Love Lost, Los Angeles, and a Return to the Road

THE last time I was on the road was two years ago. I left the U.S. with few formal plans in September 2012 to travel throughout Southeast Asia. By the time I returned in December, I had visited Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines (and China, briefly). I also had scrapped plans to return to school for a Ph. D in philosophy in favor of a free-floating existence. In May of last year, I was once again scrapping plans. This time it was a trip to Costa Rica and Central America. I was in the midst of planning my next trip when I accepted a truth that terrified me. I had fallen in love and was ready to settle down.

So, I packed up and moved out west to Los Angeles. I had been visiting friends for years and surprisingly liked the city a lot. I felt at home. I also had a goal to live in a cultural epicenter of the U.S. while in my twenties (I identify four: LA, New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans). It was on one of these trips that I met her. It was before I left for SE Asia. I knew I fell hard, but was fully committed to my wanderlust and in no way ready to change my plans for someone else. We kept in contact over time and distance. I finally pushed aside my long held fear of commitment and took the leap of faith to follow my heart, albeit in a drastically different way. Similar to my travels, I had no idea what would come of the move. I simply jumped.

Though I moved to the home of Hollywood, real life isn’t like the movies. The love did not work out as I hoped. I experienced heartbreak for the first time. I was ready for love, a deep commitment. She was not. I knew that position well. It was humbling to be on the other side. True love is relinquishing the hold your ego has in order to create the mental and emotional space for the unconditional consideration and care for another into your life. Simply put, it is giving yourself to another without expecting anything in return. I am grateful for the experience, the challenges, and the love that was shared. I learned much from it all, most importantly, that I I am capable of loving wholly and truly, and that I am deserving of being loved the same in return. I learned to let go of myself, and then I had to learn to let go of her. Life is very much about letting go.

Faced with an apparent dead end, I contemplated where to go next. I considered planting my roots deeper and remaining in Los Angeles. I began a job search for a career change, with an idea to get out of education to try something new. Going back to a career appealed with the material comforts and social security that could give my life stability, inherited meaning. Los Angeles was a great place to live. However, I could not shake the feeling that I was trying to convince myself of this path.

No decision so important should hinge upon self-persuasion. The freedom of choice liberates us only by our courage to choose, instead of having chosen for us. That path still felt like a cop-out, a compromise of my life. I awoke one Saturday morning with a brilliant clarity. I threw away the job applications. I did not have to make up my mind, but instead had to trust my heart, my gut, my soul, my…whatever that ineffable spirit that resides within us that gives unspoken guidance on what matters most. I put faith in myself, the universe, and went my own way.

I once again purchased a one way ticket to travel to a place completely unknown. I am often asked the dreaded question:  Why?  It’s a question I don’t mind answering, but I find myself cringing when asked because my answer never seems to suffice for the inquirer. For wanderers like myself, I don’t think there is an easy answer. It’s a question I have never had to ask myself.  I do it because it’s what I like to do and it’s what feels right.  I don’t think it can be answered any better than that.

The road leads to Nicaragua. Tomorrow morning I board a plane in Fort Lauderdale. I will arrive in Managua with nothing but a backpack, a camera, and a faith that wherever I end up, it’s where I am supposed to be. It doesn’t always turn out as I hope, but it will turn out all right, no matter. It always does.

Us-passport

On The Road: Two Year Anniversary

It is interesting to note that when we—people in general—bridge a time span of communication, we tend to begin with a reference to the length of that gap.  Maybe it is because we can fathom something we can quantify.  It gives us perspective that we can easily comprehend.  What I really think we are remarking about, at least subconsciously, is change.  What I want to reflect and remark upon is change.  The qualitative changes that occur over time, the changes within and around us, can be difficult to grasp, but it is the only constant of life, as the adage goes.  Life is change, change is life. All cliches are truisms, and all truisms are true. (Indeed, Jack, indeed.)

