meet $w1fT: 923 oak | arizona

PARENTAL ADVISORY: the language that follows is unvarnished, harsh and some readers may be offended. This alert is not just for people with young kids, but for my parents, their friends, and anyone else who expressed concern with this storyline.

January 2014

Part 2

 

$w1ft is staring calmly in his side mirror, surveying the oversized pick-up truck that just skidded to an abrupt stop right behind my car, gravel flying in its wake. We’re in the parking lot of “Lookout,” a local overlook that $w1fT wanted me to see. Unfortunately there’s not much to see in the dark of night.

“It’s just my buddy, checking up on us.”

Within seconds, the truck roars off.

“This is an unknown vehicle to my crew,” he reasons, addressing my pointed gaze and nonverbal question of ‘what the hell?’. “They’re not sure who the hell you are, because of the rumors of the ‘Oak Project chick.’”

“Are there rumors?”

“Well, yeah, of course.”

I stare into the blackness. “I was crazy to go up here with you, huh?”

“If you really truly knew who I was – AM,” he laughs. “Yeah. INSANE. Fuckin’ like, get her a bouncy room.”

“Why did I?” I wonder out loud.

“Because you’re a good person. You don’t look at life like I see it, from a darker perspective. You wouldn’t even consider that. It’s not that you’re stupid or anything; it’s just not your natural mindset. Myself – I watch my back wherever I go.”

$w1fT takes off his big black gloves and messes with a silver button on his leather jacket.  “Any of those sharks in that tank, in that town, if they were in my shoes, coming up here with you …” he chuckles, shaking his head. “I don’t even want to fuckin’ think about the ride back down. Some people – it’s disgusting – but they treat everything the same. Like trash. They’d be like ‘Oh! Look at this opportunity to roll up to fuckin’ Lookout, with a naïve chick, in an unfamiliar-in-our-circle vehicle that we could ride back down, and no one’s even gonna look. And if they were to do something to you, you wouldn’t be able to really do anything about it – it would just be like, you know, you better fuckin’ keep your mouth shut, kinda shit. And it’s real shit. They get off on fuckin’ making other people’s lives bad because their lives are worse. It’s a harsh reality.”

I am quiet, recognizing how differently this innocuous car chat could have gone. Could still go.

$w1fT continues. “I mean, I myself have been in situations that just started out like, oh I’m just gonna hang out with ‘Nancy’ and ‘Jim’ like I always do because they’re my friends. And then the only difference is their friends are there this time. And their friends got them high. And you are the payment. Just like that.”

I learn a lot about $w1fT over the next few hours.

He was one of those dudes you saw smoking cigarettes behind school before class.

In fifth grade.

He always sleeps with his boots on. “I feel safer in my boots knowing that I’m prepared.” The last time he slept barefoot was six months ago. (Apparently wearing boots to bed is discouraged in jail).

He tried meth for the first time at age 11.

His uncle gave it to him.

He does meth “pretty much” every day. But doing dope regularly for so many years means he only gets “buzzed” now – never truly high, like in the beginning.

A couple of his buddies got arrested last week for having 6-10 ounces of dope in their car.

“Is that a lot?” I am way out of my depth. I know what 6-10 ounces of liquid looks like; not so much with meth.

$w1fT gives me a quick Meth 101 tutorial. There are 10 points in a gram. Each point is around $20. There are about 28 grams in an ounce.

So, yes: 6-10 ounces is a lot … about $44,000 on the street.

I look down at my phone and see a text from my mom. She shows up on my phone as Nancy Mom, Apple’s combination of her two contact entries: one simply as “Mom” and one as her real name.

Thu, Jan 9, 9:34pm

Kristin, PLEASE let us know when you’re done with the interview. Hope it’s soon. XO

I text her back.

Having good talk. About to get something to eat. All is well. xoxoK

An almost-immediate response.

Going to eat by yourself?

Sigh. I feel like I’m back in high school.

No mom. It’s fine.

We peer up at the blanket of stars, the only light aside from my dashboard. “Red House” begins playing on my iPod.

“Hendrix.” $w1fT nods appreciatively.

“How’d you meet Thomas?” I ask.

