Newsletter #4

Dear Readers,

Yes, my friends, the end has arrived. And what have we learned?

There is more to say than I can contain in a couple of emailed paragraphs, for sure. I don't want to wrap this whole trip up too quickly, but I definitely do. Traveling across the country has been a dream of mine for years. Now that I've accomplished it, it's time to sit down and think, what else, what's next.

The whole concept behind becoming a well-traveled American man was to find value. A pirate among the seas of trash, I latched on to anything I could find worthwhile. I slept in a cement teepee off Route 66. I walked, sweat pouring from my brow, between Old Vegas and The Strip after locking my keys in my car. I drank a Coors with my coffee one Saturday morning to celebrate Colorado's brewery and outdoorsy spirit. Needless to say, the idea of the roadtrip was valuable in and of itself. It was born of a relatively spontaneous freedom to explore the unknown. I had the delicate ability to control the direction of my wheels, but let myself get into trouble when the engine was off.

During my last week on the road, I reached the heart of the matter. I was lucky enough to attend the Earthship Biotecture September Seminar in Taos, New Mexico. It is a magical community I stumbled upon researching The Land of Enchantment itself before I left. The story goes that forty years ago, Michael Reynolds, an unorthodox architecture school graduate and dirt-bike racer trying to dodge the Vietnam draft, started a revolution in self-sustainable housing. Through years of experimentation and wild construction, his Earthships, as he calls them, have developed into prime real-estate for living off-the-grid, that is, without any utility dependence to the outside world. Earthships are built with recycled materials, like beer cans and car tires, harness solar and wind energy to power the interior of the home, as well as utilize caught rainwater in a water management cycle which helps you wash, feed an in-home greenhouse, and use the John. And just as good ideas catch on, Reynolds has since fostered a community of thinkers, builders, and people just looking for some change.

There is more than a fair share to be said about building an Earthship home, but I can't get into it here without exploding everyone's Inbox. Hell, Reynolds puts out books and videos for that particular reason. What really struck me, though, was how attainable building a simple home, free from the anxiety of destruction or dependence, became a reality. Everyone kept asking each other if they were ready to build their own home after the seminar and my answer was always a safe "well, I don't see how I could just forget all this". And the truth is that, I saw the beauty and freedom of living off-the-grid. There are just a few other questions I need to answer before a home is my number one priority.

What really stuck out in the front of my memory was the parallel universe of New Mexico. Allow me to set the scene weeks back, in New Jersey, the night of my 25th birthday. After hours of watching old wrestling pay-per-view programs for my birthday, one of my best friends, Rob Bajor, hung back as everyone went home to get some shut-eye. I was leaving for the road the next day and Rob wanted to impart his road knowledge, considering he recently ran off to San Francisco for a month-long stay just weeks earlier. One of his favorite moments, he told me, was sitting on the Pacific Coast beach with some newfound friends, enjoying the crash of the waves and the warmth of a firepit on the sand. Back to Taos, New Mexico. I'm having one of the most valuable experiences of my trip, learning about housing and imagining a future free of reliance. The first person I end up conversing with at the seminar is named Rob. We were the East Coast boys of the group, him being from Queens, New York, me obviously Jersey. It's probably the reason we got along so well. And as the seminar wound down, Rob was cool enough to invite me to hang out with him and his brother, Dave, in the Earthship he rented out for the weekend. And you know how we enjoyed our Earthship experience? We made a firepit in the desert. Sure, it's a stretch, Robs and firepits and vacations from Jersey, but the connection gave me a laugh and shrank the distance from home. We sat around the flames like modern-day cowboys, listening to the pack of coyotes out in the wilderness, attempting to avoid the smoke, enjoying some beer, and reflect on the housing ideas we drank all weekend.

