Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pick me up



ABILENE, TEXAS - July 20 -- The three of us waited in the living room, staring at the front door while listening for a knock. The potential buyers were an hour late.

'I don't know the first thing about selling a couch,' Denny announced. I wondered what Bryan was thinking of our present situation. He had flown to New Orleans from Scotland, rented a car and driven us to Texas to be a part of our journey. The good friend of mine only had two short days to spend with us. And although he was well aware our lives were very random, I was sure that helping sell Denny's sister's sofa in Houston was not his idea of a holiday.

But he didn't seem to mind one bit as we began rattling off funny things we could do when we greeted the guests. Like, for example, act as if we were throwing a surprise party when the door opened, or informing them the couch had been wet on more times than we could count - especially since deep down we didn't want to see the piece of furniture go since one of us hoped to sleep on it that night. My personal favorite was calling Denny's sister - who was out of town - to tell her that we weren't successful with the transaction, but we did manage to sell other items in the apartment. And also, Bryan - a travel agent - had sold them a nice cruise package. The three of us laughed like hell at all the hypothetical situations. The knock on the door finally came. We gave it our best shot. However, the couch stayed put.

***

We roadtripped west all the way to Austin. Bryan was really going out of his way for us, but he seemed excited to be part of the adventure. I was happy to see him and Denny spend time together. It's always nice to see friends who have never met one another before bond like old buddies.

Bryan mentioned he had a brother-in-law who lived somewhere in Austin, and that we could stay at his place for the night. Anytime I imagine what a person's home might look like, I always picture something middle-class. I never assume the worst, I never desire the best. I took slow steps into the place, feeling like I didn't belong. I wouldn't be surprised if someone told me it was the most expensive pad in the city.

I fell in love with Austin right away. The owner of the apartment, Ray, let us borrow his mountain bikes for the day, making us promise we'd check out Zilker Park. I've never seen so many young, in-shape people in one gathering. People were biking, running, kayaking, jumping off bridges, you name it. It was just like the 20-somethings mecca I had been told about by many people. Now I got to experience it first-hand. I chatted with locals as frequently as possible about what they thought of the city. All good things.

Once Bryan had to move on toward his wife Mandy's hometown in Nebraska, Denny and I felt out of place. Ray said it was no problem to stay one more night, but it didn't feel right since he was off doing his own thing. As I reflected about our situation on the balcony, I found myself missing my family I had just seen in New Orleans. I missed my Scottish friend who had come and gone in what seemed like a blink of an eye. I wondered what the hell Denny and I were doing on the 32nd story of the most expensive place I'd ever been in.

I had lost the plot of the trip, and what made it worse was we were the ones writing it. I was concerned I was burnt out. I forgot the thrill of the first day we walked out of the airport in Maine or what it felt like to camp out in the woods for the first time. Our minds had absorbed so much that I was worried we had perhaps reached maximum capacity for experiences on this particular journey. Meeting strangers had become so routine that I feared I was failing to appreciate the beauty of it all.

I spoke to Denny about my feelings, using the analogy of swimming out into a large ocean from the shore. When you can still see the land, you are able to see how far you've gone. But once all you see around you is water, you have no reference point, and you feel lost, like maybe you are no longer making progress.

Although we were on the roof of Austin, I found myself feeling so low. 

***

Brett Baker picked us up in downtown Austin right at 9 a.m., just like he promised. The sports television producer in San Antonio had written us a few weeks back to say he had enjoyed the blog and wanted to meet up if we found ourselves in Texas. We called him to tell him we were in fact in Texas, yet were feeling a bit lost.

He was up for a roadtrip to Abilene. He had never been there, and either really wanted to go, or pretended he was curious to see it. Either way, we liked him right away.

In the six hours we spent with Brett, we discussed just about everything from cute girls we've encountered along the way to the meaning of success and how we all agree it should be synonymous with happiness.