“I heard he had a hundred bucks, so I ripped him off. It was like, seven years ago. And then I felt bad about it. And I started comin’ back, and I apologized. And I slowly started just like, here, whatever, whatever, you know. We started playing guitar together.”

“You didn’t give him his hundred dollars back?”

“No. I gave him other stuff back. And that’s what I love about Tom. He’s the type of man that’s easy to take advantage of. As I started hanging out more and more, became more of a friend, I was like, “I can’t let you take advantage of Tom. Tom’s my fuckin’ buddy, man. Through all the chaos and pandemonium, when the dust and the storm settles you can still sit on the damn couch and look at each other like, ‘Well, that does it, don’t it?’”

If I were going to rip someone off, I don’t think I’d hang around afterwards and kick it with the person I just stole from. But $w1fT does. We talk about “lurping,” $w1fT’s term for looting in the dead of night.  Urban Dictionary defines it a bit more explicitly: the act of meth addicts looking for anything to sell or trade for meth. Yikes. He’s nabbed Rolex watches, boxes of original Marvel comic books, coin collections. His favorite find was a Doors sticker, autographed by Jim Morrison.

My stomach growls, and I realize we’ve been talking for two hours. “Do you want to grab something to eat?” I ask. $w1fT quickly concurs. Maybe now we’ll visit the scene of the glamourized biker bar and grill of my mind.

“Let’s go to Jack,” $w1fT says.

I see another text from Nancy Mom.

Again, let us know when you are all done.

$w1fT directs me to the restaurant named for the ping-pong-ball-headed character, not the eponymous kitchen of a jovial biker-dude-turned-cook. Sigh.

“I don’t know what I feel comfortable with …” $w1fT confesses, apparently struggling with how much information to share with me. “It’s like if you had a Powerpuff Girl and you brought ‘em to an Ozzy Osbourne concert. You’d be like, ‘Uh, there might be a lot of profanity, and I don’t like that. Because Powerpuff Girls don’t need to be around profanity.’”

I am the Powerpuff Girl. I am equal parts charmed and annoyed.

“Do you have a gun on you?” I ask, glancing at the messenger bag in the backseat.

He contemplates his response for a while, making me think that there is a firearm in my backseat for sure. “Guns are for one thing and anything that you carry, the way it turns out is you’ll end up in a situation where you have to use it. And I would rather not have it and need it, because who knows, maybe if I did have it, I’d think it was my time and my right to take somebody’s life. I’d rather my life be taken than put my life in the place of God’s, you know?”

He messes with the buttons on his jacket. “I got homies. I don’t need to have no guns on me. I feel like it’s more proper. You’re going out and spending some time with a lady from out of town – you can’t be weighing yourself down with an instrument in your pocket.”

I smile. “That’s so kind of you. Thank you.”

$w1fT has two young children, a boy and girl. I ask him what he wants for them.

“I want them to grow up and make their own choices. And to see and understand and live and learn – make their own ‘this is what I think about that,’ rather than how I was [brought up, which was]: ‘this is how you’re supposed to feel.’ I want them to have the most they can, with the least time without. I just want them to be happy being themselves.

“Maybe if they cured cancer, that might be kind of cool. Although it’d be like after cancer is too far along with me, so it’d be ironic. That’s like my life right there. It’s like, ‘Did you hear they totally legalized marijuana?’ Really? After I have emphysema and a hole in my throat so I can never smoke again?”

The dining room at Jack in the Box is closed as of 9pm, so we hit the drive-through. We head back to Thomas’s and park next door, eating our cheeseburgers in the car. It turns out that $w1fT was not crashing on Thomas’s couch. He actually lives next door to 923 Oak. It’s past ten o’clock at night, and we’re having a lengthy discussion about whether or not I should go inside. He’s enthusiastic; I am hesitant. I’m not sure that I will be back, and I’d really like to see what a biker gang/drug dealer’s abode looks like. But’s it’s late.

The more we discuss it, the more comfortable I feel. I’ll pop in and leave. But $w1fT starts to have second thoughts. Apparently it would be unwise for a blonde to be walking into his house late at night. The hills have eyes.

