Home – Fort Collins, CO

And so the journey has reached its conclusion. After six days and 3,000 miles, I have found my way home. With the welcome familiarity of streets whose names I will never forget and the ever-present mountains that mark due West, I have found myself among old friends and my steadfast family. Although it is a sweet feeling of reconciliation, it is also unnatural in the collision of worlds.

When I set out from Pensacola, I had my car and a few belongings, most of which I had acquired or used most after I moved out over five years ago. These things represented a separate world from the one I lived at home. True, I would bring home a few changes of clothes during the holidays, but the things I brought were always a temporary intrusion. This time, the things I have brought are here to stay. As I rolled my way along familiar streets, I realized that this vehicle in which I rode had never roamed these streets as I had. From the world of the Navy, of Florida, of my transitional life, this mass of metal, plastic, and rubber has brought me back to the place I grew up. In all of my travels over the past week, this trusty steed has carried the weight of me and my possessions safely to my destination. In that way, it has formed a bridge. The tracks I have left behind on interstate highways and along the city streets of Monticello, Jacksonville, Arlington, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Pappillion connect two worlds that I had once thought were never to meet. In this final reconciliation, I have brought all that remains from that world into this.

Tonight I will rest my head upon a pillow I expect to be there tomorrow. I settle my things in a closet and in drawers that will hold them for many weeks to come. I will take my car along familiar routes that are to be criss-crossed in the repetition of commute. Where there were once two worlds, there is now only one. Drawn across the expansive United States, the connection has been sealed. I am at home in this world, the only one I have.

Suburbia – Papillion, NE

In leaving Chicago and the cramped cities of the East Coast, I have found myself in the modern comfort of middle America. A quaint little suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, Papillion represents one of many microcosms scattered across the vast interior of the country.

Through pouring rain and logjam traffic, I make my way into this picturesque suburbia to find the expected sprawling housing developments of the modern American ideal. I pass neighborhoods with names like Shadow Lake, Spring Creek, and Arbor Ridge neatly divided by wide, winding roadways and well-timed traffic lights. Far enough from the interstate to forget the connection to the rest of the country, yet close enough to be practical, Papillion fits the bill for the detached suburb to which wealthy and middle class Americans can retreat after the forced interpersonal interaction of employment in their respective Midwestern city. Lawns are large and green, and every home has a deck from which happy parents of a nuclear family can watch their two and half kids play with Fido in the expansive backyard. The wintery cold and steady drizzle from overcast skies brings a somber mood to the neighborhood, but the lights from inside the homes are warm and inviting.

Still on his commute from the local Air Force base, my host, JB, has instructed me to use the backdoor to get in. His home is sparsely furnished and remains very clean. I let out the dog and settle on the apparently brand new leather sofa. With only an occasional whir of traffic on the nearby thoroughfare and the hum of the refrigerator, the house is quiet.

The evening remains equally so. Aside from the unnecessarily complicated adventure to the local Super Target for groceries with which my kind host would make a delicious dinner, my night was wholly devoid of excitement. As it is day four of this journey, the silence is welcomed. In the non-activity, I begin to think about what could be done if I were much more restless this evening. On the drive, I saw a smattering of chain restaurants in clean little strip malls, but the rest of the city was quite dark. Papillion exists for a purpose, and providing entertainment to youthful visitors is not it.

At the end of 2013, Money Magazine rated Papillion the #8 best city in America to live in. With a population just under 20,000, the town boasts a growing job market and an easy 15-minute commute to Omaha. Miles of trails and a AAA baseball team give the active some forms of entertainment. High median income, low home prices, and almost non-existent crime make this cozy little town attractive to anyone raising a family.

Also attractive to those of middle America are incredibly low racial diversity and extremely high rates of college educated, married neighbors. After recently finding the beauty in the ubiquitous interconnectedness of the city, I have begun to find fault in the isolated suburban social construction. Although it is the environment in which I was raised, it somehow feels uncomfortable now. It feels all too artificial.

In light of the most recent incident of racial tension, I will briefly jump to an important related issue. Let’s first get out of the way the fact that America is a nation built upon racist ideology. The idea of race-based slavery is built into our constitution. Let’s not pretend that this problem is going to go away in a just a few generations. I will state for the record that I believe the vast majority of Americans are not overtly racist, but I believe that almost all of them are blind to the racism that pervades our social institutions. One such institution is that of urban development. With the boom of the automobile and the GI Bill assistance provided to soldiers returning from the second World War, millions of Americans could afford to leave the city for the quiet comfort of the suburbs. A coincidental phenomenon of this time was the racial segregation still upheld by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Because of the subjugation of the largest minority group at the time, access to these suburbs was almost exclusively restricted to the white majority. As upper-class white families moved out of the city centers, they took funding for their local schools with them. With low-income black students at poorly funded schools in the inner cities and high-income white students at well funded schools in the suburbs (among a myriad of other similar factors), a perpetuating cycle of segregation entrenched itself in the American social construct. It should be intuitively obvious (but there is data to support it) that school funding has a direct impact on the upward social mobility of youth. Although success stories of poor minority kids growing up to become powerful executives or heads of state exist, they remain the exception to the rule. Creation of suburbs like Papillion perpetuates this trend, and it requires no malicious intent on the part of the developers, the city planners, or the residents. It is simply a product of the established social system.

