“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.”-Harriet Tubman
My drive to Pittsburgh this afternoon helped shift my thoughts away from the lingering sadness over the fact that none of the companies that sail to Antarctica have taken me up on my offer. But instead of thinking about the penguins and orca whales I was hoping to have seen, the whole thing has reminded me about the worst part of traveling alone.
I never have anyone to commiserate with.
Just once I’d like to be able to share something with someone for a change so it will be good to drown my Antarctic sorrows over a few beers with one of my best buds this weekend.
The last time I came to visit Justin he lived on the other side of Pittsburgh, in Wexford to be exact. His second daughter, Ella, had just been born and his first daughter, Livia, had just turned two. As I pull into his driveway, his new neighborhood is quite impressive and his house is picture perfect. It looks like one of those model homes that every American family aspires to have one day. The only thing missing is the white picket fence.
He told me not to honk the horn or ring the doorbell when I arrive because his daughters might be sleeping, so he bounds out of his front door to greet me the second my headlights hit his house.
He’s tall, slender and his dark hair has receded since my last visit four years ago, which makes me happy in a way that you can only understand when your closest friends begin to slightly lose their hair.
I’d say that I only have three really close friends and I think my phone currently has a whopping total of eight contacts saved in it, but I prefer it that way. I find a big group of friends to be energy draining and at the end of the day, I don’t think you get to know any of them all that well. Maybe it’s the only child in me, but I’d rather keep a small circle and get to know the inner workings of a few than the boring minutia of the masses.
Justin’s been inside my inner circle for over 20 years now. He’s actually the only person I’ve texted with every single day during my travels (Wi-Fi permitting), and ironically we rarely talk about my travels. It’s usually dumb off the cuff stuff that helps me take my mind of the stresses of my journey. When we give each other a big bear hug on his front lawn, it hits me how important all those seemingly inconsequential texts have been along the way. He kept me sane in Sudan and reeled me in in Russia when things seemed destined to completely fall apart. The ego in me hates to give anyone else the credit for having made it this far around the world, but I honestly don’t know if I’d have made it this far without him.
I’d like to think that he’d vouch for me as well. When he shockingly got laid off this summer, I brought the photo shoot that I was in the midst of to a halt and told him to call the hotel I was at immediately. He tends to get stressed easily and I knew he needed to talk it out. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he needed to hear me say that he’d find a new and better job by the time I got to Pittsburgh in the fall, which of course he did.
Justin and I met way back in 1994 at an AAU basketball team tryout. We were both trying to make the Lehigh Valley Blue Devils, which is a local all-star team that selects players from Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. The team spends the summer traveling around the east coast of the United States playing in prestigious tournaments and it’s really the only way to get recruited by major Universities if you have any hopes of playing at the collegiate level.
About 30 kids showed up at The East Side Youth Center for the tryout from 20 different area high schools. Neither Justin nor I made the team, but fortunately for us, the coaches decided to start a second team called the Wolfpack with all the players that were not good enough to get selected for the Blue Devils.
I’ve told the story of my AAU team before, but it’s worth repeating. We were terrible. We were the castoffs, the Bad News Bears of basketball. We even had a player we affectionately called “Stone Hands” because he couldn’t even catch the most basic of bounce passes. Most of the guys on the team were not even good enough to play for their high school teams during the winter, so they had no business even being at the tryout in the first place. Looking back on it now, I almost think that the coaches of the Blue Devils put the Wolfpack together for their own amusement. During our first season, we were completely overmatched by every other team we came up against. They must have known that was going to be the case.
We got pummeled game after game. I remember one game specifically when we lost by 70 points to a team from South Jersey. I was only in 8th grade then, but just before the final buzzer sounded, I vividly remember a player on the other team thunderously dunking over one of my teammates, which made my jaw drop. It was the first time I had ever seen someone do that in an actual game.
Whether we lost by 70 or 7 it didn’t matter, I loved every minute of it.
I loved the instant comradery we formed as oddball teammates and playing practical jokes with my new and goofy friends in the bleachers in between games. But really it was all of those long weekends away from home that helped spark that wanderlust gene inside me. We’d pile into a minivan and one of our parents would drive us some 600 miles to a tournament in Maine or Maryland and even though we always knew we were going to lose, it never once mattered. All the long road trips and looking out the window while my buddies blasted a whoopee cushion or talked about that week’s episode of Seinfeld was intoxicating to me.
I do think that part of the reason that this group of guys was so special to me is because I never really fit in with the other kids that I went to high school with. I’ll never forget the first time I got subbed into a varsity basketball game for my high school team. When I got up off the bench and ran to the scorer’s table to check in, I got booed by the student section from my own school. It was mostly because I was a freshman and I was being subbed in for a popular senior, but still to be booed by your own fans regardless of the reason is something you don’t ever forget. I never got the sense from the guys I played with in high school that they ever wanted to see me succeed. In fact, I actually think many of my own high school teammates often rooted against me and purposely didn’t pass me the ball, but I’ll save those stories for another time.
