On Monday, Sept. 19, 2016,
I RAN AWAY.
The next six days changed my life.
On Monday, Sept. 19, 2016,
I RAN AWAY.
The next six days changed my life.
Back in October, New York Times reporter Jon Caramanica asked rapper Frank Ocean about his disappearance from the public eye for much of 2015, and whether he felt like his seclusion was best described as a “sane escape” or “running away.” Ocean's response resonated with me.
“I never thought about it like that," Ocean said. "I always thought about it like, if your house is on fire, you need to get out of the house.”
Six months ago, my house was on fire. I needed to get out of the house. That's why, on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, at 11:45 p.m., I got in my car and ran away.
I set my sights on the one place in the country I had spent years dreaming about – Glacier National Park. My hope was that by attempting something as absurd as a spontaneous cross-country road trip to Montana, I might regain a little perspective on the circumstances of my own life.
I spent six nights and six days on the road, logging 5,500 miles across 14 states. I visited four national parks, two national monuments and passed through too many national forests to count. And I did it alone.
Embarking from Hartford, I reached eastern Pennsylvania by the end of the first night and western Wisconsin by the second. I spent the third and fourth nights in Great Falls, Montana. By the fifth night, I was in southwestern Wyoming, and, by the sixth night, I had begun my return trip and reached southern Iowa. The final day was the longest – 1,261 miles – which brought me back to Hartford.
Along the way, I saw the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and spent an entire day at Glacier National Park, awestruck by the overwhelming beauty of the park. Within days of returning home, so much of it already had begun to feel like a dream.
While I concede the trip wasn’t a financially sound decision – I’m certainly still feeling the financial strain in the form of relentless credit card debt – I am confident the decision I made was necessary. I knew what would have happened to me if I had stayed put. I have watched myself slip into the depths of depression before, and I refused to let it happen again this time.
When I left for Montana, I was thoroughly broken. But when I returned, I had come to the somber realization that while I might never again be the person I was before, I would still be OK.
The first domino to fall in this sequence came early in 2016. For months, I had been widely considered the frontrunner to be the next managing editor of The Daily Campus. Having the opportunity to run the newsroom of one of the nation's best college newspapers had been a dream of mine for years, and I could not wait to get started.
Then, in March, I found out I had been passed up for the job.
To say I was devastated would be an understatement. My world had been rattled to its core. It took a week of seclusion in my dorm before I could figure out how to cope with it. I realized I needed something to inspire me to get out of bed in the morning again. As an intern at the Connecticut Mirror, I sensed an opportunity to work my way into a more permanent role. That became my new mission.
So I set out to prove myself. Maybe I wouldn’t go down as the most talented intern the Mirror ever had, but I was committed to outworking anybody who had ever held the position before me. I took on every challenge my editor presented, and pursued my own enterprise reporting as well. The decision came at a cost academically, but it seemed to have paid off when I was awarded the Mirror’s summer reporting fellowship and, later, earned the promise of a part-time position from the Mirror’s new publisher.
I asked the publisher if I should move closer to Hartford to shorten the commute for the part-time position after the summer fellowship ended. He told me that I should.
I gave up the dorm room I had lined up in Whitney Hall – which to this day remains my favorite residence hall on campus – and, at the end of July, moved into an apartment on Capitol Avenue in Hartford. It’s a decision I have only regretted since, but in that moment, it was exhilarating. For the first time in months, it seemed, things were looking up.
When my summer fellowship with the Mirror concluded at the end of August, the publisher promised he would be in contact with details about the part-time position in the coming weeks. I couldn’t wait for September to come and with it a new chapter in my life.
But in a matter of days, everything began to unravel.
Once classes started back up in the fall, I was overwhelmed by the stress and disappointment that came with being a fifth-year senior. Many of my friends had graduated in the previous semester, and I felt like I had been left behind. To make matters worse, my girlfriend and I broke up. I felt like I was alone.
Then the bomb dropped: Despite past assurances, the Mirror would not be able to offer me a part-time reporting position, but instead would use me as a freelancer on an as-needed basis.
