College has, through its friendships and connections, given me the good fortune to once again take up travel. Travelling used to be a big part of my childhood. It was a point of pride. When the Mrs. Marquez would make each kid stand up and say something about themselves, my interesting fact would always be the amount of the world I had seen.
By elementary and middle school standards, it's an impressive resume: Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the Philippines, London, New York, Vancouver and more. I wasn't old enough to appreciate the sights much, or fully grasp the new worlds I was entering, but I still had a bigger sense of the planet and its diversity. More so than the other 7-year olds sitting cross-legged on a multicolored carpet.
By 22 year-old standards, that resume is not as impressive. The world turned and travel became less and less of a characteristic of my life. My youth was extraordinarily jet set, but my adolescence was spent staying still. The occasional drive to Las Vegas was the closest I would get to road trips, though it's more of a long-distance wander. I wouldn't get to feel that horrible/wonderful rumble of a plane taking off for years.
Years, until college, which gave it back to me in some small part. We weren't going to Europe or even Texas, but we were travelling again. It was always good, even if it was short-lived or not the life-affirming, answer-finding game changer we always expect from the road. But sometimes the little bites are enough to nourish you. Sometimes the little bites feel like a main course.
I remember Chicago. I remember descending over some autumn-orange suburban neighborhood, organized neatly and widely to allow for yards ripe for raking. I remember the hallways of downtown created by the sky scrapers, and the surprisingly comprehensible Sears Tower. There was also the cold, which bit at me through my thin jacket and thinner t-shirt. There was the hunt for some signature pizza and the settling for a random fast-food deep dish vendor. There was the stained glass at the Navy Pier. There was the ocean.
Most of all, I remember how much it looked like the world I had seen on television. Years of living in an ignored, in-between, inconsquential industrial suburb tends to separate you from the shine of televised cities like LA, New York and Chicago. Walking through the streets at the latest hour of night, along the streets of a historic college, made me feel like I was walking in the real world. This is where they kept the world from TV. All those buildings that didn't look anything like my home, this is what they meant.
I remember Santa Cruz. It was all field and trees and hills, a place completely submerged in the verdancy of the natural world. It almost felt arrogant, almost indulgent to build a campus among these redwood tree forests. Giant wooden bridges spanned the valleys between roads, thick forests gave way to secret prairie clearings where the night will eat you up until you could not see your own body. In the dark world, we stepped over the twigs and leaves and climbed the biggest tree. My shaking hands gripping branches could not muster much more than halfway up the whole length, but I was told the view at the top was a sparkling starfield view of the city.
Santa Cruz was a college campus that benefited from, yet was always under attack from, nature. It was unpredictable enough for outsider hesitance turn into paranoia. Whether it be the astonishing dark, or the wild animals, or the chance for pitfalls into holes or onto rocks. It was not made for drunken college kids, yet, there it was, in direct defiance of nature, or the will of god, or sensible building plans.
I remember Seattle. Sweater weather, full of culture and art. One way streets on steep hills. Closed down colorful streetside shops. Messages taped to poles like, "THE WAR ON DRUGS IS MEAN AND STUPID." The coffee, everywhere. Maybe it was the result of good trip planning, but most of all I remember it as a place with things to do, sights to see, and constant conversational pieces.
Benches shaped like weary eyes. Cars laced with LED strips hanging from museum ceilings. The road that dipped into the city, among the downtown buildings and the trees strung with yellow light. It was post-Christmas, but not yet post-holiday season: that exciting interlude between celebrations. Best of all, we were blessed with the tinted light of the overcast, and not miserable rain. We experienced merely a droplet on our very last day.
There was Oakland. It's a city split into gentrified overflow from shining San Francisco, which was modern and beautiful though illusory. The other half, when you get around that murky lake, looks like the result of reality's crushing stiletto heel. It's all pavement and economic decline and stories on every corner of people trying to make it through. I saw a Black Panther speak in the marvelous circular hall of an Irish temple. I ate at late night roadside burger joints. I crossed a bridge and drank at a lounge called Poleng. Walked across train tracks embedded in the road and ate both chicken and waffles in Jack London Square.
There was also Ashland. A strange, psuedo-small town in southern Oregon full of art and culture where they still have a Safeway and everything closes at 4 PM. A river behind the hotel, grey and green color schemes and windowed, street-facing stores, just like in the old days. One of them sold exclusively unicorn merchandise. It was a town of wealth, but it was not conspicuous or obscene. The buildings were small, but sharp and well-kept. New in quality, but old fashioned. It was a pleasant place to walk. I remember pine trees.
There was Sacramento on a rainy day. Even in a torrent, its white capital buildings are prestigious. Greek and regal from the outside, but just another city hall on the inside save for the seemingly infinite offices and branching hallways. Remember that congressman? The jerk, the one who had to ask where we were all from so he could make fun of it? The one who used to be in our position, lobbying to people in power, asking them to be kind to students, but had joined the dark side? We had coffee at a corner shop. I did not drink much caffeine back then, but I wanted to feel warm.
Sometimes, usually at night, the stillness bothers me. I get a light case of wanderlust, so I get in my car and get a road underneath me. There's one I tend to drive. It breaks off from a main avenue, tumbling down a steep hill, turning and winding around dry hills. The road names are constantly changing, but that doesn't make a difference. I keep going, and the lights stay green for me. I can't tell if I'm going out of or into the city, but when the sights get unfamiliar, I settle down a little bit, and I make the turn and do it all in reverse. I go a little bit farther every time.
It's not a road trip, it's not a plane ride, it's not a subway train at night. But it helps in a small way to pass the time.