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16,000 miles through 23 countries. 22 months on the road. Hundreds of friends, adventures, and lessons along the way. Here is a taste, through a handful of photos, of what it was like.
Almost two years, attached at the hip to one friend by adventure and necessity, and then he was just…gone.
Halleluiah! I thought.
It was glorious. There I was — sitting in my own bed, in my own room, with my own bathroom, absolutely no prospect of Morgan appearing any moment and yelling “Dude!”
Already, I was rediscovering all sorts of luxuries. In my first week back in California, these included such epiphanies as: Hey! I can make whatever I want for breakfast!
There would be no arguing over rice or porridge, scrambled eggs or fried, apples or bananas or both. I can eat whatever I damned well please! (correct answer: porridge, fried eggs, banana)
And then another: I have my OWN bank account!
Even the idea of going out to a movie or something without telling Morgan how much it’d cost us and when I’d be back, like reporting to a hover mom, was a startling proposition. I actually had to keep reminding myself there was no need to ask permission to buy something. I felt like that freshman kid in college – you know – the one who goes bat shit crazy at parties after growing up in a Catholic household and is suddenly cut loose from mom and dad’s prying eyes.
Let’s dub this my “rediscovering independence” phase.
Soon after Morgan moved to Iowa to work for the political machine, I took up a job in California as a newspaper writer. And as close as we are, I have to say: not seeing him for a while was Fantastic.
Of course, novelty does wear, and as the months passed I’d start catching myself in these moments, especially in my work as a reporter.
Like, I’m interviewing a subject for an LA Weekly story, and suddenly panic because I realize I have to ask ALL the questions now. Back when Morgan and I were reporting abroad, we’d always surprise each other by asking interviewees questions the other hadn’t thought of. He’d lob out a hard-hitting bombshell, and at our closest, I’d think, Hell yeah, nice question Morgan. Or when we were on each other’s nerves or competitive, I’d think I SHOULD have thought of that. But our stories always benefitted from it — two minds working towards a single product.
I also noticed an effect on my social life. Despite the (vast) improvement of not having to compete with Morgan over the same girls at the bar, I’d lost my best wingman. Plus, I have this tendency to become fixated on things – whether it’s work or a story or a weekly routine – so that sometimes I have a hard time pulling myself away unless goaded. So in Los Angeles, I found myself pulling marathon work weeks, unable to break from articles I was writing or allow myself some spontaneity. During the past two years, I’d come to rely on Morgan to be the one to forcibly step in and say, “Chris, put that laptop down! That’s enough work for today…There’s some kids jumping off a bridge over the river. I think it’d be epic to join them.”
It was actually jarring to find out I had developed these dependencies.
So my first reaction was to scroll through my cell phone contacts, an indulgence I never had during the trip (because we were constantly moving and didn’t know anyone), and try to find people in L.A. who could act as “Morgan replacements” to iron out the gaps.
I succeeded and failed. My journo friend Ani and I could get nerdy about interviews we were preparing for. And I started playing saxophone for a couple bands, so that sometimes I would get last-minute invites to play concerts on the Sunset Strip – having to drop everything to prepare for the show.
But the difference was the frequency. During the bike trip, Morgan and I were forced to stick together, so we were always fulfilling those roles for each other. Los Angeles is so teeming with people and plans, always changing, that it requires a concerted effort to actually get two people to meet. In other words, I realized I couldn’t depend on finding full-time Morgan replacements. I’d need to address my own short-comings.
In the long run, I think this is probably for the better. Separated from Morgan, I can see the ways I used him as a crutch, and how I can improve.
Yet it’s also made me realize just how much I’d taken my friend for granted during our adventure. The more time that’s passed since we rolled into Shanghai, it’s become ever more apparent I never could have done it without him.
That, and how lucky I am to be his friend.
At this point in the party everyone’s four or five deep, perhaps because, as co-workers, we’re not usually out of the office together, but more likely because we’re a bunch of neurotic writers. The get-together is a goodbye for a senior editor at our magazine who’s leaving Los Angeles for someplace actually affordable, and many at the party are friends of his that are strangers to me. I strike up a conversation with one of them — this pretty redhead in a black slip — and we get to talking about our pasts. She asks me what I used to do to before working at the magazine, and that’s how the question came up:
“So how was the trip?”
This is where I pause for a moment, probing her eyes for clues.
Even though I’ve been asked about “the trip” hundreds of times since returning to the United States, it’s still difficult to answer. Typically, I choose from three stock responses:
A. “It was great.” (then change the subject)
B. “It was an adventure.” (then give a 2 min recap of the “craziest thing that happened”)
C. “It was life-changing.” (before going full-bore into the emotional ups and downs of the journey)
And, well, it’s a surprisingly tough call to make – anticipating how deep down the rabbit hole your asker wants to follow.
Two years riding a bicycle from France to China with a friend was hands-down the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It completely changed who I am, defining my attitudes towards everything from country, to relationships, to family. When I was “out there,” months at a time in the hinterlands of developing countries, I learned empathy, I grasped privilege, I probed religion and selfishness; I saw the truest expressions of evil and goodness; I was beat up and tormented and lonely and had to construct myself from the ground up into the person I am today.
Returning home to California, I knew that it would be difficult to readjust. I also wondered how to possibly convey the extent of what I just went through.
Anyone who has weathered a period which was deeply challenging or ground-shifting knows what I’m talking about – whether it was time spent abroad, coming out of the closet, a religious (or anti-religious) experience, combat, an identity crisis – but then how do you convey the totality of what that meant to you? And what is considered socially acceptable in a casual conversation?
One thing I have learned: it is dangerous to expect too much.