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The Long Way Home
Part I
Up and Down the Big Hills

Generally, when you get into an ugly fistfight with your racist, gun-obsessive roommate, it’s time to leave town. Filling your head with mushrooms and Old Crow won't help. This has been a consistent sort of rule for the whole of my adult life, and perhaps a little earlier than that. Getting into a brief, vicious brawl with a roommate in Ashland, Oregon was not the main motivator behind Cara and I moving. We left that house shortly after this incident, but we had every intention of staying in Ashland.

I was definitely a little burnt out on the town. Ashland offers most of the things you need from a small metropolis. The problems emerge, when you realize that you are not part of the little cliques that make up the small-yet-vast landscape.

Ashland breaks down to simple-enough terms. You have the theater crowd, the college kids, the homeless travelers and non-denominational spiritualists, and the baby-boomers. There are naturally people who do not fall into any of those categories. There are naturally people who are more complex than those categories. Nonetheless, those seemed to be the dominant social groups. Between October of last year and this past April, I spent time with different variations of these groups. None of them accepted me. This was fine. We tend to cast a semi-exhausted eye towards newcomers and outsiders. I was okay at first with not being able to make friends in this town. Eventually, it began to wear me down. I have always included the ability to meet and connect to weird individuals within my small basket of enduring, strange talents. I suspect that the only reason why the theater people ever put up with me was because Cara worked for the company.

To be sure, it is grim indeed when life resembles 10 Things I Hate About You.

That isn’t to say that people were rude to the point of blunt. Sometimes, they were, but by and large, it was just a matter of not being one of them. I used to be able to work with that mentality. I still can. I have always been a contradictory mix of introvert and extrovert. The two live to trade body blows in my psyche. It could be that the introvert side was beginning to win out as I got closer to thirty. Could be. I don’t know, to be honest. When I left Ashland, I realized that those I was going to miss consisted of some dogs, and a couple of cats. There was also an old queen who worked at one of the two video stores that existed in the town during my time there. Cara had the same problem. Every single Oregon Shakespeare Festival professional she worked with adored her. Making actual friends proved to be trickier.

Neither of us minded not having a ton of people to hang out with. Not too much.  We had a nice routine of existing around each other in consistent calm. We didn't need a constant stream of activity and conversation. Being around other people was great when it worked out that way. Both of us were also generally fine with not having places to go or people to see at all times. When we wanted to meet up with good people, we made our way out to Los Angeles or the Oregon coast.

The need to move out of OSF company housing compelled us to consider roommates. We found some living in a large, beautiful home. Near the top of the formidable hills and mountains that make up the area. We were skeptical of striking up friendships with people who were into circus arts and consciousness sciences. We were still willing to try. I have always been willing to try. This accounts for the bizarre range of characters I can meet for drinks and meaningful conversation.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out with these people. Most of that came down to the fact that our differences were too great to be friends, which is what I think they wanted from roommates most of all.  Friendship with roommates is nice. I’m not against it. I just came to realize that these were not people I could be more than civil with. That should be enough. Boundaries were respected for the most part. I didn’t think we needed to go any further than that. They disagreed. Resentment on their part began to grow. It didn’t help either that one of our corn snakes disappeared. They also forgot our explicit explanation about our plans. Our long-term future in Ashland was dependent upon Cara getting a full-time gig with OSF. It wouldn’t have hurt to remind them, but by the time we realized that they had forgotten this, it was too late. We were already loading up the truck to leave.

My temper has never been something that will win me the grace of traveling across calm waters for all my days. It has gotten better as I have gotten older. Casual quantities of drugs and alcohol over a short period of time have an ugly personal history. They can work to shove my mood into unknown territory. I have to accept responsibility for the state I was in, when I got into a fight with one of my now-former roommates. This would be the spectacular racist gun fanatic mentioned earlier. I was under the influence of a combination that made it easy to want to split open the skull of a horrible human being. If it hadn’t been for the former roommate’s desire to have a screaming match with his girlfriend at two in the morning, complete with throwing furniture and smashing walls, I probably wouldn’t have become overwhelmed with fight-or-flight fear.

