Confessions of a Bandwagon Fan at a Championship Parade

I’ve always desperately wanted to have a favorite professional sports team, but the time has never felt quite right for me to commit to one. I was born in a state that does not tether its residents to any particular team, and my family is even more wishy-washy about pro sports. The nearest candidates for a Nebraskan are all in Kansas, but I wasn’t paying enough attention when the Royals turned October blue, and the Chiefs never sparked any inspiration until recently, long after I had abandoned my search for a source of pride in the Midwest. I’d like to take this opportunity to expose my brother for being a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan since his youth, I think maybe because we always loved the Pirates of the Caribbean, but for obvious reasons I avoided carrying the burden of rooting for them. It did mean he got cool gear and wall decals, though, so his love for them only magnified the reality that I was teamless in a country of diehard fans, indifferent in every World Series and Super Bowl, and maybe worst of all—jerseyless for every time that a party or a game prompted me to wear one. But finally, in the last month, I felt the unavoidable call to bandwagon a team more devoutly than anyone ever has, and it sounded like, “N-A-T-S! NATS! NATS! NATS! Woo,” and the horrendously wonderful “Baby Shark” playing over and over and over again.

My entrance into this fandom wasn’t entirely unwelcome. I got permission from a gatekeeper to the club: life-long Nats fan and D.C. sports aficionado, Taylor Wilson. I asked her if it was cool that I cheered for the Nationals as they played the Dodgers, even though I just started paying attention and she had offered them her unwavering support through their very regular regular season. She said yes, most likely because she was watching the game at my apartment instead of her own. Four days later, we cheered as the Nationals advanced to the National League Championship Series. Then, thirteen miles away from my apartment and thirteen days into my fanhood, the Nationals clinched their first ever spot in the World Series, and also for the first time ever, I would remotely care about a team in in it. Yesterday, I went to a championship parade, donning my first ever pro team shirt. The word “CHAMPIONS,” just happened to accompany the team logo.

The College Park metro stop was buzzing with energy, and at each stop from there to the National Archives, our train only became more crowded with fans—either lifelong ones like the father helping his young son in a jersey study the team roster, or just fans for the day, like the young couple in non-descript red clothes with arms entangled in the seats nearby. If you could see through the tunnels, the metro map would’ve looked like the circulatory system—a bunch of red dots traveling swiftly through the veins of the city to its heart. The moment we emerged onto street level in D.C., I felt it pulsing all around me. Dozens of street vendors yelled about championship gear, and a musician sang, “The Nats feel like bustin’ loose,” which I later learned was a tribute to the Chuck Brown song that is played after every home team home run at Nationals Park. My lifetime of supporting Nebraska football prepared me for the moment I was swallowed by the largest sea of red I had ever seen. We inched down Pennsylvania Avenue towards the stage that framed the Capitol building, creating the illusion of the most All-American postcard ever dreamt up. When I looked at the other buildings rising above the crowd around me—the National Archives, the Washington Monument—I couldn’t help but think back to my freshman year D.C. Art and Architecture history class. Good ol’ Pierre L’Enfant designed the city with public gathering at the front of his mind. Its streets and monuments were carefully laid out to flow in a way that allowed people to see and be seen. I got to enjoy that design not for its original political purpose, but instead just for a celebration of baseball. We all marched past the Newseum, which is emblazoned with the First Amendment, reminding us of our guaranteed right to peaceably (more or less) assemble for the Nats.

The parade was actually a bit more calm than I anticipated. Watching the Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl parade unfold on Twitter had me worried that I might be crushed by a falling light pole or tree branch, but I made it through unscathed. There were quite a few people on elevated surfaces, including porta potties, which somehow people were still using despite their crushed roofs. One guy scaled a light pole behind me to show off his sign that read, “Bryce is playing golf today, this is better.” He was not the only fan poking fun at the former National’s untimely departure from the team—each person wearing Harper’s jersey changed the name on the back to something more suitable for the parade. We saw one turned to “CHAMPS,” one to “TURNER” with an addition sign between the three and four to add up to the shortstop’s jersey number, and one to “HAPPIER” with a piece of tape stuck below it that said, “without you.” The rowdiest event of the parade by far was the beers being flung at the double decker busses as they passed by. Even more impressive than catching a beer can, I witnessed pitcher Patrick Corbin catch a shooter, twist the cap off, and slug it in one gulp. After which I turned to my friend Kiana and chanted, “U-S-A!” because it felt like the right thing to do. One chant that did catch on throughout the crowd around me was “Keep Rendon,” referring to the free agent third baseman, as the organization’s owners went by. One man on the bus yelled, “We’re trying!” back to the crowd.

