By Shane Faria
I drove out of the parking garage at the Circus Circus hotel and merged onto the Las Vegas Strip for the final time of our trip.
I passed the CVS where Justin left his water-jug concoction of Bacardi and pineapple juice in the outside trash can, the escalator where I turned down Ecstasy as well as heroin, the McDonald’s I ate at more times than any man can be proud of, Caesar’s Palace where Justin promptly threw up the contents of his stomach onto the outside walls, passed the buildings shaped like the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower and Great Pyramid, and pulled up in front of a medieval castle in the middle of the desert where I dropped off Alex. Justin, Mike, Aaron and I then pulled back onto the strip and accelerated out of Las Vegas. Twenty-four hours of road travel separated us from our destination: Bemidji, Minnesota.
Approximately sixteen months prior, in November 2013, I started a very different journey to Bemidji. I sat outside of my friend Jay’s college math classroom in Chicago, fooling around on the internet until he finished the community college class he needed for his last credits to officially graduate from Illinois State. At this point, I had been away from my home in Boston for about a month. Traveling by train solo across the country, I had hiked the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, lived on a boat for two weeks on the San Francisco Bay and sailed said boat under the Golden Gate Bridge, smoked legal marijuana while staring out toward the awesome Rocky Mountains in Denver, pissed my pants (while completely sober) trying to get back to my friend’s apartment in Boulder, and passed out face first in a sketchy frat house while completely obliterated in Iowa City. Now, I sat in Chicago in front of a computer for one of the first times since leaving home. Fuck it, I thought as I Googled “cheapest out-of-state tuition in America.”
Ten months prior to that, my whole life was one gigantic mess. I was sitting at my suburban home in Massachusetts by myself. I had just dropped out of the University of New Hampshire with only one semester to go before my scheduled graduation. The conversation with my parents a few weeks before that went something like this:
“I…I’m just not happy. At all. I can’t do anything normally anymore. I drink close to fifteen beers a day for three days per week. I failed all of my classes because I didn’t go, I hate my major, I hate the town, I hate my lifestyle. I think I’m depressed. I want to drop out.”
“If that’s what you think is best for you, then that is what you should do. I don’t think you should go back to Durham.”
So that was that. After seven semesters, I was officially a college dropout. And I had no plans to ever go back.
I moved to Martha’s Vineyard that following May where I worked renting out kayaks and lived with four of my best friends. I kept up a steady routine of working six days a week ‘til around ten o’clock at night, drinking (mostly) for free at a bar my friend bartended at, and mountain biking and basking in the summer sun on my days off. After the mental hell I had experienced in Durham, my time in Martha’s Vineyard was the best form of medicine. It seemed that depression stayed on the mainland, conquered by the ocean that separates Martha’s Vineyard and the bulk of Massachusetts.
This much-needed vacation from the “real world” lasted into mid-September. I got back to my house and faced the prospect of migrating into the flock of nine-to-five workers in a down-turned economy, and without a college degree.
I decided to delay this fabled “real world” once more.
I boarded an airplane in early October and flew to Los Angeles where I would begin a forty-five day trek across the country, back to my home.
Exiting a train at South Station in Boston, I waited for my father to pick me up after my trip finally ended. He picked me up and noted the dark circles under my eyes.
“I feel like fucking shit, Dad. I sat in the nosebleed section at a Washington Wizards game and drooled enough snot from my nose that I thought the nickname for those seats might have to be changed.”
My dad laughed his normal belly laugh. He knew I wasn’t feeling too hot. I knew he was also worried about me. Now it was actually time for the real-world. No more kayak rentals, no more train rides across America.
“I’m uh…I’m going back to college…in Minnesota.”
About a week before that, I checked an email on my phone that congratulated me for being accepted into Bemidji State University. My Google search outside of Jay’s classroom in Chicago, led me to the Bemidji State admissions page. I shuffled through the website, and my eye caught on the writing program. After nearly rotting away in my communication major with a business track, I figured if I was going to go back to school, I might as well join a program that wouldn’t bring me back to the days of crossing the street without looking.
I checked their acceptance rate, and figured what the hell. I applied to Bemidji right then and there, and had my transcripts, complete with my 2.0 GPA from UNH, sent to somewhere in northern Minnesota. I had not a fucking clue where Bemidji was. The only point of reference I had was that I had seen the hockey team make a Cinderella run to the Frozen Four hockey tournament back when I was in high school.
After spending, at that point, a month traveling through approximately fifteen states, I didn’t even bat an eye as I sent the application away and logged off of the computer as Jay came striding out of his classroom.
