How A Summer of Weekend Trips Saved My Soul

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 6, 2016: I press through the fourth hour of my layover at O’Hare before boarding the evening flight back to the Dubuque Regional Airport.  I’m returning home from a long last weekend of summer in my boyhood home of Cincinnati, making the most of an opportunity to not only return home and check out new downtown development but to experience it with two Missouri natives and great friends from college visiting the city for the first time.  Our trip did not disappoint.  We saw our sports teams exchange blows, as the St. Louis Cardinals topped the Cincinnati Reds 5-2 on Sunday while FC Cincinnati won a 2-1 late thriller over Saint Louis FC on Labor Day.  We experienced the reverie and pandemonium (maybe a little too much pandemonium) of the WEBN Labor Day Fireworks, got lunch at the famed Findlay Market, and stopped in four of the local brewpubs.  It amazes me how much Cincinnati has changed in the four-plus years that have passed since I could officially call myself an Ohioan.  However, I think it was moving away for college which made me feel so proud of where I’m from and why I get so much out of every trip back that I get to take.

Well, every trip I get to take.

We all create unique identities for ourselves, traits which define us through the decisions we make and the ways we choose to spend our time.  Band and theatre dominated my high school schedule, and Drury University molded me into an individual with a passion for architecture, music, and 175-gram plastic discs flying through the air.  These traits are strengthened by the people we participate with and by admiring and cultivating the skills of those leading us, and we keep these friends and role models as long as we live.  We are all intrinsically shaped by these experiences and relationships that build and mold us into unique people making unique impacts on our communities.  Nothing challenges that identity like moving to a new place on your own.  You feel alone, misunderstood, and underappreciated, and it can downright suck for weeks on end–but hey, so does every over worthy accomplishment any of us have ever made.  And those accomplishments shape our identities, right?

When the opportunity to relocate to Dubuque, Iowa first came to my attention in October 2015, the first background research I did was on Google Maps.  Who could I continue friendships with from this new location, and who could I get chances to reconnect with by making this move?  The list was astounding–just about every great Midwestern metropolis is a reasonable drive from the Key City.  The possibilities to feel welcome and connected appeared likely at a glance, so I took a flyer and visited in mid-November, a couple weeks after my first trip back to Cincinnati since my parents moved to Florida during my third year at Drury.  I felt right at home; once you live in one river town packed with history, industry, and culture, you live and breathe for any chance to go back.  I decided to make the move, and arrived on a frigid week in January 2016 to rediscover who I could be.

A couple months of settling in exposed me to a church, a pub, and a local cause to get involved in through a twenty-slide presentation on thinking like a designer–all within walking distance of my downtown apartment.  I got up to speed on the projects in the Dubuque office of my architecture firm and started meeting some key figures in the community.  Still, by spring, I was looking to capitalize on those opportunities to explore.  As I usually do (talk about an integral part of my identity), I checked the Cincinnati Reds schedule and saw that their only weekend trip to St. Louis was early in the season, so I took the five-hour drive to catch a game with a friend in town who kept my head up through the 14-3 Cardinals rout.  As it turned out, weekend excursions like this defined my whole summer:

APRIL 23-24: A college friend comes to Dubuque from Chicago because I had free film festival tickets, which we didn’t end up using.  I spend Sunday in Chicago after driving him back and learn that the I-PASS is a must for going anywhere in Illinois.

MAY 13-22: I fly to Springfield, Missouri to see old friends, take a bus to Tulsa to my firm’s open house, then meet my parents and uncle in Austin for a few days.  The first two legs were excellent, but as is usually the case with multi-city trips, I owe the final city another visit on more rested terms.  I get lunch by Wrigley Field during my seven-hour O’Hare layover on the way home.

MAY 29-30: A quick trip to Milwaukee to see my aunt over Memorial Day weekend, and to catch a baseball game.

JUNE 10-12: A second trip to St. Louis is highlighted by City Museum, a soccer game, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, and discussing how Bernie Sanders performing Eminem’s “Without Me” on karaoke night would quite possibly be the greatest thing ever.  The sunset during the last hour of my drive home is nothing short of breathtaking.

JUNE 24-26: My first visit of the summer to Cincinnati includes seeing three old friends from high school who, though they have changed as much as I have over the years, are still three of the most interesting and sincere people I know.

JULY 4-6: After Independence Day plans to go to Chicago fall through, I decide to take a solo trip to the Twin Cities where I had never been before.  I catch fireworks on the river, tour two fantastic museums and great examples of historic preservation, but don’t make it to a baseball game in St. Paul because of rain.  I decide I should return.

JULY 7-10: I meet up with my parents and extended family in Daytona Beach to, among other things, spread my grandparents’ ashes in the Atlantic Ocean.  Somber, but powerful and memorable.