So, the Wolfpack became the ying to my yang. There was just something special about my teammates. I knew they wanted me to do well and they encouraged me. We just clicked as friends and then ultimately as a team. We stuck together over the next four summers and by the end of our last season together we had raised our level of play so much that we were finally beating the teams that had once crushed us during that first season.
I eventually went on to get a full basketball scholarship because of how much my game developed over the years playing with those guys, which ultimately changed the course of my life. Had it not been for that scholarship, I wouldn’t have gotten into any colleges because I didn’t have the grades required to get accepted anywhere. I hate to think about where I’d be now without my college education.
I owe so much of who I am to that Wolfpack team, that a week doesn’t go by that I don’t think about it.
I’ll never forget one summer when the coach of the Blue Devils asked me if I’d change teams and join his team now that I had become a much better basketball player. I told him he was crazy and that there’s no way I’d ever leave the group of guys that I’d been playing with, even though changing teams would have meant more opportunities for me to be seen by bigger Universities. Our loyalty to one another has always been there and Justin’s been the guy I can always count on when I’m in a pinch.
Back in high school we would do the normal teenage things besides play basketball even though we attended different high schools. We’d go to the movies, play video games and have sleep overs. He’d often spend the weekend at my house or vice versa and his mother famously referred to me as “artsy Eric” way back when I wasn’t “artsy”. To this day we still think it’s funny that she could see something in me that no one else ever did.
Then, there’s my family’s famous story about Justin. It’s the one my father always feels compelled to share anytime we all get together. I roll my eyes now because I’ve heard it a million times, but it’s really the moment our friendship was forged.
It was during the junior year of my high school basketball season. I had led my team to the District 11 Championship game, which in Pennsylvania is somewhat of a big deal. And we were playing Justin’s high school team, which was the big bad Central Catholic High School. They weren’t just our biggest rivals, but they were every school’s biggest rival. They were a powerful private school and no one liked them because they always won everything and they were cocky about it. Plus, the rumor was that they recruited the best athletes from middle schools all throughout the district and that once they’d find a young star athlete they’d convince him to transfer to Central Catholic for high school. They did all this so their sports teams could continue to dominate. Now if that’s true or not, I don’t know, but regardless, no one ever liked them.
My high school had never beaten them in basketball and we thought this championship game was finally our big chance to do so. The game was being broadcast live on TV and it was held at Lafayette College because there was more seating for fans there. Nearly 3,500 people showed up and the gym was packed to the rafters for the big game, but there was one big problem. Earlier that day in school I had come down with a 102-degree fever and the flu hit me in homeroom like a ton of bricks. I spent the entire day vomiting in the nurse’s office and I wasn’t able to go home and rest because if I had then I would have been ruled ineligible to play in the game later that night.
Well I don’t need to fill you in on the ugly details, but I tried to play and it ended up being the only game in my whole career I didn’t score a single point.
My team got embarrassed in front of a sold out gymnasium and the worst part was that no one knew I was sick, they all just thought I sucked.
But after the game Justin waited for me outside the locker room and as my parents came to console me, he was there as well. He put his hand on my shoulder, which none of my actual teammates did, and he said, “That the game would have been much different had you not been sick. Hang in their buddy, we all know you’re better than that.”
Now I know that maybe that doesn’t seem like much, but for a 16-year old to have the wherewithal to say something like that at the lowest moment of my athletic life, I think it gives you a peak behind the curtain of his character. He could have just as easily forgotten about me and been celebrating with his teammates, so that moment has always stayed with me.
Our bond has always been brotherly ever since then and I am not surprised in the least that he has gone on to become a husband and a father, and I have not. For as good of friends as we are, it’s comical how different we actually are from one another. As he takes me on a tour of his new house, I couldn’t imagine having a mortgage, a wife, two kids and living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And surely he cringes at the idea of living on the road and out of a backpack like me.
I wander, he plans; I spend, he saves; He’s catholic, I’m not; He’s clean shaven and my hair’s nearly half way down my back now.
This is the classic example of the differences between us. He enjoys working in his cubical and looking at spreadsheets all day and I couldn’t fathom doing that for even an afternoon. Our minds just work different. He’s a numbers guy and I’m an ideas guy, but we’ve always bonded over a ballgame and a beer, which he pours me once we get down into his basement.
He’s created the perfect man cave down here. There’s a fully stocked bar, a pool table and two rows of movie theater style seats that face a monstrous TV. He even has a pop-a-shot basketball arcade game down here. As we sip our beers it’s not like we need to catch up because we text every day, but I fill him in on the whole Antarctica thing and share my disappointment about not being able to go. I tell him that I emailed all the companies last week and no one’s responded and that it’s actually going to be impossible for me to get there.