A man atop a light post yells about Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper.

After a few hours of getting momentary glimpses of players and whiffs of weed, the most incredible sight came with the passing of the final bus. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman—Mr. National for my not-yet Nats fans—hoisted the trophy high above his head, and red confetti showered the crowd around him. Confetti, I’ve decided, is tangible magic. It has the ability to slow time even more effectively than any legal marijuana in the District could. As it fell all around me, I took pictures of my friend Taylor who was smiling more proudly than anyone I had ever seen. It meant so much to her and to the city, and I was just grateful to be there too. 

That was the consensus of the three of us bandwagoners who tagged along with Taylor—that we were thankful to be at the right place at the right time. We are all attending school more than a thousand miles from our homes, but together we got to experience one of the most unifying experiences a city can offer. I came into the parade with some insecurity after a police officer in a World Series hat asked, “Where’s your red?” But, I left with a t-shirt and a new sense of belonging. On our way back to the metro, the lyrics, “No place I’d rather be,” came booming over the giant speakers. My friends and I happened upon a group of people dancing. In the middle was an older man in a sports coat, a middle-aged woman in a t-shirt, and a young guy with layered gold chains. We joined in, hands raised above our heads. I’ll never see any of those people again, but in that moment, we were all just Nats fans dancing in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s the big idea—of both D.C. and sports as a whole—to bring people together. And however idealistic it may be, sometimes idealists win. The Nats’ postseason is glowing proof of that. So, I’m sticking with them, and the next time they win, I’ll be cheering as a well-qualified fan.

Parade-goers dance in the street.

Yellowstone, Part 2: What I Saw Because I Was Awake

As I laid intensely awake in the tent at 1:30 a.m., my mind started to wander out of my memories from the last few days and into the woods. Particularly because of one comment my dad made the night before I left for the trip. 

“I have to ask you a question,” my dad said while sitting gingerly on the edge of my bed.

Suspense hung heavily in the air.

“Is there any chance that either you or Audrey will be on your menstrual cycle during the trip?”

I wanted to laugh because of how cautiously my dad had approached the subject of periods for the first time in my life, and quite possibly his own, but I held it in out of respect for his serious concern.

“Yes,” I said. “That is a very real possibility.”

“Okay. You’re going to need to exercise even more caution then, because bears can smell blood from 20 miles away.”

And then he walked out of my room. 

In the tent, thanks to Dad, the only thing that took my mind off of the cold of the night was the thought of any bear in a 20-mile-radius. I had already chanced with the animals once that day when I decided not to take bear spray, which is essentially high-volume mace, on our hike around the lake. As we left two trails of footprints in the rocky sand, Audrey asked if I had it with me, and I reasoned that I left it because it was a quick hike.

Standing on a rock in Yellowstone Lake, clearly not equipped to fend off any bears.

But just as bears don’t particularly care about the length of my hikes, the cold didn’t care about our unbridled optimism. While I stared up through the darkness at the tent poles crisscrossing above me, I felt the giddiness of traveling with my best friend quickly escaping. My balloon of optimism was popped by the swift needle of reality. I couldn’t will my body to heat up, and no matter which way I flipped it, my toes hurt and I felt like crying.

I would have been less worried about our lack of sleep if not for the impending doom of my 5:30 a.m. alarm. Our next morning would make or break the rest of our trip. We reserved a campsite for our first night in Yellowstone a month in advance, but beyond that, we had no reservations. This meant we had to get a spot at one of the first-come, first-serve campsites, or we would have no place to stay, because all the other lodging options in the park book months in advance. According to my dad, the expert on all things camping, the first-come campsites fill up right at 7 a.m. when the rangers open the sites for reservations. Because of this, he advised strongly against these campsites, and recommended instead that we reserve three nights at the same one ahead of time.

For no particular reason, this sounded awfully boring to Audrey and me, so we nodded along to my dad’s warnings and did exactly the opposite of what he said. 

