It’s time to head back home. Wherever that is. Where is that? California, I think. Los Angeles, I think. I think?
Well, even if it isn’t home in the end, it makes a good target for now. A bearing. So I’m heading that way. How?
A few weeks ago I was once again overwhelmed by the options in front of me. Paralyzed by them, really. There were so many places I hadn’t hit that I wanted to see. So many spots I wanted to see again. I was near Boston, thinking “Do I drive up through Canada, curving through Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto en route to Michigan? Or do I just make a beeline for the mitten? My Mi-Fi won’t work in Canada. It’ll add a few extra days to my journey across. Is that okay? Will I miss some opportunity if I’m not back in California by a certain date? Do I want to spend my birthday in the Bay Area? Will I stop somewhere, fly to Burning Man (can I score a ticket?), and then fly back?”
I hadn’t been moving enough. When I sit still, as it felt like I had been for a while, the walls of my scull become an echo chamber and the noise to signal ratio just gets worse and worse as I wait for some discernable insight to break through the din. Eventually you have to give up control; admit that there is no right route, or even best route. Or if there is, you’ll never know if the one you took was it or not.
Every time you’re confronted with a choice in life you make the best decision you can, attempting to choose the option you hope will lead to the greatest happiness, but you will never truly know what would have happened had you gone through the other door.
That’s a bitter pill to swallow, because we always want to know, concretely, that we made the right choice. That we didn’t screw up, make a dumb call, and lose out on more happiness, success, wealth, love than we find ourselves with at present. But we will never know. Obviously, I’m not just thinking about the trip here, but my life and the decisions I’ve made along the way, but this trip has always been (if secretly) a means for processing my life, the decisions I’ve made, the consequences they’ve wrought, and the path that lies ahead with all its infinite forks.
Where was I?
I spent a ton of time in the Northeast during the early summer, using Gloucester, MA as my home base. My dear friends Eileen and Nathan live there with their baby, and they have a long, level driveway just perfect for the Beast. I became their roommate for the better part of a month.
In that time I was invited to join Nathan for a three-day songwriting retreat on Thatcher Island, a small chunk of land just off the coast of Gloucester with two picturesque lighthouses on it. Every night we’d climb to the top of the seven story lighthouses, pull out our instruments (and bottles of whiskey), and belt out a mixture of covers and originals we were working on. I was in among some top notch professional musicians, and I felt very much out of my depth as I switched between my guitar and ukulele, but they were generous and made me feel welcome. I even finished my first new song in several years. Maybe I’ll record it, #VanJamz style.
From there I shot off to Maine. I’d never been and I wanted to see Acadia National Park. It was as stunning as it had been alleged, but man it was crowded. Acadia is tiny park compared to Yosemite or Yellowstone, but the tourists love it in summertime. It was tough to take a photo without a dozen other people in my shot. I found myself scrambling down damp cliff faces by the ocean to try and get a little solitude.
I spent nights in Bar Harbor, which was beautiful and quaint, but it had to be the whitest place I’ve ever seen in my life. I was uncomfortable with the lack of diversity and found myself constantly wondering, “Jeez, guys, what’d you do with all the black people?” Also, as it turns out, overnighting in an RV is not permitted in town. I got away with it on night one, but around midnight of night two I got a knock on my door for the second time on this trip. It was an elderly cop cut from the same cloth as Andy Taylor. I’d answered the door in my underwear and he seemed so thrown and uncomfortable that he just told me to move along and park by the local ball field. Yessir, officer.
The third night was pretty special. It had been overcast since I’d arrived in Maine. Some plans with a friend of a friend had fallen through so I was just wandering around Bar Harbor when I looked up and there was a miraculous hole in the clouds. I ran back to the van and hightailed it up to the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia. I was rewarded with a few hours of pristine Milky Way shots (my favorite is below). I passed out in the van for a couple hours and then woke up to shoot a timelapse of the sunrise (Cadillac is the first place the rising sun touches the U.S.).
From there it was back down to Boston for my brother’s Star Wars themed wedding / family reunion. After that, after sitting around paralyzed by indecision for a couple days, I decided to head to Canada, and once I was on that path a series of reunions ensued. First up was Katie and Michael who I’d worked with doing Bay Area theatre back when I was 19 (and then again at 22). Katie remains my favorite director I’ve worked with, and it was wonderful to meet the little humans they’d created together.
Then onto Montreal, where I stayed for two days, eating my face off. The first night I was there I found myself at a bar that was showing the Olympics. My bartender and I were chatting and I asked her if she knew a good place for me to park for the night. She consulted another bartender (whom I hadn’t even spoken with yet), who walked over, wrote down her address on a piece of paper and said I could park in the lot behind her apartment. Incredible trust from a total stranger. I stashed the van there then jumped on one of Montreal’s bikeshare bikes (called Bixi), and proceeded to weave around the city in search of poutine (not a euphemism). My phone died and I realized I’d forgotten the address where I left the van, so I just zigzagged back and forth along the beautiful streets until I found it again. It was a great night.