He said his father, Dr. Dan Baker, wrote a book titled, 'What Happy People Know,' which touched on a few things we were curious about. I can't wait to reach a Barnes and Noble to check it out, however I think if you look up the word desolate in the dictionary, there may be a picture of West Texas.

After some chatting, we figured out that Brett and my brother - a sportswriter - had been in the same locker room on more than one occasion. I like to think it's a big world but one with lots of odd connections.

Brett explained to us that he had discovered our site through a link on SI.com. We were oblivious to this fact, but were glad he had found us. He joked that it was difficult to explain to his buddies that he had to cancel a tubing trip because he was driving two guys he had never met to a town not known for much several hours away from his home.

'I told him to call me at 8 o'clock tonight just in case this is all an elaborate plan to leave me in a ditch and take my car,' Brett joked.

We ate lunch in a friendly diner in the touristy town of Fredricksburg. Cowboys or people dressed as them (I don't really know the difference) roamed around. Denny returned from the restroom to inform us he had been walked in on at the most awkward of moments.

'Some guy definitely just saw me on the toilet,' he said as we all burst out laughing. The fact alone that Denny was comfortable telling this story made it clear that Brett was already a good friend.

We stared out into the abyss that is West Texas. Present and future ghost towns lined the roads. As we stared at the old, deteriorating buildings, Denny made the comment that someone has very vivid memories of times spent in these places. I couldn't get this thought out of my head as I sat silent in the backseat.

Brett, who has a tattoo of the Nebraska Cornhuskers on his arm and the years they've won championships, agreed with us that although small-town America was disappearing, he still loved coming from a town not many people had heard of in the Midwest.

Our new 38-year-old friend admitted he lived a bit vicariously through us and our website. Although he seemed to know every inch of our adventure thus far, he inquired about the best parts of our journey thus far. We told him it's how one thing always leads to another that amazes us most. 

'Had we not been here at this time, this wouldn't have happened,' we explained through several anecdotes.

When we reached Abilene, my blood started pumping faster. I was feeling the rush that comes along with being dropped in an unfamiliar town filled with nothing but unfamiliar people. Denny had a good point that walking into a town makes it easier to ease into the notion.

I could tell Brett was not at ease with idea of dropping us just anywhere. We called the police station to ask for ideas. They didn't have many. We told Brett the gas station was fine, or anywhere for that matter. We ended up grabbing our bags and hugging Brett goodbye in the Super 8 parking lot. We were officially back in the saddle as Brett drove off into the distance.

***

We pondered where to go from there as we looked at the empty map of West Texas while sitting on our backpacks in front of the hotel. Before we could come up with a plan, the Holbrooks pulled up to check in for the night.

David asked us what we were up to.

'If you try to walk toward El Paso, you will die,' he stated as fact. It was exciting to know how difficult the coming days would be, yet scary at the same time.

We chitchatted for a few minutes, finding out that they were the proud parents of one of college football's most impressive quarterbacks - Chase Holbrook of New Mexico State, who threw for over 4,600 yards his sophomore season.

David asked us if we were staying in the hotel. We told him we weren't sure since it typically wasn't part of our budget. The police had told us of a place we could camp for free, but there was no running water anywhere around, so it didn't sound ideal.

As I went into the lobby to inquire about rates, David was on his way out after checking in. He quickly shook my hand and hopped in the car. The girl at the counter seemed a bit flustered and said she had forgotten to give him his key. I flagged him down and told him he was in 222 as I handed the key through the window. When I went back into the lobby, the girl was smiling. 

'We're on a bit of a budget. What's the best you can do for a room for the night?' I asked her.

'Actually, that man just paid for your room for you,' she said, still smiling.

***

Dozens of people have gone out of their way for us this summer, and I don't think we've taken a single one for granted. But as I've found myself losing focus lately, these last few acts of kindness by strangers not only helped us out, they reminded me what makes the world such a beautiful place.

