The Next Page: I lost my job and drove across most of America. With a stranger I met on Twitter.
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Get out of the house . Go to the airport. Meet a girl in a strange city. Drive across the country with her. That's insane, right? Well, that's what I did.
A few months ago, my employer called a hundred employees into an auditorium. They were outsourcing our jobs to a different country. I live in Pittsburgh, so my story isn't a new one. My job left me for a younger, exotic economy. Welcome to the global market. The Internet, they said.
The Internet. The great medium of communication and collaboration that had brought me so much fun and so many opportunities to express myself and to make new friends had finally taken something away from me.
My Internet Friends aren't like my Kidney Friends. They're on opposite ends of the Friend Scale. Kidney Friends are a handful of people who can have one of my kidneys -- first come, first serve. There aren't a lot of people there. At the other end are Internet Friends. They're people I know, but only as well as I know anybody without meeting them in person, which is to say, I wouldn't let most of them borrow my car.
J. Maureen Henderson was an Internet Person. We had never met because she lives hours away on the East Coast and I don't travel. No, really. I don't travel. I hate it. I hate everything about it. Why would I go anywhere else when everything I love is right here? Why would I take myself out of my very comfortable comfort zone? I could think of no compelling reason, so I never went very far.
One day, JMH mentioned taking a road trip and I volunteered to go with her. I don't know what I was thinking.
Taking a random road trip in your early 30s or late 20s is so common it has a name: a quarter-life crisis, which is like a mid-life crisis that happens earlier. It is a transitional event. Just in case you thought you were still a kid, you're not. In fact, you're going to die some day. Things are going to change between now and then. You can't control most of them, so don't try. You know that panic you feel when you think the chair you're sitting in is going to fall backwards? Get used to it.
One way to get used to it is to kick the chair out from under yourself and hope the landing won't be as bad as it looks.
After we got over the initial shock of having the other person agree to go on the road trip that no sane person would take, we picked Denver as a good place to meet. We began with a rough framework of beginning in an unfamiliar place, going to unfamiliar places and ending up in Pittsburgh, which was only unfamiliar to her.
I also suggested that we have Thanksgiving dinner at my family home in Wheeling, which nicely meshed with her desire to see Appalachia and made for a great end point that we knew we could reach in about a week of driving and seeing unfamiliar places.
It would be an easy drive. It's just driving, right?
I got to Denver first. I was excited to catch her as she walked the long receiving line at the Denver airport.
"Hey," she said, standing behind me.
"Oh," I said. "I thought you'd be --"
"They lost my luggage," she said. "I got off the plane 20 minutes ago."
"I went to baggage claim and I didn't see you so I thought you hadn't --"
"I know," she said. "Let's go get the rental car."
JMH is fast and small, like a cannonball. I struggled to keep up with her. I cracked jokes. She didn't laugh. This wasn't going to be easy.
We got the car, a trusty Toyota Corolla, and set off to dinner with a friend of mine who lived there. We got lost on the way to the restaurant. The GPS app I bought for my iPhone would prove to be a huge asset to the rest of the trip, but it failed us that first night of driving. JMH is an analog kind of girl, so it took the GPS a few days to earn its keep. It probably took me a little longer.
Denver is a great town, I think. I'm not really sure, because we didn't see much of it.
This would turn out to be a running theme in our adventure. I know it was hard to breathe there, that they sold water everywhere, and that most of it was a lot like every other place. Nashville was a lot like Asheville, which was a lot like St. Louis, which was a lot like Omaha. I'm sure people come to Pittsburgh and say that about my city, too.
It's one thing to drive across the country but it's an entirely other thing to experience it. You have to find the souls of the places you go. All we ever saw were the bones.
From Denver, we went north to Nebraska, which was home to one of those roadside attractions that people see when they're on road trips. JMH had heard about Carhenge somewhere and people having adventures on the road go to places like that, so we went.
Just like it sounds, Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge, except it's made out of dead cars instead of giant rocks. Carhenge is loud and quiet at the same time -- the wind is so strong and constant that it drowns everything else out and turns into a roar of white noise. It's in the middle of the forever flatness of Nebraska and there's nothing but a few rounded hills of hay bales in the distance. It feels like a graveyard. There's even a tombstone to commemorate the bones of foreign cars who "did their part" when America was struggling with economic woes in the mid-1980s.
Stonehenge was ancient when the Romans invaded England. It looks pretty much the same now as it did then. Carhenge looks good for only being 20 years old or so. Somebody's taking care of it, but the gift shop is abandoned. Now you have to go to a shoe store in downtown Alliance to get a souvenir.
