Trust your gut, but do what makes for a better story.
None of this was even an idea yet. All I knew is that I was tired of being told by my supervisors in all too many ways that my behavior as a resident advisor had been disappointing. Had they hired me to watch a small dorm full of similarly aged college kids? Sure. Were they paying me money to hang out with residents that I would have been spending time with anyway? Absolutely. I owed them for that, but after being a camp counselor for so many years and developing a rhythm to how I deal with a disturbance, I wanted to do this job my own way.
Rachel set her pen and notebook on her desk before looking me dead in the eye.
“Henry, I’m honestly tired of having this conversation every month. You need to fill out the paperwork for the programs you run. If not because your job requires it, know it gives the school an idea where our funding is going and what students our programs are reaching. If we don’t turn in that paperwork, we get less money.”
Now Rachel was my immediate supervisor. She was in charge of a group of RA’s that made up the west quadrant of campus. We called ourselves the Two Bit Punks. She was a short woman with quite a lot of patience and fit the role of private-liberal-arts-college-administrator-not-ever-wanting-to-offend-any-one-splinter-group-in-the-slightest-way perfectly. Yoga every morning, tea in the afternoon, LGBTQA* and leadership summits whenever one was available in the area. She fit a stereotype.
The programs she was referring to were some of my few contractual obligations in exchange for free housing. We were to run two every month: one fun one just to build a sense of community in the dorm, and another that fit an aspect of our “7 C’s Social Change Model.” They weren’t particularly hard to do. Fill out a planning form, run an event, have some fun, teach some stuff, get signatures to prove people were there, and fill out a fun little wrap up form. I was coming from a camp environment where everything was done super off the cuff, and where we were trusted to run wholesome activities for sometimes over one hundred children at a time. It was actually that job that got me the gig with the college. Why hire us if you wouldn’t trust us implicitly with the lives and well being of our residents and our actual buildings?
“I have a copy of your schedule, so I know you don’t have anything going on for the next few hours. I need you to go somewhere you can focus and catch up on your paperwork or we need to have a bigger discussion about your employment here.”
So I went to the cafeteria, pulled out my laptop, and started planning a road trip.
After sitting through countless area meetings, one on one’s with Rachel, and bi weekly leadership development sessions, I had had enough. There is only so much walking on eggshells to avoid offending anyone ever that a person can take. We were not allowed to use colors when talking about people. We were made to use gender neutral pronouns in our day to day language. They even sat me down with another RA and tried to force me to apologize like a kindergartner over something I said in a Facebook group in retaliation of said other RA striking out at me. Apparently thinking rationally and telling a girl she didn’t have the right, or the proper authority, to get someone’s car towed can really strike a nerve with certain people. Things just kept piling up, and I was done with the bureaucracy.
I had two months of sophomore year left, with a month off between that and my summer job starting up, and just wanted to be in Florida. It had been a cold winter in Vermont and I needed some relaxing time in the sun.
The planning for the roadtrip started as these things often do. Pull up a map, mark all of the places one would like to go, and start plotting a route through as many of the marks as one can. I looked up sporting events, concert dates, and starting looking up old friends and forgotten distant family members. This is one of the few times my childhood experience of being an Air Force brat has come in handy. My father retired as a Master Sergeant after twenty years of service. In that time, or at least in the span of my first fourteen years leading up to his retirement, I had lived in: Connecticut, California, Tokyo, Virginia, Arkansas, New Jersey, and ended up back in Connecticut.
I had moved around as a kid. Quite a lot, actually. It was miserable at the time. Having to leave a group of friends every couple of years only to end up in an entirely new part of the country, dropped into a foreign culture, and told to start the whole process of making new friends over. It was traumatic. It took me a long time after settling down in Connecticut (fourth grade through the end of high school) to be able to make lasting friendships. There was always the thought deep in the back of my head that I might move and lose contact with these people forever. Close friends were in short supply. Keep in mind, this is before social media took off, so keeping touch with people as a child was a tall order.
What came of this though, is that I met a lot of different people living in a lot of different places. And whether it happened before or after I left for a new home, parents of my friends would be reassigned and move to different parts of the country too.
That realization is when I got real inspiration for what this roadtrip, and subsequently this chronicle of it, would ultimately turn into. Sitting in the dining hall, with a plate of untouched salad and a slice of pizza next to me, I began hunting down all of my old friends from my childhood. I found Kelsey in Arkansas. Jenna in North Carolina. Matt and Nathan in Ohio. I found friends of friends that I have spoken to online in the past, like Jordan in Michigan. Family scattered around that I haven’t spoken to in a while. My cousin Dylan down in Florida. My aunt and uncle on the Gulf in Alabama. People that I had brief encounters with. My friend Brit from summer camp in Quebec. A girl I shared a crazy experience right out of a movie with in the Charlotte Airport ended up in Toronto.
Facebook helped a lot. So did Google, and a few other tools I found online. I called in favors, asked if anyone had friends scattered around the country that would let me crash for a night. I got a rough draft of my itinerary together. I gave myself 32 days to drive around half the United States and part of Canada, all solo. I wanted this to be an opportunity to be able reconnect with all of these people I had lost touch with. I also knew that I wouldn’t be very fun at summer camp if I went into it cold, after a tough year of school made tougher by the politics of Champlain College Residential Life. I wanted cool pictures to show everyone. Fun stories to share. Amazing, unique experiences to make me a better human being. Little did I know exactly what I was getting myself into.
This road trip is arguably the most interesting thing I’ve done with my life up to this point. Even more than reconnecting and spending time with people who have meant so much to me in different parts of my youth, it gave me an opportunity to better know myself. There is something oddly calming and zen like about being alone on the road for that long. There are no obligations other than what you want to do that day. There are no alarms; you make your own schedule and wake up with the sun. It provides a lot of time for self reflection. Between college courses, working two part time jobs, and trying to have some semblance of a social life, that important downtime to think and decompress can slip through the cracks.
I had been on a couple of road trips before. I went down the east coast with my best friend and his parents once. We got some professional golfing lessons, had some great local food, and had our first real taste of whiskey all while we were sophomores in high school. That same friend and I took a roadtrip down to Florida after we graduated. Marathoned it there and back in what I believe was a week. We thought going that far that quickly was a challenge back then, but we’ve since learned. This solo month long roadtrip was meant to be a personal challenge to me. I would have to drive, on average, over one hundred miles a day to make it work. I would have to learn be humble and accept help that was offered to me along the way. But scariest of all, I would have to endure a month of having mostly myself for company. The mind does crazy things when isolated. But that’s a story for later in the book.
I skipped some classes the day I started planning. I walked into that cafeteria a little after noon and didn’t realize it had gotten dark until I stepped outside to head home. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, and about how long I had to be in each city. The goal was Florida though. The goal has always been Florida. Whenever I have had any good chunk of time off of school, I find a way to boogie down there. This was it though. Three thousand miles over the course of a month. Meeting up with friends I haven’t spoken to face to face since I was a toddler. Trying new foods. Soaking up as much warm weather as I possibly could. Taking every opportunity that came my way. North American Road Trip 2013.