I think it was the summer of 1994. I had completed a very useful associates degree in liberal arts at a community college not far from my hometown. After two years of being at home beyond high school, I was chomping at the bit to get out of the house. I wanted to go to Emerson College in Boston, the so-called “Ivy League For Misfits,” for $20,000 a year in 1994 dollars (it’s over $40,000 now). I wanted to write. I wanted to live in Boston. I got into the school, but my grades were surprisingly shitty were not good enough to get scholarships. And my parents weren’t going to shell out that kind of cash.
I checked out other Massachusetts state colleges. I looked at Bridgewater State College, but perhaps uncharitably, I stopped considering them after they spelled my name “Heather Jake Hogan.” Which is not my name. I was familiar with Framingham State College because my best friend from high school went there. It was the path of least resistance.
I went to Framingham with the idea I would transfer all my credits and get my bachelors degree. It was my first “traditional college experience.” Living in a dorm. Not having a car. Eating in a cafeteria. Feeling so sleepy in 8 am philosophy class that it ached, it physically hurt, to stay awake. I went for a grand total of one semester.
It only took that long for me to realize I didn’t like it. I wanted to be away from home, but the college dorm experience wasn’t the way I wanted to do it. It was unlikely that I was going to stay for the next two years and finish my undergrad. Feeling disillusioned after that one semester, I wasn’t sure how I was going finish school. But I formulated a plan for that summer. I booked a one-way flight to the Grand Canyon.
The previous summer, my family had gone on a camping/road trip/vacation in the Southwest. We rented an RV in Las Vegas and toured all the nearby national parks, all family Goofy Goes Camping style. The North Rim, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell, and Zion Canyon. At each of these parks, there were employment flyers posted by the parks’ concessioner, looking for valets, housekeepers, waitstaff, grounds keepers, and all other hospitality jobs in the park. I made a mental note. Seemed like an awesome way to spend a summer, working in a national park, far, far, far away from home.
I decided to quit school and go work at the Grand Canyon. It was to be the first of a number of solo adventures I have made in my life. I packed my belongings for the summer, my dad dropped me off at Logan Airport in Boston, and I caught a flight to Las Vegas. From there I waited for hours for a Greyhound bus at the Vegas bus station. Okay? 1994. Las Vegas bus station. Waiting for hours. Super Weirdsville.
I boarded a bus to Cedar City, Utah and sat by the window. I was excited to see the desert as the sun went down. Being from Massachusetts, the Southwest was like visiting a different planet. The bus was packed. I didn’t notice the mentally ill obese man lumbering down the aisle. He stuffed himself into the seat next to me and announced that he had a metal plate in his skull. He said “I’m glad I got to sit next to a pretty girl!” and excitedly ate a whole roll of minty Lifesavers.
I swear this is true. He told me he was traveling to Peoria, Illinois. He didn’t have family there, but he knew a church man who was going to help him. He told me about how he spent time in a mental institution and how he was sexually abused there. He asked me for money. He occasionally broke into singing the national anthem. When the bus stopped for a meal break at McDonalds, he ate all my fries.
By the time the bus got to Cedar City, it was dark. The bus stopped at a gas station. My seat mate escorted me off the bus and gave me a hug. He got back on and the bus rolled into the night. I used a pay phone in the gas station parking lot to call a cab to bring me to a hotel. I waited for the cab in a dark gas station parking lot in Cedar City, Utah.
It felt a lifetime had passed since I had awoken that morning in my own bed, at my parents’ house. I was twenty years old.