Monday, September 13, 2010

Nation(s) of Happiness

And just like that, the journey changes. Sitting in my hotel room in London (no, not that London yet, just London, Canada) its strange to think that just over a month ago I was back in California about to take that first step on this very long journey.  Back then I had a vague notion of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, but I knew that that notion would evolve and change as the journey progressed.  I had worried for a while that this change might end with me returning home early due to boredom/sickness/bad luck, but so far thankfully those three hazards have been kept more or less at bay.  It seems that my planning has now fallen into a pattern in that I scope out the next major destination ahead of time while keeping most of the day to day stuff pretty spontaneous.  Meal locations are always either by recommendation or a quick check of yelp, and hotels (a subject that will at some point be expounded upon) are almost always reserved the night of.  It keeps things, and more importantly -- me -- moving, and thus staves off the boredom and monotony that could accompany a solo journey.

How I ended up in Canada was a bit of a planned drift.  After leaving Chicago I knew I had two options -- head northeast to Michigan and continue east through Canada or head directly east through Ohio/Pennsylvania etc.  That route I have driven in the past, and well... I had no real desire to cross Ohio (aka The Land of Speeding Tickets) or Pennsylvania (aka The Land of the Amish).  I did however want to meet up with a friend who was going to be in Philadelphia for a day, but that would have required a rather grueling 12+ hour straight drive across those states in order to reach her, only to watch her leave Philadelphia the same day.  In the end, the tough decision was made to not cross via the US and rather head northeast to Michigan then Canada and finally ending up at the north end of Vermont.

Now... I was very curious of Michigan.  There's really only two cities I know in Michigan and thats Flint and Detroit, both quite... um... destitute.  I didn't make it to Flint as it was rather out of the way, but Detroit was actually a much larger city than I had expected, especially if you include some of the cities in the greater Detroit area.  Its a place that, if you go by the billboards, was built by automobiles and gambling, with a little murder on the side (Detroit 1-8-7, cuz the city's image couldn't get any worse...  And whats with jacking 187 anyway?  Thats CA Penal Code people... damn producers in Hollywood forgetting that the rest of the country isn't CA and no one is gonna be "screamin' 187 on a motherf**kin' cop" in Detroit [props for the kids who get the reference]).  The automobile history part is definitely true, but even that seems to be getting weaker and weaker as even in this bastion of American motoring the numbers of imports seem to be nearly as numerous as everywhere else in the country.  I fear given some more years rust will claim what the economy and bad management hasn't already claimed of the American car market here.

The gambling aspect has sort of been a staple ever since leaving Washington.  You really didn't have to travel far to find a small casino tucked away in the middle of a empty shopping mall parking lot, or a couple machines at a gas station or convenience.  It makes me wonder what people who play on those machines are thinking.  Its almost the same as gambling at the Las Vegas Airport.  If you're gonna blow your money there are far better and more entertaining venues to do it in than some decrepit old machine next to the Slim Jims.

So in the end, what does Detroit really bring to the table, and why am I going on about Detroit instead of the far more pressing and interesting (to me and hopefully the readers) topic of international travel?  To both... I have no idea.  Moving on...

Canada will not be my only international travel destination.  Having originally conceived this trip as purely a US sojourn, I have now added a slight (3500 mile) detour across a small pond (the Atlantic) for a short amount of time (a month).  My only reasons for doing this are 1) The flight was cheaper than normal and 2) eh... what the hell (as you can see much thought goes into my travel destinations...).  Well, ok, there was one more thing, and that was that I had foolishly missed the opportunity to do this while I was in Boston, so thought this would be a good time to more than make up for that little slip up.  I'm at once extremely excited and a bit let down already by this opportunity.  Excited because it'll be my first time in Europe and I'll be doing it the "correct" way (aka public transportation and hostels) and let down because I won't have anyone to share this journey with.  I had always envisioned my first trip to Europe as being with someone, whether it be a friend (or group of friends) or a significant other.  But I guess going it alone gives me the opportunity to scope it out before hand and be hella pro then next time around (pardon the vernacular... the norcal side will never leave me).

