The Road to Alaska: Mountains Are a Distant Dream

June 3rd

Hello Ohio

Ohio is still there, where I left it, holy smokes, fourteen years ago. Cleveland was good to me (Cutler, represent!), but then I’m a middle class white kid and I was going to college, so it would have been, wouldn’t it? The Ohio turnpike remains under construction, that will be a constant until the end of time. The sky is big over Ohio, but it is so close and the exits on the highway so familiar that it doesn’t amaze or awe. I've been to Ohio many times. It's just the sky.

The first day of the journey is especially long. Our first stop was in Pittsburgh (well, not our first, first stop — that was for caffeine in the truck stop capital of the mid-Atlantic: Breezewood, PA) to meet up with a friend who would have gone on this journey had it not been for his pesky income-acquisition habit. We pick up some of his equipment — even if he wasn’t going, his stuff damn sure would. He lends us a tent, a camp stove (that we will never use ), and some propane (that we will have to throw away at the airport - sorry, Chris), and a GoPro. I am eager to attempt mad things with this camera and the suction cup mount that can supposedly withstand the kind of airflow that comes at the little camera at 150 mph, a speed the Subaru doesn't bother to acknowledge on the speedometer. A lack of any obvious way prevent this thing, which, you know, does not belong to me, from falling off at speed means I will have to resign myself to footage of the journey shot from inside the car, a minor blow to my hopes in the moving images department.

I have since solved that problem.

I have since solved that problem.

Chris treats us to a proper breakfast at a foodie joint after giving us the gear. His place of income-acquisition is in a fast gentrifying part of Pittsburgh. You can tell because of the foodie joints and the several robotics companies (those Carnegie kids, I tell ya) who call this part of town hme. We can't linger over breakfast as much as we would like: we have to get to Chicago today. That means surviving hundreds of miles of good old fashioned American highway, enduring the idiotic toll situation around Chicagoland, and surviving the occasional rolling tire fire. Not on the Subaru. That truck driver either didn’t know about the tire smoldering away on his rear axle or he just knew he wasn’t going to be able to do anything about it and trundled on at roughly the same speed Eric was managing (without the benefit of cruise control - Eric is a pro). For a lot of miles on that Ohio turnpike, too many, I was afraid some flaming tire fragments would whip into the windshield and kill the whole trip before we even managed to make it through three states, let alone cross an international border.

3800 miles in 6 days works out to 633 miles a day. Chicago lies 120 miles beyond that magic number. It's hardly overkill to make Chicago the goal. The reality of trip planning is that settlements and campgrounds don’t magically appear at or near your daily average. When I went thru-hiking for the first time in Shenandoah National Park on the Appalachian Trail, I learned this lesson in a very physical way. Make a mistake on the AT and your 12 mile day turns into a 20 mile day and maybe it turns out you didn't pack enough food. My feet and my bones and my stomach have internalized the lesson: forget that 633 number, give me a destination. Even though the plan was to camp out of the car through the whole trip, Chicago is a big damn target, sure to have the kind of amenities that can take the sting out of a long Day 1. Besides, there are some spectacular buildings and a nice lake, so it’s not a bad way to shake the rust off my photography skills. So we conquer Washington, DC to Chicago, IL on Day 1, 20% of the trip in one big gulp.

Wasn't too windy on this particular day

2010-2014: The Wandering Interregnum

I parted ways with my 2008 Honda Fit Sport (El Jefe, or the Jeff, if you’re into that whimsy thing) when I left Houston and the safety of my staff position at the Alley Theatre for the Big Apple in 2010. By Big Apple, I mean the greater New York City metropolitan area. I could not afford to live in the five boroughs. I lived in near good old Journal Square in the, uh, ethnic part of Jersey City, not the Goldman Sachs part. I was an angry young man at the time. I was doing my damnedest to “make it” by being poor and crying out for any theatre to exploit my labor, any theatre at all. I slept on the couch of a two bedroom apartment shared by one of my best friends and his sister. I was not the best roommate in the history of the world. But we were all in it together and they are generous people. I will be eternally gratefully to both of them for tolerating me during this difficult period. I had no idea what I was doing, just an urgent sense that I needed to do something.

