Having Friends All Over the Map by Alex Nordenson

 

Travelogue: This past May, my wife and I packed up our Brooklyn apartment, threw most of our belongings in a gleaming white storage unit in Long Island, and drove around the country for four months. She had just wrapped up a three-year grad school program and I had quit my job in social media advertising. After well over a year of saving and planning and communicating to everyone important in our lives, and after nearly eight years of post-college grinding, we were ready to leave New York in the rearview mirror. Neither of us had new jobs lined up, and the landing destination, our next home, was still a big question mark. Denver and Seattle were front-runners, but we didn’t want to commit – to our friends and family, but also not to ourselves. For better or worse, I thought of us as a new kind of pioneers. We would head west, build our itinerary as we drove, and let things flow.

Our goals for this travel period weren’t far off from what you’d expect. Freedom from work, from professors, from oppressive schedules, even from friends. More than anything, we wanted to experience cities and landscapes that were still foreign to us as 30-year-olds. Places like Portland, Nashville, the Smoky Mountains, Glacier National Park, Utah. While we had planned a few weekends to meet up with friends and family, and we didn’t throw our phones in the Hudson before leaving, 90% of the summer was going to be the two of us, a long stretch of purposeful detachment from the various networks in our lives: devices, platforms, and people.

As we packed on the miles, however, we found our pursuit of detachment from people mellowed. Both Katherine and I lean introverted, but we’re also both highly social, and we felt we needed more balance. And more practically, we were missing out on the power of people as local guides. After a few nights in an isolated, spider-ridden Airbnb in Asheville, NC we were giddy at the thought of staying with my parents’ good friends in Charleston as our next stop. They had moved to the city from a Seattle suburb for the husband’s two-year, pre-retirement work stint. With only a few days notice, they welcomed us with open arms, a delicious home-cooked meal, and a three hour knowledge-packed private tour of their new city. Over the long weekend they hosted us, we had vibrant dinner conversations about their experiences hosting foreign exchange students over the years and the unnerving, emotional realities of adapting to a South Carolina culture that is straight-up foreign to them, still steeped in blatant racism. We also were able to join a 5 AM Monday morning sea turtle watch on the beach, just something new our host had gotten involved with to keep busy.

It struck us during that weekend in June that this is what friends do, this is what they’re for, what they should always mean. Shelter and warmth (or air conditioning), a bed without asking too many questions, learning from each other’s lives wherever they may be based at the moment. We also realized that this type of experience was only possible during an extended, sabbatical-like travel period, unconstrained by the typical time and social pressures (real or imagined) that weigh on structured, settled lifestyles. In fact, these types of experiences were the beauty of an American road trip, not a distraction from it – at least for us.

Later in the summer I called a good friend who lives in Berkeley, CA. After initially asking him if he knew of anywhere cheap or free that we could stay more “long term,” he and his girlfriend (also a good friend of ours) ended up letting us infiltrate their lives for a week. For two working 30-year-olds in 2017, that’s a long time to host even good friends, especially when living in a studio. But we all loved it. This unplanned week together was a rare chance to spend concentrated time with close friends who were also feeling out new, existential challenges (and riskier career paths) following a chunk of more traditional career progress in their 20s.

In L.A. a week later, we had a much different but strikingly similar experience staying with a close friend from college. He was still somewhat new to town, having moved at the beginning of the summer from Houston for a new role at the major automotive company he’s worked for since 2009. Also freshly thirty, he too was in the midst of a more pensive phase, his mind wrestling with the reality that at this point in life his highly-stable corporate job might now actually be his long-term career path.

We spent almost three weeks camping in Washington, California, and Montana, somewhat impromptu, with a best friend I had grown up with in Minneapolis and his boyfriend. They had just left New York too, and were winding their way to Las Vegas, where the latter’s sister had a sweetly affordable bedroom waiting for them in her new house. The conversations the four of us had over fire pit grate tuna melts were probably the most intense of the trip, as were the boxed-wine-fueled card games following our campsite dinners. For my friend and I, this was the ultimate transition adventure to be sharing together, and we had certainly been through others in the time since we were fourteen.

These were our longest stays with friends, but there were other moments that struck us, moments that wouldn’t have been possible back in our “normal” life: dinner in St. Paul, MN shared with a high school friend, her husband, and her four, giggle-stricken kids; a morning run in Somerset, Pennsylvania with a college friend who is preparing for a move to Stockholm with his fiance (both transferring via their current employers); a two-night stay in a massive, glistening corporate-arranged studio apartment in downtown Denver, courtesy of a good friend’s husband who was sent there on a six-month rotation from Boston.

In our four months on the road, pulling off exits in thirty-five of fifty states, we saw thousands of miles of real, unvarnished America. Despite what we in the various cosmopolitan populations might believe, there are haggard strip malls, backwards opinions, and frightening poverty in every, single, state. The rich and poor, the hard-working and the hardly-working, coexist everywhere. Opportunities for success and failure coexist everywhere. All cities and situations have their downsides. No one lives in fairytale land. And it’s all worth seeing, especially right now. Though by no means planned this way, it seemed fitting that 2017, with its absurd show of just how dystopian our country can be, in all cities and corners, was the year we ended up touring America and expanding our understanding of this “ground-level” reality.

An unvarnished tour of your strong friendships, your real friendships, for those of us lucky enough to have at least a few, should be able to teach you this lesson as well. For us, that was the most striking power of our four-month highway adventure, what gave this form of travel a distinct poignancy compared to all others, especially at a time when real friendship seems to be getting more elusive – often confused by, or entirely replaced with, professional camaraderie, courage-free online connections, or friendship as entertainment. All of us are living in space and time together – and doing so all alone. And each of us is handling it differently. People you can (and should) call friends are those who get that, who can move across the country but see why you stayed, who can start a family but understand why you’re waiting, who can cheer on your endless American road trip but hop on a plane to move overseas, who can grapple with a new direction in life while helping you find yourself on the map.

BIO: ALEX says, I am an independent film producer, marketing professional, and writer, currently finishing production of a two-person action comedy in New York City. Originally from Minneapolis and currently based in Brooklyn, my career began in the advertising world, after receiving my B.A. in English from Boston College (2009). My poetry has been published by The RavensPerch.

(Cover Photograph by Sarah Leamy)