I left Taos and the Earthships behind to wonder the idea of value. Value has become a shiny word. Instead of peering inside of us to find personal value, the word easily conjures images of gems, precious medals, stacks of cash, maybe something you'd find in a hidden temple from Disney's Aladdin. Now, the switch seems to be happening. There are thousands of young people, at the moment, angry about the concept of value all over the country, specifically on Wall Street. So as I buckled down for a thirteen-hour drive to Austin, Texas, I challenged myself to see the value in my own beliefs, not so much my bank account. All I knew once I made it to Texas was I honestly valued a city atmosphere to a barren wasteland of oil pumps and cattle, and a friend who would open her front door with a smile.

Last time I visited Austin, two years ago, it was an exercise in vacationing. I ate Tex-Mex and swam just about every day for a week. I visited Chaz and Kathy, a couple I originally knew from New Jersey, but came to know better once I passed out several times on their living room couch. I still look back on that trip with fondness (hell, I even jumped off a bridge with Chaz) but times have changed. Chaz and Kathy split. Chaz went home to his friends and family in New Jersey, Kathy continued her education and career in Austin. Meanwhile, I'd been through jiu-jitsu tournaments, jobs, girlfriends, moving back and forth throughout my home state, and one difficult back injury. We were new people to one another and somehow we didn't miss a beat.

Value finally took a shirt from the transforming the outside world to tuning in to the thoughts in my head and the words coming out of my mouth. Kathy and I spent evenings on her front stoop, holding magnifying glasses up to one another in the dark. It was as if we both never really knew each other before then. We built our autobiographies answering the questions we asked one another and revealed more than we thought we knew. We shared our hopes and praise for our siblings, examined the state of marriage and divorce, shared our preference for staying out of the sun, and discussed the concept of the soul or lack thereof. While I had experienced homesickness coming and going through my travels, suddenly, I truly noticed the need for others. The value of friends began to balance my need to hit the road alone. How else would I recognize my tendencies and mistakes in my career path or through relationships or even my own personally-diagnosed mental illnesses? I couldn't. It needed to be said out loud. I could only assume Kathy felt the same way as we hugged before I left, both thankful we found a friend so similar in our struggles yet so calm and willing to ignore ourselves and solve the other's problems.

To be honest, after Austin, I had experienced what I needed to come home. It definitely helped that I had failed to plan an extensive exploration on the East Coast. In Georgia, I did manage to catch Frankie Edgar come back to life in the fourth round of UFC 136 and blast Gray Maynard, so I was even more slap-happy and content to drive thirteen more hours back to The Garden State.

As Faye chugged along, I took stock of my roadtrip treasures. I had and still have an iPhone gallery of 500+ pictures, including views from up the Rocky Mountains, downtown Chicago, glowing Old Vegas, and picturesque Route 66. Joe, the salesman, gave me fireworks in Pennsylvania and MC Lars sold me a t-shirt in West Hollywood. I met up with acquaintances-turned-friends and friends-turned-better-friends in Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Taos, and Austin. I saw my godmother for the second time in two years and my great uncle for the first time since I was ten! Most importantly, I could say that I'd done it. I set sail on the American frontier and returned a better man, no doubt.

And I even wrote about it enough to please myself and hopefully all of you. Thanks for reading and rest assured that this is not really the end. I lied. It is only the beginning.

Until next time...

I explode into space.

-dan

Newsletter #3

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Dear Readers,

There is no better place right now than on the back of my car. Freight carts are rolling through town, vibrating the surface beneath me. The light breeze of the night is what I would call perfect weather, day or night. Cars sporadically zip by on the road and air conditioners hum in the cement teepees around me. I'm right off old Route 66 and enjoying the peace, the calm.

It's an odd culmination to a week of somewhat elegance. I bounced from San Francisco to Orange County to one of the few five-star hotel resorts in the entire continent, the Fairmont Princess in Scottsdale, Arizona.

I've never been one to dream myself into the lap of luxury though. Like I said, here, off Route 66, almost feels like home in a strange, different-era type of way. I suppose I associated my aspirations with more simpler times. The blue-collar, white-t-shirt times of the 1950's appeals more to me than the stuffy button-up days I spent in NBC's 30 Rock after graduating college. Whether it is familial pride or a disgust for most jobs or something off in my brain, I was on the side of old-school Americana.

