I was always the guy with big plans. The crazy dreamer – that was me.
Every summer of college I was drumming up big, gratuitously
unrealistic, impossible ways to go on adventures. The summer of
freshmen year, it was something relatively tame. I emailed my two best
friends from the basement of the school library.
Freshman summer. Email #1: Surfing.
“You guys! How about surfing in Puerto Rico all summer? Duncan (our
stoner friend-turned-medical-student-genius) was telling me we could
get super cheap tickets to PR. We could grab cheap tickets, go down,
rent a shack, surf and – I don’t know – run a popsicle stand to make
“None of us know how to surf, moron. And you need money more than I
do. Don’t be an idiot.”
Yeah, the money thing was a problem. Summer for us that year was
working in the lumberyard, starting everyday at 5am. Our dads loved
it. To them, we were learning “the value of a dollar.” For our part,
we were learning that we hated manual labor – and to not stand across
from Joel when he had the nail gun.
Ok, so we needed money. Check. That would factor into next summer’s plans.
Sophomore summer. Email #2: Cruise ship.
“Dudes! Found this cool site (I probably inserted some bogus link
here) that has openings to work on a cruise ship all summer!
Sweeeeeet. We could be the band! Or we could do the sound for the
band. Check it out – we could sail around all summer and make tons of
cash! Who’s in??”
Response (literally read like this):
“Liebing – Don’t be a @#$%ing idiot.”
That summer was back to the lumberyard. Shit.
Junior summer. Email #3: The Yukon.
“Dudes. One word. THE YUKON. Seriously! Alaskan fishing boats. Ok, we
might die, but tons of money! We could make like 10 grand in a summer.
It’d be hardcore! Who’s in??”
“THE YUKON is two words moron.”
Senior summer. There was no email number four.
And summer #4 was no ordinary one for me. I’d given up on trying to
get my friends to come along. They weren’t coming. And that made me
sad. But it was time for me to stop dreaming and start doing.
It was time to get gone.
1 month later…
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. No. Clue. So I just
started laying stuff out on my bed:
Passport. Credit cards – two of them…(each with about a $5 credit
limit). Vitamins. Probiotics. Flashlight (you never know). Shaving
kit. Contact solution – the small bottle. Sandals, shoes, a belt.
Moleskine notebook. A bunch of pens. Camera? Didn’t have a camera
yet…would get one when I got there. Knife. Did I need a knife? Yeah,
I was taking it. I’d have to check it. Fine.
Letter from my parents. Picture of the family. Make that two. A couple
good books. Wished I could take more, but couldn’t. Where’d I put my
backpack?? Got it. Shoved the laptop and case inside. Put a t-shirt
behind it for cushioning. Snacks. Did I want snacks? The plane ride
was going to be a bastard – 16 hours. Yeah, snacks. A pack of gummy
worms and chocolate covered raisins. Raisins…healthy. Right.
My watch. The latest issue of National Geographic. My trusty old
clickwheel iPod. Headphones. My lucky hat.
Flight’s in two hours. Shit.
Time to go.
The first time is like breaking up. It sucks. It’s nothing but pure
sadness and a gut-wrenching pit of withering fear. But you feel a
great freedom lurking…just around the corner. You feel the pull of
the great unknown. And you almost feel guilty for wanting it.
Your family all goes with you to the gate, as far as they can. It’s a
long walk filled with the silence of all the one-last-things you want
to say to everybody – but it’s all been talked out. And now it’s here.
Now, there’s not much to do but smile and hug your Mom as she cries
and tries not to. You’d cry too – you want like hell to cry, and your
whole body is shaking with nerves and adrenaline and the
bittersweetness of the goodbyes that are long ones. But you can’t cry.
You’ve got to be the strong one. You’ve got to be the one heading into
the grey, upright and unafraid.
So you kiss your Mom and hug your dad as he gets misty-eyed and just
squeezes you – not in a father-to-son hug, but in a man-to-man grip of
strength – and whispers, with all the earnestness and honesty there
ever was in the entire world, “Hey. I love you. I’m proud of you.”
And this is when you really want to lose it. You want to get back in
the car with Mom and Dad and go home and sit on the living room floor
and watch a movie with everybody and get in a fight about who’s taking
who to basketball practice. You want to argue about curfew and get mad
at your Mom for not giving you enough of a heads up about your little
sister’s piano recital. You want desperately to tell your dad that you
are terrified and scared. “Just tell me what to do dad, just tell me
what to do,” you want to say. But you’ve had this conversation before.
Dad can’t tell you what to do. And even if he wanted to, he wouldn’t.
