Friday, April 1, 2011

Two months and 6,000 miles later; we've come a long way.

(This blog post is well over due.  It was written in its entirety well over a month ago and deleted by mistake.  I have since rewritten it in parts, but actually starting a life from scratch has at times gotten in the way of my attempt to document it.  A lot has changed since this blog was started, which means there is a lot to catch everyone up on.  In two days, Christina and I will be driving a Budget Truck cross country from Chicago to Evansville, Indiana to Denver, Colorado, where we plan on spending the next few years of our lives.  What brought us to Denver was the culmination of a five week, 6,000 mile cross country road trip in search of a new home.  I could write a book from all of our experiences driving across this beautiful country.  But, what you’ll find below, although abbreviated, is a pretty good start.)
What is the cost of following your dream?  I woke up this morning freezing cold in a damp tent buried amongst the giants of Redwood National Park in Northern California.  By late evening, I was in Portland, Oregon in a complete stranger’s living room unpacking my dirty laundry as a very nice, but very obese couple sat in the next room watching.  We had rented a room from www.airb&, a service that allows you to rent out rooms in peoples house similar to a bed and breakfast.   But, after three weeks on the road and countless nights spent sleeping on friend’s living room floors, the weight of the task we had undertaken began to wear on me.  I try my hardest to be a free spirit. But, the truth is that I’m simply not wired that way.   I come from a play-it-safe, risk adverse family that makes calculated decisions with predictable outcomes.   So, it’s no surprise that at times, the idea that I willfully walked away from a well-paying job and a house that I owned to wonder the country in search of a new home and career in which I have very little industry experience … Well, it’s enough to make me second guess what the fuck I was thinking.  But, as I’ve said before,  change isn’t easy.  And, most people avoid it for that very reason.  Sometimes, I think the Winnie from the Wonder Years captured it best: “Change isn’t easy. You fight to hold on and you fight to let go.”  I have not had a home or a job for nearly six months.  Uprooting your life and starting a life from scratch comes with its fair share of anxiety.  But, one thing is for sure; it’s an experience I will never forget.  I know what has happened the past six months.  I can recount detailed stories of the people I’ve met and the bizarre experiences I’ve shared with them, paint beautiful pictures of the countless landscapes I’ve traveled through and without much hesitation, the hair on my arms will stand up just thinking of the where I’ve been and the enormity of that task that lies ahead.  This, without question, is more than can be said for any previous six month block in my life.  I can’t tell you what happened last year at this time, or the year before and so on, and so on.  So, if I have gained anything from this experience, it’s that I feel alive again, as if I’m an actual character in shaping the plot that is my life.  And not just a spectator watching as the weeks and months go by, wondering where the last year had gone.  I know what has taken place these past six months and likely the months that are to follow.  It’s not life one repeat, one day or one week bleeding into the next as it used to be.  And that alone has been worth it.

We woke up on the Utah/Nevada border and hit the road for California after an especially nasty continental breakfast.   I had pictured Nevada as some flat, brown, featureless landscape with only Reno and Vegas and a whole lot of dust in-between.  I was wrong, it was not featureless.  There is no greater feeling of enlightenment than realizing that which you previously thought to be true was in fact, not.   As we headed west on Highway 80, the mountains did not disappear from my view at any single moment during my drive.   In one afternoon, we drove nearly 400 miles straight through Nevada and if I would have fallen asleep at the wheel, I would have woken up just after passing through Reno after encountering the first turn in nearly six hours of driving.  Although certainly not featureless, Nevada is indeed baron.  Every 120 miles or so, groups of small white trailers peppered the landscape, like schools of small fish swimming in an otherwise undistinguishable and un ending mass.  These small communities of 60-100 people were not too different than the pioneers that first passed through Nevada.  They lived completely isolated from any traditional form of infrastructure.  They used propane for energy and were often times more than a hundred miles from a hospital, school or grocery store.  I was befuddled as we passed these communities, each one more isolated and bizarre than the last.  I couldn’t help but to wonder what would bring someone to live in what was literally the middle of nowhere.  But, for fear of some Texas Chain Saw Massacre-esque event transpiring, I couldn’t bring myself to turn off and ask them why they had chosen their particular spot.  And, even if I had wanted to, there were no roads leading to their communities. 
Nevada: Not bad, not bad.
As we rolled through Reno and passed finally into California, it was as if there was someone flipped a switch and the hills and mountainsides came alive with green.  Suddenly, spruce and pine covered every available inch of space as we began to wind our way through the Sierra Nevada’s.  We had intended to drive straight to San Francisco, but when our lodging fell through, we decided to take a much needed detour to Sonoma to spend a day touring the vineyards and indulge at some of their famous restaurants. 