Most of the past few years of my life have been spent trying to avoid conflict. Going to war with every bully you meet, or even people who don’t agree with you, is time-consuming and pointless. I’ve ruined friendships and aged beyond my years through believing that every potential conflict demands the absolute best of my anger. My temper used to dictate that everything was worth a struggle. If only for my physical and mental health, I’ve tried to distance myself from any wisdom my temper tries to share with me. I have learned that the combination of picking my battles, while letting most things go, makes me happier in the long-run. This resolve didn’t work out that night. It keenly contributed to eviction less than a week later.

Getting kicked out by deranged, mutant children with shitty grownup faces was one thing. It did not lead to having to move out of Ashland. It also wasn’t the reason behind having to plan for an eventual return to Virginia for a couple of months. I was planning to go back pick up the last of my personal belongings regardless. It would have meant a 3-4 day stretch on Greyhound. That is something more than capable of giving me a lean, vicious panic attack. All it has to do is exist as a finite concept. I wasn’t looking forward to it. Thanks in part to Cara not having her contract extended, I didn’t have to. We moved from the shitty people mansion on the shitty hills of Ashland to another company apartment. That gave us a solid two weeks of peace. Then word finally came through that her contract with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was ending. It was time to go. Why the hell not? Without that specific job, neither one of us had a reason or even a desire to stay in Oregon. Nice enough as a place to visit for a long, chaotic stretch. We had just gotten to the point of realizing that it wasn’t a locale that could use a gentle touch to steal the next several decades of our lives. When it was time to leave Ashland and Oregon, we were more or less grateful.

But it still meant having to go back on the road. Neither of us had an interest in just flying back to the east coast. I was fucking thrilled, let me just repeat that, fucking thrilled, to not have to take a Greyhound from one side of the country to the other. I have done that starry-eyed descent into the belly of the monster Greyhound devoured a century ago several times now. 20, 000 miles on Greyhound sounds fair. With the beat I have covered during my life, 30 or even 40 is reasonable, as well. I don’t even know anymore. What I know for certain is that after going from Virginia to Oregon in October of last year, I wasn’t ready to do it again. I imagine I will spend the rest of my life using Greyhound for one reason or another. It would be just fine by me, if I didn’t have to go more than a few hundred miles at a time.

Cara planned the trip from Oregon to the east coast. Everything would end with her going to Long Island to stay with her family. I would head back to Virginia to do the same. Leaving it up to her made sense for a couple of reasons. This was her opportunity to tackle as much of her Route 66 dream as possible. Cara lives for traveling great distances. She fills those travels with the small and large destinations that define the landscape of the ground she covers. This can run from tourist traps, to museums, to odd local attractions. When she went to Oregon to start working for OSF, she made it a point to go along as much of the Oregon Trail as possible. She loves the experience. She adores the history. In the time I have known her, she has taken several trips along these lines. It is one of the reasons why we work as a couple. It was just common sense to let her figure out what we could cover with our budget and a time-frame of two weeks.

Both of us wanted to meet up with friends along the way. Both of us decided that ending the trip with a staffing gig at Balticon was a good enough way to close the book. Beyond that, she put together the particulars. After going through several variations of a complex cross-country car ride, she settled on a plan. It was something that would take us through states like Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and more. I had been through these states by car and bus before, but I had never ridden in a car for a road trip this ambitious. I didn’t worry about whether I could survive such a venture with my tuna melt sanity intact. I knew I could handle it.

I empathize with people who spend more than a weekend with me. I feel the same way about certain people I have existed alongside in a car for three hours. Moving back to the east coast would mean taking up a long-distance relationship. Neither one of us worried about that. We weren’t even all that worried about getting through the entire run of Oregon to Virginia. We were just ready to go. Cara and I were pretty confident we could make the whole trip without destroying our relationship. Things had gone well after several months of living together. Part of me did wonder though, if Cara and I would make it through the entire trip. Could we go without one of us murdering the other? At that point, you have no choice but to bury them in the desert. Wonder for the rest of the trip if maybe that game of 20 Questions could have perhaps gone down a different path.