I will save the ethical debate for later, but the fact remains that suburbia is racist. It has its homey way of being comfortable to its residents. It is generally safe (because low-income, would-be criminals are stuck in the city centers), it offers top notch schools (because those with the money to move to suburbia can support municipal taxes for these schools), and there is often an excess of open green space (the benefit of being far from the city). If you are looking to raise a family and you don’t mind commuting, the suburbs make a wonderful option.

However, we young, unattached, adventurous souls find the sprawl remiss of the intercultural mix, the pedestrian freedom, and chic dining and shopping that we crave. Purely as a personal preference, I see myself avoiding the suburbs for the near future. If/when this wanderlust subsides, I may find myself back here among the homogenous, static culture, but that’s too far over my horizon for now.

Glad to have a place to sleep. I’ll be home at evenfall tomorrow.

City Life – Chicago

Out the wide windows of the 20th floor apartment, I have a gorgeous view of the lighted towers lining the coast of Lake Michigan. I find the network of lights comforting like a safe haven standing out as a beacon to lost wanderers out in the dark. Behind each lighted rectangle is a family, a couple, a group of friends, or a solitary person, living their private lives amidst the bustle of strangers, acquaintances, and dearest friends. Although we have our privacy behind our windows, there remains a certain connection here in a city like Chicago.

After the confusion of arriving via car, complete with multiple accidents convolving before my eyes, I found a lucky spot right in front of the apartment building of my host. Looking for a way to limber up the legs after a long day of driving, I decided to take the 20 flights of stairs. As I opened the door to the hallway, I noticed a gentleman hanging out of his doorway with a rather confused look on his face. That would be my host, and he had been facing the other way expecting me to emerge from the elevator. I was equally surprised to see Dan and his husband, Romeo, waiting for me, a kind gesture that I’ve realized should not be shocking in this city.

With little convincing required, my hosts took me to an Ethiopian restaurant in Edgewater. It was only a few blocks but we decided to take the “L.” In an uncharacteristic bout of calmness, the winter air lacked the windy bite I was expecting. Passing a varied mix of people – some with their shopping bags, others with friends in tow – we strolled along the well-lit streets. As we converged at one particular corner as a lone woman and a man walking with his friend crossed paths. Heads down, they almost collided, but the man stepped aside courteously with a friendly, “Excuse me!” With a curt “thank you,” and a smile, the woman passed unimpeded, and we all continued on our way. It was a neighborly interaction between two complete strangers who share nothing other than the same current city of residence that I saw repeated in many forms throughout our commute to and from the restaurant.

With an exotic African atmosphere and a friendly family staff, the Ethiopian Diamond Restaurant impressed me from the start. In a communal style of dining, all of our choice dishes came out in little piles on a spongy bread on a giant pizza platter. They left us with a few more rolls of the bread so that we can make mini wraps of our selected meats, lentils, and steamed vegetables. The flavor was unique but certainly not too exotic for an uncultured palate.

As we walked back through the streets of Little Saigon, I  got to thinking about how much I miss the life that the city presents. My hosts do not own a personal vehicle. There is no need. They are only a couple blocks from the nearest train station, and most of what they need is in walking distance. A car would really only complicate things. Not only for the convenience of it all, but I miss the city for the density of cultures. In a just a few blocks, I can leave an African eatery and pass a lounge full of first and second generation Vietnamese immigrants enjoying time with their tight-knit community. In a city like this, there is a place for everyone. Even the Bosian-Herzegovinians have a community center! I think that is the reason I find the city so comfortable.

As I sit here staring out the window overlooking the sea of streetlights and room lights, I take solace in the idea that each of those lights represents another potential friend, a potential business partner, a potential lover. In its limitless array of possibilities, the city represents the constant variation and exploration I crave in life. From the soft chair here in my host’s living room, I can see the reading lamps and lighted trees in the apartments across the street. They probably do not know I am here, but I have this small connection with these strangers. Though we may be insulated in our little worlds, we are never completely alone in the city.

I Love People. – Pittsburgh

In the fall of 2011, I arrived at the U.S. Air Force Academy for a semester exchange. I remember the first time I met my roommates. These people were wholly foreign to me. I had almost forgotten how it felt to meet new people. These two young men would become very good friends over the next five months, and it is a shame that I have not spoken to them hardly at all since my departure. That transition from stranger to friend is always a curious one, and it tends to happen differently with each person.

