Saturday, June 25, 2011

Closer to the Sky

NY → NJ → PA → OH → IN → IL → MO → KS → CO

"You're so far around the bend... There is no leaving New York."

Six weeks ago, I embarked on an epic trek and relocation to Denver. But when it began, New York City wasn't ready to let me go.

I had a 10-hour drive ahead of me on Friday, May 13th, so an early departure was necessary. Unfortunately, the entire morning was eaten up by getting the rental car, picking up my hockey equipment, and retrieving some of Erin's belongings in Brooklyn. I figured it wouldn't take anymore than two hours.

It took four. When it comes to moving, underestimation seems to be my Achilles' heel.

I finally experienced the hell that is driving in New York City. Suffice it to say that both Manhattan and Brooklyn were complete and utter parking lots, with one bottleneck, traffic jam, and construction zone after another. Newfound respect for cabbies, I have.

There was a lot of cursing, frustration, and aggressive driving. There was me going down a forbidden street that came to a dead end, and having to turn around and face the wrath of the construction worker I disobeyed (as well as my girlfriend's).

One thing there wasn't a lot of: turn signals.

But there was something else. Something that will stick in my memory just as much.

There was a New York that I'd never seen before.

As I maneuvered my way through the concrete grid on that cool May morning, there were moments, like when I was making my way around Columbus Circle, or driving near the Hudson in lower Manhattan, where the city was bright and fresh. It was almost as if a veil had been lifted, and all notions of cramped, dirty city living were replaced with a sheen of cool and clean. I chalked it up to New York's last-ditch ploy in preventing me from leaving.

But leave I did—but not before running the hypertension-inducing gauntlet that is Midtown at lunch hour. All I can say is, TGINHTDINYCEA (Thank God I'll Never Have To Drive In New York City Ever Again.)

What follows is my travelogue for the journey.

Day 1: New York to Dayton (10 hours)

Below is a series of Twitter-like thoughts that I had along the rest of the day, once I'd escaped the clutches of the Concrete Jungle.
  • Best Worst City Name: Krumsville, PA
  • Forgotten Restaurant of the '90s (and for Good Reason): TIE – Long John Silver's/Perkins.
  • Note to future self: XM22 - Pearl Jam Radio.
  • Wait—free laundry and tennis from now on??
  • Garbage disposals!
  • Billy Squier: underrated driving music
  • A joke: What's the capital of Pennsylvania? Answer: Harrisburg.
  • 3:25 p.m.: I become an uncle for the first time.
  • If Jack Bauer can do it, so can I.
  • What the sign should say: "GAS GOUGING – 1 MILE"
  • Just before Dunningsville, PA, I do a double-take as I see one horse mounting another in the field to my left. A close runner-up for highlight of the day, next to finally making it home hours later.
  • An abandoned rest stop: The spooky scene that should open Season 2 of The Walking Dead.
  • Yup, the Spin Doctors still get played.
  • Two words: cruise control.
  • Not afraid to admit that Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" is a great piece of songwriting.
  • Tragedy strikes as yet another country song is ruined by a heavy male drawl.
I pulled into the ol' driveway just before 11 p.m. My awesome parents were hospitable and accommodating enough to not only cook my requested steak dinner, but to actually wait to sit down and eat with me hours after it was prepared. I blame NYC again for my tardiness.

Day 2: Dayton to Kansas City (10 hours)

No road trip can begin without Bill's Donuts.

Day 2 almost gets off to a bad start. There was a slight scare with me being charged for another day with the rental car despite the fact that we were returning it within the hour. But seeing how far I'd come, the Budget guy was cool enough to waive the late fee.

With more rest and a copilot in my brother Ben, I know the sailing is going to be a lot smoother than Day 1. We think it's a good sign when Bob Seger's "Turn The Page" greets us as I turn the ignition. "Well here I go—ON THE ROAD AGAIN..." Sadly, my brother Ryan's "Coloroado" mix CD doesn't play for some reason, even though it played fine in the rental car. An early casualty.

It's after 11 in the morning, and it's not surprising that we're shoving off later than originally planned. So instead of getting on the road and making up for lost time, we go straight to Bill's Donuts.

Not long into our drive, we place bets on Ben's bathroom tally for the trip. Ben has a woman's bladder, so I predict that he'll have to go nine times during transit. Ben chooses seven. In the end, Ben goes exactly five times. So I guess we both lose. (And yes, I realize it's a flawed game to begin with.) Outside of Bill's, the log indicates that Ben went in Bumfuck, Illinois; Boondock, Missouri; El Buttfuckerosa, Kansas; and Pike Shit, Kansas—if that paints any picture of civilization along I-70.

In eastern Indiana, we for the first time see the actual sign for Tom Raper RVs, "where fun begins." If you lived in the tri-state area, you'd understand the significance of the occasion. All our lives we've seen Tom Raper's commercials and been puzzled how a man with that name has stayed in business for decades. Laughs abound.

I think I know why he likes RVs.

Somewhere in Illinois, I have Ben hand me the turkey sandwich he made for me the night before. Only, this is no ordinary turkey sandwich. As a person notorious for mixing my food, this new creation of mine may take the cake: a turkey sandwich topped with a generous layer of BROCCOLI SOUFFLÉ. Getting to eat it only once the night before wasn't nearly enough.

The verdict? Best turkey sandwich I ever had. And I think it's safe to say it's never been attempted before.

