The furthest I’ve been distance wise has been Western Texas – it was part of a several week “road trip” we took in graduate school. That experience was almost surreal – being chased by a wild boar, riding in a row-boat across the Rio Grande River to eat breakfast in Mexico, and more.
But my response to this question is based on a combination of distance and time – when I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for three years while studying at LSU. One of the loneliest moments of my life was watching my parents drive away as they departed back to Pittsburgh and I realized I was supposed to now be an adult. Gulp.
Everything about this was a risk – I had never met my roommate. I had never lived in my own apartment. I had no real interest in being an academic, I was simply good at it so it seemed like a good thing to do after college. I was not only in the Deep South, I was in the Louisiana part of the South which I came to learn was very different (think French influence versus British influence.) I was broke and my father had been laid off so my parents couldn’t help me too much.
Then came Hurricane Andrew. One week after I waved good-bye to my parents, it crept towards us scaring the living daylight out of me. My roommate was very nice, but not reliable – she literally abandoned me to go stay with her sister, apologizing that there wasn’t room for me. What? So I dutifully taped up the windows with duct tape, ate the last of the ice cream and sat in my third floor apartment in terror.
Fortunately, my college friend Phil called to check on me and quickly invited me to spend the night at his place.I scurried over, arriving just as the lights went out and burrowed onto his couch watching through the picture window with terror as trees bent in half in the winds. We were spared the worst of the damage. My car was fine and other than having to jump over a fallen tree to gain access to my apartment, it was okay. Phil took me to his parents house for a few days while the electricity was restored.
When I returned to my apartment, I decided to eat at Wendy’s for a few days to feel normal, to feel like I was at home. That’s the first time I truly appreciate the concept of a chain restaurant. And I planned to go home – to repack my stuff and move back to Pittsburgh where hurricanes seldom struck. Phil talked me out of it and school started and soon I was meeting people and swept into an entirely new and delightful culture – a small academic world filled with debate, beer and shared common resources.
Over the next three years, I had an almost surreal experience of growing into adulthood – from LSU football games (oh boy) to adventures in Acadiana and New Orleans. I learned how to be a critical thinker, how to write and how to speak up in a room where I was the only woman. I was introduced to feminism which ultimately led to my decision to leave academics for something new. I taught myself how to cook and to budget and to manage household chores. I started taking cockroaches for granted because they were simply part of the Southern lifestyle.
I left without my doctorate because I was starting to shrivel in a world dominated by white men. I didn’t care about half the things I was supposed to care about to flourish as a college professor. I was growing depressed and isolated because I was in an abusive relationship. I had no idea what to do, who to be, who I was without being a “good student” so I took another leap and literally dropped out of school to run away and become a missionary in Western Kentucky.
I wish I had completed the degree, but I simply wasn’t up to that. I don’t regret my experiences at LSU – I learned how to write there and how to think for myself. I learned self-reliance and the meaning of friendship. But I moved on to Kentucky which was another type of distance albeit not so far. And eventually it was time to return to Pittsburgh because I had started to figure out what I wanted be when I finished growing up.