You’re not his little boy any more. You’re his grown son. Your dad has
trained you well – has made you a man. And now, the time has come to
do one of those things men do. The time has come to go forth.
So you clear your throat, squeeze your dad back, grab the little
sisters in a bear hug, crack a joke to break up the weepery, and give
your little brother (who’s about 5 inches taller than you now) a bro
hug and tell him to get a dunk in for you this season in basketball,
and that you’re sorry you’re going to miss it. And you really are. But
he’s a man too now. So you both smile, and suddenly you remember that
the bonds here run deep and thick and strong.
You ease away and backpedal as far as you can. You get through
security, look back, and give one last wave, a big ol’ smile, and
throw up the peace sign. Your mom is a wreck.
And then you turn the shoulder…slowly, agonizingly, almost
unwillingly. You feel like you’re breaking the law or something, just
leaving like this. Something seems…off. But you jostle your backpack
up on your shoulder. You straighten up and look ahead. You walk
straight. You don’t look back.
And that’s it.
The sadness clears in the crowded, bleached corridors of the airport.
You’re still fighting down the lump in your throat, but now it’s made
from adrenaline. You’re buzzing. You’re tired because you didn’t sleep
at all the night before – too many things flying through your skull –
but you’re wide awake, and alert, and feel like you could probably
wrestle a lion – and win – right about now. You hit the convenient
store, grab a pack of gum and the latest issue of Rolling Stone to
pass the time. You find your gate. Shockingly, you’re somehow 45
minutes early. You take to the sterile leather chair next to some
chick who looks like she’s about 40 years late for Woodstock, and you
try to stay cool and look like you’ve done this a time or two. Now,
you’re just plain stoked.
You wake up in an oblivious cold-sweat panic half way over the
Pacific. What the…Where the @#$% am I?! Your mind blitzes. The
plane’s dark and everyone else is asleep except for the toddler across
the aisle, gaping wide-eyed at you like you’re a possesed wolfman,
with the pacifier dangling out his mouth from that little
shirt-clip-thingy they all have. You stare back at him, equally
confused. Why is that little nut still staring at me? You feel
paranoid. You wipe the drool off your cheek and take a breathe. You
try to relax. Calm down, calm down. You’re good, you’re good. Long
You lean back with a lot of careful effort to look collected. You go
back to woozing in and out of sleep and in and out of big thoughts and
daydreams and nervous anticipation. You feel like you’re walking the
green mile. You want it to get there, and yet a part of you doesn’t
ever want to leave this airplane; suspended here in the stratosphere,
somewhere in between reality and clouds. You stare out the window at
the empty black sky.
The wheels come down. The big hunk of flying metal takes that jolting
bounce, and glides for a second…
Then rubber hits tarmac and that satanic rush of air erupts like a
slap in the face as the wheels hit and the brakes squeeze for all
their might and you go from about 7 gazillion to 30 in three seconds.
Everyone relaxes. Backs crack. Kids wake up. The ladies get out their
The no-smoking light blinks, the bell dings, you pull into the
gate…the lights come on. You look outside. Oh geez. Oh geeeez. What
am I doing?
The subdued bustle ensues as everyone tries to maintain some shred of
dignity and humane civility, while simultaneously raging with the
impatient delirium that allows you to think about one thing and one
thing only: getting off the damn plane as fast as humanly possible.
Outside is a new country. A new place. A new language…new faces, new
friends, new people who don’t give half a rat’s ass about you. New
people who you don’t even know yet, but people who will become
lifelong friends; dear brothers and sisters amid the bizarre world of
comings and goings and passports and places.
You clear customs, mind in a tizzy, head on a spin. People ahead of
you get through the tunnel and grab loved ones or wives or girlfriends
or kids, and laugh and hug and cry. The businessmen whip out the
blackberries and scurry to the town cars waiting outside. But no one’s
waiting for you. No one except the guy in a wrinkled suit with a piece
of cardboard with your name written on it in Sharpie. Is this the guy
they said is supposed to pick me up? They said there’d be a guy. He
spelled my name wrong. Oh well. This must be the guy…
You head straight for him. Your mind clicks on, and immediately revs
to one-hundred percent. Every nerve ending, every feeling from alert
caution to friendly warmth switches on – just like it’s supposed to.
You crack a big, tired smile, and now he smiles back. You stretch out
It was time to hit the ground running. It was time to start making
snap decisions and figuring everything out for myself. Everything.
Because there was no one to figure it out for me. It was time to tuck
old friends away; just a little bit, just for a while. It was time to
remember who I loved – and then forget about them all at the same
time. Home was a long ways away, and I wasn’t going to see it for a
hell of a long while. It was time to get going.