"What are you doing all the way up here?" says the man behind the counter when I hand him my South Carolina driver's license. I'm standing at the service window of the United States Post Office in Gambier, Ohio, the tiny, midwestern town where I live and go to college. Already I have my guard up because this particular postman taunts me like this every time I come in (but that's okay, I secretly imagine him as the grown up child Eddie Vedder and Thom Yorke will never have, so you could say we're somewhat even). "Wouldn't Duke have done?" he asks. "Yeah. Really," I say. I want to stop his routine in its tracks, get my package, and leave. But he has a point. It's true: Duke would have done, and if not Duke then Davidson, or Furman, or any number of excellent schools less than three hours by car from Columbia, South Carolina, the town where I grew up. What am I doing here? Was it necessary for me to move five hundred miles away from home to get a good college education? No. But was it necessary for me to move five hundred miles away from home?
I enjoy driving the nine hour route from my house in South Carolina to my hilltop sanctuary in rural Ohio. In late fall, it's like watching the seasons turn in time warp. The first hour of my trip is lush and green. Passing through North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, the leaves brighten and thin. By the time I reach the crest of West Wiggin street in central Gambier, the trees are completely barren. Winter's hold is in full effect. Something else has happened, too: a shift within me. The change is covert but immense; in reality and in my head, I have left a place set in stone, a place sluggish with my past, and come into the open air. I have entered the place for thought that college should be.
In an age where humans are no longer compelled to move from place to place for survival, the fact that we do so anyway says a lot about the kind of mental awakening a geographical shift can provide. It seems there is this kind of human boiling point at which the water in any place someone has stood for too long begins to bubble and drives him or her away from it. This boiling point is, I think, ultimately good. For me and others my age, this drive to move outward from what we know is vital if we are to mature into the people we want to be.
I remember experiencing a less developed incarnation of this urge as early as age fifteen. The day I got my driver's license, my best friend and I buckled ourselves into my mom's Prius and hit the road. We went nowhere in particular, but it was one of the best days of my life because we could feed that drive to leave our homes behind, to "get out," if only for a little while. In the years that followed, we took countless midnight drives and day trips to any little, southern town we could locate in the constellation of places laid out around us, waiting to be explored.
I won't lie or be superficially optimistic about my experience leaving the comfort of the place where I grew up. It's difficult starting over and some days, today even, I ask myself what I'm doing "all the way up here." But the answer to that question is beside the point. I'm here because I made a choice, a choice people were making long before I was even a blip on the screen of the universe. Not because it's the right thing to do or because it will always pay off, but because it runs in our blood.