After that it was on to Ottawa to see my old friend Alexa and her family (it had been eight years), Toronto to see my friend Kaitlin (also eight years) and then back down to Traverse City, Michigan. TC was where I first felt like this trip found its stride and I was eager to see the friends I’d made a year ago, Brett, Holly, and Jen. It’s wild to see the changes that go by in just one year.
From there I blazed through the Upper Peninsula and then over to Stillwater, MN where my superfriends Dylan and Sheila were attending a wedding. From there, it was on to North Dakota. I’d opted to do South Dakota a year ago and fell in love with the Badlands, but I was curious about Theodore Roosevelt National Park a couple hundred miles to the north, so I made it a point to get there this time, and man I’m glad I did.
Like its brother to the south, Roosevelt National Park is full of badlands. Incredible, eerie, steep terrain with many colorful layers of soft rock and clay. But compared to the stark and arid Badlands NP, Roosevelt is far more lush. The badlands are topped with tall grass. There are trees, forests, and rivers. There are herds of wild horses and bison. The park is divided two: South Station and North Station.
I spent my first night in South Station and was rewarded with some incredible views. I found a pretty wonderful place to park, too. North Station, though, is what really captured my heart. It’s about half an hour further from the interstate and that seems to have kept the number of tourists far lower. There was more of a feeling of desolation there, and I loved it.
That night I attempted to hike the North Achenbach Trail (“aching back trail?”) in hopes of getting some milky way shots. It was a steep, sketchy hike and I kept loosing the trail as I ventured further down into the canyon. My plan was to hike down to the river, pull out my sleeping bag and pad, and then sleep under the stars. I had plenty of food and a pump to filter water. I finally found the more defined part of the trail and was making good progress. I was following little reflectors on wooden posts that appear once every 100 yards or so. I’d just past one and I could see two ahead that seemed to be right next to each other. I remember wondering why they’d put two marker so close together, and then it turned its head, and the markers disappeared.
It was a cat. It was a very big cat. This cougar (mountain lion) looked back at me and its eyes lit up in my headlamp’s beam once more. I could feel every hair on my body stand on end. It started stalking back and forth. I remembered that I wasn’t supposed to run away, because cats love chasing things. So I decided to make myself big and slowly big away. But first, I realized I wanted to take a picture of it. Because I am an idiot. I would have to change lenses. My other lens was in my backpack. My hand was shaking, but I managed to make the switch. I did not manage, however, to get a good shot because I didn’t have the wherewithal to better adjust my settings. The best I got was this video:
I made it back out of the canyon unmauled (plans of sleeping under the stars had been quickly abandoned). I made myself a strong Old Fashioned and then passed out in a van. I was woken early in the morning by a ranger telling me I wasn’t allowed to overnight there. I explained the situation to him and he was very understanding.
From there I headed north to Watford City, ND and met with Nick Ybarra, who has been maintaining the legendary Maah Daah Hey trail for the last four years and organizing bike (and now foot) races there. The MDH was a 100 mile long singletrack course through some very wild terrain, but now it’s been extended to 150 miles. Nick was the first to bike the whole thing in a single day, which is madness.
I pulled my Montague Swissbike X90 folding mountain bike out of my trunk and did the first 11 or so miles of it with Nick. It was pretty technical stuff and rough. Very rough (and I was rusty). But the views were just incredible. It zips along side badlands and over plateaus and grass covered buttes. We inadvertently ended up herding a large group of cattle out grazing. By the time I was done my forearms were absolutely throbbing from gripping my handlebars so tightly. I couldn’t believe someone could do 100 miles of it in a day, let alone 150. Nick said he’s about to start offering a six day trip, though. 25 miles each day and camping in between. Sounds much more manageable and it’s definitely been added to my bucket list. Hopefully 2017…
After North Dakota it was time to hit Montana again, this time Bozeman, a place I’d missed on my first time through. I’d assumed the Bozeman was much like Billings (i.e. lots of ugly cement buildings everywhere), but I was surprised at how charming and quaint it was. I met a nice lady on Tinder who agreed to meet me for dinner, and then she and her roommate showed me the town for the next two days. The highlight was a concert out of town and a place called Pine Creek Lodge. It felt like very authentic Montana.
The next day I hopped a flight to California, spent 18 hours shopping and packing, and jumped in my friend Glenn’s van and headed off to Burning Man. This would be my fourth burn, but my four had been spread out every three or four years since 2005. This year I’d written an article for Outside Mag about the best gear for camping at Burning Man, and I was getting to try everything out to make sure it lived up. The Shift Pod, the Exped mattress, the Goal Zero Yeti charger, they all worked fantastically.
My first few days at the burn were tough, though, and I found myself doing a lot of processing. I realized that this was going to be my “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” burn. I felt adrift and out of sync with the whole scene there. Come Thursday, though, I was able to relax into the not knowing, open up, and have a good time. It was bitter medicine, but it was what I needed.