So then comes the rather obvious question of what I'm going to do there.  I'm actually leaving that quite open, only that I wish to see at least 3 countries and try all the food, and probably hit up all the major touristy spots.  The more interesting things however are going to require a bit more work to figure out.  Near the top of that list is driving both the Nurburgring and the Autobahn. Thats either gonna take some white lies with a rental car or some more money with a service that specializes in 'Ring tourists.  I don't really car what I lap the 'Ring in really, just so long as I do it and finish, in one piece, and without a huge damage bill  ('Ring cleanup after a wreck is highly efficient but definitely not cheap, and the driver foots the entire bill).  Come to think of it, that probably means I should just buy someones 100 euro beater and drive it around till its dead.  No skin off my nose if it trades paint with the Armco...

But thats planning for another time.  Its currently very late, and I am trying very hard to get going before the clock strikes noon everyday...

Saturday, September 4, 2010

People of Happiness

Its odd that I haven't written at all about what I'm actually on the road for.  For a while it felt like the actual Nation of Happiness project wasn't going anywhere, and that I was just gonna be on the road for a long roadtrip.  It was a great feeling however to finally meet people who were willing and happy to share their stories.  Here's a short recap of the people I have met so far:

Shivey - Meeting Shivey was a great experience, as he is someone who I see as a figure for success in life.  I met Shivey through my great friend Liz (who accompanied me on the first week of my trip) and her endless stories of "Shivey did this" and "Shivey did that".  When I finally met him however the the first thing that stood out with just his pleasant demeanor and willingness to spare his precious time (he's working on a Ph.D, so time is definitely precious) for Liz and I.  His stories and outlooks however are what I really took away from that meeting.  Here is someone who really got it, someone who not only could articulate happiness and the what it took to be happy but also managed to live everything he spoke.  He has every challenge in life as an opportunity and when those weren't enough seeked greater challenges in order to truly push and better himself.  It was just amazing to see what sheer determination could do, whether it be getting you up a mountain or through a mountain of work.

Maxine - I met Maxine at a tourist information building in Newcastle WY.  She was working there and helped me out with directions and lodging information for Mt Rushmore, and was kind enough to do an interview with me after business became lighter.  Maxine has had a some major hardships in her life with both a loss of a husband and a son, and it was interesting to see how one copes with major losses like that and still go on with life. Her story is really about the struggle of happiness and about how one chooses or refuses to choose what it is that makes them happy.

Wally - I met wally a day later when I went to Jewel Cave.  He was our tour guide for the visit, and after the tour we sat down in the old ranger cabin for an interview.  Wally was an interesting figure in that he was definitely a man of choice and decision.  It seemed to me that his life was a study in how major decisions pave the way for one's future.  He started out in the military and later moved into the ministry, where he stayed for 2 decades.  After seeing less and less progress, he changed his life again and worked in the correctional facility counseling at risk youth, and even went as far as to adopt some of those youth into his own family.  Having finally retired from this he spent a year off before being spurred to take another career change and go into the Park Ranger service, which is where he is today.  Its amazing to see someone who not only has gone through so much change in his life, but done so on his own accord, and in doing this managed to both meet and redefine what his own personal happiness is about.

Joey - Meeting Joey was as much of an experience for him as it was for me.  We met at Milwaukee Brewing Company where he was there with some of his family and friends.  It was bit of chance encounter, as it started with a simple request for me to take a photo of their group.  We got to talking about the tour and then about myself and my trip, and even before I made the request for an interview he already had told me what it was that made him happy, which is seeing someone like myself undertake a trip like this.  He stated how far too many people dream of doing something like this but far too few actually follow through with it, for a variety of reasons.  I think I would have easily fallen into latter category (and indeed have many times in the past) had I not been unhappy with things enough to finally undertake this drastic change in my life.  Whats funny about this is that in the grand scheme of things, I actually had very little to be unhappy about.  I think I just felt that without doing something truly major with my life at this point that I would never get this opportunity ever again.  There's been many times in the past in which I know I've let opportunities big and small go, and it was about time I capitalized on a major opportunity when everything was right.