When I began my travels, I had the intentions of keeping a journal and blogging regularly about my experiences on the road.  I soon found this to be an overly ambitious task that got in the way of actually traveling.  Clearly, I was and am not an experienced writer with great habits.  But here it is, two years since I left behind the old way of life and hit the road, and I have not told my family and friends much about my trips, other than the general updates while on the road, and superlative laced summaries upon my returns. More than that, there is much left untold about the inner personal journey I have been on, which has always been what this is about.  The places I have been, the people I have met, have all been the settings and characters intertwined with the big story that is unfolding, still being written.

I am continuing to sift through the memories, reflecting on the experiences, revisiting photographs. One thing has become clear.  Today, my previous travels, and my future adventures are not isolated  wanderings, but a manifestation of who I am, and who I am perpetually becoming. Maybe this is the coming of age portion of the story…I don’t know.  But I do know this is not something I am “getting out of my system” like some disease (or if it is, I will be glad to be ridden with Wanderlust for the rest of my life. In fact I hope to die from it.).  This is not an escape from the real world.  I take that back. It is.  But I have finally learned to stop associating escape with the pejorative connotation others have put on it and instead see it as an escape from a trap, a liberation from a cage in which I was confining myself.  That trap I set for myself which was trying to be happy living a way that was not for me.  I only had to see that the cage wasn’t locked and all I had to do was open the door to get out. I began to realize these things on my trip across the U.S. in the summer of 2011. The road led me back to Southwest Florida, Ohio, and then on to Southeast Asia. It continues to zigzag across the unparalleled landscape of the United States and will no doubt take me across oceans to foreign lands again, soon.

A friend asked me today if I was getting sick of living this way or was going to keep on going.  I thought about it for half a second before responding.  “Not one day goes by that I am sick of this or wish to go back.”  The answer was roughly the same sentiment when I first quit my job.  The difference today was that it was founded in a sense of rightness, not defiance.  This all feels right. It is no longer rooted in rebellion.  Maybe that’s how it was all along, and  it has taken me this time, these experiences, to realize all of this.  I have realized there aren’t compromises to be made with your own heart, your own passions, your own voice, your own destiny.  By following this I have come to find my place in the world.  I don’t know what I am doing here and I don’t know where I am going.  I still don’t know the meaning of this life, and could potentially not be any closer than I was before all of this. I am living one day at a time, simply trying to become better at living it. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Detroit: Ruination and Reincarnation

Growing up about 100 miles south of Detroit, I regarded it with…well, I gave it little regard.  There was the animosity for anything Michigan that is inculcated in many Ohioans due to a college football rivalry on par with the fervor of soccer rivalries worldwide (despite the irony that no one in my family had graduated from The Ohio State University or the University of Michigan).  The grudge transcends sports and is a fabric of the culture, including influence on mundane daily activities.  One way this was demonstrated to me was my father’s insistence on purchasing any gas or other necessities before crossing the Michigan state line on trips to the Detroit airport, so “those bastards don’t get any of our tax money”.

It was simple.  Michigan sucked. Detroit was synonymous with Michigan.  Ipso facto Detroit sucked, too.  Outside of occasional flights out of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airport, we did not travel to Michigan.   So I grew up indifferent to arguably the most intriguing and diverse city near me (granted, its competitors were Toledo and Cleveland, nonetheless…).  Then, there was the protracted collapse of the industrial behemoth, punctuated by the implosion of the automotive industry in 2008, that left Detroit in shambles and perpetuated my childhood avoidance of the city and entire state.  However, that all changed last summer.

I was living back home in Northern Ohio for the first time since I was 19 in order to spend an extended amount of time with my family.  A friend from college was living in Detroit and invited me to visit him.  I took him up on the offer and visited him in August.  My burgeoning wanderlust has led to many changes in my life, including the erosion of prejudices, even silly ones rooted in my childhood. It took me 26 years to shake my disdain for anything and all things Michigan, the Buckeyes be damned, but I finally looked forward to a visit to That State Up North.

