The One-Way Ticket to San Francisco I Never Came Back From
"What's your final destination today Mr. Spellman?" It's a question I'm asked every single time I go to the airport, yet one that I couldn't quite muster such a confident answer as I typically do. I pause, ever-so briefly, but quickly realize that every millisecond that passes will only raise suspicions from the TSA agent as he glances at my boarding pass and looks up at me, awaiting my answer. "Um, SFO. San Francisco."
I evidently don't arise suspicions from the TSA agent to question me any further, as he checks my boarding pass and tells me to proceed. I weave my way around the security line and take one last look back behind me. It's a sight I have seen time after time, the hall of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. However, while my travel itineraries always include a return flight to Atlanta, this trip does not. I'm on a one-way ticket to San Francisco and I don't know when I'm coming back. And so nearly one year ago on June 7, 2011, I arrived in San Francisco, California on a one-way ticket with a full backpack, a three-week apartment, a Central America budget, and working part-time hours as a freelance writer. I arrived that Tuesday afternoon at my apartment, located in what I later found out was amidst one of the worst neighborhoods in San Francisco, only long enough to drop my things off before walking down the street to the bus stop to make my way into the city.
I hadn't been in San Francisco any longer than a couple hours and I was already going to my first event to meet people. It's only appropriate that the event venue was at a bar called Mars. A tall, southern good 'ole boy armed with a thick southern drawl, having just traveled long-term for a year, and moving to a city that seems to encourage public nudity, this felt so other-worldly. I can't tell you a lot of what happened or what I talked about that night, but I do remember one particular conversation toward the end of the evening with a table of San Francisco residents, Lauren, Kristin, and Nico. They kept referring to San Francisco as "magical"; that they couldn't quite put words to the experiences of the city, but the closest word that came to mind was "magical". Weird, right? Like San Francisco had some mystical quality and that high up on one of those steep hills was a man with a staff and pointy hat named Merlin.
I was walking a couple months ago through the Mission District of San Francisco when I stopped at a crosswalk for the light to turn, when as the crosswalk was about to turn, a man came up from behind me and stood beside me; nothing unusual at first glance. But then I took a second glance, only to see a man a couple inches taller than me, at over 6'5", covered in tattoos, with long flowing locks, wearing a long jacket, a top hat, and carrying a staff. I was a deer in the headlights. The light turned and he continued walking, yet stunned by what I was seeing, I could only stand still and watch. As others walked by me, brushing up against me, I finally started to take a step across the street, until the light turned back to red and I had to wait yet again. The post-modern Merlin was long gone.
I went all-in a year and a half ago when I left everything behind and booked a one-way ticket to travel indefinitely. It was unequivocally the best decision of my life. It was just weeks after returning that I went all-in once again to travel to San Francisco with a one-way ticket, backpack, Central America budget, and a three-week apartment. While I understand that the house always win, I also know that both times I've gone all-in the last couple years, it's me that has won. I don't know how. I can't explain it. I meet person after person who has taken similar risks and haven't had nearly the same success and experiences. There's not a formula to it. I can't and won't write a book about how to go all-in and come out on top in life. I was scared to death, like never before, yet I finally confronted my fears, dreamed, and chased after those dreams.
It's been almost 350 days since I set foot in San Francisco. At the time I began writing this post, I had just risen from crying uncontrollably on my bed for five minutes. The only other time I remember crying that hard was nearly two years ago after my marital separation. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and angry because I felt like I had been living a sham. The main differences being that that time I was in my car and it involved slamming my hands on the steering wheel and boxing the ceiling of my car. It turns out that some emotions are in fact reenacted the same in real life as they are in the movies. Yet there was another much more significant difference; that night a couple years ago represented crying out of anger, yet this time represented crying out of sheer exhilaration and gratitude like I've never felt before. My cup runneth over.
The thing about being so active online, is that you can tell whatever story you want, but only those who know you in person know the real story. Most people see my trips, my work in the travel industry, my attempt at National Novel Writing Month, and the foods I eat. They don't see the debt I'm paying off, the divorce that was only recently finalized, the apartment in the bad area of San Francisco, the lonely nights of having trouble making friendships, months on end without dating when I really wanted to date, and the day-to-day life of living on a Central America budget in the most expensive city to live in America. I was skeptical of San Francisco. I came here hoping to give it at least a few months, but starting with only a couple weeks. It's as if I was purposefully skeptical, longing to make San Francisco work, yet deep down, daring it to prove my skepticism wrong with its so-called magic tricks.
In a few weeks I leave for my next big trip. It'll be a multi-week trip that takes me from the Inside Passage of Alaska to the bays of British Columbia to the Irish Sea to the rolling hills of Scotland to the crashing waves of the Canary Islands to the Greek Isles. It's the "Summer of Spence" and what I'm calling the trip of a lifetime. Yet there's something different about this trip, as compared to the big trips of the last couple years. On this trip, I have a return flight. There is a date and time of return, back home to San Francisco. For once, I'm traveling out of desire, rather than out of necessity and the need to escape. And the thrill of coming home to San Francisco will be as strong as the thrill of leaving to travel (And if you just can't make it one more paragraph, see what Samwise Gamgee has to say about the types of stories that people remember).
This year in San Francisco may just be my greatest story to date, one grand adventure that has been full of fears and failures, yet hopes and dreams come true. I'm writing this, yes for myself, but really to honor the relationships and experiences of the last 12 months. You, who have been a character in this chapter of my story in San Francisco, are who have made this year, and especially those who have been a part of the last couple months. Words can't express my gratitude. It is you who are inspiring and living stories worth telling. And it's because of these people and these experiences in San Francisco that I've never felt so alive and felt such a sense of balance across my career, life, and relationships. San Francisco proved me dead wrong and turned this skeptic into a believer. As it turns out, San Francisco is magical.