We say our goodbyes and promise to keep in touch. He closes the car door and disappears into the darkness of another neighborhood with no streetlights.

There is a sweetness about $w1fT, hiding deep under his leather and metal armor. He refers to his wife as “Tink,” short for Tinkerbell. (Actually, he uses the charming term “old lady” instead of wife, biker slang I recognized from No Angel, the true story of an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated a Hell’s Angel chapter, also in Arizona). He carries around a stuffed cat, dressed in miniature biker gear that he made himself. $w1fT  is intelligent, well spoken and funny.

He had a simple answer to my question of what he wanted his legacy to be.

“To leave more smiles than frowns.”

I text my mom.

Heading home now. See you in the morning.

________

A few weeks later, I got this email from $w1fT. Which is apparently what he calls his bike as well.

Date: 1.28.14 2:48 pm

From: $w1fT

To: Kristin

Subject: Lookout

 

Hey thought you might like this. I took it about an our before i wrecked my bike the other day. Was up there on swift with my cat and couldnt help but think of you. Hope all is well.

$w1fT @ Lookout, 923 oak | arizona

 

 

about dan and faye: 923 oak | iowa

“She got me when I was down.”

923 oak iowa

Dan leans over the kitchen table, mischief sparkling in his blue eyes. He and I are sitting at the big oak table on the other side of the sliding glass doors. The kitchen is bright from the sun reflecting off the snow-covered ground on this cold Sunday afternoon in northwestern Iowa. Faye is milling about, making frosting for the chocolate cake we just baked. She laughs as she puts a bowl in the sink.

“I was in the hospital, and her mother was working up on our floor,” he continues.

Faye counsels her husband. “Don’t add too much to it, just tell it –“

“I’m gonna tell it!” Dan’s eyes are even more playful now. “This guy that’s in town here, he never did get married.”

“No, I broke his heart,” Faye chuckles.

‘This guy’ is Kenny. In the early 1960s, Kenny and Dan were in a Sioux City hospital, about 50 miles from the kitchen table I’m sitting at now – in the same town where Kenny and Dan grew up.

Kenny was laid up with his leg in a cast. Dan, who I can only imagine from his current incarnation to have been a spritely, athletic young farmer in his early 20’s, was across the hall from Kenny, getting physical therapy on his knee from a baseball injury. “Nowadays they got therapy at your local hospital, but those days they didn’t – had to haul me clear to Sioux City just to get therapy!” Dan says enthusiastically, emphasizing the word ‘therapy,’ which sounds like “TEAR-a-pee.”

“Every nurse they had was an old nurse. So this guy’d ask every one: ‘Hey! You got any daughters? You got any daughters?’” Dan laughs, his eyes wide. “No kiddin’! Pretty soon, he gets her mother,” he nods to Faye. She smiles.

“‘Yeah, I got a daughter!’” Dan recounts Faye’s mom’s reply. “She said, ‘Matter of fact, she’s working here in the hospital, down in pediatrics on the first floor!’ So Kenny says, ‘Send her up!’” It sounds as though he and Kenny are in a crowded bar and Kenny has just bought a round for the house.

“Well, here she comes,” Dan sits back, reminiscing. “She was on the prowl,” he confides to me, his voice low.

“Oh my gosh!” I pooh-pooh him.

“So anyway, Faye would get off work a half an hour before her mother would. So she would come up and visit with us in our room, you know. It happened for only two days and then they caught us. So then [Kenny] said, ‘Hey! Go find a wheelchair. We gotta go down and visit Faye.’ So I’m looking around these closets and I find me a wheelchair and I whip her out and get him out of bed.”

Dan is laughing with his whole body. You couldn’t help but do the same thing, watching and listening to him tell this story in what I suspect is his trademark animated way. I love this guy.

“Wait, you were able to get around?” I ask, trying to understand how these two could pull off these shenanigans with bum legs.

“Yeah, I just had to get my leg where I could get it straight,” Dan says, wiping tears from his eyes.

“So Kenny was interested,” I say to Faye.

“Poor guy never did get married,” Dan smiles ruefully.

“He was older than Danny, though, too,” Faye says. Dan is five years older than Faye. I love that she calls him Danny.