JULY 23: Just a day trip down the road to Cedar Rapids to catch a baseball game (sensing a pattern?), but I discover a great downtown neighborhood anchored by RAYGUN, makers of the funniest graphic tees I’ve ever seen.

AUGUST 6-8: I make my return to the Twin Cities and get to that baseball game in downtown St. Paul.  Using AirBNB for the first time works out well, and I make it to a show at the beautifully-designed Guthrie Theater.

AUGUST 12-14: I check in with my aunt again, go to a couple baseball games again, and spend an afternoon downtown by the lake.  The Third Ward Public Market is a must-see after stopping by the Milwaukee Art Museum.

AUGUST 18-22: My parents come to Dubuque, though we take a day trip to Wisconsin to tour Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, and get dinner in Madison.  Going back to Wisconsin’s capital might have to be my next getaway.

SEPTEMBER 2-6: The Labor Day trip to Cincinnati described in the opening.

These trips aren’t to lavish locations, but they also aren’t complicated, overwhelming, or expensive.  Each venture was certainly unique and exciting, and it was around the second trip to the Twin Cities that I saw how much this habit was becoming part of who I was and who people were perceiving me to be in my new home.  Following my August trip to Milwaukee, a coworker commended me for being so eager and able to just get up and explore, which I took to heart and thought, “Yes, that encapsulates who I want to be.”  I was starting to define this new trait of my post-graduate identity, a discovery which was long in the making.

So, what are some tips on planning a memorable and impactful weekend trip?  First, give yourself a legitimate reason to be in the destination city in the first place.  Find an event that is located in an active part of the city which will be well-attended and have a set start time.  My trip breakdown shows that I usually go with sporting events to fill this requirement.  Plus, it’s a great way to meet up with friends or family you might have nearby.  Once you have a reason to go, know what other points of interest you’d like to see.  These should be general; mine are art museums and coffee shops.  You know how they work and you have an idea of what to expect.  And don’t go to the ones every tourist goes to.  Seek out the spots and the neighborhoods that the locals visit.  You can do research before your trip to discover the “hip” parts of town, but there’s something much more rewarding about stumbling upon them once you’re already there.  Taking public transit can help expose where these spots might be.

A couple weeks have passed, your travel plans are set, the work week is over, and you’ve left your hometown by car, bus, train, plane, ferry, whatever–hear me out, but don’t listen to music the whole way there.  You listen to music during your commute to work.  Allow your mind to escape from the daily grind, and keep it that way until you set your alarm Sunday night for work in the morning.  For me, my train of thought switches about twenty miles into the drive, no matter how long the drive is.  You concentrate on your plans for the weekend, the directions to your destination, and the funny town names along the way (the drive to St. Louis includes McLean, Illinois, at which point I always get “American Pie” stuck in my head).  Just allow your mind to wander a little and you’ll discover why this journey is so important to you in the first place.  Now that you’ve reached an altered state of mind, go ahead and turn the music back on.

So now you’re in your destination city, you’ve dropped off your things, and you’ve met up with whoever you’re spending time with (unless you’re going solo, then drop your bags and hit the town).  The first thing I seek out is a copy of the local independent publication.  Every city has some magazine (even Dubuque has one) that features local events, concerts, restaurants, artists, political commentary, a crossword puzzle, you name it–and this is your way to easily become immersed in your surroundings.  Find something in this magazine to check out while you’re in town.  Next, engage with locals.  If you’re at a bar, don’t pick out your drink–ask the bartender for his or her favorite local beer.  Do nice things for people you don’t know, and ask questions that make people think extra hard before responding.  Do whatever it takes to leave a positive mark on your surroundings, and you’ll feel right at home wherever life takes you.  Leave feeling rewarded and like you have a story to tell, and take that same sense of exploration and enthusiasm into your everyday life when you go back to work on Monday morning.

My last point is simple and all-encompassing, whether traveling is an integral part of your identity or not: love what you do, love who you’re with, and know how much you are loved.  Like many others I know, post-graduate depression hit me hard after college.  I felt like I had no identity and nothing to define who I was or how I became that way, especially with so many friends and family scattered across the country.  Taking weekend trips for a summer saved my soul by showing me not only how much I am loved but how to love myself and to love others in return.  Words cannot express how valuable it is to rekindle friendships with childhood friends, or to have great discussions about design with former college classmates over a pint instead of Commons stir-fry, or to bring a smile to my aunt’s face as she recovers from a lengthy hospital stay.  No matter what interests and characteristics define who you are, seek out these irreplaceable moments that leave you at a loss for words, for it is in those moments that you discover so much about yourself and the impact you’re equipped and destined to make.

I love living in Dubuque, and I love so many people in every city I’ve called home along the way.  May your journeys ahead leave you refreshed, fulfilled, and eager for the next adventure.

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