I learned shortly after Graduation that my good friends and fellow graduates Dan and Soichi were planning a road trip across the country. I had told them about my struggles at home, and they kindly asked if I wanted to join them on the journey. After a great deal of thought and introspection, I decided to take them up on their offer. I knew this would be a phenomenal opportunity to both literally and metaphorically launch into the next chapter of my life, while forming meaningful, shared experiences with good friends who were also grappling with how to translate their experiences at Bowdoin into the unknown character of our realities ahead. The road trip also represented a way to reconcile my yearnings for the independence, intentionality, and responsibility of adulthood with a more youthful embrace of adventure, openness, and spontaneity. I was fortunate enough to have some money saved up and no definitive commitments through November, which gave me the financial support and flexibility to go for it. This was not a linear step on a trodden “career path,” but a creative chapter along my own unique “life journey,” in which an underlying “why” motivation coupled with an emerging understanding of “who I am” and “who I want to be,” were my catalysts to take off. I was confident that the “what” would intersect with circumstance and fall into place.
On Monday, June 16th, Dan and Soichi arrived at my mom’s house in New York. We had so much energy and excitement and anticipation bottled up that we decided to go for a workout, where we ended up careening around a basketball gym causing havoc in an ultimate state of catharsis before our impending departure. We then loaded up the car and stuffed the roof rack to the brim before taking off for our first stop, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I cherished the experience of freedom out on the open road, and reconnecting with friends who had undergone such powerful shared experience at Bowdoin was like a breath of fresh air.
We arrived in Gettysburg later in the day, where we were staying with our friend Nick’s mother and stepfather. I felt instantly welcomed by their warmth and hospitality, but perhaps more meaningfully, I really valued the honest portrayal they gave of their familial past and the environment in which Nick was raised. This marked the first affirmation of one particular realization I’d cultivate in the “Real World”–that experiencing the people I carry in my life in the context of their homes, their families, and their friends and not simply within a shared context like Bowdoin is a powerful means to understand someone on a deeper level, gaining more intimate acquaintance with the complexities of life experience that have shaped a person’s identity.
The next day we took a bike ride around the battlefield of Gettysburg. The sun was glaring down on us in the exposed stretches of abandoned farmland, and the physical exertion of peddling around the site offered a more holistic engagement with the place. I had experienced other historical sites in my life, some of which I had been disappointed to consider cheapened appropriations of the past, conveying a particular “triumphalist one-sidedness” or “touristic money trap” or “objectified good to be consumed.” My experience at Gettysburg was different. For one, there was no grand entryway to signal an overtly commercialized or artificially delineated land area, contributing to an experience of dynamically arriving upon the battlefield in a way that stimulated imagination in situating myself in history. In addition, each state involved in the battle had erected their own monument to commemorate the respective soldiers that fought for them. This collective mode of commemoration resonated with me, as this was a story being told from a number of different perspectives and not from a dominant cultural narrative that can sometimes serve to appropriate the American past in one particular way.
As we struggled to ascend up the famous Little Roundtop, and looked out at a gloomy expanse of bare grassland, I experienced a deep sense of connection and reverence for Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (later General), the Bowdoin student, professor, and later president who courageously defended the extreme left flank of the Union Army at this strategic stronghold. I remembered a speech that Senator Angus King had given our freshman class during our orientation at Bowdoin, proclaiming that, “You now walk these same paths that Chamberlain once walked…” It was a powerful experience of both humility and empowerment–one in which I affirmed my own resolve to make a meaningful mark in the course of history.