This is all exactly why I was in such shock as Jen Fu led a broken-jawed Dan around the Google campus. There were colorful, communal bikes for young, casual professionals to get around from building to building, where office space was just as open and accommodating as each spot's communal kitchen. There was a T-Rex model and a volleyball net. Top it off with a buffet dinner easily juggling Indian, Chinese, and Italian-American cuisine for employees and whatever schmucks they happened to bring around. I, being a schmuck, took full advantage. Something about it was so contrastingly desirable. Where a corporation could provide a relaxed work atmosphere, transportation, your meals, fitness centers, and what I'm sure is a modest salary, they could also own your days and nights.

Aside from the business tour, Jen Fu made my entire San Francisco experience memorable. We hit the town, drank it up and fist-pumped to house music till an ungodly hour of a weekday night, which is probably more like 4 AM. He was always enthusiastic, always eager to hear my plans.

What got to me was the familiarity. Where Google felt like NBC, his San Francisco apartment felt like my old Brooklyn. I lived mostly alone in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn for three months. My room was amazing, the neighborhood was friendly, and I felt like I carved out an odd place for myself in adulthood. In San Francisco I piggybacked Jen Fu's accomplishments as I cracked open his second-story window, shoveled takeout Thai food between my jaws and consumed a UFC marathon on television. It was a new dream come true. Such relaxation, such a place for me to enjoy myself. I could see myself living in a spot like that. And that thought reminded me of something terrible. I hated Brooklyn. It was so hard to meet people. It was so taxing to commute to Manhattan and cook healthy food for myself and stay fit. It didn't make sense. My dream was incomplete. So, trying to imagine myself in San Francisco was just like seeing myself oddly miserable in Brooklyn. I felt like it didn't fit as much as I loved it.

I had to ask myself the big question, as I often do. Why? Why do I aspire to more than makes sense to me? Why do I feel at home on Route 66 with the twilight breeze and, at the same time, aspire to be a young professional adult? It's extremely important to dream big, I know, but what made me furiously introspective and upset was the disconnect between my pleasure and my own mentality. Somehow I never linked up that my contribution to society, whatever profession it may be, would afford me a beautiful, spacious apartment in a happening city without being utterly miserable and running back to New Jersey every weekend to see my only friends. For most, a career is a shared, whispered sense of misery. Everyone has to work and everyone hates it. And the leap to link a more important job to a more important salary made the most cynical and fun-bashing of people. In San Francisco I had to confront the idea that work sucks.

Pushing forward from feeling sorry for myself and defending against my hangover, I had been on the road for more than three weeks because of the good graces of my national network of friends. I was so relieved to see my crazy godmother, Liz, and her soulmate, Mike, that I feel back into some relaxed limbo. On one more-than-intoxicating night my godmother assured me that my road troubles were normal. It was easy to get depressed when you're far from everything you've known to be normal. She gave me the reassurance I needed to know I was doing something important for more than myself. She said my mother was in awe of me, and whether or not those are the words my mother has used to describe me, I'll take it. I want to inspire awe. I want to raise awareness, create interest. There is more to life than we will ever know.

And that leads me to a place I barely know, Arizona. Hotter than Hades, I drove my hours to Scottsdale. Months ago, Trazzler, a new social network based around travel review, awarded me five nights at Fairmont hotels somewhere in North America for my contribution about a New Jersey tea shop. I won it fair and square. Now here I found myself, shaggy and sweating, in an extremely classy joint.

Career aside, I used to take pride in the class divide. Who was to say anyone had it better than another? Sure, there were differences, I just happened to side with the blue collar for some unfounded reasons. Maybe it was the thought that not every powerful millionaire had to be stuffed uncomfortably in a three-piece suit. I wanted to be the famed figure with a simple style and a fierce prospective.

