Heading West (and Back Again).

I ran into a friend at the coffee shop recently. He told me that he was driving to California in January. It was a trip he had been putting off for some time, and finally decided to just do it – pack the car and take the leap. I was jealous.

Later that week, as the snow and slush were becoming too much for my canvas sneakers, I reluctantly pulled out my winter shoes – a haggard pair of brown Rockports with fraying laces. I remembered when I first bought them, marveling at how quickly the years have passed. It was almost exactly six years ago. I was planning a trip out west after deciding to take a semester off from school to travel.

I have a tendency to regard objects in terms of how much history they have accumulated. Like a tree, I think about how you could cut them in half and count the rings, reading their historical record. I often contemplate the memories contained within these objects – the red fleece jacket I wore during my senior year of high school, the tattered and yellowed baseball cap I’ve worn every summer since I was 18, or in this case, the pair of shoes I took on my cross-country trip in 2004.

I thought back to my conversation at the coffee shop. My friend had expressed his desire to travel, to break out of his routine, and have an adventure. He had been living in Rutland for some time now, and was looking to move on – not forever, just for now. Put simply, he was in a rut.

In Rutland, we joke about the figurative “rut” we occasionally find ourselves in. That’s not to say the monotony of day-to-day life here is notably more onerous than in other place; it’s just that our founding fathers were a bit more on the nose when it came to settling on a name.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the rut when you’re in it. For me it’s usually around this time of year when it becomes most noticeable. The cold weather has set in (it’s 19 degrees today). Winter is only just getting started, and already my mind has turned to warmer climes and the possibilities of a life away from the bleak gray and white of another Vermont winter. (Clearly, I’m not a skier.)

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot I like about winter – the first snowfall, sledding with my nephews, snowshoeing with friends, sitting by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate or whiskey (or both). However, the quiet contemplation of those winter nights can make you a little restless. It’s the time when you start to wonder if the grass isn’t greener elsewhere.

But restlessness can be a good thing. It can take you to some fascinating places. Six years ago, when I set out on my cross-country trek, I was attempting to break my out of my own rut. A year-and-a-half into college, I was feeling trapped in a bubble, socially and intellectually. I was looking for new experiences, for something approximating authenticity, which I had noticed was a foreign substance in college. I was looking for the kind of independence that parents traditionally paid good money to ensure their kids didn’t have.

So I decided to take a semester off to see the country – the geography, the people, the culture – to experience the diversity, that up until this point, I only knew of in theory.

For almost five months, I zigzagged across the United States seeing as much of it as I could (except for the flat parts – sorry, Kansas). I stayed on friends’ couches, in hostels, in my car, all the while soaking up as much as I could.

I stood where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific. I walked amongst the redwoods. I wandered around the Haight. I spent four surreal weeks on a “farm” with a group of Hare Krishnas. I spent three surreal days with a group of hippies in Las Vegas. I could keep going.

Each stop warrants its own story. Even the mundane events began to take on a deeper meaning as I wrote about them in my journal, imbuing them with Kerouac-like density and importance. (My evening in a Wisconsin Applebee’s became an eye-opening experience in the death of local culture.)

Eventually, I landed in Florida. I spent a solid month there planning my next move. I had seen a large portion of this country, and was now faced with a decision: What now? For as much as I had enjoyed my adventure, my independence, and my new experiences, I was, admittedly, a little homesick. By the end of May, I was headed north, eager to return home.

As I begin a new year in Rutland, I am reminded of this trip, and how sometimes it is important to embrace restlessness. Sometimes you need to shake up your routine to discover what it is you really like about where you are. Traveling across the country I came to appreciate the little things we take for granted that make communities like Rutland so special – familiarity, friendliness, hospitality – these are things many people spend their whole lives never experiencing. Living in a small community means you know the people you do business with, you are able to get involved, you develop relationships, you come to appreciate history; your presence here actually matters, it can make a difference.

Alienation and anonymity are impossible. That’s the magic here. We may occasionally get down on Rutland – there’s nothing to do, no culture, etc. – but it’s all what you make of it. It doesn’t always take a cross-country road trip to get out of a rut. At the end of the day, something small might be all you need.

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