I’m not sure how it happened this time, but the people I met tonight seemed to transcend that process. I won’t be so presumptuous as to say that we are now friends, but I spent an evening with a few groups of people with whom I was as comfortable as I am with friends I have known for years.

Jon is a world-famous paragliding/basejumping/hanggliding fiend who hosts wary travelers on their adventures that take them through Pittsburgh. When I arrived, I had no plans. Maybe it was a bit unfair, but I was depending upon my host or other guests to be able to show me how to experience Pittsburgh. In the end, I had a good book and a comfortable couch if I couldn’t find anything to do, but they made sure that did not happen. Sorry Mr. Updike, but your Olinger stories must wait.

Jon and a couple other guests, Michael and John, invited me to the dog park to slackline while Luther (the dog) ran out his energy. In just an hour out in the cold, with a fat piece of cloth and a couple trees, I made some friends who I will remember forever. I may never speak to Michael and John again, but I connected with them in a way that I seldom do with strangers. I believe that it was the similar approach to life that brought us to a common understanding.

Michael is already a traveler of our expansive country, and he has plans to journey through South America when he finishes college. With a youthful optimism, he jumps right into the next adventure to come along. Attending school in New York City, he drove out to Pittsburgh with his brother for the simple reason of checking it out before going on to meet up with his brother’s girlfriend in Buffalo. That’s even more circuitous than my creative journey home! It is this longing to experience a new and unknown world that I think I connected with.

I spent the rest of the evening with Jon (my host) at a local bar playing pool and enjoying some improv comedy over a couple fantastic craft brews. I met this man literally nine hours ago (as I’m writing), yet I have had the same enjoyment tonight as if I were spending a night out with my friends from high school or college.

This may not seem like much such an astounding event, but my readers who knew me well will understand that I did not socialize well in my previous life. I didn’t play well with others. I was focused. I was driven by my goals. I put work first, and friends second. I valued the tangible over the intangible.

A days’ long escapade across America, this journey has been the culmination of my full transition. A result of the contemplation of the past several months, this trip as solidified my transition from a technocrat, stalwart in his obsession with inanimate books and factual knowledge, to a human being, susceptible to the experiences and emotions of mortal people. Formerly trained as an engineer, I have opened my eyes to the wonder and glory of the human mind and human interaction. It is here that I can fully appreciate the relationships that make important the lives of average citizens. It is from this perspective can I understand the reasons institutions of entertainment and leisure exist. It is from this vantage can I fully know what it is to truly enjoy the presence of another person.

Overcoming Ignorance – Arlington, VA

During my drive today, I realized that I am a racist, bigoted, self-righteous ass sometimes. Most often, that occurs when I am driving. I have a hypothesis: we are such angry drivers because we have no control over the world outside our vehicle, yet we convince ourselves that we do. For no apparent reason, cars slow down on the highway, sit in the left lane, or ride my bumper. All of these things perturb me, and I have realized that I tend to ascribe this behavior to an incompetence that often gets associated with a race or class of people.

There is, however, a remedy: understand that I do not understand. In no way do understand the motivations, emotions, or history of any other driver on the road. Any assumption I make about their character, their desires, or their intelligence is pure speculation. I do not know the habits they learned when they started driving. I was not there when they took their driving test. I am not looking out their windshield, seeing the world as they do. I am alone in my own little world, here in my little car, just piloting my way along the winding interstate highways. To believe I know anything more is sheer folly.

Although taking a position of ignorance (and especially one of apathy) is rather uncomfortable at first, I find that it can be the panacea for so much stress in my life. As I-95 passed through Richmond and then Fredericksburg, traffic slowed to a halt. In the classic game of which-lane-will-move-faster? I realized that I was not getting frustrated even though I was already behind schedule. A game is all it was. When I guessed wrong, I slowed obligingly and accepted defeat. However, I arrived at my destination in high spirits and was able to enjoy the evening with distant relatives to whom I have been much too estranged.

This evening, I am staying in Arlington, Virginia with my third (I think?) cousin, Al, and his daughter, Rosemary. I saw Al last summer as I passed through the D.C. area, but I have not seen Rosemary in over a decade. To be honest, I would not have recognized her if I hadn’t expected to meet her here. Al made us Turkey burgers for dinner, which turned out quite tasty. (I must make note of eating burgers on rye bread.) We spent the rest of the evening chatting and getting each other caught up on the last several years. I had some explaining to do about my recent change in life, but I heard much more from them. Much like my experience on the road, I’ve realized that I know almost nothing about the life these two have led. In tandem, they told many stories from Rosemary’s childhood, and I recognized that I was on the outside of these experiences that they could never fully explain to me. We shared some of our musical exploits (Al on the piano, I with my guitar, and Rosemary with recordings of some vocal experimentation). They showed their heavy influence of ragtime and blues where I took my lead from today’s acoustic indie and rock. A clear connection existed between their music that failed to reach mine. In no way is that a bad thing; it is merely an illustration of the different paths we take and the people we become because of them. I will never fully understand either of their lives, but I have been fortunate enough to get a glimmer of those lives tonight. In their music and in their stories, they shared a piece of who they are.

