I find myself in the trees zooming by. I find myself in the skyline rising in the distance and the cars oscillating back and forth, and I find myself in each highway sign post marking the exits to unfamiliar towns.
On planes, I spend entire flights memorizing the architecture of the ground. In cars, I tell myself stories of the drivers and their passengers. On buses, my facial muscles freeze for hours, and my eyes glaze over, and I meld into the characters of the interstate.
I am on a bus on my way to Chicago. I’ve never been to Chicago. I’m here by myself on business, but today is Friday, and I’ve got the whole day to myself to explore a city heretofore only existing in my mind as an aggregation of unfamiliar phenomena — Wrigley Field, gang violence, sausages. These things float around in my mind like a checklist; when we drive by Wrigley, I mentally pump my fist. One down, I think.
Around me, strangers talk about this and that. I scribble down a few goals for the day on my yellow notepad. Don’t wander into a dangerous place at night. Take lots of pictures. Interact with the locals. Buy a sausage.
The city jumps out of the trees. You drive along the outskirts for a while, and it looks like the suburbs of any midsize city and, then, boom, giant skyscrapers.
The bus pulls up at the Navy Pier, and I scurry out into the overcast day. I take one step outside and finally, at the age of 21, understand the definition of humidity for the first time. It hits me like an unexpected wave, crashing over me all at once, the impact sudden and all-encompassing. Already, I wasn’t feeling particularly well, my mind drifting in a bit of a haze as the trees zoomed by and the skyline rose. Combine this with the humidity, and the Navy Pier at 11 a.m. felt like a lucid dream. Sticky and sneezing, I wander down the pier, lost in myself.
Bubba Gump and McDonalds and iMax movie theaters and blaring pop music from the speakers and tourists and loud construction attack from above. Lake Michigan taunts from the east, looking more like an ocean. I resolve to leave the tourist trap and head out into the city, the real city …
It’s unclear what I’m looking for. I’m floating through the city like a zombie, passing under overhangs under construction, stuck behind an older couple enjoying their midafternoon walk.
Down East Michigan street, through gobs of tourists in Yankees hats — so many Yankees hats — humidity pounds down, pounding, floating, boats floating along the Chicago Harbor past the Trump Tower towering over a sleepy city …
Stumble into a park, and there’s a giant, bean-shaped mirror. Hundreds of people surround the bean. Kids explore underneath. Couples ask strangers to take their pictures. Hoards of teenage girls take selfies in front. It’s a veritable madhouse, and a jazz festival takes place, and luscious green lawns tempt nearby.
I find the lawn, pull out my notebook and scribble down some thoughts. “I don’t know what my next step ought to be. I don’t know if where I end up will be right, or whether I’ll find the people I need. I’m a senior in college. I graduate in December. And I have no idea what will happen. What is next? How will I know to do the right thing?”
Packs of bikers tear down sidewalks. Not one biker uses the road. They all fly down sidewalks on matching rented bikes, weaving in and out of the citizens and tourists of Chicago, set on getting where they want to go. Packs of preteen girls in One Direction shirts, presumably headed to a concert. Everything in packs, and me in myself, in the center of America …
I find a street vendor selling shave ice and wait for five minutes while a family of four decides which flavors they want. I buy a bottle of water and down it within seconds. I realize I’ve been walking around dehydrated for many hours.
The afternoon beats down, relentlessly.
What’s that quote from the end of “Into The Wild?” “Happiness only real when shared.” Experiences are given shape when experienced with another. I cannot put into words why. I find myself in the Chicago Harbor, and I find myself on the grassy lawns of an unfamiliar city. I do not find anything else but myself.