I am a regretful college graduate. I would aggressively note that I learned more actionable knowledge in two months on the road than I did in four miserable years of higher education. The cross-disciplinary exploration needed to succeed at the level many bartenders excel at vastly outstrips the supposed rigors of a college career. To this day I regard the majority of higher-learning institutions in the United States as bland and athletics-fixated diploma mills that do next to nothing to work to combat the ills of the world, while the President, Chancellor, Board, textbook conglomerates, cafeteria service, what-have-you, all get fat on an entire generation’s increasing debt, the blood, sweat and tears of unpaid student-athletes, and the efforts of woefully underpaid and under-supported faculty.
In school, I acquired a number of skills of dubious utility, though several lessons are of vital importance. I learned that my desire to read and write wasn’t something that faded, nor was it magically enhanced by paying thousands of dollars a month for the privilege of having someone tell me what to read and write. I learned that a great deal of people, even in institutions of higher learning (perhaps especially so), are craven, lazy, dishonest, cruel and plain stupid. I learned that exceptionalism is often a myth propagated by terrible people to further their own goals and maintain power structures that serve the few, not the many. I learned to be wary of anyone trying to sell something.
Though I did pick up a few useful things in school. Early on, I learned about the concept of literary deconstruction and examining works of literature through various lenses to break them down and analyze them. It becomes increasingly difficult not to see the signposts all around when you apply a socialist or feminist bent to your observations. Our journey across the country in many ways acted as a highlight reel or slideshow for the United States as a whole. Our adventure was the best education I’ve had to date. Even as we traveled, social media and current events kept us plugged in, placing us everywhere and nowhere all at once. We directly witnessed so many different human interactions, and being removed from the geographic and cultural confines of the Rust Belt, the answers to questions weren’t as readily apparent. We were able to see the nation from so many different angles, applying the techniques of literary and cultural criticism through it all. It reaffirmed many of our beliefs, it also led us to question others. At the very least, our experience has given us newfound empathy for those we don’t always agree with, and renewed vigor in formulating our personal philosophies.
When considering our trip across the country, I was somewhat anxious about the kinds of encounters we were likely to have. Though not specifically because we were traveling through the South and Southwest, both of which I have a great affinity for. Despite its latitude, Pittsburgh is no stranger to color-coded exclusivity, sorely lacking in diversity, and a place where two men can feel free to degrade women over drinks in a stylish, downtown restaurant. Small-minded people exist everywhere, hobbling the progress of their communities like a nail in the sole of one’s shoe. However, the increasingly divisive current political landscape made me more apprehensive than any of the physical barriers we would cross on our way to the Pacific.
We are incredibly lucky. J and I are white and white(ish). We’re heterosexual. A same-sex couple, or one with a bit more melanin, might not have had the predominantly positive experience we had. The Negro Green Book may have ended publication in 1966, but the NAACP and the ACLU put out respective travel warnings for Missouri and Texas just last year. Perhaps it is because we are relatively unmarginalized that we feel emboldened to speak on behalf of those whose voices might be ignored, not as saviors, but as allies in a fight to secure all humans with equal rights. Perhaps we just can’t bring ourselves to suffer fools.
It is our inability to stay silent that can make it difficult to engage in polite conversation. I guess I just don’t find racism a civilized topic. In a hometown, you become familiar with those who endorse ideas you find to be revolting and steer clear. When traveling, each situation has the potential to turn sour. Though restaurant work has trained us to navigate tense situations with relative ease, the stress and constant change of a road trip have the potential to knock one off-balance.
Humans are far more complex than 280 characters can convey. We were welcomed into the home of strangers, the family of a friend, with very different leanings than our own. They were warm and funny and we talked at length over thoughtfully prepared meals. We may never agree on immigration policy, but it was easy to dispute respectfully when faced with such kindness. A tow-truck driver collected us in Nashville, handing us waters and helping me up into the cab. He too criticized immigrants, though with considerably less elegance. This time I was angered by the remarks, I still am, but I also feel the need to understand. Racism is taught. We are a product of our communities. I wonder if I would have more readily accepted the racism of my parents had I liked them more growing up. This isn’t an attempt at excusing the behavior, I in no way believe there are “some very fine people on both sides,” but it’s difficult to reconcile how we can be divided in the extreme when we all come from the same country.