While my financial situation was hardly perfect before moving to Hartford, I was counting on a consistent paycheck to offset the cost of living downtown. In an instant, this erased any hope of financial stabilization, as the prospects of finding another job that would work around my class schedule were slim. I felt powerless to tackle the challenges in front of me.
Then, on top of it all, the pain of the rejection from months earlier at The Daily Campus resurfaced with a vengeance. I could feel myself being swallowed up by a depression stronger than I had experienced in years.
I couldn’t tell whether it was the breakup, the disappointing news at work or just the fact that I was beginning my fifth year as an undergraduate. But something was wrong. In the weeks prior, I could feel it. The gears were grinding to a halt. That Monday, they came to a full stop.
I rolled out of bed mid-morning. It was supposed to be the day I went back to work after a three-week hiatus, but from the moment my eyes opened I knew that would not be the case. I slogged through my daily routine: take a shower, put on deodorant, brush my teeth, get dressed.
I opted for my tan button-down shirt and pair of black slacks. I ran my belt through each loop slowly before fastening it.
Backpack in hand, I stepped out of my bedroom. But I didn't get far. I set my backpack down on the couch. Then I sat down. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t move. It’s like my body was in the room but my mind was trapped in an alternate dimension.
Minutes became hours. Morning became afternoon. And I did not get up from the couch. At some point, I turned on the TV and put on reruns of "MacGyver" – an escape back to my childhood, to simpler times. Shortly after 4 p.m., I threw in the towel and changed into my pajamas. I wasn't going to work.
I didn't have much to say when my roommate came home that night. My mind was swirling. It felt like everything was crumbling before my eyes. So, I got in my car for the first time that night. I drove from my apartment in Hartford to The Daily Campus building in Storrs, a place that always has been home to me. But even after I arrived, I felt restless. I knew I needed to do something big, something bold. I was going to drive to Montana.
It’s like you could reach out and touch it with your hands. I swam through it, and got into my car again. As I left Storrs, I felt like I might actually do it. I might actually drive off into the darkness in search of the light.
A knot had formed in the pit of my stomach by the time I got back to Hartford, to the apartment where I sat frozen for hours earlier in the day. It wouldn’t hold me prisoner this time. I walked inside and told my roommate I was going to Montana, which he must have thought was a joke at first. I took a quick shower. He didn’t think anything of it. But when I packed my bag, he asked me to give him a reason why I wanted to leave.
“Because I just have to do it,” I told him.
That reason was sufficient enough for him.
I got in my car and, at 11:45 p.m., I put it in drive. The clock ticked toward midnight. Bluetooth on. Music blared in the vehicle.
“How many times can I push it aside?” I sang into the empty vehicle.
“Is it time I befriended all the ghosts of all the things that haunt me most so they leave me alone? Move on with my life?”
Then I broke into a shout, with Matt Theissen providing the backing vocals:
“I'd rather forget and not slow down than gather regret for the things I can't change now. If I become what I can't accept, resurrect the saint from within the wretch. Pour over me and wash my hands of it.”
I blazed a trail into the night, sights set on whatever was ahead. Waterbury. Danbury. Newburgh. Port Jervis. Scranton. Wilkes-Barre.
It was 3 a.m. when I reached the junction with I-80, my ticket to the West.
At the next rest area, I pulled off to sleep for the night. I reclined in the driver’s seat, pulling out my blanket and pillow from the back. After rolling the windows down a smidge, I took my keys out of the ignition and drifted off to sleep.
It was the first time I almost turned back. I had to think of what to tell my professors and, more importantly, my editor. It was inevitable that I’d miss at least my first two classes that day, even if I decided to turn around on the spot.
Fingers smudging on my iPhone's screen, I typed out the first email – to my French class instructor – then sent emails to my other professors.
“This is actually happening,” I said to myself.
But before I could go, I had to write an email to my editor, who had expected me to come into work that Monday. He didn’t call, didn’t text and didn’t email, but I knew he was wondering why I hadn’t shown up.
Subject: Out of Town
I wanted to let you know that I am unexpectedly out of town for the week, and will not be back until Sunday evening. I’m truly sorry for the inconvenience this will cause. I’ll explain as much as I can when I get back.