After six months, only one theatre had exploited me, and Macy's, which hardly feels like a victory. My bank account told me that it was time to change course. Freelancing for a living in New York as a lighting and projection guy felt like a massive defeat for reasons that I am only now able to articulate. I can say for certain that It felt like a betrayal at the time, so I did not pursue that option. It was utterly irrational but it happened. I latched onto a show as an assistant stage manager because the ASM on the show I was running was the production stage manager at this theatre and she was willing to drive us both up to Vermont and they were desperate for a warm body. I could still manage that, even after a frigid winter in NYC. 

Since I didn't have a car or any spare wealth for riding in taxis (we're talking pre-Uber Big Apple), I walked everywhere when I lived in New York. The only mass transit plan I could afford was the PATH train and that’s really only because the pesky Hudson river demanded it. I can’t, as it turns out, walk on water. Shame. It would have saved me a few bucks. I never made it out to Brooklyn or Queens when I lived in Journal Square, but I walked the shit out of every part of Manhattan south of 59th St. My daily commute while I worked this show at 59E59 (a theatre on you’ll never guess what street), was to walk the three quarters of a mile to the Journal Square PATH, hop off at Herald Square (where Macy's is), that’s 34th St and 6th Ave, pound the long blocks over to Lexington Ave and leg it up the remaining 26 blocks to the theatre. I walked past the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, and the Waldorf-Astoria every day in February and March, 8 shows a week. Florence+the Machine’s Lungs will forever remind me of humping the streets of a city that I really love, even if did not give even the slightest shit about me. 

I decamped to Vermont after that show, as I alluded to earlier, and even then, in that rural corner of America where Vermont meets New Hampshire, I walked everywhere. I remember walking from White River Junction, VT to Hanover, NH (where Dartmouth is located), on the side of scarily narrow state roads. “It’s only 5 miles, “ I thought. When I finally found a trailhead that Google Maps said would let me leave the scary roads, I discovered the most obvious bloody thing in the world that I managed to completely forget: a trail in New Hampshire in March will be covered in a thick pack of snow. I walked the trail anyway. I made strange choices back then. 

After that show closed, I looked for a job back in the lighting world, any old job. This took me to Actors Theatre of Louisville, a great theatre that did not pay me enough moola to afford a car. It was barely enough for school loans and rent and food. I was really angry at myself and the world for having a fall back plan and using it (sorry guys). There has never been any chance that anyone in New York was going to help me become any kind of director. I was resolved not to know that at the time, so enduring in NYC that winter was not the worst decision I’ve ever made, it was necessary for me to try and to tail. It’s worked out since then. But I still taste bitter medicine.

ATL did not pay me enough (less than $20,000 net for the entire season), so it was time to move again. I have family in Ellicott City and there are loads of theatres in Washington, DC. I moved in with my sister for a summer and then my aunt and uncle and my grandmother in 2012. It was not yet my time to enter the gig economy, instead I found work as the Harman Electrician for Shakespeare Theatre Company. In the DC metro area, a car is a necessity for those of us in theatre who usually can't afford to live buy ourselves, or in my case, to afford rent all. The Subaru was only meant as a tool for what the Germans call pendeln, which is, you guessed it, derived from a description of the motion of a pendulum. That's more evocative than “commuting,” at least to this Germanophile, since it carries that sense of BOREDOM that comes from swinging back and forth regularly between specific and predictable locations. 

I moved to DC with an inchoate sense that the DC theatre scene was more open to new blood than New York and that it was easier to be a hyphenate, to cross over from being a technician to a creative. That part was wishful thinking (it might be easier to cross over John Edwards style, tbh), but DC theatre is definitely more welcoming than New York, I’ll say that. That creative thing remains a work in progress. Truth be told, the best reason I can give for driving to Alaska is that I wanted to shout to the world that I am here and that my voice can be one note in the chorus of humanity’s struggle to explain itself to itself and that I was done seeking anyone's permission for that.