I’m coming up on the end of my third week here in Boston, finishing out my first full week of work and getting to know my roommates, 3 very different people.
So far, Boston still feels pregnant with endless opportunities. I’ve never found a job so quickly upon arriving in a city, and in fact I had 2 different ones to choose from. I picked the one that set me right in the heart of downtown Boston because I like having the contrasting experience of the city, working in the Financial District and living in a Coed Hive.
Already, the conversations I’ve had or been party to have illuminated my reasons for doing this project. I’m surrounded by people in their late teens to early twenties, that age when uncertainty about and anticipation for the future are measured in equal doses. Plans are being made, most of which will be abandoned within the next 4 years, if not the next 4 weeks.
The College Years are massively important (even if their ratings stink) and I’ve always said that if it weren’t for the 4 years I spent at Kansas University I wouldn’t be doing this project. That’s not to say that the education I received at KU was all that important to 10 Cities, only that those years of percolating in that environment helped develop the kind of person who could spend a decade of his life traveling the country on his own volition.
Now I listen to the college students and recent graduates around me discuss their future, and it takes me back to my early days when the idea of being homeless for 10 years was a joke I made because I had no idea what I wanted to do. The future is big for these kids (if you’re in college, you’re still a kid). But they’re all coming into their twenties with different backgrounds. There was a girl who has already spent half a decade living in various parts of Europe. Countless others have backpacked Europe or Asia (because most of the Boston universities are expensive, the students here tend to come from money).
And then there was the girl (in her mid-20s) who said she can’t wait to be 60 so she can retire and see the world.
Travel is the common theme. Everyone wants to do it, and the idea of bouncing from country to country has developed such a romantic aura that the vague idea of it has come to represent success the way owning a house and having 2.5 kids once did. Even those who want the house and family still hope that visiting foreign lands fits into the grand plan somewhere.
Great. Travel is an important educational experience. You can be a perfectly healthy, intelligent, good person and never leave your hometown, but there will be a massive hole in your development as a human being. Getting out of the nest is fundamental to expanding your mind. It’s possible to know something without understanding it. Similarly, a college education is vital for placing the world you inhabit within the larger context of history. I don’t believe anyone’s education is complete without both worldly experiences and classical teaching.
Unfortunately, travel and college are expensive. The Trustfund Kid gets to backpack Europe on their daddy’s credit cards and everyone else just has to look at their pictures on Facebook. I know, I was one of those kids jealousy watching my friends spend semesters in Italy, France or Japan. I looked into studying abroad, but the money just never appeared (if I had been more gung-ho about my education, I likely could have made it work).
Sadly, for many of us, the choice is between college or travel. And for far too many neither is an option.
Which is why I do this project the way I do it, 10 U.S. cities over 10 years. When Kerouac was first published, he awakened a travel lust that had been dormant in this country. In Post-War America, a return to normalcy had meant getting a job, marrying a beautiful girl and having children. Fear of Communists, Nazis and other intangible Enemies Outside* led the country to embrace a strict ideal of Normal. When Kerouac and the Beats appeared on the scene in the late 50s, it resonated with a population that had been gnawing at its leash.
Now, 65 years later, the Beatniks are dead, some in this generation have never even heard of Keroauc or On The Road, and when people talk about travel they mean pictures in front of Big Ben and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or if they’re more adventurous, smoking pot in Amsterdam and teaching English in Thailand. That’s not to say that those aren’t excellent travel destinations, I hope to hit them all some day, too. But such excursions are prohibitively expensive, and even if a person finds a way to see the world on the cheap, it requires drastically re-imagining their life. Travel in itself becomes the occupation.
As a teenager I was inspired by Kerouac, both as a writer and a traveler (though I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any of his literary influence in my writing). However, when I embarked on my own Beat-esque lifestyle, I didn’t set out to create a story for the aimless wanderers who don’t need any inspiration to travel. I wanted to gain experience, to augment my classical education with real-world experience. Joining up with a group of strangers in Mumbai or visiting the location of Auschwitz are excellent worldly experiences, but there are unique lives going on all around us in the cities we inhabit.
Europe and Asia are so exotic to us in America that we forget this nation used to be the great, final frontier. There are good reasons to get outside the boundaries of the United States, but don’t believe the naysayers who say we’re just a homogenized nation of Mass Produced Pod People. The U.S. is nicknamed the Melting Pot, and for good reason. No other nation in the world compares when it comes to diversity. When morons recently got upset about Miss America being Indian, the only proper response was to laugh. If your picture of a True American is a white girl with blonde hair, you need to move to a city.
Most of this nation’s population exists within the major metropolises, where whites, blacks, Mexicans, Indians, Jews, Arabs and every other nationality, race and religion are represented.
The United States offers a cornucopia of worldly expenses, but the other great reason to travel this country is because you can do it on the cheap. Yes, Boston is expensive, but I relocated nearly 2,000 miles for under $3000, and I could have done it for less than $2000 if I hadn’t chosen to rent a car and be a tourist. That’s 2 iPhone upgrades and a couple months of Starbucks lattes. Moving to a new city within the U.S. is doable for almost anyone.
And I do mean move. I absolutely believe that everyone should relocate to a new city at least once in their 20s, and not just for undergrad. Whether you do it when you graduate or when you’re 28 and you’ve had 3 different jobs, 2 serious relationships and 1 mental breakdown, you need to hit the reboot button on your life at least once in your formative adult years to truly know who you are and who you can be.
There are many excuses one can make not to travel, but at least when you’re doing it within the U.S., money isn’t one of them.
Travel the world, absolutely. But don’t forget that our backyard here in the States is gargantuan and teeming with unique living organisms.
*For more on this topic, read Jesse Walker’s exemplary The United States of Paranoia. The best non-fiction book I’ve read in quite some time.