“Did he ever make his feelings known to you?” I ask her.

“No, ‘cause Danny got out of the hospital first and he called me for a date right away and that was it,” she laughs.

That was it. Dan and Faye celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year.

“He never had a chance, the poor guy,” Dan laughs.

I wonder how many times they’ve told this story over the past 50 years – the way they tell it, it feels like it happened just the other day.

This is one small part of an hours-long visit with Dan, Faye and several kids and grandkids. The entire visit was filled with warm, hearty, infectious laughter. I wish I could bottle the sound of it. Any time I’m in a foul mood, one snippet of Dan & Faye’s audible merriment would put a big smile on my face. Forget The 923 Oak Project. I could sell that stuff and retire early.

And maybe go hang out with Dan and Faye some more.

923 oak iowa

back in black

Remember Thomas from 923 Oak in Arizona?

Remember his most treasured possession?

A guitar.

Do you remember WHERE it was?

A pawn shop.

It made me sad to know that his most treasured possession was in danger of being lost forever — and he saw it on my face.

I was struck by his reply: “That makes you doubly treasure it.”

Sigh.

When I went back to Arizona to talk with $w1fT, I spent some time with Thomas at 923 Oak, and I was delighted to see this:

thomas's guitar #923 oak arizonaIt’s back!

What’s your most treasured possession? Whatever it is, I hope it’s actually IN your possession so you can take a minute to treasure it, and all the memories it holds.

Happy Saturday, guys.

gravel driveways & comfort zones

I walk up the long gravel driveway to knock on the front door of 923 Oak Lane. Under the watchful eyes of two curious female neighbors, I figure there’s no turning back now.

My letters, postcards and email to this address have gone unanswered. I have no appointment. But I am driving through this town, one of five in Florida with a 923 Oak, on my way to the gulf coast. I am RIGHT HERE.

It’s the inevitable next step — just showing up unannounced and knocking on the doors of 923 Oaks. This is supremely uncomfortable to me; way scarier than selling random trinkets and food to my Terrace Avenue neighbors to help fund my extra-curricular activities throughout grade school.

The closest I’ve come to knocking on someone’s door on this road trip was a week ago in Indiana. A 923 Oak was just 15 minutes from where I was spending the night at my high school friend Marchele’s house. It was a rundown white-sided duplex, and I was too chicken to knock on the door. I wrote a little note and slipped my homemade 923 Oak business card inside. I carefully propped it in the rubber-banded, jury-rigged black mailbox mounted to the side of the house, hoping the mailman would overlook my non-stamped envelope.

(PS a week has gone by and no response. Bygones.)

So here I am on the gravel driveway on a gorgeous warm day in northeastern Florida. I’m coaching myself with every step to the front door: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” “What’s the worst that can happen?”

923 oak florida #923roadtripThere are three cars in front of the house and the garage door is wide open. I think I hear voices (from the garage, aside from the ones in my head), and as I get closer, I spot two women sitting at a table inside the darkened garage. I divert my path from the front door and as I near the garage, a third woman comes out of the shadows and stands in front of me.

“Can I help you?” She is petite, probably late 50s, with short hair, sprinkled with gray.

“Hi.” I take a deep breath. “I’m Kristin with The 923 Oak Project.”

“I got your postcard,” she says, and introduces herself before I can apologize for my unannounced visit. She used her last name with a “Mrs.” in front of it, and as I’m not including last names of 923 Oak residents in this project, I can’t share it with you.

“I have mixed feelings about being here,” I jump in quickly. “I’m a little uncomfortable just stopping by because I think that’s kind of intrusive, but I was in Jacksonville last night, and I’m headed to Tampa, and you are right on the way, so I thought ….”

“I’m not real computer savvy,” she offers with a mild smile, which I take as an explanation for why she hasn’t responded to me. “I gave my husband your letter and he said, ‘We’re not calling her back.’” She chuckles and moves her cigarette behind her to shield me from the smoke.

“Well maybe I could send you a few stories of some of the people I’ve met so far, so you can get a better idea of what the project is about,” I propose, telling her about a few of the people I’ve met so far. She thinks it’s funny that the 923 Oak in Georgia is a junkyard. “Maybe sometime down the road, I can come back and we can chat.”

