I've been looking for work and love and a place to live for a while now, or at least that's what I thought I've been doing. I've had a number of jobs in my day, and I've had a number of loves too, but I haven't lived in a lot of different places. Nor, for that matter, had I been to a lot of places that I might want to live. So in a fairly spur decision, I packed up all my stuff and set off for The West. The night before I departed a friend asked "Is this a vacation, or a move?" I told her "If I come back, it was a vacation, if not, it was a move." The next day I got in my car replete with stand mixer and a potted plant, ready for whatever adventures laid ahead.
My destinations weren't entirely arbitrary, in fact they were anything but. I did a bunch of research and found places that at least on paper, at least as far as I thought I knew what I wanted, would be a good fit for me. As I already knew from extensive experience with online dating and finding jobs, "best fit" is more than just the highest number that our modern matching algorithms spit out, and I rarely know what I'm looking for as well as I think I do. How would I even go about evaluating places? I'd already run the numbers on things like weather and population, and I knew the decision would ultimately come down to a feeling in my gut. But the gut is so often wrong, so easily fooled and persuaded. Poor weather or a sickness and your gut has a bad memory of a place, yet those things can happen anywhere. I knew I'd need to get a good feel for the people, because ultimately the people are what make a city. Maybe I could pretend to trip and spill a bag of groceries on a busy sidewalk and see where people stop to help. Or maybe I could walk around in drag and see what kind of attention I get. Or maybe I'd just know.
I cried the whole way out of town. They were tears of emotion more than thought, and I'm still not exactly sure what they were about. I think they had something to do with leaving everything behind again, and I hoped that this trip would be the last time I had to do that. Fortunately I'd made the drive out of Madison enough times that navigating wasn't an issue, so all I needed to do was avoid the blurry blocks on the road around me. It's weird how cars seem to bring out the raw us, as if a bit of glass and a metal frame provide enough privacy, and a bit of motion enough anonymity, to feel that we can finally let go.
Maybe that's why I'm the most disheartened about humanity when I'm around other motorists. If cars bring out "the true us", then people must honestly be selfish. Without anonymity we hold doors and pause elevators, yet we speed up to stop someone from merging in traffic. White guys in dress clothes with bluetooth earpieces never wantonly endanger my safety on the street, yet they're quick to follow too close and cut in lanes without checking their blind spot. Beer cans and fast food wrappers that would go in a curbside trash can are carelessly stuffed out of moving car windows. I guess it doesn't take much to debase us to our natural state.
Perhaps that was it. If driving is when we're most real, and what I wanted was a quick test for the type of people in a city, then maybe driving could serve that purpose. Well, it would have to anyway since I'd always at least be driving in and out of town. "But not everyone drives, and not all drivers do those things!" True, driving couldn't be the sole judge of a place, but it could certainly factor in. It seems to me that to observe the loss of humanity in a place you need only look at how people treat each other on the road. Is this kind of behavior tolerated? Mimicked? Encouraged? When we stop taking at least partial responsibility for those around us, society breaks down.
My first stop was at Dr. Evermor's Forevertron, a scrap metal representation of a surrealist painting of a mad scientist's dream. I can only encourage you the reader to experience it firsthand. After that it was up into Minnesota, then over into South Dakota. Audio books helped pass the time. The first to go was Americanah, a fabulous book that I recommend for anyone. Man's Search for Meaning was next, and that one hit close to home. Meaning and purpose were things I'd been actively seeking for the last several years and had been having a hard time finding without kids or religion (or the prospect of having either), but Frankl gave me a bit of new perspective. Instead of one big meaning to life in general, maybe I could have several, frequently changing meanings. A mission which only I could complete, unconditional love for another human, my current task at hand. In fact my current task — finding a place to live — gave me a purpose and made me feel much much better.
I'd been in a fog during my time in Madison before this journey. I just couldn't focus. I realized that part of the problem was that I didn't have enough time to process. Because I didn't have a routine and because every day was different, it took everything I had just to keep up, and left no time to concentrate on my thoughts or feelings. With a concrete purpose and a swath of time to think, the fog gently lifted as I rode out over the plains. Perhaps the valleys of the Badlands momentarily trapped my mental fog however, because shortly after getting out of them I put diesel in my car when I stopped for unleaded gas. I got towed to the closest town then hoped on my bike and pedaled to the house of a couchsurfer who was nice enough to host me last minute.