We arrived in Sonoma County around 5:30 that evening as the sun began to dip lower in the sky, casting a golden light atop the endless rolling hills of green grass checkered with rows of evenly spaced grape vines.  I remember quite clearly the feeling of rolling into Sonoma County.  It was the feeling of entering an environment which I previously though only existed in movies and dreams.  The countryside was beautiful, too beautiful.  I felt as if a herd of My Little Ponies would come galloping over the hillside any moment shooting rainbows out of their ass while singing “What a Wonderful World” in unison.  The town of Sonoma did not disappoint or stray far from this fairytale either.  It was full of people wearing thatch hats, driving around 1950’s red pick-up trucks with shovels and hoes rattling around in the bed and Golden Retrievers sticking their head out the passenger window. Sonoma was indeed more beautiful than any work of fiction could have ever portrayed it to be.

Somewhere outside of San Francisco
Later that evening, we strolled around town before heading to the Girl and the Fig to treat ourselves to a dinner that did not come with the directions “add water and microwave”, as we had become accustomed to.  It was well deserved.  We ordered two flights of red wine, beef tartar, duck confit and Crème Brule.  I finished off our delicious meal with a twelve-year-old scotch and for the first time in quite a while, I did not feel like some homeless, jobless vagabond wandering around while reality was on hold.   We slept well that night and woke up the next morning to tour some wineries before heading to Woodside to visit a friend.  As we drove around the next morning, both Christina and I fell more in love with Sonoma with each passing block.  It was the type of place I had only dreamed of living, was the idea really that farfetched?  As the day rolled on, we began to talk seriously about moving to Sonoma.  And, the subsequent wine tastings did not discourage our banter.  By the time we hit the road later on that afternoon, Sonoma had climbed to the top of our list of places to live.
I made it!  My inner-hippie rejoiced at this sight.
We spent the following six days visiting a friend in Woodside, California as we explored the areas surrounding San Francisco.  It did not take much for me to fall in love with Northern California.  As a kid I always dreamed of living someplace beautiful and there are few places more beautiful and alive than Northern California.  As we winded along Highway 101 with waves crashing into jagged rock on the left and Redwoods towering over us on the right, I couldn’t help but to picture Christina and I spending the rest of our lives surrounded by this beautiful landscape.   But, as we spent more and more time in Northern California, one thing became glaringly apparent; Northern California was a land of extremes.  It is a land of extreme beauty with extremely wealthy people and extremely isolated communities.   San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the U.S.   And, if we wanted to live in or around it, we would have to pay the price financially. But, after living in a condo for the past five years, I couldn’t stomach renting out a studio for $2,000 a month.   In fact, one of the reasons we left Chicago was to have more space.  So, after spending time touring everywhere from Berkeley, to San Francisco, to Santa Cruz, we realized that Northern California may have been a pipe dream.  If we weren’t going to live in one of the cities near San Francisco, we would have to settle for a small town buried deep within the Redwood Forests or one of the quirky towns dotting the Pacific coast.  But, living in a town with less people than my graduating high school class wasn’t going to cut it either.  So, after a fulfilled week in and around San Fran, we hit the road and headed north toward the Redwoods.
San Fran.
After spending a day in Berkeley, driving around and seeking out the unique places I had jotted down in chicken scratch in a San Francisco coffee shop, we hit the road on our way to Redwoods National park.  Before long, we were back in Sonoma County, passing through nearly a hundred miles of vineyards with tiny wine towns strewn intermittently along the way.  I knew California grew its fair share of wine.  But, vineyards plastered the hillsides like corn farms in Iowa.  For almost a hundred miles we passed nothing but vineyards and it was beautiful.  Much to Christina’s growing annoyance, I struggled to keep my eyes on the road, but the beautiful rolling hills kept drawing them back in.  Things started to change once we passed through Cloverdale, CA (popularly known as the place where the vineyards meet the redwoods).  At this point during the drive, we were supposed to head straight toward the coast and to Hwy 101.  But, our GPS had alternative plans and instead, it directed toward Highway 128. It did not take long before we started questioning whether something had gone awry.  But, we stuck to the road anyway and what an adventure it was.  Highway 128 is a one lane country road winding continuously through some of the most remote parts of Northern California before eventually running into HWY 101 some 75 miles of twisted asphalt later, somewhere in the middle of Mendocino County.  But, in spite of our mistake, we passed through some of the most remote beautiful countryside we had seen yet.  In awe that we were still on Earth and not in fact dreaming, I stopped the car often to take pictures.  If you are under the impression that California is a state full of huge cities, liberal elitists and yuppies, than I suggest you take a drive through the state as I did.  Because in between San Francisco and Crescent City, it seems a lot more like Montana or Idaho than it does California.  We passed through countless towns buried deep in the woods with populations as low as sixty-five and usually no higher than two hundred people.  Towns like the ones we passed through in Nevada, where people lived only off of propane that was delivered monthly.   But, in a place as fruitful as California, the land of milk and honey, who needs a grocery store?

