I’ve always wondered about the idea of freedom in America. Sure, we have our rights, outlined throughout the constitution that define us as a free nation, a society free of oppression. However, I think that society has slowly become the oppressor. Standards and expectations rule our young people into preset ideals like cattle in a chute, and even in our modern, progressive world, success remains a monetary value. We’re still ushered into suits, into cubicles, and told that our success depends on the number on our checks.
My dad (a great dad, have you) and his family don’t view my travel life as a success, because I don’t yet own a home. I’ve never been paid a salary. I’ve never started a savings account, or settled down with someone. Other alumni from my university biology program ask me if I’m still “playing around” or if I’ve “gotten a real job yet?” I know that what I’m doing isn’t societally accepted in many circles. Yet, there are these times where it all seems to be validated. Everything I’m doing comes to climactic fruition and my heart, mind and soul swell with overwhelming pride. I live for those moments, they come to me like the peaks on a heartbeat monitor. Each one brings me new life and shuts all the negative voices out. I still remember the very first one.
In March of 2007, a tornado hit my high school. A wall 15-20 feet from me collapsed and killed eight students, seven of which I was friends with. Our classes were moved to the local community college and our high school schedule was sporadic and unorthodox. I was raised in the outdoors, but really began to dedicate myself to the outdoor world around that time. I saw each adventure as another tally on the things I did before I died, because who knew when a wall would collapse and I wouldn’t be here. Sounds dramatic, but I remember those thoughts at the time. Now, only love pulls me farther and farther into this nomadic life.
I started kayaking, archery hunting, trail running, and climbing every chance I got and slipped away from my friends playing video games,watching tv, and getting drunk on the weekends. I ostracized myself from all that I had known with all that I now knew. While, everyone else was applying for schools close to home, I was applying for schools all over the country, anywhere I could go that wasn’t there. I would be made fun of because I was different, and doing different things. Slowly, all of the friends I once had, stopped inviting me places. Before I even got out of high school, society was frowning on my adventurous lifestyle.
On May 31, 2008 I walked across the stage at high school graduation, and on June 6, 2008 I left home for the first time as an adult. My little, black 1993 Mazda MX-3 was loaded down with my 9.5ft blue kayak on top, and my red mountain bike hanging off the back. The back seat was folded down and the car was filled to the hatchback window. I left small town Alabama with my mom red faced and sobbing in the middle of the street. Her silhouette in the early morning reflection of the wet asphalt was the last thing I saw in the rear view.
I traveled up the east coast to Virginia. I spent time visiting old friends near Virginia Beach and then drove west into the Appalachians. I fly fished on the Jackson River and traced footsteps of my childhood into Douthat State park and Summersville Lake, WV. I cowered in my tent while Midwest thunderstorms raged over Indiana. I kayaked parts of the Mississippi River near Davenport, IA and finally found myself snaking below the granite spires of the Black Hills, SD. I had a job lined up to spray invasive, non-native weeds for the Forest Services in South Dakota, Wyoming and North Dakota. I was ecstatic to be in charge of myself and was enjoying the challenges of learning how to live alone. I spent my free time fly fishing, rock climbing and mountain biking around the Black Hills. I was loving this new way of experiencing life.
However, I was working every day, and I was at the mercy of my boss and my crew as to whether I would get free time. I was expecting so much freedom but was experiencing only 80 hour work weeks and not much play. My grandpa’s 70th birthday was fast approaching and I caught wind that my older brother was driving back home from Salt Lake City for the momentous day. I told my boss I was taking the week off and I headed south. I had left home three months prior but here I was, loading the Mazda down again and pounding out miles with little sleep and copious coffee stops. At home, I found my friends right where I left them. They were taking the last summer before college or the military to relax, party, and made jokes about me leaving. My endeavors were still too foreign to understand. The days at home blew by and in no time my wheels were reversed and I was climbing back up the country, northbound.
On the second day of straight driving I was crossing the plains of South Dakota. Life in the vast lane. The world is simple there, split only in two, one half is sky, the other is perpetuating mosaics of browns, greens, and tans. Driving across the plains clears the mind of all concentrations. All that exists is room for thought and reflection. In the depths of introspection an epiphany changed the way I’ve looked at life ever since.
Freedom is the ability to have an idea, and fulfill it without obstruction. Freedom isn’t just an opportunity, it’s an option. Freedom is having the option to experience something new, and choosing it. Somewhere in between Badlands National Park and the Black Hills, I followed the arrow on a “Scenic Overlook” sign. My Mazda came to a stop in a small culdesac pullout along interstate 90.
The wind was brisk for August. Carried on the wind was a wall of dark clouds, charging across the distant fields of native prairie grass. Sun shone through the hazy clouds behind me and clashed with the shadows of the storm in a swirl of deep, saturated blues and bright, washed out yellows. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the cool breeze, I could feel the warmth of the sun on my back and feel the mist of the rain on my face. I was here because I chose to be, and for once I was choosing my own path to happiness. Happiness was seeing my grandfather for his 70th birthday. I could’ve let my fear of taking time off, my fear of driving 50 hours round trip, my fear of spending money and my fear of judgement stop me but instead I chose happiness. I chose it’s triumph. I was proud, I felt warm and my heart swooned over the adventure, however minuscule it seems now.
I’ve traveled across the country over 30 times now. I’ve felt that overwhelming warm feeling of gratitude and pride more times than I can remember. It always comes at times where I realize that what I’m doing may be societally erroneous, but it’s personally gratifying. Personal gratification is a concept that many of my peers have neglected in life. Actions are carried out through the eyes of others and people began to lose sight of what it is that makes them happy. Every time I pass that scenic overlook I’m reminded that freedom, isn’t just a clause in the constitution, it’s a decision we make every day. The decision to live life through my own vision and the decision to redefine success on my own terms. Standing there, eyes closed, and the world whizzing by around me, I discovered what makes me happy and I haven’t stopped chasing that feeling ever since.