I go on to say, “There will always be a big hole in my story for the rest of my life. Whenever I tell people that I once traveled around the entire world overland they’ll always say, “Even Antarctica?” I’ll have to reply, “Well, no, not Antarctica.”
Then I say, “This isn’t like when I got to Cairo and couldn’t find a way to get to Europe. There’s no concierge this time that’s going to help me find a bus to Jordan and then an onward route to Israel so I could eventually catch a cargo ship to Europe. There are just no more options.”
The basement door creeks open and Justin’s wife calls down to him, “The girls just got out of the bath and its time to put them to bed, can you come up and help me?”
Before Justin runs upstairs he gives me the code for the Wi-Fi. I haven’t been online all day and I should probably check my email because I’m headed to Toronto after a weekend here with him and hopefully a hotel there has accepted my offer. I emailed 100 hotels and Bed and Breakfast’s in Toronto before I left Chicago this morning and I’m hoping that one has already replied by now.
I scroll through my Gmail account and delete the junk mail I’ve gotten since the last time I logged in, but unfortunately I don’t see any responses from Toronto yet.
However, as I get to the last email in my inbox it reads: Re: Antarctica.
My heart skips a beat and my eyebrows furrow because it means that one of the companies that sail to Antarctica has at least replied to my offer. Before I let myself get too excited, I remind myself of the staggering odds against one of these companies actually accepting my offer. I’m sure its just going to be a short email that ends with thank you for your proposal, but we are not interested at this time. I’ve gotten similar emails from countless hotels that decided to pass on my hotel offer. In order for me to get just one hotel to agree to my offer I usually have to email around 60 to 70 hotels, and the odds are even worse with this whole Antarctica thing since there are only 12 companies that even sail there.
But even with all that said, I still race to open the email.
Once it loads I read the first line to myself: Eric, we like your proposal and we would like to accept your offer.
My brain is so confused that instead of yelling out yes, yes, yes I call out no, no, no this can’t be true to the empty basement. As I read on the next line says, Antarpply Expeditions would like to offer you a twin cabin on our voyage – Weddell Sea Quest, January 10 – 21, free of charge.
I scream out, “FREE OF CHARGE!”
My eyes immediately well up and the energy inside my body starts pulsating like giant waves during a winter swell.
“Oh my god.”
It’s hard to get a handle on what I’m feeling. I feel like I’ve had to scratch and claw for every mile I’ve traveled so far and it’s always been the longest of long shots to get someone to accept my Antarctica offer. Now that it’s come to fruition it’s even better than I ever expected.
I re-read the email a second and third time through the tears that I can’t stop from forming. I want to make sure that this email is in fact real and not some cruel and twisted practical joke. Once I confirm that I read everything correctly it hits me that I will actually be going to Antarctica.
I stand there dumbstruck.
I think back to the cornfield in Iowa where this whole idea formed in my mind and my insides scream, go the goddamn distance!
This email has to go down as the most miraculous news of my life. Not only does it mean I’m going to get to Antarctica, but it means that I’ll now have the chance to complete my dream to make it around the entire world overland and across all 7 continents. Then I think about how many billions of people have come to this planet over time and what a small select group I’ll join.
I run upstairs into the living room dying to share the news with Justin. What a perfect time to get incredible news. This is the first time in all my travels that I’ve had good news to share and someone to share it with.
Once I make my way to the second floor I look down the hallway and directly into his daughter’s bedroom. Her bedroom door is slightly open and there’s my buddy for over twenty years, tucking his daughter into her pink princess sheets.
It brings a hush over me and neither of them knows I’m there so I just quietly watch one of life’s most precious moments. The sound of laughter drifts out of the room and he hands her a teddy bear and then kisses her on her forehead. It’s really a thing of beauty. I don’t exactly know if and when I’ll ever have kids of my own, but watching him, so selfless with his time and energy is inspiring.
As I stand there I can’t help but to think back to the reason we met. We were the castoffs, the ones who were deemed not good enough. I think of a great line in a book I read a few years ago called, The Thoughtful Guide to Islam, which always stuck with me. It goes, “The outcome to any situation will always be the appropriate one.”
Being rejected by the Blue Devils was unequivocally the best thing that ever happened to me. Not only did it bring me my best friends, ignite my love of travel and get me into college, but it also put a chip on my shoulder. Sometimes in order to achieve great things you need to be a little pissed off. You need that special something to fuel your fire when you have nothing left to give and that’s what rejection can do sometimes.
Of course, when I was fourteen I felt like a loser and that I’d never be any good at basketball, but who would have ever thought that the failure nearly 24 years ago would be the moment I could pinpoint as being my greatest gift.
As I watch Justin turn the light off and quietly close his daughter’s bedroom door I can’t help but swell with pride for the both of us. He’s living out his calling here in Pittsburgh raising a beautiful family and now I’ve got the chance to continue living out mine in, of all places, Antarctica.