Not everyday you drive through a tree.
 Eventually we made our way to the Redwood National Park, where we spent the next few days camping, hiking through the giant Redwood forests and collecting oddly shaped driftwood beside the golden sandstone bluffs that overlooked the beach.  The Redwoods were one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.  Walking through the Redwood forest amongst 3,000 year old giants, you feel as if you are on the set of Jurassic Park.  And the truth is, you’re not far off.  Fern Canyon, one of the areas where we spent the afternoon hiking, was in fact used in the filming of Jurassic park.  When you’re in place as majestic as the Redwoods, there is little need for special effects.  Things simply don’t get much more beautiful.   Our time spent in the Redwoods was much needed.  Outside of a trip into town (pop. 167) where Christina and I chewed the fat with a wood carver who graciously donated us a truck load of firewood, Christina and I spent our time in the forest alone, with only each other.   But after a few days spent sleeping in tents and sleeping bags that weren’t graded for the February weather, we were ready to hit the road and head to Oregon.
Believe it or not, there is a radio station for elk in N. California.

Just think.  That's not even the whole tree.
In between Crescent City California and Portland, Oregon, there’s not much except trees and Indian Reservations.  It was a strange sight to see a sign that read “You are not entering the sovereign nation of the Urduk”.  And, it was an even stranger sight to walk into a gas station that was both a Subway and a Casino and run entirely by Urduk Indians.  Part of me wanted to shake their hand and apologize for the white man.  But, instead I grabbed an energy drink before hopping back into my 4-Runner and settling into another long but beautiful drive.  Some eight hours later, Christina and I ended up in the Hawthorne Neighborhood of Portland, parked outside the place we would be staying for the next few days.  We reeked of campfire and had not showered in days, so I was a bit nervous before ringing this complete stranger’s doorbell whose living room I would soon be sleeping in.  I anticipated an awkward encounter and I was not mistaken.  An obese woman answered the door and her husband followed soon after.  Their profile on Air B&B said that they were an active couple who enjoyed hiking and skiing in the mountains.  Somehow, I think they may have embellished a little.  After a forced and relatively awkward ten minute conversation standing in their living room with our suitcases by ourside, they finally got the hint and let us be alone to shower and clean up.
Mutlnomah Falls (30 minutes outside Portland)

Day hike.
The next few days in Portland were perfect.  We spent each afternoon touring all of the large neighborhoods, we didn’t get lost and more importantly, we began to fall in love with the city.  It was both a city and a town and it was really charming.  It reminded me of Bloomington, Indiana (one of my favorite places on earth) but bigger.  Each neighborhood was quirky, had its own distinct character and identity.  The line between town and large city was completely blurred.  It was, as far as we were concerned, exactly what we were looking for.  After less than 48 hours in Portland, both Christina and I were sold on the place.  So, we decided to take Sunday off and enjoy the Super bowl, optimistic that we had found the place we were looking for.  After Portland, Seattle was the only place left to mark off our lists. 
A day hike.
After a night of watching the Super bowl while drinking red wine (it was all we had) and munching on spicy black bean dip, I awoke at 4 a.m. to an unpleasant feeling in my stomach.  Before long I was hugging the toilet and trying my hardest to keep my internal organs from joining the rest of whatever was floating in the now colorful toilet water.  I stumbled back to bed and laid there shivering with a high fever.  In less than three hours, we were to hit the road for Seattle where we would spend the next few days touring the city.  Great.

