Dispatch 6: A (non)finality
After my second rodeo, I drove nine hours east through the rest of Montana, arriving in Custer, South Dakota by way of the Little Bighorn battlegrounds. The town is named for the man who led his troops into the legendary massacre that would become known as his own last stand. We spent an afternoon roaming the Great Plains with a herd of American bison before camping under the shadow of Mount Rushmore. We continued east on a stretch of I-90 littered with highway attractions — a skeleton man walked a skeleton dinosaur in the midst of an open prairie, a giant bull’s head promoted a macabre sculpture garden and perhaps a return to Paganism. Billboards advertising free ice water besieged the hundreds of arid miles leading to Wall Drug, a 76,000-square-foot tourist trap with its own gravitational force. An 80-foot brontosaurus welcomed us to the event horizon after which we tumbled into the black hole of gift shops and fried food stands. My search for water resulted in the purchase of a tee shirt commemorating the 2021 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally: a flaming skeleton in a headdress riding his motorcycle on the back of a bald eagle serves as a tribute to one of the country’s biggest annual super-spreader event. From there the attractions only became more patriotic. We stopped at The World’s Only Corn Palace, a charming arena of high-fructose yellow and gold dedicated to honoring our nation’s most prolific crop. I picked up two bags of popcorn, we passed through the rest of South Dakota, drove into Minnesota, past the Jolly Green Giant, and then camped in – you guessed it – a giant corn field.
The next day I drove the rest of the way to Chicago to see my brother and his family where their friendly neighbor promptly mistook me for the plumber. I dressed Zoey up like a cowgirl and she poured us two imaginary whiskeys while Dorothy licked Asher clean. I’d timed my Chicago stop to align with my parents’ own visit, so when they arrived later that night, they were surprised to find their haggard middle child waiting in the guest room. The joy of surprise and reunion was tinged with my mom’s insistence that she’d had a feeling and had even told my dad so, though he had no recollection of this. The next day we watched Zoey and her eight classmates perform the songs of Frozen. It was a beautiful rendition only slightly tarnished by a three year old who broke into hysterics because her paper Olaf fell off its popsicle stick. Diva alert!
We drove 500 miles the next day and landed in a bucolic Appalachian town called Falls Creek, Pennsylvania. I built a fire and made dinner while the sky turned purple and orange and Dorothy ran free through the fields. We slept without the tent fly so the stars and the moon kept us up and then the sun woke us before six. I made coffee, ate a bowl of cereal, and we hit the road. 294 miles later we arrived in Brooklyn. As we rounded the corner onto my block, a final road trip miracle occurred: a car pulled out from the spot directly in front of my building. The trip odometer read 11,924.8 miles. We parked, walked into my apartment, and Dorothy went straight for her favorite spot on the couch. I spent 90 minutes unpacking the car, and then settled next to her. I blinked, and I was back where I’d started. Whoa.
My biggest fear heading into the trip was that everything would go according to plan. That I’d travel 9,000 miles, see some beautiful places, meet some interesting people, and arrive back home feeling like I’d been on a long vacation. Fortunately, that is not what happened. Even my wildest expectations existed on a plane far tamer than the one my trip took place on. The two months I was on the road were among the most profound of my entire life.
But now, back home, I don’t know where that leaves me. It’s taken me so long to write this last dispatch because I don’t know how to end it. There’s simply no clean ending here. There’s no closing the loop, no final conclusions or learnings to share, and even if there were, if I knew them, I wouldn’t know how to communicate them to you. And I’m certainly not going to sit here and manufacture a satisfying resolution.
I went back and revisited my earlier entries. This is from the first dispatch, just prior to departure:
“[...] the past twelve months have been a lot, a whirlwind that has left me in a state of deep introspection – or, interrogation. Depending on the quality of my sleep, I wake up each day feeling free as a bird, or like I’m floating alone through space – in either case, unmoored, and with a troubling sense of lack of purpose.
[...] I’ve got a running joke with my therapist that I’m going to figure everything out while I’m on the road. By the time I’m back, he’ll be out of a job, and I’ll be en route to fulfilling my life’s purpose. The joke here is that of course none of those things will happen, but more importantly, that this would be a deeply counterproductive belief to hold – the last thing I need on this trip is an unrealistic and oppressive expectation weighing me down.
But I do need to shake things up, and perhaps shake some things loose, and so that is what I’ll be attempting to do over these next seven weeks or so.”
And this, from eight weeks later, is the final journal entry that I wrote by the fire in Falls Creek:
“Within a few weeks of being home, you’re going to begin to feel down. You’ll feel anxious and sad and bored. You’ll wonder what you’re supposed to do next. You’ll wonder if anything changed, and it might start to feel like you never even left. You’ll ask yourself — where did it all go?
Remind yourself – it’s in your belly now. You swallowed it whole. Everything you experienced in the past two months is incubating inside you. It’s going to take some time to develop, to begin to manifest in tangible ways, to mark its changes on you. But it will do all of that, and more.
And if all else fails, remember, the road is always there.”
I think I’ll leave it at that. Thank you all for reading.