“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” according to an ancient Chinese proverb.
Vanessa Carlton would walk a thousand miles if she could just see you tonight. The Proclaimers would love to be the man to walk a thousand miles to fall down at your door. The best way to grasp the immensity of a thousand miles is to drive them in a car. Or in my case, 1,062, the distance from my father’s house in St. Louis to my current abode in Shelton, Conn. It’s a 17.5-hour ride on a lengthy swatch of Interstate 70 if you drive straight through. That’s the trip I made last August with my girlfriend, Kirstin, in my 2000 Toyota Corolla. Somewhere along that trip—probably near the western border of Pennsylvania—I turned into the proverbial “fish out of water,” a phrase whose roots can be traced back all the way back to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in the 13th century.
As a child, I traveled the country with my father on extensive summer trips where we would drive or fly to a major city, catch a Major League Baseball game and then move onto another city. This was by design, so—in his words—I “wouldn’t be afraid of the world.” He wanted me to have a familiarity with a majority of the lower 48, so if I ever took a job in some distant locale I would be prepared. What my father didn’t realize is that two days in a metropolitan area cannot prepare someone for a full-fledged move. A visit can give you a taste, like a sample in a small paper cup at the grocery store, but nothing more.
Road trips are wonderful, but their beauty—and their sadness—are often found in their brevity. They give tastes and form impressions, some of which can sculpt entire books for a few lucky writers. Take Steve Rushin for instance, a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated, who on the verge of his 30th birthday took a 20,000-mile voyage around the country to check out famous spectacles of sport while chronicling his experiences in a charming memoir Road Swing. He, like me, is a native Midwesterner, a Minnesotan who eventually moved to Connecticut where he lives to this day as Mr. Rebecca Lobo. His stop in New Haven, though, to watch a celebrity softball game at Yale (Michael Bolton hit a homerun at every at-bat, in case you were interested) was not exactly the information you would find on a brochure: “New Haven is neither New nor a Haven. It is, rather, Old and a Hazard. I was staying in a New Haven hotel whose front desk was full of mean reminders: LOCK YOUR CAR, WE’RE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR DAMAGE TO YOUR VEHICLE, GUESTS MAY BE SHOT IN THEIR SLEEP, and so forth.” Yeah, that sounds like a great part of the world.
Rushin apparently forgot to stop by one of the town’s famous pizza joints where regulars line the streets outside like Star Wars fanatics waiting for the next flick. The first Friday night I spent here as a new resident I went to Pepe’s Pizzeria and proceeded to devour two medium pizzas with my girlfriend as I came to the realization that I had come a thousand miles for this next slice of sausage, mushrooms… and life. I had not experienced a chill like that since my father drove away from my freshman dorm almost eight years from the day. Maybe it was the pitcher of Miller Lite talking, but I felt as if I was supposed to be there, like a movie scene with inspirational acoustic music playing in the background. Whatever it might have been, it was more than a beer buzz.
While writing for Spin magazine, Chuck Klosterman had a smaller voyage than Rushin’s in which he traveled across America and visited the towns where famous musicians were killed. The mere 6,557-mile trip provided the fodder for his book Killing Yourself to Live. Before he tells his tale, the native Midwesterner (for the sake of this essay, North Dakota is part of the Midwest given its close relation to Minnesota) starts his book with the following words: “I am not qualified to live here. I don’t know what qualifications are necessary to live in any certain place at any given time, but I know I don’t have them.” Here is New York City. He goes onto say “Everything is a grift, and everyone is a potential grifter.” That statement would never be issued about Fayetteville, Ark.; Muskogee, Okla., Lawrence, Kan., or even St. Louis. No, those are places where even the people manning the toll booths are friendly, where it doesn’t take long for a stranded motorist to find someone willing to jump his or her car. I remember how quickly people were willing to help out my father and me after finding out that our car had a dead battery following a Royals game in Kansas City. How long would it take to find a Good Samaritan if the same situation unfurled after a Yankees or a Mets game?
I realize I do not live in New York itself, but, like it or not, this area is funneled together with New York in America’s collective conscience. I live on the eastern side of Fairfield County in a place where some poor souls commute into the city on a daily basis. Might I one day be among them? Although I am one of millions of Middle Americans who have taken this path, I am amazed by the lack of online content matter on this subject. One gentleman has a blog cleverly titled “Midwesterner’s Guide to Living in New York City.” The site has not been updated, though, since last April—leaving a void, and possibly, an audience.
Many years ago, I had a vision of one day moving to the New York area to pursue certain dreams. I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to get there, but I pictured myself trying to chase something down, something with wings that could fly away at any moment. But I had a net. I had a chance. Like many people, New York held a mythical stature in my mind, a giant insomniac that sets its own rules—and could care less about what goes on beyond its famous walls. Humorist David Sedaris describes such a sentiment in his book Me Talk Pretty One Day: “Visiting Americans will find more warmth in Tehran than they will in New York, a city founded on the principle of Us versus Them. I don’t speak Latin but have always assumed that the city motto translates to either Go Home or We Don’t Like You Either.” Then there was the cartoon I saw in The New Yorker that featured a billboard on a bridge with the following sign “Welcome to New York… If you can make it here then whoop-de-freakin’-do to you.”
As circumstance would have it, I had an interview about a month ago in Manhattan for a summer internship. I felt like all my previous trips into the city had helped lead up to an opportunity like that one. After talking a train to the Grand Central Terminal, I made my way through the streets crowded with cold air, misty rain and people. As I walked to my destination, New York still had a coldness to it—the weather did not help its cause—compared to the pizza at Pepe’s. It didn’t feel like home. Neither did the place where I went for the interview. I was still appreciative of the experience. I recently ventured back to the city for two interviews, I felt a growing comfort with Manhattan. After gulping down a $5 foo-foo Starbucks concoction, the sun even decided to show up in the late morning. If only I would have remembered my MP3 player so I could have had some Sinatra bursting from my ear buds.
I have a quasi-familiarity with the city—and with the Northeast in general. The first time I drove down Times Square in 1996, I stared at the faces of the mobs of people who were roaming the streets at dusk. They looked like everyone else; people trying to make it. Like me. I know that regardless of what happens during my time here, I will have a story for my grandchildren. I will have no regrets when I look back at this moment. I will not be one of the—in the words of Theodore Roosevelt in his “Man in the Arena” speech in 1910—one of “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Life in the Northeast is different than in the Midwest. The degree of severity of that difference can be debated. The maturity and inner growth I have gained by expanding my comfort zone cannot. For the past eight years, my life has become one big road trip in of itself. I hope I have the fortune of continuing that trend to gain an increased insight to the universal human condition—however incremental that process may be. Klosterman writes: “People at Spin ridicule me for wearing khaki shorts to work, always insisting that I look like a tourist. I don’t care. We’re all tourists, sort of. Life is tourism, sort of.” One mile at a time.