There was no sense in regretting our decision, so I accepted the reality that getting up in three and a half hours was our fate. We had to take down the tent and pack up our fireside set up, then drive an hour north to the nearest first-come campsite. That would get us to Tower Falls Campground right at 7 a.m. and getting a spot to stay was out of our hands beyond that. 

Audrey the Fire Bender providing heat that momentarily kept us warm before our cold night.

When 2 a.m. finally creeped around, I caved. 

“Audrey.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t do this. Let’s go to the car.”

Without speaking, she grabbed her thin blanket and towels, and I wrapped my sleeping bag around me. When she unzipped the tent, the greenhouse of our slightly warm breath escaped into the pitch-black outdoors and was overtaken by biting cold. We walked fifteen yards to her car in silence and defeat.

I resisted the urge to pull on the locked door handle a hundred times. When we got in, she thrashed her keys into the ignition and blasted the heat. At last we found out exactly what temperature we had braved for hours. 33 degrees, the dash read. 33.

Audrey started driving to warm the engine. We pulled out of the campsite and onto the winding main road of the park. Our headlights lit up all that was 10 feet in front of us, and anything and everything beyond that was a mystery. I was intensely grateful, one—for the warmth that the vents were slowly emitting, and two—that I no longer felt like the only person who was awake in the entire park. With Audrey beside me, I knew that at least one other person in the world was aware of the emotional and physical state I was in. Furthermore, despite the fact that Audrey and I had never been next to each other for so long without speaking, I felt undoubtedly the opposite of alone. 

When our bodies finally thawed, we pulled back into our campsite, Bridge Bay campground. After we parked, I re-entered the tundra to go to the site’s bathroom.

In that one glorious moment, I raised my eyes up to the night sky. An unexcavated jewel mine whirled above me. The stars looked how artists paint them, how desktop backgrounds portray them, how they should look. Their radiance was dizzying and captivating, and I didn’t dare look back down and miss a moment of the magic. It didn’t spark the same feeling that other natural wonders, like mountains or oceans, do. It was all-encapsulating. The stars were so close to my eyes and my ears and my fingertips and my soul.

That was the first time in my life that I had seen the stars as they naturally occur, unaffected by light pollution. What I couldn’t have anticipated at the time was that it may be a very long time until I get to experience that again. I had two more nights in Yellowstone, but they both turned out to be cloudy.

On the way home when Audrey and I were rehashing our trip I said, “Maybe the reason we froze that night was so we could see the stars.”

Audrey said in all seriousness, “The stars would’ve looked the same if it had been 60 degrees.”

At the time, though, I was unaware of how important this moment under the stars was. All I knew was that we couldn’t keep the car on forever, so we laid all the miscellaneous items of clothing from the backseat on top of ourselves and settled in to sleep for a couple of hours.

The shrill of my alarm came far too quickly. There was no solace in our quick nap, so we kept up with our act of not talking to each other purely to conserve energy. We got out of the car and into the crisp morning air, worked diligently to take down our tent, and then drove to our next campsite.

Thick fog settled over the ground that morning. That, combined with the steam from the park’s many geysers and the low-hanging clouds, turned our morning drive into a dream-like trance. It was as if I couldn’t blink enough to get my eyes in focus, and I was left in a fuzzy haze.

When we exited the pine trees and entered an open field, I witnessed the grandeur that is Yellowstone’s wildlife. Hundreds of buffalo inched forward through the grass. The sun was barely rising through the fog—putting the mystical beasts in a magical glow. It looked like a scene straight from Narnia. I half expected the White Witch to ride past us on a snowy chariot or Aslan to call Audrey and I up to the frontlines in the War of Deliverance.

A short line of cars backed up the road ahead of us, and Audrey and I looked around intently for the cause. Twenty feet from the driver’s side window, a black bear scavenged the hillside. Audrey beamed. Her trip’s mission was to see a bear—and our magnificent morning after our horrible night had brought her one. My dad’s fear-instilling bear warnings were a distant memory. This had to be a Narnia bear, friendly and helpful and able to talk.

Audrey becoming so overtaken by excitement at the sight of a bear that she accidentally opens the front-facing camera and takes a picture of herself instead.

The worthwhile delays forced our dashboard clock past 7 a.m., the time when, we were told, the campsite would be up for reservation. When we pulled up to the destination, the sign that read “Tower Falls” also read “FULL.” My stomach dropped. In utter defeat, we drove past the sign down the road.

