while they did the work. And then it hit me: I could have them fix my car while I went to the wedding.

I found a Volkswagen dealership not far from the Baltimore airport, and I looked on their website to see if they offered a shuttle service. They did, provided you were within 15 miles of the dealer. The airport was 13 miles away. I called to make my appointment and confirmed that it would be okay if I wasn’t able to pick up the car until Monday. And that’s how I managed to get free parking at a secure location and complimentary transportation to and from the airport while not allowing vehicle maintenance to take away from my other travel experiences. I felt like an absolute genius.

The wedding was beautiful and Rob and I were there for a full eight hours. The event was at a friend’s private home, which meant the couple could invite people to show up early as well as stay late. It was nice to have a somewhat accidental chance to say hello to all my friends in the middle of my trip. And it allowed me to finally answer a different question when talking about the journey: “So where are you right now?”

Several of us chose to get hotel rooms in town for the evening, and Shannon invited us back in the morning for a post-wedding breakfast. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a wedding where I had so much bride time, and over breakfast we discussed the various traditions the couple chose not to bother with (first dance, throwing the bouquet, cutting the cake) and how none of those traditions were really missed. Many of my friends are in long term relationships, and we’re getting to the point where we no longer talk about potential wedding plans with embarrassment. It’s funny to think that there is that time during your early twenties when you both want to talk about it but don’t want to let anyone hear you, for fear you’ll accidentally turn on the pressure for both you and your partner. At this point we’ve all survived the pressure, and no one is concerned about complimenting the choice to have bridesmaids match with a color pallet rather than a particular dress.

After breakfast we took it upon ourselves to help clean up the house and yard, which I think made us all feel better about getting such a delicious free meal for the second day in a row. The team of a dozen or so friends and family made quick work of collapsing the tables, gathering the linens, and taking down the couple hundred candle lanterns that were used as light and decoration the night before. Shannon kept insisting that we didn’t have to help, and we kept helping anyway. A good time was had by all.

We drove back home with Carrie and our friend Laurie (also visiting from out of town), and I managed to spend my last remaining hours cleaning up all the junk I had brought home that I decided I didn’t need on the trip. I kissed Rob goodbye, and went to wait for the #40 bus to take me downtown to catch the light rail to the airport. As I stood on the corner waiting for the bus, it occurred to me how ordinary it all felt. There was no sudden jolt with coming home. It was all easy and natural. My home, my neighborhood, my friends – all of them were exactly as I left them, and I felt just as unchanged. As I type that it seems like a negative, but it was a comfort. It was proof that making big choices and having big adventures won’t always require or cause big life changes. Your friends are still your friends, your city is still your city.

There was one part of flying back home that was unsettling. It happened on Friday night on the plane ride to Seattle. I had to change planes in Texas, and I remember looking out the window as we were about to touch down. Texas. It had been so long since Texas. So much had happened even before I got to Texas, and so much had happened since then. And here it was again, right below me. It took me 37 days to get away from Texas and only 3 hours to get back. And soon I would be home, two months and 7,000 miles away.

I suppose it was closer than Rome.