On the morning we drove to Seattle, I was suffering from the stomach flu and convinced my life was going to come to an abrupt end.  It was all I could do to dress myself and throw my clothes, unfolded into my suitcase.  Luckily, I had a copilot who could take over as captain.  Christina drove to Seattle as I shivered in the passenger seat with a hat and wool socks on.  A few hours later, we arrived downtown at the Holiday in where a cheery man who worked the front desk greeted us and began to walk us through a map of the city.  Sensing my disdain for anything other than a bed and a blanket, the man handed over our keys and Christina and I, both tired from a month on the road, headed toward the room where we spent the balance of the day watching TV and napping.   We spent the next few days driving around the city, touching all of the important neighborhoods in spite of the fact that I was still feeling like a bowl full of asshole.   It was a beautiful, cultured and surprisingly cosmopolitan city. It had access to the mountains and the ocean and everything that comes with living in a big city.  But, it quickly became apparent that Seattle was a city and only a city.  And, unless we could to buy or rent a million dollar house, we would be forced to rent a tiny apartment.  We left Chicago for a number of reasons, but one of them was to have more space.  So, after a light speed tour of Seattle, we decided that although it was a great city, it simply fell short.  And, just like that our tour of the Western United States was over.  So, later that night as we sat on the bed Indian style with instant soup cooking on our camper stove in the corner, Christina and I both agreed that Portland had won our vote.   And, we set forth plans to return the following day and begin the tedious task of starting a new life in Portland… or so I thought.
Somewhere on the Pacific Coast.
Portland Round II
When we drove into Portland the second time around, it didn’t seem quite the same as I remembered it.  Perhaps it was now falling under more scrutiny because the reality began to hit that this place was indeed my future home.  But, as we passed through Washington State and right into Portland, the city seemed grey.  Everything about it seemed grey; the color of the sky, the old buildings stained grey with acid rain, even the rivers and the bridges.   As we crossed over the Willamette River, I felt as if I was entering a coal mining town in Pennsylvania and not my future home.  We found our way to Motel 6 on the outskirts of town, right next door to a strip club.  We had planned on it being our home base for the next week or two as we searched for temporary housing.  But, after changing rooms twice because they were clearly not non-smoking and after realizing that the Wi-Fi which we had paid for wasn’t even working, we demanded a refund and hightailed to another cheap motel.    We soon found ourselves at the Briarwood Suites, a fifty dollar a night motel outside of downtown Portland popular with prostitutes and druggies, where we would spend the next week trying to get our Portland dream off the ground.
That first night, as we sat in our motel room under dimly lit florescent lights, the enormity of the task we had undertaken began to get to me.  We were far from home, really, really far.  And, we were attempting to find a home and start a life in a place where we did not know a living soul. Much less, I had never met anyone who had even lived in Portland.  What was I thinking?  Were we ready to drop everything and move to a city we had only spent 48 hours in?  As it turns out, there is more than one answer to that question.  The truth is, we had already dropped everything.  Christina and I were both jobless and both homeless by choice.  We had chosen to go on this adventure together and now, finally, we were both being dealt a strong dose of reality. Christina was ready and I simply wasn’t.
Ahh, nothing like a home-cooked meal.
We spent the next week holed up in our crumby motel room, fastidiously checking for rentals on craigslist, rarely leaving except to pick up some sandwiches at the Safeway down the street.  It was nearly the end of February, the clock was ticking to find a rental and we were having little luck.  I had barely ventured out of our motel room, but Portland was beginning to wear on me.  Then it dawned on me that I had not seen the sun the entirety of the time that we were in Portland.  Why?  Because it had also not stopped raining the entire time we were in Portland.  After a quick Google search, I stumbled on Portland weather statistics.  Only 70 days of sunshine a year.  Someone had once described to me that living in Portland is like living in a cloud.  It’s always wet and you rarely see the sun.  The weather was the first domino to fall, but for me and only me, the rest fell relatively quickly.  I also came to find out that Denver has one of the most depressed job markets in the entire country next to Detroit, which I was reminded of nearly every time I mentioned to anyone in Portland that I was moving there without a job.
Over the course of the week we spent in the motel room, I quickly fell out of love with Portland.  The weather the distance from friends and family and the nagging feeling of being alone, completely isolated and nearly as far away from everything I knew as possible quickly began to wear on me. Christina, on the other hand, was as ready to move to Portland as ever.  But, as it came time to sign a short term lease in an apartment complex, my cold feet got to me.  We had been approved for the application process and everything, all we needed to do was drop off the deposit.  But, when we woke up that morning, I broke down.  I simply couldn’t do it.  I had too many reservations and it simply didn’t feel right.  So, instead of heading to the apartment complex to drop off our deposit, we packed our bags, loaded up the car and headed to Denver, where there are over 300 days of sunshine a year.  I dropped Christina off at the airport two days later and crashed on a friends couch as I began to look for jobs and houses, of which I now have both.  And, as I type these very words, I am two hours away from a flight that will take me back to Chicago where I will pick up a moving truck and move Christina and I out here, along with our dogs and all of our belongings. 

The journey to get to this point has not been easy one.  At times, it’s been defeating.  And although the feeling of anxiety about the future rarely subsides, neither does the feeling that I can change my future at anytime.  Its a powerful feeling when you realize that if you want to do something, you can simply do it.  You just have to try...  Thanks for following along.

My life is now complete...

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