What I didn’t need, though, was a sprained MCL, which I received on my left knee, during a limbo contest at Burning Man. See, I haven’t lost a limbo context in something like 23 years (damn you, Nitza’s baht mitzvah!), so there’s pride on the line. It’s also really fun to see people’s reactions because I’m tall and in my mid-30s and people don’t expect me to come in and snatch souls. Anyway, this time there was this one guy and he was really good, and he pushed me lower than maybe I’ve ever gone. I almost made it but juuuust tipped backwards at the last moment. As I was going down I made the mistake of letting my knee relax inward, it hyper extended, and I basically couldn’t walk the next day.
The next day was the day of the burn, too, which is kind of the culmination as far as partying goes. I was in a good headspace by that point, though, and I was happy hanging around our camp of loveable misfits (Camp Glenn Jones!) with whoever happened to be around. Our friend Vanessa knew of a rickshaw bike at her camp, though, and my longtime bestie Max said he’d pedal me around the desert.
It was the coldest night of the week, and I sat in the back of this rickshaw bundled up in a blanket, while Max was sweating in a t-shirt in front of me. I probably looked like a Make-A-Wish kid, but it allowed me to see the sights, meet up with friends, and have a great time. There really is nothing better than friendship.
Speaking of. Upon returned to my van in Montana I was joined by my dear friend Kathryn who’d flown from NYC to meet me. What followed was one of the most joyful legs of the entire journey. We laughed as we drove and dove deep into the murky waters of our lives. We hit one of the world’s greatest dive bars in Missoula and passed out near the co-op.
The next day contained one of the best reunions yet. When I was 19 I was bumming around Western Europe and I met up with Kathryn and her sister Maren (also my good friend) in London. They’d just come from France and had met a girl around the same age, and they’d decided to travel together. This was Jennie. She’d come to the Bay Area a year later, and we’d seen her briefly, but neither of us had seen her since. Sixteen years later, thanks to Facebook, we were suddenly showing up at her doorstep.
One of the things I’ve experienced over and over again with these reunions is that when you pick the right people to be friends with it doesn’t really matter how much time has elapsed since you last saw them: You just fall right back into it as if you’d seen them last week. Sure, there’s more catching up and feeling in details, but if the connection you initially had was real, it’ll feel just the same as it did a decade and a half ago, and that’s what happened here.
Kathryn and I ended up spending two wonderful days with Jennie in Moscow, Idaho before we moved on to Portland to see other friends, catch up with them, and feel again that no time had passed. Kathryn had brought her harmonium with her, partially through my misunderstanding just how big a harmonium was, and we made use of it. As I drove she would play and we’d sing. I introduced her to the song Butterfly Nets by Bishop Allen, which we decided to record before we hugged goodbye.
I drove down to Eugene, spending the evening with more friends I’d met a year ago when I came through. Reunions and reunions and reunions. The next night I pulled into the driveway of my mom’s house. That’s where it’ll live for the next few weeks while I let my MCL heal and figure out my next moves. And I still don’t know what those will be, exactly.
Today is September 15th. Which is my birthday, and it’s also the 14 month mark of this journey. I’m writing this on a plane to Colorado. I have a three-day press trip there with a two-day trip to Tahoe immediately following it. After that, the plan is to relax in the Bay, make some repairs to the van (replacing a window or two), make a couple videos, and get a ton of work done. After that, it’s looking like LA.
It’s funny, the original seed for this whole experiment was me going through a breakup two years ago and trying to figure out how I wanted to live my life. That’s when the concept of living in a van first emerged, but I was just thinking I’d live in it in LA and do short trips to visit friends in nearby cities. That was before the idea of the year-long road trip. Before I thought about documenting the trip. Before it became Connected States, in other words.
So there’s part of me that’s excited to try it. See what it feels like to spend most of the fall and winter in southern California. Push forward with trying to make some TV stuff happen. Maybe do some theatre again, which I’ve been missing. Or improv. Surf more. Re-establish some semblance of roots and community.
But there’s part of me that isn’t sure I want to stop moving. I remember how I started feeling stagnant and claustrophobic when I was in one place for too long. I don’t know if it’ll get that way again. Certainly, I’ll try to be smart about it, taking lots of side trips and going on adventures whenever I can, but I wonder if I’ve become addicted to the lifestyle I’ve thrown myself into for the last 14 months. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Connected States is not over; it’s just starting a new chapter. Updates will continue to come. I still have thousands of photos, videos, and stories I need to share. And I will, in one form or another. Some will be things I just touched on in this update, but really deserve the full treatment. So who cares if they don't always come in order. Linear storytelling is for the birds anyway. In the meantime, thank you as always for reading.
9.15.16 Telluride, CO
P.S. Sorry so many embedded Instagram posts this month. Normally I like to use predominantly exclusive photography for journal updates, but it just wasn't in the cards this time.