“Let’s just go ask them which campsite might still have availabiltiy,” I said, knowing all too well that the next first-come, first-serve campsite was another hour away.

So, we turned around and drove up the hill into Tower Falls. A line of people stood next to a wooden board. A sign that read, “Reservations begin at 7:30” was tacked on it. It was 7:21.

I grabbed my backpack and started opening the passenger door before Audrey pressed the brakes. Nine minutes later, I handed an old park ranger $30 to secure our spot for two nights.

The next two days were half spent hiking and driving and half spent philosophizing and dreaming. The next two nights were spent sleeping in the Toyota Corolla.

Audrey and I pose after our attempt at hiking The Thunderer was cut short by high river waters.
Audrey and I smile after a successful (!) hike of Mt. Washburn.

On our final night in Yellowstone, we invited two separate parties of campers who walked by to join us for a fire. Over crackling logs and flickering ashes, we all exchanged the stories of our triumphs and defeats in the park. The two young guys and one middle-aged woman were astounded to learn about our sleeping arrangements.

“After spending every moment with each other, how are you not sick of each other?” one guy asked. “And after sleeping in your car for three nights, how are you still smiling?”

Audrey and I turned to each other. I felt confusion and pride at the same time. How else would we act? Sure, there are options other than joy and enthusiasm, but why would we take them? The pride came from being acknowledged for having a way about us that people don’t come across every day. Maybe it was our playfulness in accepting the humor of our circumstances. Maybe it was our gratitude for having a friend that also looks at every day as having unlimited potential. Maybe it was being alive, and better yet, being young, and better yet being on a road trip with my best friend.

“We’re just having fun, that’s all,” I said.

Our belief that good things happen to find us was null and void. It wasn’t divine intervention or the universe willing our good fortune. It was the way in which we looked at the events in front of us. By recognizing each moment for exactly what it was—a fleeting, almost-memory—I could make sure that I paid the time on the trip its due. Granted, not everything was perfect. But trying to give an unwavering, “Yes, I’m here right now and that’s it,” is our lives’ work, I suppose.

The high of that realization will only wear off if I let it. And I don’t plan on doing that anytime soon. The truth that life is incredible is worth far more of my attention than the truth that life is not. I didn’t want the trip to end, but by honoring our lessons and keeping the mindset we adopted in Yellowstone, it didn’t have to.

When we pulled into my driveway back home looking as messy as the backseat of our car, I jokingly asked Audrey in front of my parents, “So when’s the next national park?”

With a sly grin she said, “We leave tomorrow.”

Two photos from our stop on the way home from Yellowstone in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. This is the back of our friend Josh Andreasen’s truck. There was something about this night after our three nights in Yellowstone that left me feeling overwhelmingly at peace and present. That’s the magic I want to keep.

Yellowstone, Part 1: The Things We Forget and The Moments We Remember

At 12:11 a.m., the only thing separating me from the 33-degree air outside was a tent, half of a sleeping bag with a broken zipper, and a beach towel. As the cold seeped through the nylon, then through the thin covers, then into my bones, I started to think that my body woke me up because if my heart rate had slowed any more, it would’ve stopped completely. It’s easy to see in retrospect that it would have taken a much more desperate situation to kill me, but medical truths are the last thing on the mind of someone with an already outlandish imagination running on 34 minutes of sleep. I wanted to fall asleep again to force the end of the bitterly cold night to come quicker, but I worried that if I did, I might not ever see the morning sun warm the Yellowstone ground.

Audrey was wrapped in the other half of the ragged sleeping bag. One of her arms was draped over me. If this was one of our normal sleepovers, I’d politely push her off, but our slight combination of body heat was pivotal for survival. Her steady rhythm of sleeping breath disrupted the deafening silence of the woods, and I didn’t dare wake her up despite my concerns about imminent hypothermia. She had driven most of the way to Wyoming and out earned me in sleeping rights 100 to one. At this moment, though, I wished I still found it funny that she mistakenly left her sleeping bag on her dining room table. My lighthearted cheerfulness was gone, along with all the feeling in my toes.

Audrey and I posing in front of our tent after setting up camp in the afternoon. At the time this photo was taken, it was around 64 degrees.

