A Brief Stop in Blacksburg

It was ten years ago, almost to the day, that my mom and I flew out to Virginia for my orientation at Virginia Tech. We left on July 18th, which was a Friday, and came home the following Sunday. Every year or so my mom and I indiscriminately reminisce about the trip, and how special it was for the two of us, so I figure as a tribute to a decade ago I’ll share some of it on here.

For background: I got accepted into VT in March, 2008, and knew eventually I would have to head out there for orientation. (I mean I didn’t have to, but my mom didn’t want me to miss out on the experience.) Leading up to the July date, however, I wasn’t at all looking forward to it. I’d recently gotten in a relationship, and so I didn’t want to be separated from that. Even for a few days.

The two of us flew from Ontario, California to Roanoke, Virginia, and my mom rented a black Infiniti that was probably the coolest car I had ever been in up to that point. Its 2008 features are all pretty basic nowadays, but at the time I remember it having push to start, meaning it might as well have been a space ship.

We stayed at a Holiday Inn across the street from the academic region of the Virginia Tech campus, an area surrounded on one side by a strip mall that featured a CVS, one of the VT book stores, and the math emporium that I took calculus in for a semester. On the other side of the hotel were a bunch of modest homes without any fences to partition them from one another. Not something you would see in the densely populated areas of Southern California I had been accustomed to.

The first night we ate at a Hardees, which I quickly learned was East Coast Carl’s Jr. I remember sitting in our hotel and tuning into a random Braves vs. Reds game that, at 7:05,  had just started. On the West Coast the same game would have started at 4:05, which was weird. (As a student I would have to wait until 10:00 at night for the Rangers to play road games whenever they took on the A’s, Angels, or Mariners. Not easy with 8:00 A.M. Comm Theory classes the following morning.)

The next day my mom and I went down to the actual orientation, which was in some large auditorium and featured an hour long Power Point presentation. Part of it, I recall, had to do with the percentage of college students on the east coast who used Facebook as compared to Myspace. At the time, Myspace was still more popular among students living on the west coast.

I was then placed in a group with roughly 20 other prospective students, and we had some volunteer from the student government or whatever take us out to explore the campus a little. We eventually settled beneath a massive oak tree across the street from the Newman Library, and sat in a circle while we learned each other’s names and hometowns. I know I was proud for being the only person from California. In the meantime, all the parents were given a presentation about a topic I imagine was extremely boring.

I took it all in as best I could, knowing that a month later I would be there officially — and not just for a trial run. Like much of my Virginia Tech experience, in that moment I felt like a passenger. Almost like it was a mistake that I was there in the first place, that I was stealing these images from someone who wanted it more. Don’t get me wrong, I absorbed all the sights and sounds. My legs carried me from place to place. But to say I ever fully bought in, heart and mind, wouldn’t be an accurate way to describe it.

Clearly, my heart and mind were focused on being back home, and spending time with the first person who ever really gave a damn about me. That was how it was for me as an 18 year-old: just completely ignoring the big picture, as well as the opportunity right in front of my face, in favor of short-term thinking. It was an easy worldview to operate on, since, obviously, I already had everything figured out.

Later in the day my mom and I got lost on our way to the Communication building, though neither of us minded. We were just exploring together. It was an extremely sticky mid-July afternoon; the temperature was only hovering around 85 degrees, but the humidity was fucking relentless. The two of us drove around the drill field a couple times, the expansive space separating academia from the dorm structures, where the 2007 memorial is located, and somehow we were only 10 or 15 minutes late to the gathering.

Once that finished I went off and took a picture for my ID card, and picked up my class schedule for the Fall semester. Life was getting realer and realer by the minute. I met with the director of the Communications department and she told me I was in luck, because in Communication the females outnumbered the males by a factor of 6 to 1.

There was something scheduled for the evening, but my mom and I chose to skip it and hang out with each other instead. We walked around the surrounding area, visited the mall and bought some miscellaneous shit. Her and I had a lot of conversations over the course of the whole trip, naturally, but it was in those moments where it was just the two of us in a foreign place that made it feel so special.

Being that I was in my first real relationship, I remember spending most of my time talking about the future. I had already mapped out for my mom the next 10 years of my life. How I was going to graduate and get a job writing about sports for some newspaper. How I was going to get married and have two or three kids, and how they would all be smart as hell and good looking. I was just optimistic about everything, in general. It was a really happy time for me.

The day before we left, a huge summer storm popped up out of nowhere. One second it was sunny with blue skies, the next there was a goddamn monsoon. We were driving, looking for somewhere to eat, but both of us were awe-inspired by the unpredictable weather. After ten minutes or so, the sky was back to being sunny, like nothing happened. (In other words, a normal summer day out there.)

My parents were both proud of me for getting into Virginia Tech, but I think my mom was the only one capable of understanding the risks involved with me in particular. My dad was more passive; he knew I was smart and probably figured I would do what I had to do out there. My mom, though, she knew me on a deep personal level. She knew how much of a shithead I was to other people, and how emotional I got at the tiniest slights. I don’t know if she’ll ever admit what sort of confidence she had that I would actually graduate from VT, but if I was in her shoes I would have had serious doubts.

A month later I arrived on campus by myself, and I wouldn’t see home again until Thanksgiving. Over the course of my 9 months in Virginia I came home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and spring break, a total of about six weeks. By the time I made it home for good, in May of 2019, my life was in a different place. The relationship I had been in lasted, somehow, but what remained was just a sliver of what it was the summer before. I don’t really know how it ever lasted that long, but more so I don’t know how I ended up surviving my year at Virginia Tech. It was the longest year of my life, an era jam-packed with life experience and anxiety and confusion. It’s also responsible for my conception of empathy. Because finally I knew what it was like to struggle.

In retrospect, regardless of what my parents may have felt privately, I’m glad they allowed me to fail on my own. They weren’t overbearing about getting good grades, or telling me how I should live. My mom, specifically, understood my childish nature, and so I’m sure the only thing that mattered to her was my well-being.

I used to lament about this stage of my life quite a bit more than I do presently, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important to me now than it was then. I think a lot of people who are familiar with this blog, or who have kept tabs on me over the last 10 years, wonder why the hell I’m still writing about it, as if I haven’t gotten over it. That’s a valid assertion, and something I might criticize if I was coming from the perspective of the audience, but I tend to believe the only reason I am comfortable writing about it now is because I am over it. Back then, I referenced it because I so desperately wanted back what I had lost. Nowadays, I look at it through the lens of These Things Actually Happened, and this is how I feel about it.

I do in some ways miss 2008-’09 for all the things I seemingly had going for me, but I don’t miss it for the reality of the person I was. The way I described it two years ago was like this: “The year of 2009 took a dump all over me. But without it, it would have been impossible to grow up.”

It seems like such a cliché thing to say, but how else is someone supposed to learn The Way? You go through shit, and you have two options. You can either blame everyone else for your situation, or you can accept responsibility and make changes to better yourself for the future. It’s really that simple.

After all this time, I have tried to keep that close in mind. Ten years ago I thought I had the game figured out. I was going to fuck some shit up at Virginia Tech, then I was going to be so goddamn brilliant, and cunning, that I would be able to procure whatever job I wanted, and make whatever amount of money I wanted. This was how it was sold to me as a kid. Go to college. Be whatever you want to be.

My American dream hasn’t gone according to plan, but the starting point was that weekend with my mom in the hills of Southwest Virginia. It was the first grownup, real life adventure I had taken part in. It held with it the apex of my optimism, and represented the pinnacle of my potential. Nothing in the world could have held me back.

Then I started out on my way. And I’ve been doing just fine.