I had learned on previous adventures to always enjoy the journey, and for this trip that meant detouring to any national park or great attraction that was at least kind of on my way. As I approached Mount Rushmore I got the distinct impression that I was driving into the heart of the American Dream, and wondered if the thing might swallow me whole. It was like the Vegas strip but for families, or the Wisconsin Dells but without the water. UFO black light mini-golf, zip lines, wax museums, the Cosmos Mystery Area, Flintstone's Bedrock City; what were all these things doing here in Black Hills South Dakota?
I drove on through the night, hoping to make camp at the base of the Beartooth Mountains. Night blindness isn't so much an affliction of the eyes as it is an affliction of the mind. I could see the mile markers clearly in front of me indicating that the road was about to turn, but I couldn't for the life of me tell in which direction. Nothing keeps you alert like hurling into the delirious darkness. I knew the turns were graded for 80mph and that slowing down would only put the mountains further out of reach, so I focused my attention and hung on for the ride: I was in fate's hands now, and I'd later learn that fate was still up the road.
Just after getting on the Beartooth All-American Highway I pulled off for the night. I had the national park campground all to myself, an event which was to recur throughout the trip. Faded sunlight on staggered mountains has always been one of my favorite sights, so the drive over the pass the following morning couldn't have been much more spectacular to me. I got out for a short hike at the top of the mountains and wondered if I was more Mongolian than most people. I feel like I belong on the steppe. The cold and the wind cuts me like it does everyone else, but I guess it's something I'm happy to endure for the high, harsh mountain plains.
My first real destination was the capitol of Montana. While I had a lovely time there, I sensed the city just wasn't right for me. For one thing it was too quiet and small, and apparently they only get soft winters. While the next destination, Great Falls Montana, wasn't right either, it provided some interesting experiences. After watching the large parade through the center of town I was inspired to go to their high school homecoming football game, and apparently so was the rest of the city. Football wasn't a big thing at my high school so this was a very foreign experience to me. The energy of the crowd quickly swept me up and I found myself cheering their classic cheers, and enraptured in their halftime performance which seemed to include all the K-12 kids in town that weren't playing in the game. That night I couchsurfed in a trailer park at the edge of town with an awkward guy that stayed up all night playing shooting games he said he didn't like, while I slept in a cot beside him.
Uncomfortable with the situation as I was, I got up early the next morning and left for Glacier National Park. After a couple of days there I went down to Missoula to check out the city and hang with a casual friend. As I ascended the Rockies on my way out of town I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker who told me he didn't have a destination. "I know that's hard to understand" he said shortly after getting in the car. Not as much as you'd think I thought, picturing the partly burnt cardboard sign that hung on my wall in Austin exclaiming "di manapun", Indonesian for "anywhere". I asked him what kind of place he'd like to get dropped off at and he said a smallish mountain town with a river flowing through it, which sounded like a pretty good idea to me. I stopped at the overlook to Lake Coeur d'Alene and found a few such places on google maps, and offered to take him anywhere he wanted to go. I wound up taking him from the Rockies to the Cascades.
As I did with all the hitchhikers I picked up, I asked him about his experiences hitchhiking in America, mentally comparing them to the few I had when I tried to get from Florida back to Wisconsin. They all confirmed that the north was much easier to hitchhike in than the south, and no one had good things to say about Florida. The place in the Rockies I had picked this man up from was quite odd and when he recounted his journey about getting there he told me about a ride he had from three women who had a fake eye in their car that they passed around as a prop and joked about the whole time he was with them. "Sounds to me like you hitched a ride with Fate" I told him, recalling the Greek myth of the three sisters to mind. It's funny the kind of people you meet when hitchhiking. A native american man I picked up on his way back from the protests in North Dakota told me how Robert De Niro had bought him lunch once when he was hitching the Pacific Coast Highway.
My next destination was Bellingham, a city on the north coast of Washington where every car seemed to have a kayak and snowboard rack on top, a bike rack on the back, and the harbor seemed to have more boats than the town had people. After a few days there I was due in Seattle for a hackathon which had inspired me to head this direction to begin with. The goal of the hackathon to was to break the school to prison pipeline by helping Teamchild be more effective, but unfortunately we didn't accomplish nearly as much as I had hoped for. It was the first year they held the event and hopefully next year a lot more gets done.
