Wednesday, September 26, 2007

No One Travels Alone

As I was putting my travel plans into motion, many people asked if I was going to travel by myself. I didn't know anyone who could or would allow such a big interuption to life's plans on someone else's timetable, so my answer was yes. I planned to hit the road on my own.

But there's something about the culture of travel that opens people up to each other in a way that's sadly missing in everyday life. I don't even mean between two travelers--even locals seem to sympathetically open up when they hear the other is on the road. Maybe it's the fact that everyone misses the people they left behind, or the reality of loneliness is much less denied, but the barriers between people are much thinner when one's on the road.

What this has meant to me is that, so far I have enjoyed the remarkable kindness of some phenomenal people! I am staying with two people who are unspeakably gracious. Not only have they welcomed me into their house and given me a place to stay (at no cost), but they've shared their food, shown me around and become friends. Also a new friend is another fellow couch surfer they had staying with them. Steven and I have adventured around and beyond the city, sipped coffee and talked about important things in life.

Then there is David and his wife Michelle, whom, after a chance meeting literally on the side of the road, became friends and showed remarkable kindness and hospitality. Add to all this quite a number of other new friends with whom I can enjoy a night out. Then combine all this with the small world bringing in St. Louis friends for a conference last week and local college buddies I hope to meet up with soon. It's enough to convince me that no one travels alone. So for anyone keeping track, my answer now is, "No, I'm not traveling alone; I'm meeting my friends along the way."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Day in the Life...

Having been on the road for a week now, I am compelled (by popular demand) to lay out for you what a normal day looks like. So that's what I will do; but you have to realize before I even start that every single day has, of necessity, so much uncertainty to it that the concept of a "normal day" is entirely artificial. Nonetheless, you asked for it, and I will tell.

I wake up on a couch. It's a futon, actually, and I've already woken up a few times already. (I don't mind.) I am staying with some very kind people I hadn't met before I arrived and the quiet bustle of their typical morning routine is enough to arouse my barely conscious attention for a brief moment. But now I am up and ready to approach the day.

I have a morning routine of my own. Everything I own fits inside my backpack, but the fitting is a trick and takes some time. I want to be a low-impact houseguest, so when it's all arranged, my possessions sit neatly as an upright and filled backpack in an inconspicuous corner. Armed with my daypack filled with electronic gadgets (which will have their own post in due time), a book, a journal and miscellanies, I take a walk to the bus stop.

I asked a few people I thought would know if Seattle's public transportation was any good. They said it wasn't. They were wrong. Other than the very rare occasion a scheduled bus doesn't show up, I find the Seattle public transit system to be efficient, ecconomical and convenient. From what I can tell, almost every part of the city is accessible this way (some by means of the "water taxi"), and their website makes planning your trip mindless. Even when one finds he needs to catch a bus at 3am, it's there waiting.

Even with the whole city open to me, my destination of choice via the metrobus is downtown. It's a beautiful cosmopolitan area perfect for people watching and finding whatever your heart desires. Most often, my heart desires coffee (the experience, not the drink). There are usually two or three of these coffee shop experiences per day where I unfold my keyboard, prop up my Nokia and milk the free WiFi for everything it's worth.

What would a day in a foreign city be without galavanting around as explorer? My favorite means for such is walking and taking it all as it comes. When in a bus or car, looking more closely at any new discovery must be a very decided action. You have to park (very tough in this city), get out to investigate, then return and re-enter traffic. So you stop less. When on foot, a curiousity is effortlessly explored. And such finds often include a great new cafe, a curiously cavernous bookstore, historic sites, interesting art, or new people to hang out with.

One peculiarity of my exploring preferences that I've found is that the exploration is done just as much when seated as when walking around. For an intellectual (meaning a person who enjoys thinking, not implying anything else), exploration is at least as much a mental pursuit as that of the traditional understanding. I can walk around the city all day and uncover phenomenal treasures, but without a backstory and historio-cultural context for my new discovery, it's merely pleasing to look at. This is why a significant portion of my day is spent reading about the things I've discovered.

Speaking of reading, several of my evenings have been whiled away in Seattle's eerily modern library or the commercial equivilent: Barnes and Noble. When you carry everything on your back, you have to pack light; so books are brought sparingly. Fortunately, books are available in abundance in this country, no matter what city your in. So the remaining half of Harry Potter that I didn't have a chance to finish is being chipped away at, one fine evening at the Barnes and Noble cafe after another.