Up until this point, every moment of our road trip was guided by a deep sense of optimism and hope, nearing an unrealistic degree. Audrey and I usually believe that things will go our way just because we will them to, but this feeling was heightened on the way to Yellowstone. Audrey’s Toyota Corolla became an echo chamber of unbridled optimism, with no doubting or naysaying from more realistic people able to penetrate. We named our belief system the Twofold Effect, theorizing that every slight bump in the road yielded a much greater reward. We assigned various degrees of payoff to our inconveniences- ranging from the twofold as base level to tenfold for more notable difficulties. On the way to the park, there was no burden left unrewarded. Consequently, we had no reason to believe that our theory wasn’t classroom caliber.

For example, a sky-shattering storm, complete with lashing rains and pounding hail, forced us to stop in our tracks in Buffalo, Wyoming. It was, of course, quickly followed by the most radiant rainbow I have ever seen. I swear I could have run to the end of it and let its colors illuminate my body like stained-glass windows do when the sun shines through the walls of a church. 

Before I could even acknowledge the rainbow’s splendor, Audrey was opening the driver’s side door and urgently saying, “Take a picture of me!” As she ran out into the pouring rain, I realized that Audrey very well may be the craziest person I will ever get the pleasure of knowing. I hoisted my camera up to the window in awe. She jumped around on the gravel road in sync with the lightning that danced on the dark blue horizon. I ditched the security of the car soon after her and looked straight up to let the rain soak my face. The sky was dark above me, but the sun setting in the west had since broken through the clouds. As the raindrops fell, the sun’s rays intercepted them, lighting each of them up. They looked like glowing lightning bugs flying swiftly to the ground, and the illusion didn’t change until they splashed all around us.

Audrey dancing in a rainstorm near Buffalo, Wyoming.

That night we stayed in halfway between the Black Hills of South Dakota and Yellowstone in Meeteetse, Wyoming, where we would again experience the Twofold Effect. While planning our trip, we decided that staying in a bed and breakfast would be more enchanting than booking a hotel. When we called make reservations earlier in the summer, a sweet-sounding old man answered the phone, and we were already thrilled to meet him. 

On our way to the town of 335 people, we made predictions about our new friend. We decided he was short, plump and wore glasses. However, the aforementioned storm delayed our arrival at the bed and breakfast, and darkness quickly shrouded our drive to our host’s home. 

Sunlight fading on the road to Meeteetse, Wyoming.

Apple Maps did not recognize the address, so I pulled up the website and compared the picture to each house we passed on the West side of Meeteetse. As it turns out, a number of them have log walls and green roofs. I saw someone in the distance with a sparkler and swore he was directing us to our destination until Audrey reminded me that it had been less than 5 days since the Fourth of July, and not everyone possesses the same amount of enthusiastic flair that we do. As hope and light were fading, we finally saw the sign for our place, and Audrey pulled the car down the long gravel driveway. 

As we walked up to the door of the log house, our long-awaited meeting finally became reality. However, our host wasn’t short, plump and wearing glasses. He was decently tall and skinnier than most old men are. Audrey and I later decided that he looked like a coyote—wily, with long gray hair, a mustache, and prominent teeth. I churned out some painfully awkward, “We’re so glad we finally made it!” type of statements as we carried our bags into the house. 

We knew that the house was going to be full of taxidermy, but seeing massive bears, wolves, and elk illuminated only by the faint glow of lamps was eerier than I could have ever imagined. Our host clearly had a spiel that he usually goes on to explain to guests where he acquired each one of the animals in the living room, but again, something about the darkness, the quiet, and the middle of Wyoming made my stomach turn. Clearly, he was capable of killing things. 

He showed us to the basement and explained that our bathroom was across the hall from our bedroom. It was, inconveniently, next to his room. I peered through his doorway, and all I could see was a table with four feet of shotgun shells stacked on top. I swallowed the lump in my throat, then Audrey and I quickly shuffled into our room and locked the door behind us.

“Did you see a bed in his room?” I asked.

She gave me a blank stare. 

“This better be a tenfold,” she replied.

Hunger gnarled at our stomachs, but we left all of our food in the car and there was no way we were unlocking that door. I dumped out the contents of my backpack on the moose-printed blanket, and two granola bars fell onto the bed like manna in the desert for the Israelites.

We made a video telling our families we loved them, and then despite the fear pulsing in my veins telling me not to, I turned off the lamp.  

A screenshot from our precautionary goodbye video to our families.