Though brief, I immensely enjoyed my visit.  I found Detroit to be vibrant with earnestness, awash in persistence, and threaded with dignified blue collar charm.  Art, music, food, and small businesses seemed be rising up out of the industrial collapse, creating a sense of a culture resurrected, one of redemption.  There was a buzz about the city that was unlike any other place I had ever been.  This exposure completely reversed my opinions of the city and the entire state.  Amidst the urban decay, the city’s spirit was a dandelion growing out of concrete.

I was given the opportunity to experience the decay firsthand when Josh, a fellow amateur photographer, suggested we go check out a pair of abandoned city government buildings he had found.  He explained:

“The buildings we’re going to used to be city hall for Highland Park, a city within Detroit. I have visited the building a few times before; it’s actually one of the first abandoned buildings I have explored while in Detroit. I came upon it innocently enough: it was visible from my commute to work. I made a mental note to investigate further, and the rest is history.

I did have one eerie experience there, however. During my explorations, my senses are always on high alert given the risks associated with venturing into abandoned buildings in Detroit. Once, I distinctly remember it was a particularly hot summer day, I was inside of the city hall building when I heard a noise. I thought it might be a squatter, so I froze, waiting to hear more. A few minutes later I spotted the source of the noise, a stray dog. The dog itself had a very knowing look, perhaps due to its life as a stray dog in Detroit. It was more scared than I was, however. After a few minutes of staring each other down, it scampered out the back door, and I never saw it again. It shook me enough that I left right after.”

I told him I was down without hesitating, my fears privately withheld. We packed our gear and drove to the spot.  I caught myself sitting straight up and shifting in the seat.  I forced myself to lean back and put my foot out the window.  Less than 15 minutes later we crept passed the buildings, which were located on a main road about seven miles north of downtown.  Josh made a U-turn in the middle of the four lane thoroughfare and pulled into a lot with unkempt shrubs and trees.  Weeds grew up out of the concrete in an apparent act of reclamation.  Josh aimed the car to the back of the lot and parked behind one of the trees.  We exited the car, gently shut the doors, and walked up to the brick and mortar building.

Front of the Abandoned Highland Park City Hall

We walked past debris, trash, an old tire, accidental decorations of neglect.  It was nearly 80 degrees and partly sunny, yet I shivered as we walked up the steps into the open

Tongue-in-cheek Humor Graffiti

doorway.  I stopped at the entrance and took in the scene.  The paint was peeling away from the walls, revealing the eras like sedimentary layers. Graffiti was peppered here and there.  The floor was covered in dust, dirt, and debris.  A desk sat haphazardly with one drawer slightly opened. With its functionality a thing of the past, it was now a mere prop in this scene.  There were no sounds but the breeze and the gravely crunch of our footsteps.  There were hallways leading to rooms to our right and left, with an exposed concrete spiral staircase directly ahead of us.  I followed Josh into the room to the right.  Light became sparse. My eyes adjusted. My senses heightened.  I gripped my camera bag tightly.

“This is crazy.  It’s absolutely stunning, depressing, and scary all at once. Thanks for bringing me here.” I whispered, out of as much a desire to break the silence as to express sincere appreciation.

Josh drifted off to an adjacent room while I stood in the center of the room, straining to see my surroundings.  I turned on my flash and began snapping photos indiscriminately.  The images began to haunt my preview screen; a room in shambles, with the light fixtures still dangling from the halfway exposed ceiling, the paint again peeling away.  The floors were littered, a table laid on its side, doors to adjoining rooms were halfway open, menacing and beckoning, simultaneously.  The scene could have appeared in the latest post-apocalyptic movie.

Advanced State of Dilapidation

Advanced State of Dilapidation

I walked back to the atrium and not coincidentally where the light spilled in from the main doorway and windows.  I wandered down the left hallway and back into darkness. I squinted at an open door with something written on the glass facing me. I snapped a photo.  Just as I thought it said:  “POLICE”.  I snickered as I entered the through the doorway.