“Yes, it would be better when my husband is here. We can tell you a few stories.” I find out that she is a teacher at a Christian school and her husband is a truck driver. She’s lived in Florida since she was three, when her family moved from Nashville.

I thank her and head back to my car, cheered by the fact that one of the many unresponsive 923 Oaks seems willing to talk with me. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s not immediate — it would be awesome if we could chat right now — but I’ve got places to be and people to see.

More than anything, IT’S A SIGN. I’m not so optimistic that I think this scenario will play out each time I knock on a 923 Oak door.

But I’m hopeful.

And happy that stepping onto the gravel driveway and out of my comfort zone yielded something good.

As it always does.

meet $w1fT: 923 oak | arizona

These stories about $w1fT have generated a lot of heated conversation with some people who are very dear to me. They are worried about the content and tone of these posts; that I appear to be a thrill-seeker at worst and dangerously naive at best. Ultimately, they fear that sharing this particular story — as fascinating as it may be — could alienate future 923 Oak participants. (They want me to save it for the book.)

I understand their concerns, and I certainly don’t want to do anything to jeopardize participation in this project. I doubt (hope?!) any future visits will be quite as sensational. But $w1fT is an authentic part of what I have encountered at 923 Oak. As are Faye, Dan and their Iowa farm family. Thomas in Arizona. Mike & Pete in Ohio. As are those you are about to meet: Jamie in Tennessee, Ben in Georgia, and Dan, Sally, Taylor and Mackenzie in Pennsylvania. Whatever the consequences, it feels right to share all of their stories here.

Looking at America through the lens of one address will uncover some pretty interesting, potentially uncomfortable truths. And that’s kinda the point: What do we think about it, and what are we going to do about it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think? 

_____

January 2014

Part 1

I want to hear more of $w1fT’s story.  Here’s my decision tree:

  • I have an opportunity to rent my apartment for two weeks.
  • That covers one month of my rent.
  • This is music to my currently unemployed ears.
  • However, that renders me effectively homeless for 14 days.
  • If I need a place to stay for two weeks, and I can go anywhere, I’m going somewhere warm.
  • My parents and aunt live in Arizona, and they happen to be a pleasure to spend time with.
  • They won’t make me pay to stay there.
  • Mom and Dad live about two hours away from $w1fT.

See? No-brainer.

Doubts creep in, for sure. It’s one thing to be adventurous; it’s another to be stupid. I tell myself that my decision falls in the former category. Mostly.

So, after driving down the California coast and spending a couple nights with Mom and Dad, I hop back in the car to make the drive to see $w1fT.

I expect that $w1fT will be at 923 Oak when I arrive for my second visit. He is not. Mark, a friend of Thomas’s I didn’t know, answers the door, smiling to reveal a handful of missing teeth. I greet Thomas with a hug, putting a 12-pack of Bud Light Platinum and assorted snacks I brought him on the counter.

$w1fT is nowhere to be found, and Thomas doesn’t seem to have much information on his whereabouts. I text $w1ft.

Thu, Jan 9, 3:54pm
At Thomas’s … what’s your eta?

 

Thomas and I are sitting next to each other on the sofa, catching up, sipping Bud Light Platinum. He turns on a DVD of the Eagles Live from Australia concert and strums along on his electric guitar. He is self-taught and has an impressive ear. Suspect, Thomas’s Chihuahua, allows me to hold him on my lap and pet him between his bouts of humping my leg.

That is a Chihuahua with freakishly strong front legs. I can barely pry him off my calf.

A woman named Kayla arrives a few songs into the Eagles concert. She is upset that she is $50 shy of retrieving her car from the pound. She retires to Thomas’s bedroom to rest.

The second disc of the live concert DVD goes in.

I text $w1fT again.

Thu Jan 9, 6:33pm
Hey there – are you able to get together today?

 

A few minutes later, Thomas somehow connects with $w1fT on his phone, and hands it to me.

“Sorry,” $w1ft says. “I had to deal with a few ‘situations.’”

I don’t know $w1fT well, but I appreciate the way that he emphasizes certain words, which makes me wonder what on earth “situations” look like in his line of work.

