I Am Walking Next Time, I'm Not Even Kidding: Part Two

I stood by my plan to dramatically cut down on my travel for the foreseeable future. Obviously, I was now planning another run to New York in the near future, since my new girlfriend lived there, but I still couldn’t imagine traveling further than that. I was feeling good about things, and I felt better after going to New York than I had ever believed I would, but I knew how tired I remained of certain aspects of my routine and life. I remembered how punishing it had been in just getting to New York (going back to Virginia wasn’t much better). I had no interest in going on the road for more than a day or two.

And then Cara accepted a job with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

As I quickly learned, the OSF is a pretty big deal. They established the first Elizabethan theater in the United States. The shows themselves attract some of the finest actors, directors, and other theater professionals in the world. A great deal of the town’s economic health is derived from the fact that these shows are so popular, they generally sell out before the next year for the next festival even rolls around.

I was pretty happy for Cara. Her contract would have her living in Ashland, Oregon from September through February, with the option to be picked up for full-time employment after that. Her getting the job nicely emphasizes the fact that she is one of the most creative and determined people I have ever met. I dig that sexy brain of hers.

But taking the job in Oregon also meant that we would go from a couple living in New York and Virginia respectively, to a couple living in Oregon and Virginia, again respectively. I was happy for her, but I wasn’t crazy about suddenly becoming part of another very long distance relationship at this point in my life. I wasn’t particularly good with that type of relationship at 17 or 19, and I couldn’t imagine being much better at them now. A little more patient, perhaps, but still not keenly interested in trying to make a future with someone damn near on the other side of the country, even if it was only for a few months.

Taking a Greyhound to Ashland from Richmond, VA was the only option that made sense.

I didn’t want to do Amtrak again. The company adding two days to my trip from Denver to Richmond this past May was still fresh in my mind. I understood that Greyhound was my best bet. I had not traveled across the country like that since going to San Francisco in 2007. I thought about this, matched it up to all the things I had decided earlier in the year about my physical and psychological endurance for long bus rides, and I sighed. But I wanted to see Cara, and I didn’t want to wait several months to do that. I imagined I would be able to use that insight to keep my stamina alive through the blurry state lines, the wretched food, and the assortment of compelling and/or dangerous lunatics who are guaranteed to make up at least a noticeable portion of the people on any given bus.

I bought the ticket, hoped I really would get to Ashland by Halloween, and filled the month with anything I could get my hands on. I staffed that Anime convention. I worked on manuscripts. I wrote an inordinate amount of freelance articles for a roofing company. I saw my godchildren, and remembered why it’s probably best that I don’t have children of my own.

As much as I’ve traveled, it’s natural to think about all of those trips, when I’m getting ready to do the same damn thing over again. Waiting at the Richmond Greyhound station, when the time came to leave the city, and eventually, the state, I knew I was still the person who had decided that cutting out these sorts of long-distance runs was really for the best. I wondered how many times I had been to that Richmond station. I didn’t come up with satisfying answers to either of those thoughts. Being a person who wanted to find things to shape my life that didn’t involve going on the road for weeks at a time didn’t change the fact that it was going to take roughly three days to get to Ashland, which is just a few minutes away from the California border. If you told me I have been to that Richmond station 100 times since 2000, I would believe you. There wasn’t much I could do with any of that information, except hope I really would get to Ashland by Halloween.

Anyone who has gone on Greyhound even once or twice will tell you that I’m right to be pessimistic about whether or not I would make it from Richmond to Ashland within the time frame promised by the company. With plenty of fingers left over, I can easily fit all of the times in which Greyhound got me to my destination on time on a single hand. To be fair, a good portion of those cases involved circumstances that were beyond Greyhound’s control. However, an equally impressive portion of those cases have come to suggest that Greyhound suffers from poor management and strange hiring practices. Since I started riding on Greyhound buses over a decade and a half ago, both of those things have seemingly improved. I left Richmond with the hope that this trip wasn’t going to be the moment in which that karma I mentioned before came back to take a dump in my mouth while I slept. No one has actually done that to me on Greyhound, but hey, I’m still pretty young. Anything could happen.

It is impossible for me to take a bus trip like this, and not compare it to the trips I took five, seven, ten, or fifteen years ago. I think about the differences before I leave for any trip, regardless of how long it’s going to be, but living with those differences is another thing altogether. Not all of them are bad either. I would have loved to have a smartphone in 2002, when I ran away from home to go to Chicago, or when I spent an inordinate amount of money on phone cards during my trip to Santa Fe in 2005. WiFi on the bus would have been nice during my trip to California in 2007, which is about the time I bought my first brand-new laptop.