Files were strewn about the floor and desk.  I picked one up.  It was a receipt for a $105 speeding ticket from 1981, complete with the violator’s name, address, birth date, and social security number. A desk in the middle of the room still had a coffee pot and mug.  The mug showed a map of Hawai’i. I stood motionless and imagined its owner cooped up in this office during the Michigan winter daydreaming of another place, another time.  I considered the daily grind of bureaucratic life he/she must have endured.  I wondered if the mug was purchased on a trip to the islands, or perhaps bought locally.  But that was all in another place, another time.  What was once the symbol of a dream getaway was now another artifact left behind, a dream forgotten.

I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and exited the room.  I decided it was time to explore upstairs.  I wound my way up the rail-less staircase, which was partially illuminated by an opened backdoor on the ground floor and windows on the top floor.  The top floor housed more offices, as well as the municipal courtroom that I decided I would save for last.  Corridors to the left and right once again led to adjacent rooms.  I went down the left hallway. The hall darkened, but light spilled in through each doorway from the windows of the exterior rooms.  I approached the first room ahead of me, but its entrance was impassable, blocked by the door leaning off its hinges.  I peeked inside and saw that the ceiling was partially collapsed with the ground steeped knee-high in fragments.  I turned to my right and I entered the room directly next to it, which faced the parking lot.  A modest office with two windows, one with the blinds halfway drawn, still contained a bookshelf.  Though the floor was covered with trash and dirt up to a foot deep in some places, there was still a book remaining on the shelf (“Michigan’s Compiled Laws: Annotated Edition”).  I left the book lay, continuing my Leave No Trace philosophy in this urban wilderness.  As I peered around the room, I heard a sound, something like a shuffling of feet.

“Hey Josh. You up here?” I called out.

I hadn’t seen him since we parted ways on the first floor.  We had not discussed a plan beforehand and had not communicated since.  Recalling his story about the dog, I froze, listening intently.  Hollow silence.  I slowly began to move towards to the door when I heard the noise again.  I paused, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  I gave myself inner counsel, reminding myself of the many experiences where I had been frightened only to later find out it was for no real reason.  I walked back into the hallway and towards the other side of the building, where the noise originated.  I continued exploring the other offices while I kept my hearing attuned to any new disturbance.  The doorways here were charred black.  Upon further examination, the room was charred around the edges and soot covered the ground.  I remembered reading somewhere that arson was most common in vacant buildings in urban centers.  As I snapped photos, I once again heard the shuffling noise, though much louder, much closer.  I moved quickly toward the sound and called out.

“Anyone in here? Hello?  Josh? Anyone?”

I entered the courtroom through the left side door and stopped in my tracks.

“Whoa.” I muttered aloud to myself, to no one.

The room was mostly intact. The judge’s bench still presided over the room with an aura of authority. The chairs were still in tidy rows, bearing witness to the proceeding now taking place, the erosion of time, the preservation of a bygone era.  Sharp graffiti art covered the exposed brick wall.  Light poured in through the window openings, with the former windows now broken glass on the ground below them.  One such opening still had blinds, but the right side was broken a quarter of the way down so that the remainder just dangled from the left side.  A gust of wind swept through the room from the left to right and as it did so, it caused the dangling blinds to shudder against one another, revealing my ghost.  I laughed.

Court in Session

While I was taking photos, I heard Josh approach.  I confessed being spooked by the wind and broken blinds, which sparked another round of laughter.  Then, we discussed the ruins as he set up his tripod.

“This place has a lot of energy about it.  It feels alive.  Like, I think about the lives that were lived day to day here, as well as the lives that were changed here in this courtroom.  You can just imagine a case being heard, all the emotions bottled up inside all involved.  I don’t really give much thought to or credence in ghosts, but a place like this…well, I just feel a lot of uncertainty.” I explained some of the private thoughts I had been chewing on throughout the adventure.

“Yeah, if only these walls…” Josh trailed off, as he finished his setup.