I agree to pick $w1fT up from his current location, but since I have no idea where I’m going (and have zero sense of direction), Thomas (and Suspect) come with me. We stop by the supermarket first so Thomas can pick up something for dinner.

We drive a few blocks away to a street of tightly packed mobile homes, barely lit by dim streetlights further down the road. The afternoon light is gone. We spot a lone shadowed figure next to one of the rundown trailers. I stop the car.

$w1ft climbs into the backseat of my car, now filled with the pungent aroma of fried chicken. He is clad in black from head to toe, and carries a large bag, which could pass for a hipster’s messenger bag. I wonder what’s inside. We drop Thomas off back at 923 Oak, and $w1fT gets into the front passenger seat.

“Where do you want to go?” I ask.

“Ummm …” he ponders. “Do you want to see something cool?”

“Uh, yeah …”

I expect we are headed to a hidden gem of a biker joint. I have already romanticized the setting in my mind: an old dive with neon beer signs; dented wooden floors; burly, tatted dudes on barstools; and stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air.

“Do you want to see something really, really cool?”

Again: “Uh, yeah.”

“I have to warn you; this place is kinda romantic.”

I laugh. “I know I don’t have to worry about you. You’re a married man.”

“I’m not that married.”

Red flag. Well, more magenta. (Even when I dole out “red flags,” I like to give people the benefit of the doubt.)

We drive down dark roads, clearly headed out of town. Before long, we’re headed uphill, and the road conditions worsen. Potholes dot a barely paved road, which soon turns into dirt. Patches of snow appear along the sides of the road. It is pitch black.

We arrive at what looks to be a large parking lot with a dense forest along two sides and a cliff along the others. “Lookout,” $w1fT informs me. This is not a warning; apparently it is the name of our destination.

I stop at what I think is a safe distance from the edge of the cliff and put the car in park. This would no doubt be a beautiful place to be at sunset. Sunrise, too, but I prefer my bed at that time of day.

Suddenly a truck roars up right behind us, its headlights aggressively illuminating $w1fT and me in the car. I look at $w1fT expectantly.

“What’s happening?”

introducing 923 oak | iowa

Waze is an awesome navigation app that has guided me to each and every stop along this journey. Incorporating real-time data from its users, the app guides me to my destination via the fastest, least-trafficky route.

Traffic wasn’t so much an issue during this almost 4-hour drive through northwestern Iowa.

Sunday morning drive in Iowa #923roadtrip

Sunday morning drive in Iowa

But I hit a snag at 1:59 p.m. — one minute before my appointment with Faye and her family at 923 Oak. Just as the female voice of Waze assuredly proclaims that I have reached my destination, which I clearly have not, I spot a sheriff in a parking lot right in front of me. I pull up next to his SUV and roll down my window.

He looks at me with a blank stare. I feel a little self-conscious of my California plates.

“Hi,” I offer through my open passenger-side window.

He looks at me.

“Do you know where Oak Street is?”

“It’s probably back that way,” he says after a couple beats, waving his left arm behind him. “There are only four streets in this town. I’m sure you’ll find it.”

Huh. This is a town of less than 400 people. The only “commercial” establishments I pass on my way in are a feed store, a big Catholic church and a closed retail gift-y shop where Officer Helpful was hanging out.

I find out later that several nearby towns share law enforcement officials between them, as they are too small to support them on their own. So it makes a little more sense that the sheriff didn’t know the exact location of Oak Street.

He was right. I turn onto Maple, pass Ash and see Oak Street.

two of the town's four streets #923roadtrip

two of the town’s four streets

923 Oak is the second house on the left.

923 Oak | Iowa #923roadtrip

923 Oak | Iowa

I park on the street and gather my winter coat, bag and Hy-Vee flower bouquet for Faye. She is smiling behind the all-glass door as I make my way up the front porch stairs. She is petite and sporting a vibrant animal-print top over blue jeans. (Completely age-appropriate, not cougar-y.) She is adorable. I immediately want to give her a hug, but I hold back and instead shake her hand.