The new buses are fine, although I continue to stand by the argument that the seats are less comfortable. That sounds like an extraordinary first world problem, but it’s one that you appreciate a little more, if you’re planning to sit in those seats for several days in a row.

The route that Greyhound was sending me on would take me through states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indianapolis, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. I would also have to travel through the entire state of Oregon, which meant stops at cities like Eugene and Portland. I resisted the urge to choose a schedule that would take me through Texas and New Mexico. Those states feature some of the most spectacular examples of photogenic splendor in the United States, but they also lose that shine after a little while. Especially Texas, which if you drive through, has the mystical ability to make you feel as though you’re living in the movie Groundhog Day.

I picked the route that would take me through places like Kansas and Idaho. Those places can become somber, desolate collections of crumbling small towns very, very quickly, but at least the landscape changes to a certain degree. Even someone who feels a legitimate spiritual connection to the desert is going to find themselves wishing for something, anything that doesn’t resemble the background of a goddamn Roadrunner cartoon, if they go through the entire American southwest by car or bus.

I’ve been Texas and New Mexico. I’m perfectly content to not go there again for a little while, even though there is still a great deal to do with that area that I would still like to see. I also have several friends I would like to see again, or for the very first time, at some point in my life.

But avoiding Texas and New Mexico, which seemingly added decades to the length of the schedule that took me to San Francisco in 2007, was the act of trying to minimize the wear and tear I was expecting from travel. As my various coaches made their way through some of the first few states in my journey, I remembered how fucking done I was with the trip from Virginia to New York, and that was a considerably shorter trip. Long Greyhound trips are for the desperate, the adventurous, or the extremely patient. I wasn’t desperate, my sense of adventure is slowly becoming lazy in a terminal sense, and my patience has already been covered. I assumed the worst, and I lied when I told Cara it would be fine.

But things started off fine. Sleeping on a Greyhound is an on-again/off-again talent that I’ve picked up through the years. Obviously, your body is going to shut the fuck down at some point anyway, but it’s nice to have a measure of control over that. Unfortunately, in my case, there are times when I seem to have no control over it. I can be tired to the point in which I am watching cars on the highway burst in cartoon-like displays of green and hot pink flames, and I still won’t be able to make my stupid brain slow down enough to make sleep possible. Apparently, my brain decided to do this for most of the two days and change that it took to get me to Ashland.

I slept badly for the most part. I wonder now if I should have taken a cue from the guy who drank himself into a mild coma. Which gave him just enough energy to walk into a gas station in Wyoming, scream at the clerk who refused to sell him beer, and decide to run to the other store that was on the other side of the freeway. 

They were perfectly okay with selling him beer. Since he slept most of the time, I didn’t mind. The guys I’m in no mood to deal with are the guys who drink enough to decide that a Greyhound bus is a super-duper rad place place for what inevitably becomes a mosh pit crossed with a political debate form, or a lengthy one-man show on his life up to that point. There are times when it’s a woman who is the hell on wheels drunk entertainment for the next four hundred miles. Generally, it’s men.

And yes, I’m aware that some of them are suffering from demons I can’t even begin to imagine. I have empathy, but I am also a fundamentally weak, selfish piece of shit. After two days of reasonably poisonous food, coffee that is probably giving me cancer, and not showering, empathy has to be rationed carefully. At that point, I’m usually putting everything I have left into the preservation of my sanity.

Which surprisingly endured over a journey that actually began and ended when Greyhound said it would. As you travel through the states and impossibly long hours of a multi-day Greyhound cruise, you’re going to deal with moments that are to panic attacks what a speedball is to someone who wants to chew someone’s teeth off. These moments generally don’t last very long, anywhere from a few moments to a couple of hours, but they will make you want to do several things. To put in the simplest terms possible, these moments will make you want to scream, begin to kick open the nearest window, continue screaming, successfully kick open said window, continue screaming, slide through the now open window, continue screaming, somehow survive the sudden departure from a bus that’s going sixty miles per hour, and run in the opposite direction, screaming all the way.

And because something like this needs to be hilarious somehow, these moments will occur the most intensely when you’re only about halfway to wherever it is that you’re going. They can also crop up at any point between the last twenty-four and last twelve hours of your journey. I’ve always believed it’s the sudden, intense desire to do the impossible, and the equally-intense, maddening frustration you feel from knowing you can’t.

These moments are inevitable, but they’re not as frequent as they used to be. However, they managed the impressive Christmas miracle of becoming more severe. I felt good through the first day, which took me through states like Maryland and Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until near the end of the second day, which swept me through the mythical whimsy inherent in places like Missouri and Kansas, that I began to feel such an intense discomfort with my surroundings. Not sleeping much doesn’t help with that discomfort. You’re tired of how much your knees hurt. You’re tired of the bus stations. You’re tired of gas station snacks. You’re certainly sick of that thing that passes for a bathroom on the bus. And you can’t begin to imagine how you’re going to cheerfully deal with those things for another twenty-four hours or more.