We continued to chat and shoot more photos, including some automated timer self-portraits to document our adventure.  We left the municipal building and went next door the fire house.  We snapped a few photos, but quickly left with our appetite for adventure satiated.  I gazed back over my shoulder as Josh pulled the car out of the lot, with a hint of nostalgia, knowing I was leaving a place and time behind that would not be again.

- -

It has been nearly a year since I was riding away from the Highland Park City municipal buildings in Josh’s Pontiac.  Upon reflection, two themes stand out to me about the experience.  The unknown always presents us with an anxious energy, part excitement, part fear.  I was bubbling over with that energy.  The former part would be most appropriately described as sheer childlike excitement.  Two children venturing into the dark corners of the playground, beyond the watchful eyes of authority, to the forbidden, liberated. Just as true of my childhood, my imagination ran wild in that place.  Daydreams, thoughtful repose, hallucinations, paranoia. I swung from end to end of my consciousness.  As I looked over the courtroom that day, I viewed it through the eyes of a 10 year old for whom the entire world was magic, a huge mystery to unfold.  I literally could not believe what my eyes were seeing because I did not know how to comprehend it.  It was beyond what I knew.  Instead of trying to box in that wonder, it was free to wander.  Where has that wonder gone?

The second part of the experience that stood out was the fear.  What exactly was I afraid of?  I could pinpoint a few things:  a squatter or opportunistic criminal, stray animal, a ceiling or floor collapse.  But really, these fears were unsubstantiated, and highly unlikely to have any credibility, anyways.  Too many horror movies, too much violence consumed through media growing up.  I, like the vast majority of Americans, live with this insane conception of the world as a dangerous place and other people as dangerous creatures.  Yes, there is danger in the world, yes dangerous people do exist. They exist at the fringes of statistical probability that you or me will experience it.  But it does not lurk around every corner dressed in all black or with canine features.  Our realest dangers are ones we welcome into our lives with open arms each and every day, cleverly disguised in the mundane.

“How could you have gone to that place?! You’re crazy.” was a common response when I told this story.  It is similar to the all-too-familiar warnings from others about how dangerous it is “out there” when I tell them of my travels abroad.  My response to this misguided advice is simple and consistent:

“Are you going to get into your car to drive home tonight?  Do you eat fried foods often? Do you exercise regularly?”

I went to the abandoned buildings with an understood calculated risk.  I do the same when I travel abroad (or anywhere, for that matter).  So while the fears may masquerade as fears of a rabid dog or desperate bum, that cannot be truly, deeply what I was/am scared of.  And I think my fear was revealed through the feelings the buildings evoked. Their state of ruin.  They had been abandoned by all of the people who once beheld them as an important part of their lives, left to vacantly rot.  These buildings’ lives, so to speak, had run their course, and were now close to their own death by wrecking ball.

All things pass.  Time marches on just the same, with never ending change following right behind. Or actually, rather, they are one in the same.  And it speaks the language of impermanence.  Nothing lasts, not even the essential parts of an empire.  No one could have imagined the buildings looking that way, being like that, when they were in their heyday.  Just the same, none of us can imagine our own demise at the height of our youth (or ever?). But, just like the crumbling of the walls, the cracking of the foundation, and the eventual demolition of those places, we will go, too.  We will be a thing of the past, and life will just continue on around our perished bodies.  It is terrifying to consider, but also deeply humbling.

The Courtroom Reacts to the Verdict

The Courtroom Reacts to the Verdict

Miscellaneous (aka the stuff no one ever pays attention to) (but you should pay attention this time!)

  • Josh’s photography can be experienced at  http://www.weissj.tumblr.com/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/weissj/.  Check it out.  The boy’s got skills.
  • More images of the urban decay in and throughout Detroit can be found at the website of two French photographers who made it a five year project to go around the city like Josh and me did for one evening.  So if you thought any of my photos with my basic Nikon DLSR were good, you should definitely check out these guys.  Unbelievable. (They even have a photo from the same buildings!) They even made a book out of it that apparently has sold many copies.