AlandRosemary

As I get back on the road in the morning, I’m sure I will be looking at the other drivers sharing the road with me in a bit of a different light. Where did they come from? What is their story? What makes them who they are? When we ask these questions, we come closer to understanding just a little about another human being, which can make all the difference in the way we judge them.

The Journey Begins – Leaving Florida

I said goodbye today. I said it a lot. I said goodbye to coworkers, to supervisors, to friends, and to acquaintances. I said goodbye to a city I both love and despise. However, I also said hello. I said hello to some friends who I haven’t seen in a long time and probably won’t see in even longer.

Today was about the people in my life. For so many years, I overlooked how important these people are. It was only recently that I realized that life takes meaning from our personal relationships and the relationship we have with the society in which we live. Let me tell you about some of these people:

I said goodbye to two guys who were my roommates over the past several weeks. Cameron and Sinjen gave me a place to stay while I was in transition between selling my own house and moving out of the area. After living alone for over four months, walking downstairs to a roomful of people or jumping in on an impromptu game of Monopoly came as a welcome source of enjoyment each day. Both of these young men are on their way to doing great things for Naval Aviation, and I wish them the best in all of their endeavors.

I also said goodbye to a group of coworkers with whom I was able to bond over the banality and quotidian struggle of office life. Because of the similar time in our situation, Will and I got to experience the progression of emotions we felt toward the office. In the beginning, we had hopeful idealism for the improvement of a clearly broken system, but we both found ourselves sliding into the acceptance of our defeat. Fortunately for the office, a much more experienced member has joined the team. With any luck, CWO2 Carr will be able to remove the need for that office to exist at all. Sadly, I was unable to say goodbye to Destiny today. Over the past few months, I learned a great deal from her about the machinery in the military that exists behind the scenes, and I have gained a new appreciation for the struggle they endure to ensure that the vital minutiae of the administrative process keeps that machine moving.

In using their spare bedroom to change out of the uniform for what could very well be the last time, I got to say goodbye to Kate. Unfortunately, I missed her husband (and my former roommate) Kyle who was briefing for a flight at the time. I’m glad I have been able to keep in touch with those two during my time in northwest Florida. Maybe someday our paths will cross again at a future duty station.

Finally, I said goodbye to a city in which I had some of the best times and some of the worst times of my life. Pensacola offers a plethora of opportunities to its residents, but it just never seemed to offer the things that I’m looking for. Despite having some amazing food (Global Grill, Joe Patti’s, and Tin Cow to name a few), I never really connected with the city. On the way out, I passed a few memorable locations for the last time: the area around Angel Cove, the apartment complex Luisa and I lived in for 7 months; NAS Pensacola, where my naval aviation career began with such sanguine hope; and Davis Highway exit that I drove weekly in visiting Luisa at the university or returning home from a day in Pensacola. Although there are so many good memories attached to that city, I’m just fine knowing that I will probably never see it again. There are too many other locations in the world to dwell on just this one.

I said more goodbyes, but I also said hello. I said hello to Shannon, a friend whom I had not seen for many years. We grew up on the same street but mostly lost touch after she moved to Florida for college, met her husband, and settled down. She now has two beautiful children and works both full time as a mother and part time in a career. I’m pretty sure the time commitment adds to more than 24 hours each day, but she somehow makes it happen. Her accent may have gotten a little thicker, but she hasn’t changed a bit.

Shannon

At the end of today’s drive, I got to see two friends from school. Melissa and Cory met at the academy and have managed to stay together through each of their first deployments. Cory recently returned from the Persian Gulf and is taking some well deserved R&R, and Melissa continues to do more than demanded of her on her ship here in Jacksonville. She’ll be leaving early in the morning to put in another 16+ hour day on the boat. I can understand why all she wanted to do tonight was sit on the couch, eat leftovers, watch reruns of AFV (which is really just the old school way of watching stupid videos on Youtube). I don’t envy the life of a surface warfare officer, and I hope I can vindicate my fortunate turn of fate in being allowed to leave the service. These men and women make the Navy what it is. I’m glad I got to know a few of them. I hope our paths cross again one day.

Melissa

In the morning, I start the longest leg of this drive up to Arlington, Virginia to say hello to some relatives. The car is performing fantastically well, and the bum is holding up well in the less-than-luxury seats. To keep my mind occupied, I have been steadily marching through my aural journey through Westeros and the free cities with audiobooks. The drive has become quite an epic.