More often we encountered the same illogical generosity I had never gotten over the first time I traveled America’s expanse. People are complicated, and reducing whole swaths of a population to two-dimensions makes you the simpleton. We met a Vegas bartender who told us she could never see herself doing something crazy like we were because she’d miss her mother too much. A sandwich maker in Louisville verbally impaled us with his sardonic wit. An Uber driver in San Antonio taught us about the German, Czech, and French immigrants whose influence still marks the city’s food and music. My feelings about the human condition remain unresolved. Ignorant cowards definitely exist, like the family chopping down namesake trees in Joshua Tree National Park, and I have a zero tolerance policy for such behavior. However, I do believe our similarities to be greater than our differences.
If I could do it all over, I would barely change a thing. Maybe a few of the sadder motels we stayed at. The more research you can squeeze in, before lift-off, the better. Just don’t get hung up on the launchpad. I loved each place we went to and would jump at the chance to hit each city again. Every moment was an unforgettable lecture or book unto itself. However, our time in Memphis, San Antonio, and Santa Fe was painfully short. It’s always good to leave audiences wanting more, but we barely had a taste of what those places could really offer. San Antonio, for starters, has some amazing bars that I would love to share with my partner. Beale Street in Memphis looked like just our kind of good time, and there were plenty of museums we simply didn’t have time for. Santa Fe, if it were any closer to other civilization, might be a place we would happily call home, but as it stands, it’s a fabulous place to visit, provided it’s for longer than a day. The desert, in all its permutations, is something we greatly enjoy and look forward to returning to.
Camping was initially a compromise I made with myself. Insurance that J would not veto winding through Utah because of the prohibitive cost of lodging. With a borrowed tent, a discount sleeping bag, and a pair of dowdy, yet exorbitantly priced hiking boots, I was as ready as I was going to be. Our circumstances were improved by the fact that it was my suggestion. Complaining wasn’t tolerated in my childhood home, and it’s a lesson that has stuck with me. As my confidant, J would usually be exempt from reaping the benefits of such an upbringing, but I couldn’t rightfully complain about something that was my idea.
There were some rough spots. Mostly, neither of us appreciates the other’s tendency to be a know-it-all and we both want to build the fire. In the end, camping with J turned out to be far more relaxing than the trips of my youth. A notorious night owl, I actually enjoyed getting an early start to the day. Writing in nature proved serene. I love the smell of a fire and cooking over one. J taught me how to spot planets, and we would search the unending night sky between swigs of whiskey.
As an Eagle Scout, J would go on week-long wilderness hikes which he still speaks of fondly. I don’t know if I’ll ever be interested in backpacking 100 miles, but I no longer think hiking a loop is just a painful way to end up back where you started. My initial apprehension over even a single night in a tent has dissipated. I find myself thinking about meals I’ll make on our next trip. We’ve already committed to going back to climb Guadalupe Peak. My hiking boots are every bit as ugly as they were when I removed them from their deceptively enticing Zappos wrapping, but they are light and in them, I feel agile and powerful.
It wasn’t too long ago that bartenders across the country would struggle to engage guests with gin. In the 90s, you could count the number of available gins in the United States on two hands. Most of us lost track a few years ago, around the 600 bottle mark. Mezcal, gose, and brandy are just some of the latest iterations of focus in a never-ending struggle to get guests into what bartenders like to get buzzed on.
For one reason or another, there will always be spirits that are a non-starter with guests. It was a point of pride to be able to steer a resistant imbiber into a glass of Dutch courage. More often than not, folks find they are being overly fussy and obstinate, sometimes willfully ignorant, resisting something they would soon find they actually enjoy. It has been said that for every converted gin (or sotol, aquavit, mead, pear eau-de-vie…) drinker, a bartender receives their wings.
Y was highly skeptical of the camping portions of our trip before we set out, and her couture sensibilities left her less than enthused when her hiking boots arrived. The expression on her face when I recounted adventures in the woods was not building a great deal of confidence. Flashbacks of nightmare campers in Scouts haunted my thoughts. I was more nervous about camping together than Y knew. Early parts of the trip spent in our little blue tent were far from the experiences of my youth, and with questionable skill and tenderness, I attempted to stoke the fires of Y’s enthusiasm.
Before our trip had begun, the thought of camping was something she had balked at. By the end of the trip she was more than capable of handling a weekend in the woods, even excited to do so. As an Eagle Scout, it was especially rewarding to share something I love with my partner, and even more so to see their passion for it increase throughout the trip. It felt like a bonus merit badge, maybe the most important one I have.