In I walked to my five-star pad and again I was left lost. My bed was fit for a king. My mini fridge was stocked so tight I had to juggle snacks to keep my leftover Chinese food preserved. The view, the bellhop said, was absolutely the best in the resort. Forget the water fountains and fire below, Arizona is a microcosm from my cushioned patio chair. And again I wondered, is this right?

Of course, the reason I have to answer all these big questions is because I won't be on the road for ever. Back in the Garden State, there are friends and family and strangers expecting my return with stories and life lessons and recommendations for their own future adventures. And I can't wait. But in the meantime, I have to carve out my own landing strip.

The monster in the mirror is my flawed imagination. I have to convince myself still that there is nothing wrong with wanting more in this life. I felt half-hearted in dreaming of bringing a future girlfriend to the Scottsdale Princess without the need for a free ticket, us being able to enjoy the patio view. Why? I've often built dreams into structures to be forever remodeled. Somewhere down the road there is a place where my dreams will come to me as easily as this Route 66 breeze and I have a great feeling it's just around the corner.

Until next time...

I explode into space.

-dan

Newsletter #2

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Dear Readers,

I felt like the fog of a dream was lifted when I totaled up the days. I've been on the road for two weeks. I made it across the country. Now, I've seen America. It may have been a lot of Interstate 70, but I'm sure I'm closer to really absorbing the lyrics of America, The Beautiful. California definitely does have amber waves of grain.

My first newsletter was about me and my disgust with the word "interest". For my second newsletter I want to talk about community. I guess this roadtrip hasn't felt like such a vacation or an extended trip because I've been staying and meeting up with some really great people. I saw some old friends, some acquaintances turned into better friends, and I saw my Colorado-based relatives, my great uncle Bruce and his wife Betty. The last time I saw them was thirteen years ago!

Underneath it all, it only took me two weeks to discover what that never-do-well Alexander Supertramp from the movie Into the Wild didn't until his dying breath:

Happiness is only real when shared.

I don't regret my decision to travel and drive alone. It was necessary. I'm just starting to see how I want it all to fit together. Alone time is great and I won't turn my back on it, but having a place among people is even better. I felt it when I woke up in Denver last Saturday morning. Mariel asked me to join her and her friends in a recreational volleyball league. I was glad I had enough sense to say yes.

It was bright and sunny and there were dozens of people smashing volleyballs everywhere you looked. Better yet was being part of a team that valued the fun more than winning the actual game. We played for six hours that day and I couldn't have enjoyed more! Seven hours would have been too many.

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After a night's detour in Utah, I crawled through to Vegas. Let me stress one thing. Vegas is not for the lonely. Sure, it seems like the perfect antidote. They are call-girls and shows and tons of bright shiny lights and green, crisp money to distract you. The problem is that it's all too sad. It's a big plot to get as much money and time from you as physically possible. I had to walk what had to be the length of three football fields through the noisy machines of the casino floor just to get to my luggage-on-wheels in the parking garage. The buffets are never cheap considering you need to play a couple hundred dollars worth of video poker before they comp you anything. Now, I know I'm not delivering any breaking news here, it just had to be said. Likewise, the Vegas police are no help when a poor boy from New Jersey locks his keys in his car. Good thing his spare keys were sitting in his hotel room a good forty minute walk away.

Among the glitz and glam and solitary entertainment, my phone buzzed with an email from my sister, Kelly. She had read my newsletter and told me how my writing reminded her of how she was honing her own skills now in her freshman year at NJIT. It warmed my heart to know that not only did she read what I wrote but took the time to get back to me. For many, sometimes subconscious, reasons, my family is disjointed. We can go days without talking to one another in a decent functional pattern, so you have to imagine my surprise when my sister gave me the best and longest response to my newsletter. It suddenly felt like she was along the ride with me and that's what I was trying to do all along.