But you do. It all comes back to knowing that you’re just dealing with a long rope of first-world problems. And you’re halfway between your destination, and the place you came from, with a whole lot of disquieting nothing to make up that middle portion of the landscape. You breathe. You catch up on your reading. You have love affairs with the periods of time in which you can stretch your legs. And the schedule beats on.

In the end, it’s fine. I put up with the baseless panic attacks, and I let my imagination fill in the emptiness of areas like the Midwest, which is a somber blend of haunted, two-street towns, and desolation that feels a lot like a black hole with a view. You can pass the slow, depressing time in such slow, depressing surroundings with music. I listened to things like Paul Simon’s “Graceland”, Patty Griffin’s “Blue Sky”, a lot of Rilo Kiley, and Springsteen’s Nebraska album. A lot of mediocre short stories were written in my head during this period, and I can’t imagine any of them did anything to help the panic attacks.

A woman who sat next to me for a small portion of the ride through Wyoming was entertaining, too. I can’t tell you her name, what her parents were like, or how many times she ate ice cream, until she couldn’t see properly. What I can tell you is that she conversed largely through filthy, nonsensical knock-knock jokes.

An example:

Knock knock
Who’s there?
Trevor.
Trevor who?
Trevor Pussy Magnet.

And then she would laugh for a good minute or so. She would be quiet for a while, and then come back with another one. She had a lot of jokes like those. I certainly wouldn’t say this woman, who had thinning blond hair, and dressed like someone from a Winter 1994 Sears catalog, was the strangest person I have ever met on Greyhound. This is partially because I can’t remember everyone. If I could, she would probably be somewhere along the lines of the top ten. Although that thought in of itself begs the question of how I would assemble such a list in the first place. I would have liked to have gotten her name.

Getting to Oregon didn’t really mean anything, in terms of the time. The schedule was rolling along just fine, but having that magical tolerance for however many miles it was going to take to get to the other side of the state was a problem I didn’t have the delusional charm to entertain. I still enjoyed seeing more of the state than I’ve ever seen before. Oregon seems to consist largely of cities like Portland and Eugene, and then the sort of smaller towns where vampires murder local idiots for centuries, before some teenage girl with a weird eye problem uncovers the whole thing. Those small towns are beautiful though, offering modest pockets of humanity that barely seem to co-exist with the overwhelming mountains, and trees that are eerily calm and casual about how close they get to the heavens.

If you’ve never been to through that part of the country, you may wonder why so many people build their houses in strange points along the hills and mountains. I’ve always assumed it appeals to the splendid isolation crowd, as well as anyone who can find something spiritually substantial for the rest of their lives with the view they are afforded. A guy who had been on the Greyhound since Florida had never traveled beyond Georgia. “Why would anyone build a house there?” he asked, repeatedly. He wasn’t being sarcastic. He genuinely didn’t understand why someone would look at a mountain, and believe that nothing could ever be better than putting a house there.

I didn’t really have an answer for him. What I’ll never understand are people who have houses in precarious spots, in areas that are famous for their fun-filled hurricanes and earthquakes. At least in Oregon, the worst thing you generally have to worry about is the fact that it’s going to take you twenty minutes or more to reach the gas station that stands at the front of your return to civilization.

And for some people, that’s paradise. I don’t know. I’ve been to those houses. The view admittedly gets tiresome after a little while, and the silence quite frankly creeps me out. Anyone who has ever been in the same room with me for more than an hour will tell you that after fifteen minutes of pure, sobering quiet, I begin to sweat like a raver on more cocaine than the whole of what Robert Evans absorbed into his body in the 1970s.

Riding along those little panic attacks, but oddly enjoying the party atmosphere on my last bus, a lot more than I usually do, I did eventually make it to Medford, OR. Cara was there to meet me, at what is the closest Greyhound point to Ashland. The lack of crucial sleep over the past couple of days did nothing to make seeing her one of the definitive, crystal clear highlights of 2014. I thought that then, as we embraced, and then went about the extremely romantic business of eating huge omelets, and then buying things at Walmart, and I think that now. I still have to look across the skyline of 2014, and find that there was a lot of good, and very little to complain about.

But lord knows I’ll try to anyway. Clearly, my life is a hellish crusade, spread out across eternity. Something like that.

But there were losses, such as the loss of my friend Daniel Taraschke. Danny had been the friend who let me tag along with him to Chicago this past May, which made it possible for me to make the journey from there to Denver for the Kleft Jaw reading at the Mercury Café. Before that, I had driven with him from Virginia to Memphis, to help his girlfriend move into her new place. We had been friends for about seven years. 