Now the journey could begin in earnest. I threw my blanket and pillow in the back seat and sat up. Hands shaking and nerves high, I started the engine and put the car in gear. And with the unshakable resolve of a rolling stone, I pulled out of the rest stop and onto the highway, setting a course for Chicago and all points west.
A Wisconsin Storm.
A Wisconsin Storm.
Burrowed under my blanket in the reclined driver’s seat, I peered out and looked around the Wisconsin rest area I had stopped at for the night. I reached for my phone on the dashboard to check the time.
I had been asleep for a few hours. But with my windows cracked open, I could feel the gentle wind washing over my face.
It was the beginning of my third day on the road.
I could tell it was more than just an early morning breeze rolling in. It was a storm. So I reached down into my cup holder to find my keys and then placed them in the ignition. The car started, and I rolled the windows the rest of the way up. I closed my eyes.
Within minutes, raindrops began falling on the windshield and roof, each one with a plink or a plank – and each one forcing me to open my eyes. After another two minutes, the rain was gushing down. It sounded like my car had been surrounded by a thousand snare drums, all being played in unison.
I contemplated trying to fall back asleep. But with the overwhelming sound, it seemed unlikely. So at 3:40 a.m., I decided it was time to get back on the road. As I pulled onto the highway, a bolt of lightning streaked across the sky. I accelerated slowly. Another flashed and filled the pitch black horizon with breathtaking brightness, this one accompanied by a crack of thunder.
The sights and sounds were awe-inspiring. I had never seen a storm of this magnitude.
On that morning, I could see why our ancestors believed mighty gods with terrifying powers inhabited the sky. I felt powerless. My only option was to drive forward into the darkness, onward to the day’s final destination – Great Falls, Montana.
As soon as I crossed from South Dakota into the northeastern corner of Wyoming, I lost all cell phone service. It wasn't the first time on the trip my phone displayed the dreaded "No Service" notice in the upper left-hand corner, but after five minutes passed, I started to get a bit antsy. Five minutes quickly became 10, and 10 minutes quickly became 20.
Then I crossed into Montana, and nothing changed. Thirty minutes had now gone by, and I started contemplating all of the different ways my car could break down and leave me stranded on this middle-of-nowhere state highway.
Thankfully, my phone eventually found service again after about an hour of being disconnected. The nightmare scenario had been avoided. It proved to be nothing more than a prolonged distraction, though it could hardly distract from the scene around me.
What southeastern Montana lacked in cellular infrastructure, it made up for in virtually undisturbed natural beauty.
I was finally in Big Sky country. The roads climbed the hillsides and descended deep into the valleys. The horizon seemed endless. It felt like I could see for hundreds of miles in every direction.
Earlier in the day, I decided to make a hotel reservation after it became clear I would actually make it. I still had some lingering doubts that morning in Wisconsin about whether to continue the journey. But 1,200 miles later, I had checked into my room at the La Quinta in town for the night.
Before I could even turn the lights off, I fell asleep.
Truthfully, words are insufficient to describe the full extent of my experience. And photographs are unable to depict the size and scope of the things that left me breathless and speechless. I have seen some incredible sights in my short life – including Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonia – but nothing I had seen compares to my experience here.
In 1901, American conservationist George Bird Grinnell described Glacier National Park as "the crown of the continent." I can't think of a more fitting description for a place so majestic and regal.
Suffice it to say, never before in my life had I felt so small. Sometimes you need to spontaneously drive all the way across the country and stare at a glacier to put things back into perspective. I'm not sure any other place in the world could have done it as effectively as this park did.
A Wyoming Shout.
A Wyoming Shout.
Nor did I expect it to be. Fortunately, I had two more national parks – Yellowstone and Grand Teton – waiting for me on the road ahead in Wyoming. That gave me just enough incentive to say goodbye to Great Falls and head south.
The sun had set, and the rain was pouring down. The roads were pitch black. But I pushed forward, following the few feet of white and yellow lines visible in front of me. I wanted to make it to I-80 in southwestern Wyoming before stopping for the night.
The storm passed and the clouds eventually began to clear, and I could see my surroundings again. I realized just how empty the space was around me. No houses, no farms, no cars, no people. Just me and a darkness only broken by my car's headlights.