The driving marathon from Carhenge took us to Columbia, Mo., which is where my brother lives with his wife. Columbia is a college town, which means it's like an upscale tent city where the refugees live in ramshackle student housing and congregate in dive bar gastropubs instead of soup kitchens.
Rob just got his Ph.D. in writing creative nonfiction and his wife, Stefanie, has one in writing poetry. They're looking for jobs, but times are tough for educated people, too. Rob and Stefanie are young and smart and they will withstand and endure. They fed us and shared a bottle of wine with us and saw us off early the next morning to go to St. Louis and then Nashville.
I can't judge the entire state of Tennessee by my experience in Nashville, so I won't. All I can do is report the facts:
We checked into a motel in Nashville that had broken locks, a broken emergency exit and a list of rules taped to the bulletproof shield over the front desk that forbade occupants from cooking in their rooms or yelling out of their windows. I couldn't stay there. If I couldn't stay there, then JMH couldn't stay there, either.
We went to a restaurant to regroup. I reminded her that we weren't in this because it was easy but because it was hard. Pounding the table, I recalled old glories. I felt like Washington rallying his troops -- for one last go at luxury. Her pride in a hardscrabble upbringing should not stand in the way of one blessed night of high-thread-count sheets and room service. I dragged us, exhausted and broken, to a Renaissance hotel downtown, where we luxuriated in our pajamas and shared a gluten-free vegan birthday cake.
That's right -- this horrible day of all days was also J. Maureen's birthday.
Everything after Nashville was a blur of road and trees and mountain highways. We went to Asheville, N.C., for a night, ate some ice cream with a friend of JMH's and then, with a heavy sigh and not a small amount of excitement, headed to Wheeling, W.Va.
It was Thanksgiving, so nothing was open but a Waffle House. We met a lady who called everybody "baby" and a man with a speech impediment from whom we understood every other word. His thick Tennessee accent was no help.
That was the only local color we saw. It was indicative of the local color we saw anywhere else, which wasn't much. It was a fun trip and it almost turned me around to enjoying travel for once, but we forgot that travel isn't just moving from one location to the next. We met some interesting places but we didn't take the time to get to know them.
It's like pretending to travel by looking at the Internet. On jamesforeman.com , you can look at the pictures we took of ourselves at the Cabela's national HQ or the Superman statue in Metropolis, Ill. You can visit the websites of Carhenge and the Nashville Zoo . But that's just browsing. Turns out, you can actually travel to places and not experience them.
Road trips have a lot of driving in them. Our road trip had more driving than it should have.
One example: We drove across Nebraska, saw the insides of our hotel rooms and then left the next day for Missouri. That's 17 hours of driving in less than 24 hours, and it was all in the first days of our trip. Not only was that a lot of driving early in the adventure, it was a lot of driving early in my friendship with JMH. That's like brushing your teeth in front of a blind date.
What saved us from killing each other was a couple of factors:
Number one, JMH is smart and witty and fun to talk to. Number two, so am I. We had chemistry . We got along. We shared secrets, dreams, stories. There's going to be a lot of driving in a road trip, but if the person you're traveling with isn't amazing and fun, you might want to consider a lot of loud music.
JMH maybe isn't a Kidney Friend, but she's a Road Trip Friend, and that might be better. Kidney Friends just get a kidney, but the Road Trip Friends are people with whom we don't mind sharing a car and a thousand miles.
I know what you're wondering. You're wondering if two young, attractive, single people got all rom-com and fell in love and one of us is planning on moving to live with the other. I could only tell half of that story and I would probably get it wrong. I believe in full disclosure, so I'm not going to tell you.
We're saving that for the movie.
The trip is over. I made a new friend. I'm still unemployed and the economy still stinks, but I'm not worried. I think the Internet brings lots of people closer together, not just me and JMH.
There's a social scene even right here in Pittsburgh made up of people who met each other using Twitter. There are thousands of stories like mine all over the country. We can come together and learn about each other and enjoy new friends and let them help us be strong. We get a little better at enduring things like layoffs and bad economies.
I'm still not sure how I feel about traveling. I don't hate it as much anymore, maybe. I had fun, but I don't think that had much to do with the places I went but with the people who were with me.
When I travel again, I'm going to do a lot more to get to know the people I meet. It's important to keep making friends, even though I only have two kidneys.
First Published December 25, 2011 12:00 am