Road trips have always struck me as solitary ventures, or at least, that’s what I prefer. I do understand that most people do not feel this way, preferring someone to share in the experiences, and to make the middle point between the start and the finish a little less monotonous. I get that, because I have been fortunate enough on a few occasions to come across people who made me understand why long runs on the road are sometimes better with good company. Danny and I were friends through the conventions, but I really enjoyed his good company as a road trip companion. It’s hard to find people who can sit in a car with you for ten straight hours, and not leave you to bleed out from thirty stab wounds, in a restroom stall at the Alabama state line (or wherever you are). I found someone like that in Danny, and I suppose he found someone like that in me.

It’s hard for me to make friends. It’s harder still to find people who are willing to put up with everyone one has to put up with, in order to be my friend for more than a few months. Danny had always been a great example of the kind of people who have been keeping me staffing the Anime conventions for the past eleven years. He was one of the funniest, most engaging human beings I have ever met. He could make a drive from Richmond to Chicago fly.

The last time I saw Danny was this past September, when he drove me to the Greyhound, so I could catch the bus that would take me to New York to see Cara. We grabbed a bite to eat at a diner in Richmond. Our conversation ran from pro wrestling, to a woman he was planning to visit, to the live Monty Python concert we had recently seen in theaters, to loose plans for another long road trip together. He was also planning to move, and we discussed the vague possibility of being roommates. When I asked him how he felt about the future in general, he told me that he felt pretty good about things.

I miss my friend. I still do. He was only 43.

I wish I could tell him now that things are going well in Ashland. I have been here for nearly three months. I have no idea where I’m going to wind up in a couple of months. I’m going to turn thirty this year, and it’s a little alarming that I have just a few shades of stability, beyond what I had going for me ten or twelve years ago. I think about it, and I sometimes feel like a little bit of a loser. Or at the very least, I feel irresponsible.

But I’m not. Writing, pretending social anxiety isn’t prevalent in every situation in which I try to make friends, travel, ungodly motel rooms, and a kind of chaos that is still unwieldy, but is also substantially less severe than it was a decade ago. These are the things that make up a good portion of my life. I have come to realize while in Oregon that I’m okay with most of it. Or at least, far more of it than I was, when I thought I needed to give up certain things, in order to feel something less than complete, shitty despair over the direction of my life.

I still have days where I feel like that. I probably always will. But I’m trying to better embrace the things that do far more good for me than I give them credit for.

This past December, I went on the road again. With Cara doing the driving, we rode from Ashland to Los Angeles. I had another Kleft Jaw reading, this time, at the Beyond Baroque venue in Venice. It’s a stunning, breathing tribute to poetry. I recommend it for the bookstore alone. 

That reading, as opposed to the one at the Mercury Café in May, couldn’t have gone more smoothly. I have to thank Cara for that, for making me rehearse my set list for the show, to the point of wishing I had studied chewing glass for a living in high school. It was the kind of reading I would like to do twenty or thirty times a year, and I think I can actually do that. It was great to finish, and actually feel that way. It was good to finally meet Matthew, the Drunk Monkeys boss himself, and his incredibly insightful, sharp-witted wife Corissa. It was really good to see Frankie Met and Lindsey Thomas again, both of whom gave readings I wish you could have seen for yourself (which you can, if you want to indulge this absolutely shameless plug, and visit the YouTube page).

Obviously, the destination was ideal. Matthew and Corissa were kind enough to take Cara and me on a tour of Hollywood, driving past a number of things I hadn’t been able to see, when I last visited Los Angeles in 2007.

I thought about that 2007 trip, as we drove around places like Hollywood and Venice. I didn’t think about it when Cara and I rode the Ferris wheel at Santa Monica’s boardwalk. We’re doing fine. I plan to do everything possible to continue saying that for at least several more decades.

When I think about all the traveling I’ve done, I can’t help but compare one visit to the other, especially if enough time has gone by between them. Honestly, I really can’t remember how much I hated the person I was at that time. I’m sure I disliked myself to some degree, and I’m sure I felt like something dramatic had to change from within. I know it has, over the course of the past 7+ years, with the thousands of miles of travel, the forced insomnia in strange cars, and the long weekends with people who make you laugh, every single time they open their mouths. Change and travel are two constants in my life. I can’t stand still, and I can’t be exactly the same person, from one year to the next.

I will keep the travel. I will go along with any opportunities I get. I will trust in change. I will try to keep track of everything that will happen, during the journey portions of when those two things are combined into the singular narrative they actually are. I will occasionally even go to bed at a decent hour.