Ben and I end up splitting driving duty in half, and between good music and conversation about life's many mysteries, we're in Kansas City before we know it. I still pride myself on lowballing Priceline for a $40 room at Holiday Inn. The first time, and certainly not the last.

Ben appearing to take a leak at our cheap hotel in Kansas City.

Thanks to what proved to be a great recommendation from a Denver friend who'd done the drive before, that night we feast like kings at Jack Stack, probably the best barbecue I've ever had. I'm also reintroduced to Fat Tire beer, an instant favorite.

Best barbecue ever. Big props to John Campbell for his invaluable tip.

Day 3: Kansas City to Denver (10 hours)

The day begins with the realization that we left our turkey sandwiches in the car for the night (as if sitting unrefrigerated for the entire previous day wasn't unsanitary enough). Desperate for justification not to toss the sandwiches (remember, mine was a special one), my thoughts quickly turn to the temperature, which is cold and was all night. But wait! I tell Ben. "It was cold all night—and the air—and the temperature—it was like a fridge!" Yeah, yeah! exclaims Ben, immediately seeing where I'm going with this.

The real test comes a few hours later when my stomach starts growling. Trying to ignore the universal fact that unrefrigerated mayonnaise goes bad, I go to work on the turkey soufflé. Somehow, it's just as good as it was 24 hours earlier. I thank the iron stomach for that one.

Ben opts to eat the day-old donuts before his sandwich. I already had some for breakfast. This shouldn't come to any surprise to Centervillians, but day-old Bill's Donuts still tops Dunkin' Donuts or Krispy Kreme any day of the week. Hell, maybe even two-day-old's. No contest.

As many warned me, Kansas is the worst part of the trip; a type of terrestrial cockblock obstructing your path to Colorado. It just goes on forever. But the Smoky Hilly Wind Farm was a sight to behold.

Just two of hundreds on the farm.

We're in west Kansas, and it's time to stop for gas. Thinking it'll be cheaper in the boondocks, I get off the highway only to find no gas station in sight. Was it wiped out by a tornado? No. Turns out, it's just a few miles down some country roads. We get there to see the price: $4.03⅓.

Opting to get the hell out of Dodge, we get back on the highway and find a less isolated station a few miles down the road. Except this one has been abandoned by personnel. Ben seizes the opportunity and takes piss No. 5 on the back wall of the complex, since the door's locked. I'm also tempted to mark my territory, but I feel like we're being watched.

It seems like it would never happen, but we finally leave Kansas for good and cross the Colorado border. On the brink of a big, symbolic moment that we'd been anticipating from the start of our journey, we envision a few things. A huge "COLORADO WELCOMES YOU" sign. Ensuing honks and cheers. The gleam of a dream in our eyes. Instead, we get this:

So much for that.

A few hours later, with the ultra-cool Tron: Legacy score playing, we ride into Denver. Ben's desperately looking for the mountains to reveal themselves, and eventually he can make them out. I tweet: "Mountains beyond mountains! Journey complete."

As we finish our epic 1,260-mile run on I-70 and head up S.R. 36, we debate where to celebrate the toils of our quest. We end up at Rock Bottom Brewery in Westminster, not far from our final destination. When I step out of the car, I get instant confirmation of feeling at home: an ice arena is just a few hundred yards away.

Closer to the Sky

As I sit here over a month later, the hustle and bustle of the transition to a new life has subsided, and I've been able to catch up with reality. My mind is reconciling the different worlds I've traversed in a short period of time, and I'm getting used to the fact that this is my new home, with NYC now in my rear view.

When I stop and revel at it all, I'm left with one thought:

I did it. Three simple words loaded with celebratory success.

Erin and I have had Denver on our minds for a while now. With our wedding on the heels of our NYC lease that's up on July 1st, we came to realize two things. One: We didn't want to spend another year in New York. And two: Even if we moved to another city we liked, Denver would still be in the back of our minds.

So the mission became clear: Denver or bust. Sure, it was going to make an already busy year filled with wedding planning even more hectic. Our plan was dubious to some, but we knew what we wanted, and doing it sooner rather than later was the lesser of two evils. We could move to our destination city, make a clean break with the lease, and return from our honeymoon to a new, exciting home to begin a new chapter in our lives.

But why Denver?

We were drawn to the landscape and the cool vibe of the Mile High City. We liked the idea of being able to settle down in the western region of the country, territory that was comfortable but personally uncharted. We like the laid-back attitude and the opportunities with the outdoors. We love the microbrews.

In short, Denver felt like home.

This is the third time I've changed my living situation for the better and set myself up for new experiences. And as I look back, I'm proud to say I've lived in Nashville and New York, two of the best cities in the U.S. But sometimes it just takes a few years to figure out where you're supposed to be.

I have no regrets about living in New York. I had unique, unforgettable experiences there that I couldn't have had anywhere else. But after 3½ years, it was just time to move on. In my experience, there's no other personal act that's as incredibly liberating and empowering as a big life change in moving to a different state "just as I'd wanted, and almost as if I'd willed it."

So here I am again in a new place, taking in the sights and asking myself how in the hell I got here. These are the times when I enjoy this surreal, exhilarating phase of newness before it gradually fades.

But for now, I smile every time I gaze into the face of the Front Range.

Many years from now, I hope to still be pinching myself.

"It's easier to leave than to be left behind... Leaving was never my proud... Leaving New York, never easy. I saw the light fading out."

Road Warriors 2011