My friend — one of my best friends — watched me slam my trunk on a cold, wet Christmas Eve at around 2 p.m. It was the last door left to close. We 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, 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 before embarking on a solo voyage to my new home of Austin, Texas.
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 me, 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 and hard left turns.
I trudged out of the car that afternoon around 4 p.m., and I unloaded two cardboard boxes of things and memorabilia my mother had stored for years, and carefully set them on the porch, along with a Christmas Card about as eloquent as I could muster at the time.
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 I traveled back in time, remembering the steadily decreasing heights from which I peered through that crack all the way back to being young, with a vibrant grandfather, my Papa, who when I was born was just a couple decades older than I am now, and younger than my parents currently are. I remember him 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. He’s long since gone.
Nobody home. I stared right into that low, dull, wooden kitchen table and through the back window toward the house I was born in — the one directly behind it . I stared through that window into my old kitchen, and my sight refracted through the glass back to when my family was 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 last time, the way I always did in the winter, whether I was ready to walk back through the backyard to my childhood dwelling, or ride 176 miles back to Utica, where my family moved in the Summer of 1993.
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 while 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 peppered with fatalist football quasi-analysis.
As I crossed into Pennsylvania around 6 p.m., 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 in the broadcast, because I had to keep moving farther.
Some time around 11 p.m., I called one of my buddies who lived in South Bend, Indiana and let him know I’d be passing through. Earlier in the 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 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 7 a.m., 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, Michigan, 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 excitement for what’s to come. We opened presents, ate prime rib, drove a few golf balls at an indoor driving range. I felt at ease and very 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 really shouldn’t be a must-see when you’re pumping gas in total darkness at some undefined coordinate between home, nowhere, sanity, your destination and your future.
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. They 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 didn’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 11 a.m. 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’d heard of Steak-n-Shake and hadn’t seen anyplace here on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives before. Obviously, the only way you should determine if you should eat someplace is if some bleach-blonde porcupine in a bowling shirt calls it’s proprietor the “Mayor of Flavor-Town.”
As I drove through Missouri, I watched snow-cover dissipate into the past. I watched the cold gradually, resiliently recede 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 — reality being just a village on the road to somewhere else.
I stopped for gas after crossing into Oklahoma. This isn’t an important detail ordinarily, however, there’s this feeling you get in your bones that immediately hits you every time you go on vacation somewhere South of home. That first warm and 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 7 p.m. 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 in Tulsa and downed a short pint of Pyramid Hefeweizen at a downtown bar, me 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 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 before 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 city that wasn’t home and never would be.
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. With a house 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 normalcy. Briefly.
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 to me now. My commute is anything but routine.
I stopped at a Starbucks and drank coffee outside on December 30. At 8 a.m. I texted all my friends to taunt them, because I’d never done such a thing before. And yet 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 one day 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, except anywhere too expensive.”
I pulled into my new 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, since it was now all I had.
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, after meeting at an Upstate New York wedding mere months earlier, 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. Or at least there would be, for a while, anyway.
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. My dad’s long left Iowa. I went to Chicago again in 2017, for wildly different reasons (or, you could argue, for no reason at all). I’ve never returned to South Bend, and my friend who lived there is now gone. I’d driven through Ohio scores of times, but haven’t seen the state since. I haven’t listened to WGR. I’d only returned to Buffalo once — for a wedding. A wedding in another town. Even the gal I met in San Antonio has long since exited stage right. And now, when I see my friends, I see them in New York, or San Francisco, or places where we’ve all largely drifted and collected since the previous decade.
The entirety of the trip, from the bit players to the major scenes, lies mostly dormant, untouched and collecting dust. That life, that thing that happened that led up to this magical quest to somewhere New and Exciting, is crystallized in the back of my mind. Frozen.
In my head, should I ever really return, it will be December 25, 2010 in Buffalo, New York. I’ll be 28 and not 36. I’ll toss back 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 I got from this corporation I work for that makes computers. I don’t watch much ESPN anymore — or TV for that matter.
This new city is not so new anymore, and these new people aren’t so new anymore, and I have memories and nostalgia and a great job with a daily commute, and places to go and drive golf balls. I’ve made new friends, who I chat with on Facebook and Instagram and WhatsApp, and I can still call my parents when I feel like saying “hey.” And although life is 180-degrees different than it was before, I don’t feel much different. Just a man with new stuff and a new return address. No, not the complex I moved to. Lord, no. Didn’t you hear? Life got way, way worse before it got way, way better.
So was it worth it? It’s hard to believe now, but it’s already been seven years since the events of 2012, and over eight years since I first packed up what I could fit into a Hyundai Sonata and ventured southwest. I was cut out from a job, ghosted by another, locked out of my own 401K, napalmed my credit, crippled by wheezing lungs, drowning in toxic payday loan debt, put out on the street, banned from the new city I lived in.
When I first moved to Austin, I did so because I believed I could find a better life and career than the one I had in my hometown of Buffalo. It was a risky decision. I sold off almost everything I owned. A lot of people said “you’ll be back.” And when I reached my lowest, the cries from inside my head of “this is all your fault, you fucking loser, you thought you could hack it here. Idiot.” They reached fever pitch. I screamed and punched the steering wheel of my car often. But I never gave up.
I had (and still have) two passions: writing and music. And I was determined to make a living doing one or the other. Turned out — I could do both. It was hard at first. I slept in a rental jeep to make ends meet in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I washed my face in a Hampton Inn lobby bathroom. I panhandled for apples, bananas and bell peppers and gas money.
From that to all this: I write for a living. I’ve literally 10x’d my income. Grown and proliferated my career. Started and cultivated a Top-100 Medium page with 38,000 followers around the world. Became an activist, an advocate, a singer-songwriter, a philanthropist, a school board member, a world traveler, a journalist, and unnamed wordsmith for most progressive platform in US political history. I’ve made a lifetime of friends and memories in the last year alone. I’ve run over a dozen half-marathons. I’ve finished two books. My lungs don’t wheeze anymore. Not even in the cold.
Thankful for family who loves me. Friends who support me. Peers who respect me. Colleagues who value me. And thankful for this city that spit me out, and welcomed me back with open arms. This all came so close to never happening. And the best is yet to come.
Never give up, friends. If you have passions or places or people you wrap yourself up in, you hold ’em. And if you’re going to bet big, bet on yourself. That’s how you win.
And 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 their own homes and jobs and friends and kids and families. And their lives are different, and their lives have changed. And I realize I traveled 2,000 miles to not change with them.
We really make a go at this life thing 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 known unknowns, and the eternal mystery of the unknown unknowns that lie ahead, and smile while we let the wind wash over us like an exfoliating scrub.
And if that wind can’t be familiar, and it can’t be exactly as we always dreamed it would be, or exactly as we remember it … it might as well be warm.