Rochester, New York, Summer 2018
On a Saturday morning in early June, Benjamin Nelson packed a bag and left. Today was different from any other Saturday morning for two reasons. It was the day after his high school graduation. And he was never coming back.
Not to his family’s musty basement apartment; not to the warehouse in downtown Rochester where he had spent every Saturday for the last four years; not even to New York State.
Ben had to go. Always had.
He’d never known why. He guessed it could have been the bullies, but he dismissed the idea they had that much power over him. He supposed his family might have planted the seed, but he didn’t want to remember them that way. He might even have believed it was one too many grey western New York winters, but it wasn’t that either. No, the truth was simple. Plain and short.
Leaving was what he was. There was something in his soul that was always leaving, and all his life it had left without him. It was time he went and found it.
That morning he’d made his bed neatly in the room he shared with his brothers, careful not to wake them. He left his cellphone and a note on the pillow. The phone, so his family would know he was not ignoring them, and so they could not find him. The note, so they knew he loved them, and where he’d gone. The note read:
“Gone exploring. Love, Ben.”
Then he’d climbed out the window that opened onto the dust beneath the deck of the upstairs apartment. His mother hated that, but he always left through the window on Saturdays instead of going out the door and up the stairs—because the window was faster, and because it was fun. But today the act held more significance to him. It felt like he was escaping through a loophole in the rules of life, and it was with as much wonder as caution that he closed the window, and the loophole, as softly as he could.
He emerged onto the narrow strip of lawn behind the low apartment building. Like most of the suburb, his complex was built on former farmland and virgin wetland—mowed, leveled and drained to create suitably warm and dry brick boxes for the growing population. A yard or two in front of him, at the edge of the lawn, the morning commute began. The last one.
His path flitted through a patch of tawny grass and mangy forest spared by the developers for purposes of tax evasion. It belonged to people he’d never met, but it was his backyard, if only because nobody else cared about it. The brief woods ended at a drainage ditch—his own personal creek—over which he’d built a dozen bridges. He crossed the most recent one, then kicked it into the stagnant water, saluting as the logs and pipes sank into the mud. It had served him well.
Behind the creek was an abandoned railroad track servicing an abandoned warehouse, where he’d found his abandoned bike. The bike carried him on the next leg of his journey, across cracked parking lots and past empty side streets, toward the top of the river gorge.
The bike had very poor brakes, so Ben used them as little as possible. A breakneck ride plunged into the wide ravine that cut through the remains of the Rust Belt city. Forgotten paths followed the river through young oak and maple stands. Concrete footings attended by tangles of rotted steel bore witness to docks the burbling Genesee once visited on its way north to Lake Ontario. Vines adorned once grand bridges, dripping rust and silence into the river.
It was a lonesome paradise, and it was his. But it was too small. He was leaving.
Larson Industrial Storage, Ben’s usual Saturday morning destination, commanded the top of the ridge downstream from High Falls. The warehouse used to handle output from the GM plant, the arms manufacturer, and the Ragú bottler built on the same strip of river real estate. In the city’s golden era, it had even served the juggernaut, Kodak the king—before digital photography stabbed the giant in the heart, and much of the city bled out with it. Of the five factories once operating on this strip of prime river real estate, only the arms manufacturer still kept the dust off Larson’s racks.
Ben had no intention of ever seeing either of them again. He turned off the path and began the long climb out of the gorge, headed for another part of the city.
Like many old hubs of commerce, there was no hard line between where people lived and worked in Rochester. Skyscrapers and houses and factories sprouted where their seed had fallen out of a laborer’s lunchbox or a venture capitalist’s portfolio until a towering canopy of concrete and steel rose out of a sprawling understory of brick and wood.
Ben’s best friend, Tyler Fox, lived near the site of the flour mill at High Falls, the city’s first and oldest seed. It was the only stop on Ben’s route. Tyler had gotten Ben hired at Larson with him after they’d met in the ninth grade, and they’d shared the last leg of the journey every Saturday since. But not today. It was time to say goodbye.
Ben had spent a lot of time on Tyler’s street. Narrow houses sat behind chainlink fences and broken trash cans. There were frequently fights, and Tyler had been in a couple. Ben had often shared lunch at the corner store with men fresh out of prison, with the stories and court orders to prove it. One of the neighbors paced the sidewalk all day, muttering and shouting. The old man planted in the plastic lawn chair across the street—the diabetic with the bag of urine strapped to his ankle—explained that Kenny ‘the rapper’ had seen his cousin shot on the empty corner lot six years back, and had been schizophrenic ever since.