When we woke up at 7 a.m., a new energy filled the room. The morning glow made me less hesitant to open the door, and I even only hit a slight jog while passing our host’s room on the way to the bathroom. 

As we walked upstairs to the kitchen, the space felt less like a horror film and more like a museum. A family was getting up from the kitchen table and thanking our host. He seemed so warm and inviting that I could hardly believe just hours before I thought he was a serial killer.

After we ate, he insisted that we take a hike to the lake across the highway from his house. And thus, a lesson in twofold. When we walked outside, the sun was just starting to peek through the thick clouds. Everything seemed to be in high definition because the light wasn’t too harsh or too soft—just perfect for the human eye. Usually I catch these kind moments at dusk because I’m not too much of a morning person, but this dawn was among the most beautiful hours I have ever seen. We walked across the empty highway to a narrow opening in the barbed wire to reach a footpath. 

Walking on a desolate highway on the way to the lake.

The path wound up a hill through blue-green sage brush and vibrant purple wild flowers. I turned around to Audrey and put the camera lens up to my eye to make sure that if this was real, I remembered it. When we gained enough ground, the lake entered our vision—the crown jewel of the hillside—gleaming and glittering in the morning light.  

What baffled me the most was that we drove past this hill less than ten hours before. Sure, it was in the dark, but even if it had been kissed by the sun in the same way that it was in this moment, there was still no chance I would have noticed. And if this one hill and lake on the side of a highway in Wyoming could take my breath away, then it pains me to imagine all the places in the world that would probably kill me. 

Audrey smiling amongst wildflowers and sage on our morning hike.

But, if beautiful places in the day weren’t the death of me, then their counterparts in the night certainly were. I checked my phone for the time. Only thirty minutes past since I woke up.

An Ode to my Freshman Year Roommate

I woke up this morning to my roommate peeling pictures off of the wall on her side of our corner bedroom, one by one. Her dad was carrying her books, then her storage bins, then her clothes from our dorm to their car.

Her side of the room was empty, and mine was covered in clothes that didn’t make the cut for last night’s outfit. Three pairs of jean shorts laid on top of my covers on top of me. When her dad walked back in, I promised that I wasn’t always this messy, and he gave me a sympathetic smile.

Sydney was my first impression of what college was going to be like. Before moving in with her, all I knew about my future roommate was her name and that she was a sophomore who played soccer. When I found her on Instagram during the summer, her bio read, “work hard & be nice.” I remember thinking that it was a pretty easy thing to say but not something that everyone does in actuality. I might have been overly skeptical, but I also might have just been realistic.

When I arrived at Maryland in August, she was already moved in from her team’s early summer training. Her Rio World Cup tapestry hung proudly above her bed. A letter board that read, “Make someone smile today” was on the wall above her desk. Again, out of my doubt and aversion to anything more than averagely positive, I initially questioned the authenticity of the words. I had been in plenty of kitchens and bathrooms with similar signs that were owned by people who don’t exactly live up to their wall décor.

Through the nine months that we shared a room, I learned that if one person is true to her words, it’s Syd.

Syd and I smiling at football tailgate in our matching hats (Photo by Andi Wenck).

We often stayed up way too late talking about the best and worst parts of our days. One time I couldn’t think of anything good that happened. She told me to keep thinking about it and let her know when I remembered. With the light of her phone’s flashlight, she read out of a little book of daily positive quotes in the dark. I started to find them less corny and more true every time. They often all circled back to gratitude. This was important, because despite our different sports and majors, she knew, and I quickly learned that being a student athlete is not easy. Sometimes teammates are selfish, coaches are careless, practices are long, and muscles are sore. But letting the minor negatives distract me from the big picture would have been a massive mistake. Because the blessings that came with the opportunity were undeniably worth more of my attention. Which, again, is an easy thing to say and a hard thing to do. But Sydney encouraged me to try anyway.

All types of learning went on in room 1103C. She drew up defensive plays on pieces of loose-leaf paper to explain what happened in the soccer games I attended. Then we squished together in her bed to watch the Maryland men’s soccer team win a national championship and laughed because we could only find the broadcast in Spanish. I explained softball strategy to her and made her feel guilty enough to come to my games. We had “Lessons in DMV Slang” (D.C., Maryland, Virginia for my non-East Coast readers out there), and I asked horribly nerdy questions like, “Can you use sice in a sentence, please?”