There was only one way to find out. We had survived longish road trips across New York State, to California, and to the Oregon coast. This was more beautiful, absurd, and aspiring than any of that. At least we had some semblance of precedent that our relationship could survive this adventure. Long road trips are fun for the right kind of weirdo. Anything that lasts longer than a couple of days can create a strain between even the best of pairings. Get to that territory of your trip where an hour of Texas badlands is a century on a distant planet of abandoned gas stations and delirious cattle. You'll find out just how much you can stand a human being. How much you love them beforehand is only going to carry you so far. It still takes unique, bizarre pairings. Personalities capable of creating a dynamic that can survive a seven-thousand-year trek through Oklahoma. Give or take an hour). No one can ever figure out the math for this kind of chemistry. I never have. Some of my closest friends would make for the worst fucking long-distance travel companions imaginable. Casual acquaintances have been fantastic.

Then again, I have had amazing trips with the best of my friends. I have also spent three hours in a car with people I liked well enough at the start, only to realize that I would rather watch Adam Sandler reboot Columbo.  I'll take that over ever see their horrible, misshapen faces ever again. It’s hard to gauge beforehand, is the point I’m going for.

Even the soundtrack was ready to go. Circumcisions, masonry in a house that’s burning down, and road trips are just a few of the scenarios that demand at least some vague clue of what kind of music will be tagging along. Our own soundtrack stood on an assortment of solo votes, collaborative decisions, and unknown mix CDs Cara had inexplicably decided to buy at a yard sale. We had music from Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, The Rolling Stones, Green Day, Bruce Springsteen, Panic! At The Disco, and Tom Waits. I don’t know if they would work for your multi-week road trip, but they worked pretty well for ours. Make sure to secure at least some of your music. Even if it’s just your playlist on Spotify, or your favorite satellite radio station. As you’ll learn fast enough, local radio stations are good for local color. Then it's just the same playlist the chuckleheads back home are coasting on.

Driving through states like Nevada, Arizona, and Texas are interesting. Unfortunately, the interesting parts feature long moments of scenery mountain bike fanatics and LSD enthusiasts are quite fond of. I love long stretches of desert, but it’s not a love affair that holds out for long. It’s best to have one or more people capable of conversation. Books, a fantastic data plan for your phone or tablet, and inconspicuous liquor (unless you’re driving) are all ideas to consider.

All those things create a stark contrast to Greyhound traveling conditions, or even the way I traveled ten or twelve years ago. Tablets and smartphones didn’t exist. Liquor or anything else that keeps the momentum of your visuals alive are terrible ideas for Greyhound. They are bound to annoy the vast majority of the people you travel with. Even as Greyhound now offers WiFi on most of their coaches, most of the time, you’re lucky if it even works. The miracle of being able to access a global network of information inside a moving vehicle is not lost on me. It's just interesting to compare what I have now, to what I had ten years ago. This trip was giving me more options to pass the time than just about any other trip in the past.

Even so, if you’re going to be in a car for a week or more, you’ll want to allow for the fact that you are going to be fucking bored. How often and for how long will depend on  you, as well as your resources.

We started our journey with a clear-enough idea of where we were going. I also understood that just because you know where you’re going, that doesn’t mean you know exactly what’s going to happen. I knew we were going to Las Vegas. I also knew that we were going to stop at the Clown Motel, which is also in Nevada. Along the way, I imagined what those experiences would entail. The best part about imagining how something is going to pan out are your internal monologues. This is your brain reminding you every step of the way that your expectations can turn out to be completely wrong. Your imagination can only suggest so much.

With the Clown Motel, I expected a mild curiosity. With Vegas, I expected a good time, but I also imagined that I would only be able to run so far with that. As it turned out, my expectations with both of those places were nothing compared to what actually happened. 

(The author would like to make it clear that he holds no ill-will towards anyone mentioned in this essay. In addition to this, he would like to express that the opinions contained in this essay are his and his alone.) 

Join us in two weeks for Part Two of Gabriel and Cara's adventures across America.