Over the past few weeks, I’ve become a big fan of sleeping in state parks. They’re usually cheap, relatively nice, and conveniently located near towns or along two-lane roads. The most common phrase in my Google maps is “campgrounds near…”
This afternoon I made a nine-hour journey from Northern Missouri to the Texas-Oklahoma border. One of my Google searches led me to a state park on the aptly named Lake Texoma, which sits on the border an hour north of Dallas.
I pulled into the campground shortly after six and was greeted by a fifty-something park volunteer. After a brief introduction, she noticed my Massachusetts license plate. “Wow, you’ve come a long ways.” Her eyes lit up. I nodded and told her where I’d been and the rough plan for where I was heading next.
“I did a trip like that once,” she told me, thrilled to have found a kindred spirit. “I’m from Pennsylvania, but when I graduated high school, I had a craving to see the country. I gathered my savings and took off. I ran out of money in Texas, and I’ve lived here ever since.”
Just like that. No plans, no family, no friends. I hid my astonishment. There is a good degree of spontaneity in my travels, but nothing like that. I’ve been planning this trip for months. I have a tentative schedule and a family to return to.
We talked a few minutes longer, sharing stories from the road. When I got into my car to drive to my site, she called out, “what are you cooking tonight?”
“Mac and cheese.” PB&Js, goldfish, and apples make up the core of my current diet.
“Do you like vegetables?”
I couldn’t tell if this was some sort of test – a motherly warning to keep up my nourishment while I’m traveling. “I try to eat as many as I can.”
“Take this soup. It’s still hot.” She handed me a Tupperware container. I tried to protest, but she would have none of it, and really if you spend enough time on the road, hot soup is impossible to turn down.
As I ate the soup, my thoughts turned to the volunteer. Her experience terrified me. Not so much the being broke part, but the not knowing. How had she taken this cross-country trip without knowing what she was going back to? How had she managed to spend all of her money thousands of miles from home?
One of the most surprising findings of my journey so far is that nearly all of the people I’ve interviewed have gone into their jobs without knowing what job would come next. When they’ve found the most happiness, it’s been at times when they’re not actively climbing a ladder or looking toward a distant promotion. It’s been at times, when they’re invested in the present.
When Geoff Chapin ’96 moved from San Francisco to Boston in 2008 to start a company, he didn’t think about what would happen if he failed. For months, he slept in the office to save on rent and operated the company out of his own dwindling savings account.
When Carissa Carter ’04 left Geology graduate school in order to attend design school after only taking a handful of art classes at Williams, she didn’t think about how she would get hired after graduating.
It’s been easier for me to listen to these stories – these “success” stories – and romanticize the not-knowing they involved. Many of the people I’ve talked to will tell you that they’re not necessarily “successes” – that they still have doubts and fears, that they’re still learning and striving and failing.
Failure is an essential component of not-knowing, but it’s easier to think of failure in the abstract. What about failure in terms of “I ran out of money in Texas so that’s where I ended up.”
I’m realizing more and more that I am in some ways terrified of failure. I think a lot of us are. Here I am taking what some people would call this big risk – I left a high-paying, stable job to travel the country, sleep in state parks, and eat Mac and Cheese dinners. But while part of my motivation for the trip was to explore and expand my narrow worldview, I’m finding it really difficult not to think about what’s going to come next. On lonely nights or tough drives, I find myself thinking ahead to December when the trip will end. I have to actively pull myself into the present.
It’s hard to not know what’s next. For Williams students, there has pretty much always been a next step. We’re always working towards some goal – getting into college, acing the next test, getting a job. It’s hard to step back from that. Even going against the grain, there is pressure to have a plan, to strategize every step of the way.
I guess one of the big lessons of the trip, a lesson I’m really struggling to learn, is that it’s ok not to know. Maybe ending up broke in Texas is a bit extreme, but the example holds. The woman at the park didn’t starve; her life didn’t stop. She got a job and started over. Trusting yourself enough to pick up the pieces when the unexpected happens is a valuable trait. Hopefully a little piece of the Texas park ranger rubs off on me.