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A Big Sky State of Mind

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“Imaginary flirtations with the second amazing waitress of the day float through my mind as we drive home for the night, a bleak country-sized horizon lit up by the high-beams. I feel lucky.”

Today a friend told me that it seemed like I “had just totally thrown [my] hands in the air” when we met this past spring, a few short weeks before I jumped on a train bound for Montana. I really didn’t have any clue what I was doing. I’d just quit my job, had again liquidated much of my stuff and lugged the remnants to my parents’ place, and was looking to find a change of scenery. I imagined my week-long expedition would be accompanied by some sort of life-changing revelation; majestic scenery seems to have that effect on people in the movies. But after the trip, “imaginary” was the only word that kept returning to me: Imaginary was the playful interaction that occurred in my mind with many of the trip’s great wait-staff, and imaginary was the role that I didn’t realize I was playing, until I recognized that I’d been playing it all along. I was living in a dream world.

The truth is: I do feel lucky. I got to spend a considerable amount of time with a friend and learned plenty about her that I didn’t the first time around. About five years after we’d last seen each other, we had both changed, but despite moving in our separate directions I think we shared something that many people are experiencing right now: A commonality of wanting to feel like there’s a purpose in our lives, yet little real understanding of what it might be.

During my trip I wrote and wrote and wrote about meals and people and places as though they were being experienced through the eyes of someone who has important things to say about meals and people and places. There were the tired North Dakota laborers in various states of buzz who were heading to Idaho for a week-long break from the rigors of a booming oil-scene; the aging bartender in Butte who left Seattle many years ago after fearing for the safety of her children (making the baseball-bat wielding street gang that we saw in town seem that much more ironic); the friend of a friend who said goodbye to me with a warm hug; a bartender at Bozeman’s Crystal Bar who explained that the rather imposing field goal that stood over us was from 2006 when the Bobcats beat the Grizzlies (Me: “How long’s this place been open?” Him: “Since about ten this morning”); and the various other people along the way, all friendly, all willing to share something of themselves. But the collection of words just didn’t feel like it left me with that life-changing experience that I’d been daydreaming of.

Driving back across the flyover states, there was a point in Deadwood, South Dakota where a couple drew up a spot next to where my friend and I were sitting. They were a little drunk, a little too handsy, and a little too obvious about their intentions. They said some rather stupid things (and maybe a few hurtful things too), but rather than blowing them off, something stuck with me that defined part of my experience. Even if only for a moment, I wanted to be them: I wanted to be able to be rightfully cocky about my appearance; I wanted to have someone wrapped around my arm who was brag-worthy; I wanted to feel what all of that feels like. Throughout the trip I pestered my friend with a torrent of questions about her life, maybe if only to continue talking about myself, and somewhere along the way I asked her if she ever wanted to be anyone else. She said no. I didn’t get around to responding to my own question (maybe because she’d long since discovered the pending threat of self-centered speculation every time she returned the volley), but my answer was yes.

For the longest time I’ve imagined being other people. Completely oblivious to their problems — many of which likely outweigh my own — I would dream about what it’d be like to have that life and not this life, as though there’s something terrible about what I have. But all the while I never really seemed to have the dedication to begin the transformation from one life into the next, or to overcome what someone else might have had to in order to achieve their outlook, physical health, appearance, or social status. And I’m not talking extremes here either: the stuff that I don’t do typically comes down to things as simple as avoiding eating too much junk food, exercising regularly, or just socializing every now and then. The reality isn’t that I can’t be like those two crab-walking assholes, but that I can always change if that’s what I really want to be.

“If you’re ever passing through Bozeman, the jalapeño, guacamole, and chipotle buffalo burger at Ted Turner’s Montana Grill is easily one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Ask for Kelsey. A few doors down, at Burger Bob’s, I’d recommend the spectacularly crunchy waffle fries which are meant to play a supporting role to another good, if not basic, burger: one half of a bun bedding the patty while the other bears a handful of veggies arranged as though the meal itself were as happy to be eaten as you might be to eat it.”

At the time I started writing this a few months back I concluded that, “Now my next step is leaping into a life that likely won’t exist the way I still imagine it to, but if the move is anything like the last few times I’ve tried starting ‘a new life’ I’ll be likely to find out something about myself that I didn’t even know I was looking for.” Despite the decision paralysis that followed my ventures to and through Montana, Iowa, and Missouri, I woke up one day and forced a move that would return me to Nashville.

I didn’t know how to make it work, but rather than imagining all the different ways it could work out without pursuing any of them, I hounded Craigslist ads until I found someone who would let me live with them. Then, instead of imagining what it’d be like to move back across the country, I rented a truck and drove my stuff from Minnesota to Tennessee. Then, once I landed, instead of imagining what it’d be like if I had a place of my own again, I put out more inquiries, eventually landing a roomier spot at my old apartment building. Then I rented another truck, secured some furniture, and with the help of some of my best friends, moved my ass up three flights of stairs and into my new home. And now I’m finishing this blog post, not just letting it sit as a rough draft, imagining all the different ways that it could play out while the emotions and memories continue to fade into the past.

As Kurt Vonnegut once said, “A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction.” About five months ago I quit the job that I had first left Nashville to pursue, and even though it took untold emotional struggle and over 4000 miles to find my way back to the city, I’m quite literally a stronger person for it. I couldn’t have done so if I hadn’t taken that first step, and I couldn’t have done it without friends and family, but even more pressing: I would never have made it here without letting the imagination slide and actually committing. I don’t want to be like that pair of idiots we ran into in Deadwood, but I don’t want the life I had when I first left Nashville either. The goal now is to stop imagining and keep committing until the person in the mirror matches the person I want to see looking back at me. I guess that life-changing revelation I was seeking just took a little while to sink in.