I can't say where to fit this into the chronology, but each day includes a fair amount of various interaction with the people I've met. Sometimes this means hanging out with the people with whom I'm staying. Sometimes this means meeting up with old friends in town. And sometimes this means a night on the town with new friends I've met. This is perhaps the most unpredictable part of the adventure--and perhaps the most enjoyable.

The day ends as I find my way back to the futon (usually by bus). I sneak in as quietly as I can so as not to wake the other couch surfers. I unpack my bag, unfold my sheets, plug in my gadgets and fall asleep with only a small thought of what tomorrow will bring. After all, tomorrow is another day and so far, none have been like the last.

Monday, September 17, 2007

First Impressions: Seattle

It's exactly like you imagine!

There really are bookstores everywhere. There really are coffee shops on every corner--but only half of them are Starbucks. I don't think I've seen the sun since I arrived. This hour is the first which hasn't rained, or at least drizzled. People really do wear socks with their sandals, and interestingly, coats with their shorts. A fleece and hiking boots seems to be the standard uniform around these parts.

My favorite is when all this comes together to form the quintessential Seattleite: hiking boots, tall wool socks, bare legs, khaki shorts, REI fleece vest over a long sleeve Banana Republic t-shirt, wearing a loose baseball hat advertising no baseball team he bought at Nordstrom's, with an umbrella in one hand and with the other, conscientiously throwing his Starbucks cup in the nearest recycling bin on his way out of the boutique bookstore where he had a meeting with his publisher as he heads for a hike in the nearby woodlands. The temperature is going up to 60 tomorrow, so he's going kayaking. When do these people get any work done?

There are a few things I am surprised at, however. Maybe it's the weather or the fallout from acid trips during the Grunge heydays of the 90's, but I didn't expect the large numbers of crazy people (many in their late 20's or early 30's) on the city streets begging money for beer and ice cream or trying to sell you used batteries.

At any rate, so far Seattle is a delight and the perfect place to begin my journey. Yes, the wind blowing in off the sound is chilly and rainy, but it's such a sensory experience that I find the best thing to do is savor it. What a rich feeling it is to have the cold fingers of raindrops gently brushing your face under the tree canopied city canyons. And the cold makes the caramel apple cider all the more satisfying as you recline inside and open a good book. Better make it a Venti.

A Tribute to the Saints

Since moving out of my parents' house, the longest I've lived anywhere is 14 months--but that was before I came to Saint Louis. I have to say that I'm a bit of a restless spirit. I can't stay in any one place too long. I need to find something new, and particularly, something unknown. The side effect to this is that I've gotten pretty good at leaving--but that was before I came to Saint Louis.

Saint Louis had the distinction of being the largest city I've lived in to this point, but as my friend Bob says, Saint Louis is the largest small town you'll ever find. The city may sprawl broadly between the rivers and beyond, but that distance did nothing to separate the fine people I found there.

In the three years I spent and everything I did while there, the greatest mark was left by these disparate people. The California Kodatts really brought me there, found me a job, and were almost my only friends in the city for a time. The Roberts were my local family (among whom I even looked the part: "Is this Noah? My how you've grown!") with an endlessly welcoming Sunday table. The Journey became my home and revealed the rich, subsurface Saint Louis dimension with far too many good friends to name, but here are just a few: the brilliant compassion, surprising insight and silly British vocabulary of Peter; Bob's much cherished conversation, hikes, wine, free legal advice, and multi-faceted friendship; and Rebecca whom, among everything, I appreciate simply for who she is.

Saint Louis surprised me with her charm, but took me in with her people--especially the people who took me in. I left very dear friends when I left the McIntoshes' house. Cora is indubitably the sweetest and most darling little girl this city has ever seen! Ashley has crafted and welcomed me into the warmest southern home to be found in all the Midwest (and is a cook to die for!). And Jonathan, with the many fitting descriptions at hand, I describe most simply and most profoundly as my friend.

Other parts of this country have their charms and appeal, as I'm starting to see, but Saint Louis rightly sits in the prime of the heartland. It's not a description of geography though, at least not in my mind. With the dear friends whom I have, for the moment, left behind, when I think of home, Saint Louis is where my heart is.