“Minnesota?!” my dad inquired. “Why the heck would you go out all the way there when you could apply to somewhere close like Lowell and just commute there from home?”
The truth was, as much as I loved my family and my friends back home, my trip across the country had reminded me how much of the world I had not really seen. I wanted to go somewhere new, even if it was somewhere with -50 degree windchill.
My dad, knowing at this point that the outlandish things I said I was going to do more than likely were going to become a reality, didn’t fight me moving 1,500 miles away. My mom, in typical mom fashion, freaked out and made sure I packed approximately fifty pairs of long socks because “It’s gonna be cold up there!” So, with fifty pairs of socks and two suitcases packed to the brim, I left home once again, in January of 2014, to finish my college degree in Bemidji, Minnesota.
After I spent a full night of dry-heaving and shitting at my friend Kenny’s apartment in Park City, my Minnesota friends and I were now only seventeen or so hours away from Bemidji. We were coming back from our last hoo-rah, our senior year spring break trip to Vegas.
As I sat in the backseat of my own car, hoping my food poisoning would subside so that we wouldn’t have to pull off at every exit from Utah to Minnesota, I began to think back on my time in Bemidji. In all honesty, the time there, much like the seemingly endless winter, had been a gray-white blur. I went to class, ate, and on the weekends I would have drinks with my friends. Realistically, it was not much different than my time at UNH, the only difference being that I was going to class and doing something that fulfilled my soul’s desires. I was still drinking, though—not nearly as much as I had in New Hampshire, but still enough that I worried about the future functionality of my liver.
As I reflected on these thoughts on the drive through Utah’s red rocks, my phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a text from my brother Adam in Atlanta. He was in the hospital. He had three blockages in his heart. He needed surgery. He was lucky to be alive.
Then I began reflecting back on much more than my time in Bemidji. I thought about the time I visited my brother during my train trip. I thought about the time my mom told me that my brother’s biggest fear was never finding love. I thought of what would happen to his boyfriend Matty if Adam didn’t make it through this heart ordeal. I thought about my mom and dad and their health problems as they worked their way through their sixties and knocked on the door of their eighth decade. I thought about myself drinking warm sixteen-ounce cans of Busch Light out in the open in the streets of Las Vegas. I thought about the disgusting cheeseburger I had downed without a second thought in Utah—the same one that had me sitting on the toilet with my head hanging over a trash can in Park City. I thought about my Bemidji friends in the car with me, and how sometimes they made me feel more alone than I felt in New Hampshire. There was so much of myself that I wanted to change. Why did I keep falling back into the same old damaging habits?
I carried these thoughts with me through those red rocks, through the seemingly endless sprawl in Wyoming and the Dakotas. I carried it with me until we hit the Minnesota border in the wee hours of the morning. Bemidji…Minnesota…these places were not home. But after twenty-four hours crammed into a car, sick to my stomach and reflecting on every negative decision I had ever made, the Minnesota border was the most welcome thing I had seen since I left it.
I began to ease up. I thought differently about my time in Bemidji. About the good things. About how I had turned my GPA around from the depths to cum laude level, how the appeal of drinking away my problems faded with the long, winter months. I thought about my friends in the car, and how—even though they would never be able to compare to my lifelong friends from home, and how even if sometimes I want to kill them—they would forever be an important part of my life.
Delirious and sleep-deprived, we laughed and joked as we coasted along empty northern Minnesota roads. Justin unleashed his signature Scooby-Doo laugh for the thousandth time of the trip, and Mike broke out in hysterics for the thousandth time. Aaron kept my Corolla steady as he sipped coffee and laughed along with them. I smiled, my empty stomach still aching. We pulled into Bemidji at about four in the morning.
Places like Bemidji have different meanings to anyone who sets foot within their boundaries. Durham, New Hampshire is where I learned lessons in self-destruction. Martha’s Vineyard is where I learned who my best friends really were. In a train rifling across America, I learned there is always somewhere new to explore. In a packed sedan driving through the wide-open West, I realized I wasn’t close to being the best version of myself.
As I stepped out of the car in Bemidji, I thought once more about all the places, physical and mental, that I had traveled to, through, and from in the past few years. When I walked into my room in Bemidji, Minnesota, I looked at the calendar and saw that a month and a half of time here remained. I went to bed that night finally knowing what Bemidji means to me. It’s the place where I learned that there’s still time to become the person you really want to be.
Shane Faria is a senior from Burlington, Massachusetts, who graduated from BSU in 2015. He is not really sure how he ended up in Minnesota, but he is glad he did.