The Glass Bead Game kept me company as I drove to the Olympic Peninsula (or just "the peninsula" as the locals call it). I managed to pick a perfectly non-rainy three-day window for my excursion, and the hiking, to say nothing of the vibrant fall colors, was spectacular. I added a new item to my bucket list on the third day there: ice skate on a mountain top lake under the stars. After The Peninsula it was down to Washington's capitol, then back up to Seattle since my friend Avishai was in town and I hadn't seen him since Israel. For anyone that's been (un)fortunate enough to hear me rattle off jokes for the better part of an hour, or fill a hiking trip/car ride with riddles, you can thank Avishai for much of those.
I braved "the storm of the century" on my way down to Portland, and saw a couple great rainbows as I came into town. In fact, I saw quite a few spectacular rainbows on this trip and when I told my friend in Portland that, she said off the cuff "Oh yeah, it's rainbow season." Oh yeah, it's rainbow season?!?! Jesus, why had no one phrased it like that to me before? Eight straight months of light rain and complete cloud cover doesn't sound so nice, but "rainbow season", that sounds like something I could live with.
Of all the places I visited on the trip, Portland was probably the one I'd most like to live in. Neighborhoods, a good bike infrastructure, public transport, a thriving goaltimate community, greenery; Portland was definitely a nice place to live. But I realized something: all the places I visited would be fine places to live. None of them stood out over Madison, nowhere gave me the feeling that I just had to be there. Also, none of the places I visited seemed terribly diverse. Like Madison and Austin, all the cities seemed segregated if they had any diversity at all. Of the places I've been in the last couple months, Boston was the only place that felt really diverse, and it had a true diversity of more than just skin color, but also of character. There were so many different personalities in Boston, and I found that very refreshing.
Eugene felt most like home to me, but by the time I was there I was already ready for this trip to be over. I got sick in Bend and spent a night sweating in bed, and the rest of my trip home blowing my nose every 30 seconds. I still stopped at the national parks on the way back, but because I was sick I decided to stay in hotels instead of camping in the cold. I finished The Glass Bead Game before I left Oregon and while I wasn't completely taken with the book, I did enjoy this poem near the end:
Our days are precious but we gladly see them going
If in their place we find a thing more precious growing:
A rare, exotic plant, our gardener's heart delighting;
A child whom we are teaching, a booklet we are writing.
It called back to Frankl's view on meaning, and spoke personally to two of my biggest passions, gardening and teaching. The next book, Algorithms To Live By, proved all too fitting for me and my journey. The first chapter was all about "optimal stopping problems", the most famous of which is the secretary problem, which are basically things like choosing a job, a love, or a city to live in where you don't know what all the options are like until you explore them, but you constantly have to choose whether to stop with the best so far or whichever one you're currently assessing, or whether to keep on looking. I highly recommend the book for everyone, but if you don't wind up reading it the answer for the broadest set of problems is to spend the first 37% (1/e more precisely) of the total pool or time allotted exploring options, then pick anything that's better than what you've already seen after that, with a general threshold that lowers as you continue looking.
I haven't run the numbers for any of my cases, but I'm pretty sure I've got enough data to make an informed decision about any of the main things I'm currently trying to find. The book later goes on to talk about driving and why people are selfish (and perhaps should be) on the road, and exclaims that it's not really as big of a problem as we think (if everyone drove selflessly we'd only be about 30% more efficient). As a fitting final book for my journey, Goethe's Faust brought me to within an hour of home.
Have I chosen a place to live yet? No. Was the journey a success? Absolutely. I learned about my need to process, got a new perspective on meaning, and got a baseline to compare Madison against (plus I saw a bunch of beautiful parks and had a great time in general). I've got a job prospect in Seattle and another one in Madison, and I'm thinking about checking out Detroit. Regardless of where I end up I know I'll make the most of it, because being satisfied with life is a choice we all get to make. I certainly don't want to end up like Faust, so dissatisfied with life that I'd make a deal with the devil to strike me dead if ever I was content.Soundtrack: Original Magnificent Seven Theme