It was the same corner where Tyler always waited for Ben; the same one where he was waiting that morning, leaned against his Mustang with the dented bumper and threadbare seats. His arms and legs were crossed and he wore jeans and a plain undershirt snug around an athletic build. He also wore an ugly welt on his cheek shaped like his father’s knuckles.
That didn’t surprise Ben. What surprised him was the overstuffed bag in the Mustang’s backseat.
Ben looked at Tyler. Tyler looked at Ben.
“Good morning,” Ben said.
“Morning,” Tyler replied.
“I’m leaving today.”
“How’d you know it was gonna be today?”
“If ever there was a perfect time, it’s now, buddy.”
Ben considered that. “I guess so. You’re getting out, too?”
“You better believe it.”
“Where are you going?”
“What’s it look like? Wherever you are. At least until you annoy me too much.”
Ben smiled, but doubt snuck into it and made it a frown.
“What about your dad?”
“He had his chance. He had eighteen years of chances.”
There was the awkward pause that often accompanies an unexpected change of plans, even one so happy as discovering your best friend, maybe your only friend, is about to join you on the adventure of a lifetime. Ben squinted at the sun rising over the river gorge, and felt his heart rising with it. Freedom was close at hand, and it would no longer be alone.
He thought of something.
“You can’t bring your phone. We’re off grid for this.”
“How are we going to get anywhere?”
Ben pulled the map out of his back pocket.
“What about my Snapchat streaks?”
“You don’t even like most of those people. They can wait. Forever if they have to.”
“No they can’t. That’s the whole point of a streak.”
“Tyler, why are we doing this?”
“There’s a whole world out there.”
Tyler looked at his phone. Then he shattered it in the street.
“Where to, captain?”
Ben cleared his throat. “West. But first? South. I was thinking Kentucky. There’s something there I’ve always wanted to see.”
“Something tells me it’s not the Kentucky whiskey trail.”
“No. There’s a river gorge, but it’s not developed like ours. It’s completely surrounded by wilderness.”
“That sounds like hell.”
“If I’m joining up, we’re making some changes to the agenda.”
“I’m going to Kentucky with or without you.”
Tyler dangled his keychain. “Face it, you need me. Unless I’m mistaken, your grand escape plan was to get to Kentucky on a bicycle.”
“Nope,” Ben retorted. “Over the Rockies and all the way to the Pacific.”
“You gotta be kidding me. Do you understand what a mountain is? What about Kansas? On a bike? Look, as our driver—”
“I don’t need a driver.”
“—as our driver, I’m up for Kentucky, with two conditions. One, it comes with whiskey; and two, we hit a real city next.”
Ben sighed. Tyler grinned. “I’m thinking Nawlins.”
“You mean New Orleans?”
“Yeah, Nawlins. The biggest party on Earth.”
“Please stop saying that. It’s June. We already missed Mardi Gras.”
“So what? They have parades every day. Any given Tuesday night in the Big Easy is as good as Christmas, New Years and the Fourth of July in any other city.”
“You’ve clearly read a travel brochure.” Ben closed his eyes and weighed his options. Company came with a catch.
Ben didn’t have anything against cities. He’d just always lived in one. Concrete and skyscrapers, rowhouses and gas stations he knew. Forests and river valleys, mountains and deserts, he had never yet wandered. He’d never even been camping.
And besides, there was an inexplicable draw to the idea of traveling the empty places of the continent alone. It struck a chord in him. It was what he knew—what he’d always done, in his own little world.
Except for Tyler. Ben had mentioned his plans but until today, Tyler hadn’t seemed interested. Something had changed for his friend, and Ben had to admit, now that the option of seeing the world in company had presented itself—grinning, cologned, and ready to roll—the idea of being totally alone in the vast expanse of the continent was no longer as attractive.
Plus, Tyler did come with a car.
“Well,” Ben sighed, “at least there’s a lot of history in New Orleans.”
Tyler clapped his hands. He vaulted over the hood of the car and slid behind the wheel. The Mustang roared to life.
Ben gave his bike an affectionate pat and leaned it against the stop sign. He paused a moment with one leg inside the car and turned to look at the broken houses and sinking sidewalks on Tyler’s street. The old man in the lawn chair waved. Ben waved back. He knew they’d never see each other again.