Somewhere between east and west, between coastal technology epicenters and my music city hometown there exists this strange, foreign world. It’s farmland, straight roads, square plots and cities with only a handful of last names. It’s land held over thousands of generations, where homemade cornbread is still served readily on the supper table, and where virtue matters more than social followers. It’s a land where sriracha is pronounced with an r, organic is anything that comes from the ground and the next hit app is something of little consequence. It’s a land frozen in time, where ride-share is a hitch in the back of a pick-up trucks and populations reach for the 400s. This is the land between somewhere and nowhere; this is middle America.
It’s in this in between, this small town world, that I find myself confronted between a world I have lived in and accepted as normal and a world I had forgotten but still felt drawn to for its simplicity. After spending the past 7 years in complete excess– excessive scheduling, excessive stress, excessive consumption– I wake up on mornings questioning the striking contrast of my past life and the one on the either side of the long country roads, unable to let myself go enough to be truly free to experience the world around me.
It had been three weeks on the road, driving place to place, seeing these microcommunities thrive with a freedom from the Silicon Valley and the burden of “coolness.” It had been three weeks of traveling in and out of Middle America and I couldn’t allow myself to relax enough to enjoy it, to embrace my own freedom, accept it and thrive in it. It had been three weeks and I was still trapped.
The first major breaking point was realizing I didn’t know how to function with this freedom of spirit, freedom of time and freedom to choose to travel and venture wherever I wanted to be in the next hour, day or week. Here I was thinking this epic journey would lead to clarity about what to do with my life and a good time into it I hadn’t even truly begun to let go enough to listen.
I hadn’t given myself permission to truly experience the freedom. I found myself camped for the night in small town middle America wondering how could I have desired these moments of freedom so much over the years, desired them so much to act upon them, and not really know what to do when I had them? Without the confines of strict scheduling, premeditated programs, planned launches, I had no idea how to accept the gift of freedom I had received.
That isn’t to say there weren’t daily accomplishments. Each day was “creatively” mapped out according to the steps needed to make it to my next point of interest. Step one, wake. Step two, coffee; three, hike; four, meditate; five, drive; six, research; seven, drive; eight, photograph; nine, drive… Repeat. It was all thoughtfully planned and yet uninspired; I was left feeling like all these small town lives seemed so much more grounded than the path I was traveling through their lands.
I was doing everything I thought I should be doing on this trip and yet nothing left me fulfilled enough to see a path to something more. I felt hollow, and to an extent self-centered and conceited, like I was drowning in a life that wasn’t mine to live. The answer, it would turn out, to what I was really meant to discover wouldn’t come until later on in my journey; but it was in this contrast between overcomplication and oversimplification that I began to realize the answer to experiencing this freedom at its fullest would begin when I started to ask the right question, when I started at the beginning instead of jumping into someone else’s middle. The answer would come when I started asking myself what it was I wanted to do in this moment, at this present point in time, in this exact spot.
Secondly I discovered that in spite of all the unsolicited advice I received before the trip about enjoying it because “who knew when I would ever have such a chance again,” it’s the things people don’t talk about that had the most impact on the direction my journey took up until this point.
It’s the things I didn’t preempt before I embarked on my journey, the fear, the self doubt, the lack of confidence, the questions of identity. Those are the things buried deep inside me; they remained so deep and seemingly “overcome” because my environment had become familiar enough, comfortable enough. My world was my world and I knew my box well. So when it was removed and I was placed outside of it, those deeply buried criticisms resurfaced while my guard was down.
Unexpectedly in sweet, friendly middle America, I realized just how much those fears and criticisms don’t simply go away; they don’t just evaporate in a state of complete defeat. Rather, they take on a new form; they take on new shape.
The voice that said I couldn’t make that promotion, host a successful enough event, meet my numbers was the same voice telling me I couldn’t make that jump, hike that peak, or cross that river. The voice that said I didn’t know what I was doing, that I was only kidding myself to stretched beyond my previous job roles, was the same voice that told me I was fooling myself to think I could ever make this journey alone, that I would ever be able to discover something about myself greater than before I started. The voice telling me it was my fault for being taken advantage of in negotiations was the same voice telling me it that everything that happened that was wrong was my fault.
And so somewhere between the east and west, there it was, my WTF moment. Middle America hit me with a major “oh shizzzz” straight out of the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t the one I had expected and it certainly wasn’t the one I was prepared to immediately answer. But fortunately for me I had one clear direction to drive towards; and with the Rockies ahead and Mississippi River behind I took my great American questions and headed into the sun.