I saw several signs indicating that I was approaching the historic route of the Oregon Trail, which bisected the highway. So when I reached the junction, I decided to explore. Veering off the road, I maneuvered my car onto the dirt path that weaved into the open expanse westward. To say it was rugged would be an understatement. As I navigated through the ruts and rocks, my car rose and fell like a life raft riding the waves in the middle of an ocean. I must have driven for a mile along the storied trail before I stopped.
I turned off my car. The beams of the headlights faded, and I was surrounded by an almost pure darkness. Even the horizon was devoid of the familiar faint light I am accustomed to seeing on the East Coast. I opened my car door and stepped outside. I looked up at the one source of light still remaining: millions of stars above. I had never seen anything like it. Some sections of the sky, filled with an incalculable number of stars, looked like a blur.
A light breeze grazed my skin, but the wind made no sound. I quickly realized, in fact, there was no discernible sound of any kind. That's when my body started shaking. I had never experienced this kind of silence in nature before.
Fear. I felt a primal, instinctual fear.
Then, as if trying to break through the void, I shouted into the open field as loud as I could:
I expected the sound of my voice to echo across the open space, but instead it was muffled and dampened by its vastness. The void was unshaken.
Terror. A chill ran down my spine.
I dove into the driver's seat of my car and shoved the keys into the ignition, filling the expanse with light again. And without a moment's hesitation, I drove back out onto the highway.
Where Glacier National Park left me feeling minuscule compared to its towering landscapes, the Wyoming wilderness left me feeling powerless in the natural world. I did not have the ability to control the darkness or the silence. That lack of control was unnerving.
By the time I made it to the first rest stop east of Rock Springs on I-80, I was physically and emotionally exhausted from the day.
A Nebraska Sunset.
A Nebraska Sunset.
I couldn't have asked for a more beautiful conclusion to my time west of the Mississippi River. A passing rain shower produced a spectacular double rainbow over Lincoln as I traveled along the outskirts of the city, en route to visit an old friend at Northwest Missouri State University. With each glance in the rear-view mirror, the sky became more breathtaking.
Eventually, once I was atop one of the taller hills on the highway well outside the city, I pulled off to the side of the road. As I stepped out of my car, I was awestruck by the orange and yellow hues that filled the air. I leaned on the back of my car and stared into the glowing sky. The highway, still wet from the rain earlier, was set ablaze by the sun's rays. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the cars passing by. I had found peace, if only for a moment.
What followed were a handful of photographs that have become synonymous with the trip itself.
From my perspective, the setting sun depicted in those photographs is a metaphor for the end to the way I used to live my life – always trying to meet predetermined deadlines and goals. Those days are long gone now.
My sense of hopelessness stemmed from the fact that I perceived myself to be an abject failure. My inability to reach these essential checkpoints in the grand plan I had devised for my life, I told myself, meant only more failure awaited me in the years to come.
Montana changed everything. Montana taught me that grand plans aren’t worth anything.
Failure is an option. Failure is acceptable. Failure – even total failure without the hope of a second chance in the future – is an inescapable part of life.
It seems like such a simple reality to acknowledge, but the truth is that I’ve been setting up checkpoints in my life since middle school. Surrendering to the natural course of things seemed, quite frankly, unnatural.
But I did surrender, thanks to Montana. Now, for the first time in my life, I have been able to simply live, and live simply. Everything I have done over the past six months has been because I have wanted to do it, not because I felt like I have had to prove anything to anyone in the hope of accomplishing some goal.
While the sun may have set on that life, it has risen again on the new one I have been living since then. In this life, I put people before personal ambition and my contentment before my career. It's a life where I can wake up each morning and know that I am OK.
Despite my depression and anger, I am OK. Despite my brokenness and pain, I am OK. Despite my faults and my failures, I am OK.
I am OK because I choose to be OK.
Special thanks to Dan Agabiti, who spent several hours editing this story before its publication. Dan has been an incredible friend and mentor to me since he was my editor at The Daily Campus during my freshman year. While I was passing through Rapid City, South Dakota on the trip, he spent a half-hour on the phone with me to check in and make sure I was OK. Dan, you've been a better friend to me than I deserve.