We fall into an easy conversation right off the bat. She has all of the ingredients and utensils laid out on her island for the cake we’re going to bake in my America cake pan. We’re using a recipe from her church cookbook called “Crazy Cake.” (Crazy because it has no eggs.) I forget that I need to be documenting everything – I just want to sit and chat and soak up everything about her. She walks me through the recipe and explains how she typically makes it, leaving me to my own devices. She seems like she would be the perfect mother-in-law: She doesn’t tell me how to make the cake, she just gently explains how she does it. I feel like I’m in a home economics class, and a little nervous I’m going to mess it up. She’s invited several family members to join us for supper, so this cake better be good. Game on.

the crazy cake #923roadtrip

the crazy cake

She puts on coffee, and once the cake is in the oven, we prepare to sit down at the kitchen table and really chat. She shares that her coffee-group friends were shocked that she was meeting with me. (They would NEVER.) RoseMary in particular was not a fan of this idea, and made Faye promise to call her at 3pm, an hour into our meeting. That made me smile, remembering my first 923 Oak visit in Ohio, and how my friends and family made me promise to text them by a certain time. She pooh-poohs the idea – she’s not calling RoseMary. “I think it’s a lot more dangerous for you, coming into random homes!” she tells me.

At that moment, Dan, the man of the house and her husband of 50 years, walks into the kitchen. He is a smidge taller than Faye, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, wearing a light blue western shirt with pearl buttons, blue jeans and a big smile. Without saying a word, he stretches out his arms, and I CANNOT RESIST. I go in for the hug. I am already having the best time ever.

20 days in

Today marks the halfway point of my #923roadtrip. I’m 20 days into my 40-day journey, and I’m halfway across America. I’m staying out in the country in central Iowa, with my aunt Julie, in the house she, my mom and their other four siblings grew up in.

It makes me nostalgic to be here. Most summers when I was growing up, my family would make the drive from southern Indiana to Iowa.  We’d always sing “I-o-wa, I-o-wa, the land where the tall corn grows” as we crossed the Mississippi River into the state where my parents each grew up.

iowa #923roadtripThe past week was not the easiest; despite my repeated efforts to remind myself to relax, I could not. The goal of this trip is  to reach as many 923 Oaks as possible within a 40-day window. I have not heard back from most of the 923 Oak residents I’ve contacted so far, and despite my unrealistic expectations of a 50%+ response rate right off the bat, it bums me out. Especially when I am driving through places where I know there are 923 Oaks, but they haven’t agreed to meet with me. ESPECIALLY when I’m driving through a place where someone initially agreed to meet with me, but then never responded back to several follow-ups.

illinois #923 roadtripThe hardest part, though, was wanting to maximize my visits with 923 Oak residents and just not knowing where to go next. And despite my desire to be spontaneous and carefree, I am not that girl right now. (If I were independently wealthy and didn’t have a goal to achieve within a limited time frame, I think I would enjoy trying.)

So I came up with a new plan. Thanks in part to a surprise visit from my friend Beth, who drove down to Nashville to stay with me for a couple days. Spending time with her helped to snap me out of my funk and inspired me to make the most of this journey.

beth on broadway #923roadtripShe was with me as I took some exterior shots the day after a 923 Oak interview with a musician outside of Nashville.

923And seeing this little sign in the middle of a super cool vintage clothing store in East Nashville was no coincidence. Just another way to say “relax.”

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So my new paradigm is this: just enjoy the journey. If I happen to meet with some 923 Oaks, awesome. But it is no longer the primary goal. I can come back to visit with more people. This is only the beginning. Things happen as they should. (You’ve heard it before and I’m sure you’ll hear it again. How many times will I need to repeat this to myself?)

the arch #923roadtripI AM ON A ROADTRIP ACROSS AMERICA! HOW FUN IS THAT?

To top it off, I happen to be in town at for a big event tonight: a bunch of people are coming over to Julie’s house for a fish fry, honoring her late husband (my Uncle Terry). I’ll get to see family I haven’t seen in years and meet new people — I am prepared for a night of belly laughs.

And tomorrow is a 923 Oak visit in northwest Iowa, during which I will bake a cake with Faye, a spunky grandmother of 20. She invited me to stay for supper.

That is Iowa, people.

And that is what this project is all about.