Denny and I sprawled out in our respective hotel beds as we cranked the AC and flipped on the TV. A map of the country appeared on the weather channel.

'Maine looks so far away,' Denny said.

'Yeah it does,' I said.

'I'll never look at a map of America the same again,' he said.

I looked at the Atlantic coast, realizing exactly how far we'd come. I looked at the Pacific ocean, and for the first time, felt the presence of the opposite coast. It was as if I could almost see the sea from our window. I was starting to figure out the plot again.

I thought of everything that had happened from Maine to Texas and how many stories we have to tell. I also thought of how we've grown and maybe that's why things got complicated. We know how to camp in the woods. We know how to be sweaty and smelly and still approach complete strangers. Was there much more to achieve? Had we done enough?

'If we reached the west coast soon, would you be satisfied with the trip?' I asked Denny.

'Yeah, I would be,' he said with confidence.

'Yeah, me too.'

***

I woke this morning feeling very refreshed. I chatted with the Holbrooks over coffee, finding myself really enjoying the simple pleasures of conversing with people we would have otherwise never met had we not taken off. Handshakes, hugs, smiles, small kind gestures and chit-chat have been our fuel thus far. I don't foresee a shortage of it any time soon thanks to some very good people.

The Pacific looks very far away, but at least now I can feel it.

-BT









7 comments:

Windy Clark said...

Hey guys,
I'm sorry the buyers were an hour late!!!!!
I knew you guys would love Austin- there's so much to do there.

Take care, love, Windy

Lauren said...

I was literally laughing out loud about the whole couch thing. Absolutely hilarious.

My jaw dropped when I read the part about the man paying for your room. I guess it's to be expected, though...when your genuine good-heartedness doesn't expect anything in return, someone else's kindness humbly reciprocates.

Thanks for restoring my faith in humanity, guys.

Be safe.

BrettInTexas said...

Guys,
I was very glad to read that you had a decent place to stay last night. Just another example of how being in the right place at the right time leads to something unexpected.
All the best,

Anonymous said...

I am one of your guys' biggest supporters throughout this trip, but as this entry depicts, your journey is starting to burn out. I am not trying to be negative, just constructive criticism. Your trip has become visiting people you know, getting rides from them, and staying with them or people they know. I love you guys but make sure as your vision is refreshed, please refocus on helping others, not have so many others help you. You have covered alot of ground, but what remains ahead of you, make it count, for those you meet, as it will no doubt give back to you the more you do for them. Keep it up, and remember why you are so far from family and friends.

Erin Bernstein said...

As you articulated when you stayed with us back in June, it's fascinating how you initially set out to help others and you've found that strangers (who, after all, are not really strangers) are reaching out to you. It's beautiful. That's all part of the journey...and so is the burn-out, frustration, and exhaustion.

I think it's cool how a country so big isn't so big after all. Family, friends, friends of friends, new friends. In the end, we're all one family.

And finally, a bit of advice: don't be down about all the things that were new and exciting when you started. Use the knowledge you've acquired to lead you to discover other new and exciting people, deeds, and experiences. You're exploring a whole different side of the country. Embrace it!

Anna said...

I think your whole concept of "no stranger land" is working out quite well. As you are finding out people seem to be less strangers to one another than we all think. I think it's amazing to see this first hand through your experiences on this journey.
Glad you liked Austin. Ross and I fell in love with that city when we visited back in December.
I think it's funny how you mentioned the guy that drove you, blew off a tubing trip to "drive 2 strangers through texas". I think moments like that touch people in so many ways because you realize you are doing something for a complete stranger and it may sound crazy but you're doing it anyway. That's what we thought as we waited to pick you two up from the metro in McLean and now we have two wonderful new friends!
Miss you guys and good luck on this half of your journey.

wishing you all the best,
Anna

Anonymous said...

"Proud home of George W. Bush"

That picture made me throw up in my mouth.