But then she ended her message with the sentiment that others have dropped on me: "I hope you find what you're looking for." Everyone keeps hoping I find what I'm looking for, which to me always seems like a loaded statement. Am I looking for something? Identity? Treasure? Trouble? Could be. At first, though, I was annoyed. Here was such a nice and thoughtful response to the travel news I was putting out to my closest circle and I felt like people saw me as some kind of lost puppy. On the other hand, though, I had to realize that a lot of people were envious. I can't help but wonder if that means that people know they need to "look for something" and fail to do it because they can't hit the road themselves.

If I had to nail down what I'm looking for it would have to be a place to fit. No, I'm not searching for a new place to settle down on the West Coast. And I would never trade my family and friends for anyone else. I just need to better understand where exactly on Earth I fit perfectly. It's sad to imagine that some people go through life without ever finding that special spot. So, I guess, after all, I am searching.

I've seen others fit perfectly into their surroundings. My final night in Denver Mariel brought me to her friend's house for a home-cooked dinner. Collin was our host and he experimented with whole wheat pasta and a very involved tomato sauce. No surprise here, I inhaled two plates full. Fast forward to dessert and I found myself shoveling mint chocolate chip ice cream with melted peanut butter on top into my mouth and watching the ending credits to Jackass 3.5. The television was muted because we'd be chatting all day with college football living in the background, and while the Jackass guys were injuring themselves and one another on the screen I had a big stupid grin on my face. I could hear in my head all the dialogue and groans and screams. Everyone in the house was silent, except for the occasional "ouch" in response, and I felt like they were stumbling upon the treasure I already had the joy to experience. To me it wasn't just about the film, it was the community experience I had of watching them repeatedly with my circle of friends back home.

The homesickness has crept in. Even as I type this, my hangover from last night's fun makes me homesick. Maybe it has something to do with wanting to be comfortable. I've been away for so long and it's not even halfway through my trip. I still have to see my Orange County godmonster (the nickname my godmother gave herself) and attend the Earthship Biotecture seminar and sit inside a giant dinosaur's mouth. When I get too homesick I like to remind myself of a quote from Adolph Coors, the man responsible for the brewing company. On my tour of the Colorado brewery, I heard a recording of Coors say, "Waste is a resource out of place." Even though he was taking about the byproducts and packaging of one of America's favorite drinks (not so much mine at the moment), his quote rings true for my entire trip. Everything has a use, a meaning, all we have to do is find it, adapt it, and apply it.

So when the question becomes what I'm searching for, I can say I'm just learning how to put myself in my proper place.

Until next time...

I explode into space.

-dan

Newsletter #1

Dear Readers,

Already I've learned something here on the road. Well, actually, I've cemented it because it has always made me cringe. I have a problem with the word "interest". Social networks, college activity fairs, and even job interviews want to know your interests. What interests you is what they ask, as if it's supposed to be some magical combination of no more than three separate items. Base-jumping, Camping, Kayaking. Horticulture, Meteorology, Weed. Beer, Women, Beer. We all have our limiting factors, but "interest" does little to define me.

Everything interests me in the vaguest sense. Ham radio? Sure. Latin American politics? Why not? For me to say I'm not interested in something is too dramatic. At least, that's what I thought until the entire world was in my hands. Suddenly, it was too heavy.

The stars aligned when I hit the road. I injured my back well enough to know I didn't want to do junk removal anymore. I'd been saving money for nothing in particular and I finally had my own car. Interest gave way to possibility and action. So I took it and ran.

Days later, the Renegade Handmade Festival was abuzz with excitement in Wicker Park (Chicago's Williamsburg, Brooklyn for my Northeast buddies). Karen and I moozyed through the entire 300+ stands way too slowly for the hot September sun. Karen is the best friend I made during the days I lived in Brooklyn, through the Couchsurfing social network. I surfed through her section in Washington Heights, NY once but moreso she was someone I could bounce ideas and thoughts off of for hours. A true friend, she opened her home to me when I made it outside of Chicago in the suburb of New Lenox.

We stopped for alcohol fuel every couple of blocks at the festival. I was seeing the other side of my junk universe. For months I had been tossing what these artists had been manipulating into endlessly clever transformations. There were belt buckles made of Polaroid prints, jewelry made from broken fine china, and Dr. Seuss books turned into fresh, new notebooks. It was my first glimpse at the treasure I set sail for. These were people adapting the world around them to mold their vision.