We proceeded to Columbus, Ohio on the next leg of our journey. A memorable experience came in heading to Cincinnati to attend a live viewing party of the US-Germany World Cup match. As we attempted to enter a downtown parking garage , we realized that we had to do something about our forgotten roof rack that became suddenly wedged against the yellow crossbeam suspended at the entrance to the garage. We pulled off to the side of the street and took it down, lugging the heavy shell down to a storage area within the garage, and proceeding to park in there. The game was a real thriller, and though Germany pulled away with the 1-0 win, the crowd was excited to know the US had advanced to the knock-out rounds. I remember remarking to Dan and Soichi that I was getting “good vibes” from the friendly people we encountered in the area. Well, that was about to change. After the game, we pulled the car off to the side of an exit area in the parking garage, appearing to block traffic but offering a clear passing lane to our side. As we struggled to remount the roof rack in the unforgiving heat, an older gentleman pulled up next to us in a flashy Mercedes–“Hey I’ve got another package for ya,” he remarked. I gave a forced laugh, assuming he was making a light-hearted but consoling joke. He then pulled out his middle finger from his cupped left hand and flipped us the bird as he drove away. So much for that midwestern courtesy…
We enjoyed a pleasant overnight stay with family friends in St. Louis, finding peace and the comforts of home in a beautiful suburban setting with an enchanting garden, which was a welcome respite from the anonymity of the open road. We embarked on the next leg of the journey, a long 9-hour trek through the state of Kansas toward Denver, Colorado. Through the lens of the car window, I was captivated by the subtle changes in the American landscape as we made our way along. From the dark coniferous woods I had endeared in Maine, we journeyed through deciduous forests and sprawling expanses of development in New York, to a mixture of forested undulations and flat, open farmland in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, to wide open skies and pleasant built environments of Ohio and Indiana and Missouri, to an endless, dry moonscape of Kansas, and to the imposing Rocky mountains rising up from the earth in Colorado. In many ways, we were able to experience the diversity of spatial environments that constitute home for so many different people in the United States.
In places like Missouri and Kansas, I was particularly intrigued by the cultural expressions of highway billboards, souvenirs, and signs beckoning attention off a given exit ramp. Some of the most recurrent signs read, “Jesus Loves You,” “Gun Store,” “Adult Superstore,” “Fireworks Exit __,” and “Heaven or Hell: Which Will You Choose?” I thought about being a child growing up in this area, and how challenging it might be to reconcile the different value systems being represented in these cultural expressions.
As we made our way across Kansas, a dark, ominous-looking storm cloud began to descend toward the ground in the western sky before us. We decided to turn on the local weather station, where a man rather nonchalantly remarked that there was a “tornado watch” issued for the western reach of Kansas. No worries, we thought–this must be an everyday reality on these windy plains. But soon enough, the weatherman’s voice grew increasingly brusque as he warned that there was now a “tornado evacuation zone” issued between miles 25 and 38 of Interstate I-70, demanding that listeners, “Head inside and take refuge in the nearest basement, folks, do not stay outside!” Well, we were on mile 40 of I-70 West heading right into the thick of it. Our adventurous spirit and intrigue quickly gave way to urgent concern. I had the brilliant idea of foregoing an upcoming “rest stop” because it did not appear to provide sufficient shelter in its simple bathroom establishment–of course, the next exit wasn’t for many miles ahead. Soichi, who served as a voice of reason for much of the trip, decided to pull an aggressive U-turn across the grassy, caving median and head back toward the last exit behind us. He managed to pull off the maneuver, and we took refuge in a roadside food court as the winds and violent rains picked up. We were able to re-cultivate our adventurous curiosity as we spoke with other storm enthusiasts, including one man who told us he’d seen the tornado touch down in front of him a few miles further down the highway.
We finally made it to Denver, where we were set to stay with our friend Will and his family. They were nice enough to serve us a great dinner with buffalo burgers upon our arrival, and enjoyed hearing stories of our adventures over the past several days. The following day, we decided we wanted to go on an epic hike together to maximize our Colorado experience, and committed to tackling the 14,197 ft. Mount Princeton. We drove to the foot of the mountain, where we scrambled around to find a campsite, but ultimately arrived upon an untrodden place next to a river that we could call home for the night. We combined ingredients to make a simple bean and rice stew, and shared our post-grad experiences over a campfire as the cool mountainous temperature plummeted into the 30s.
There’s something about experiencing nature in the company of others that brings out an authentic, unrepressed expression of ourselves, and in this place, I certainly felt that. Amid our tumultuous transition into the “Real World,” we were able to take a step back and ruminate on our new realities, both exciting and terrifying, and find solace in the midst of the uncertainty before us. I can’t help but compare the experience with that of Graduation Day–a rare convergence of unique life trajectories wherein time retreated in this blanketing darkness, and space proved to distance ourselves from the activity of the everyday world but almost be transcended in offering us this simple place to just be–underneath the expanse of an explosively starlit sky. This was an alternate reality of meta-reflection in which I was both humbled by the inconceivable vastness of the universe around me, and empowered in the raw sense of connectivity I experienced to a most honest, vulnerable aspect of myself and the friends who sat beside me.