Expanding Horizons in Different Worlds

Last weekend, there was a message on my answering machine. It was my friend Sonny, telling me that he had arrived in San Diego after a nine-month absence. I was used to such messages from my high school pals who were trickling in from Berkeley and the state schools, because they finished their finals and consequently their first year of college long before we quarter system students.

However, Sonny didn’t spend this year in college. Although he graduated, like me, with honors in June 2000, he chose to take a year off from school and go instead to Oregon, to be a forest ranger. He was the only one of my high school friends who didn’t go to a university or a community college.

I called him. I think I was actually nervous, or anxious, or excited in some other way that I couldn’t really place. Sonny and I hadn’t been especially close in high school — we were on the staff of the newspaper together, hung with the same crowd and had some classes and interesting conversations together — but we had exchanged infrequent letters while he was gone.

In the fall, I told him about classes, about the dorms, about all the new situations I was finding myself in. He wrote back, saying this of his routine: “”I chop wood. I burn wood. I cook food. I eat food. I play in the snow (I think they call it work here). I read books. I write letters to all my good-for-nothing friends. I laugh at all of my good-for-nothing friends who are going to college.””

The last sentence he amended: “”I am still looking forward to college and even envy you, despite the content I feel.””

I couldn’t imagine why he’d want to trade places with me, when what I wanted right then was to drop out and dash up to Oregon immediately, switching sneakers for skis and studying for hiking through the woods.

He sounded different when we spoke on the phone — quieter than I had remembered. This was, after all, the guy who had cracked up our journalism class by loosing a blue streak of expletives without provocation at my best friend, and chucking a computer disk directly into the forehead of a staff writer (albeit accidentally). He also ran nude into the Pacific Ocean at a bonfire, but that’s another story.

“”The year has been … different,”” he said haltingly. “”I haven’t measured it the way you have, with midterms and finals and things.””

I thought I had measured the year more in vacations — how long until they came, how many hours of relaxation and freedom I could squeeze in between work and family obligations, and how long I’d have until the next release.

When we got together on Monday night, we met where a road dead-ends into a canyon. He had a backpack burdened with supplies: He was going to spend the night in his sleeping bag in the chapparal, and then hike six miles to the beach in the morning. “”Having trouble readjusting to civilization?”” I joked. He stared out into the canyon, mute.

“”I’m different,”” he said when I asked how he was doing in general. “”I’ve changed. I think I’ve become more left-wing.”” By way of explanation, he indicated the houses on the bluff above us, with their marked-off backyards. “”We have all these invisible but very real boundaries. I mean … all it is is a piece of paper in City Hall.””

But as he told me about his experiences, I realized that his changes were deeper than political.

He independently tackled all manner of job situations, including carrying a man who died from a heart attack on a ski slope and having to assist in identifying him. He climbed mountains with a pick axe and crampons despite a fear of heights.

“”You just have to do it,”” he said of clinging to a sheer rock face at thousands of feet of elevation. “”Once you’ve started, you’ve got inertia on your side: You’ve just taken one step, so why can’t you take one more?””

I studied him during a pause in our conversation. He looked different. His hair was long and unkempt, and he sported a tuft of a goatee. His face was gaunt. And the way he looked at things, his eyes flitting from surface to surface, then lighting on some distant point, seemed so unlike the other people I interacted with on a daily basis, the college kids and even my parents. I called him a “”wild man of the woods.”” It was the “”man”” part that was the truest.

And when he asked me about my year, what could I say? I rattled on about professors and roommates and car trouble. It sounded hollow. I tried to elaborate on what I was saying, embroidering it to make it seem as exciting as his stories, but I still felt that somehow I wasn’t measuring up. I knew it wasn’t because of Sonny — he questioned me doggedly about dorm life and classes and updates on all our friends.

Finally, I admitted it, to him and to myself: “”I’ve been feeling a lot of wanderlust this year.”” I told him that I was chafing under the rigidness of my routine, and that what I wanted more than anything was to pack up and disappear for a while, on my own, with nothing to dictate the path I would take except my own whim and naked opportunity. I don’t think it was the most comforting thing to tell him, as this fall he heads east to Dartmouth and has hinted at his apprehension.

But he understood, of course. He encouraged me to follow my plan of road-tripping alone in September, between my summer job and the beginning of school. And I said I thought success in college — meaning enjoyment and fulfillment — was a mixture of dumb luck and effort.

“”You have to get off your ass and get involved,”” I said. “”Look at me: During fall quarter, I sat in my dorm and was really, really lonely and depressed. Then I started getting out, meeting people … and things are better.””

I didn’t tell him that while things are better — downright good, in fact — I still feel unfulfilled, unsuccessful. I still feel like the same girl I was in high school, when we graduated together. And I can’t help wondering how things would be different if I’d taken his path, how I would be different. Sonny postponed college and became a man. I have a 3.95 GPA at a nationally recognized university, and I wonder when I will become a woman.

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