And here I was in Chicago and Ohio and Kansas, doing nothing. I was seeing the world, but barely doing more. I was more interested in unwinding from hours of constant highway drives that I had no energy to strike up conversations or explore the rainy parts of America. I had the most delicious and destructive fast-food and hit the hay. Without official plans, I'm not the guy to take action without already-present interest. Something has got to give, America.

Case in point. I spend a day in New Lenox, right outside of Chicago, at home with Karen's mother, Sue. We watched what Karen has termed "mom porn" on HGTV. Trashy in a weird way, I found all the house-flipping and home-decorating shows thrilling. It was a mash-up of unskilled nobodies trying to flip a pile of garbage into the dream home and design experts making mansions even more glamorous and gaudy. Through the lens of endless, pseudo-celebrity-hosted mom porn, I was able to consider that a career for me should be more of a project. My insatiable gauge of interest and requirement to plot out my pathways might just be the key to finding a job juggling different parts of the world.

Fast forward to the end of a rough day through the midwest. I sped down Route 70 for 20 miles before remembering I'd left my journal in the bathroom of Jubelt's Bakery and Restaurant. I called the City Museum of Kansas City, Missouri ahead of time to find out their winter schedule already kicked in, so they were closed on Tuesdays. No problem, I thought, and sped to Re-runs Thrift Shop only to find out their thrift store prices are not quite as I expected. Add in a weird thudding when I turn my car too slowly to the right and nothing but fast food options for dinner in Topeka, I was a beaten boy by the time my head hit the hotel pillow.

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The pain didn't stop there. Left to my own thoughts and the glowing background of The Office on television, I couldn't help but wonder if this is real. So far away from anything I hold truly close to me - family, friends, familiarity in all ways - I felt outside myself. Is this me, laying in these cigarette-burned sheets? Is this fun? What is this? The questions kept coming rapid fire until the pit of my stomach got the tingles.

The next day, one hundred miles in, relief came in an off-kilter way. I found myself in the type of conservative Kansas that boasted pro-life billboards along its highways as if pregnant teenagers thought speeding down the Interstate highway would save them from motherhood. Amidst the Bible-thumping was, of course, the Lion's Den, an adult superstore chain spanning halfway across America, providing us with the type of sexual perversions any boy or girl could adore.

Close to a pint of coffee coursing through my veins I made the physical effort to peel off Route 70 for a pornographic pause to my cross-country trip. Without questioning myself or my actions, which I am wont to do, I jumped into a world of colorful, graphic sex. The cashier behind the counter, let's call him Bill, was more than willing to lend a hand. I asked for a trashy novel that men could enjoy and after assuring him I wasn't looking for the male-on-male stuff, he pointed me in the direction of the trashy novels. We discussed my options like they were new shoes or car parts, simple and straight-forward. Where so many people concern sex with trash vulgarness, Bill took it as his everyday and made me feel comfortable in buying a paperback about a Vietnam Vet on a cross-country roadtrip to find himself, and instead finding two sexy sisters. I could not make this stuff up. Or could I?

As if an omen of more trash and treasure, Bill said I happened to hit the last Lion's Den around if I was heading west. I still am heading west and so far Denver had brought me the best of both worlds. My first night in the city provided what else but rain, tons of homeless strangers, and a disgusting hostel, complete with frat-boy cologne and a sketchy shower in the basement. And then, as if it drifted down from the Rockies themselves, my second night found me at Mariel's house. Mariel is a sweet-as-pie New Jerseyan that made it to Denver (and I suppose is now a Denveran to me) and never looked back. Now, her living room couch is my bed and her roommates are my new buddies. And it's Friday, friday! Gotta get down, it's Friday!

Next stop, Rocky Mountain National Park and some Denver nightlife. Wish me luck!

Until next time...

I explode into space.

-dan