In the nights leading up to the end of finals, we laid in our beds and stared at the ceiling. Sydney reminded me, “Five more sleeps.”

Syd and I pictured with another incredible Maryland soccer player and our fellow roommate, Niv. Syd’s facial expression means, “This isn’t adding up.” If I remember correctly she made it in this photo because she wasn’t standing on her good side.

When she was all packed up and there were no more sleeps, it really hit me how lucky I had gotten. Sharing a room with someone is inherently a very educational experience. But I got a lot more out of it than just how to be patient and how to respect someone else’s time and thoughts. Because of Sydney, I gained a lot of perspective and peace. That’s not exactly easy to find in the midst of freshman year of college.

While we’ll definitely be seeing each other around campus and making efforts to hang out, it will never be as simple as crashing onto our beds and rehashing our days. That’s just the deal with growing up I guess. People help you learn and then they have to leave. And while Syd and my paths might have just crossed for this year and now will continue on in different directions, we are both leaving slightly changed, slightly smarter, somehow different.

And while I look over from my bed to the white walls and empty mattress, I realize that right now, I could really use a book of positive quotations.

18 Hours in Western Nebraska

In my eyes, “making it” has always required success on a big scale. That’s why I applied to a college on the East Coast that promised opportunity and excitement and was over a thousand miles away from my Midwest roots. So, when one of my best friends took the opposite path after high school graduation, I was baffled. Josh moved from the capital of Nebraska to a town on the other side of the state with 15,000 people and about as many cows. He sought freedom and solitude, so there he was: baling hay, herding animals, and living in the basement of his grandparents’ farmhouse.

A few months after he moved, I played my last game of softball before college. My family’s options after the tournament in Colorado were to drive eight hours home through a summer storm or stay in Denver and wallow in defeat. I proposed we go North and stay with Josh in Scottsbluff. To my surprise, my parents agreed.

During the drive, I observed the prairie. I realized that there was something beautiful about the lack of trees because I could see the whole sky that way—horizon to horizon. It was not only above me, but beside me. The color blue engulfed our car as its speakers blared, “Bye, bye Miss American Pie…”

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A hot air balloon floats above Scottsbluff.

The nothingness made the world seem smaller. I could not wonder what hid behind buildings or mountains. There was only the sureness of flat land and the sky. The impending change in my life weighed heavily on my shoulders, so I bathed in the security of the empty land.

The tires of our car crunched the gravel all the way up to the little white farmhouse. We parked between a tractor and pickup with a cherry picker on the back.

As I approached the porch, two old men emerged from inside the house. I wasn’t sure which one was his grandfather, so I smiled patiently. The one with a baseball cap and a belt buckle welcomed me up the stairs while the other walked to the truck.

“John here fixed our power lines just in time for your stay!”

“Your power was out?” my dad asked.

“I thought Josh told Amelia,” now-confirmed Grandpa replied.

“I didn’t tell my parents because then we wouldn’t have come.”

My mom sneered because she knew I was right, and my dad laughed because he would’ve done the same thing.

Josh and I headed out to visit the namesake of the town, the bluff. It jutted out from behind houses and farms. It’s essentially a glorified sandcastle with the evidence of thousands of years of formation stacked in shades of light brown rock. Like a sandcastle, the bluff is fragile. But instead of waves washing the masterpiece away, the winds that rip across the Great Plains and the footsteps of travelers wear down the bluff inch by inch.

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The bluff for which the town was named.

From the top of the bluff, the sky stretched from nothingness in Nebraska in the east to the mountain of Laramie, Wyoming in the west. Past my feet, I examined the entirety of Scottsbluff. There were little houses, and a couple of schools, and a church.

Scottsbluff is not glamorous. Nor are a lot of Nebraskan towns. But places don’t have to be pretty to be beautiful. When I look at city skylines I am filled with wonder because they hold bustling crowds where anything could be happening. When I looked out over a small town on a Sunday, I was filled with comfort because I didn’t have to guess. There were people like me putting one foot in front of the other.

The idea that “making it” demanded a big stage and bright lights discredited Josh’s success, which is on no stage at all, but rather alone in a field. The beauty of what he does, and what Nebraska is, is that what you see is what you get. It may be mundane, but there is no denying that it is authentic. And with the unfamiliarity of getting older in a new place approaching on my horizon, it felt good to know that I had something that I could count on.