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Who Needs College When You’ve Got a Driver’s License?

Douglas, 3 year-old FS kid, in Britain.

Mine is a typical Foreign Service Brat story: I spent the majority of my childhood overseas learning new languages, adapting to new cultures, and growing up faster than any “normal” American child might. My nine years in England, Russia, and Germany were wonderfully transformative and I wouldn’t change a thing about them; but at some point during my three years in Berlin, a part of me wondered, “I have an American passport. I have an American street address. I have American relatives, but what does it mean to be American?” I had no idea.

One of the smartest things that State does for Foreign Service Officers is force them to come home for an extended vacation after every posting to re-Americanize them, as it were. While a six-week home leave may very well have the desired affect on adults who’ve spent most of their lives stateside, it is much different with children. When you’re younger, you adapt to new settings easier, especially when you’re on the move so often. Home leave, for me, was just another brief interruption between one foreign land and another, one old culture and another new one waiting. So when it came time for me to start thinking about high school, I knew I wanted to go “home,” but I had no real idea of what “home” meant.

Enter four years of boarding school in rural-very rural-Massachusetts. To my surprise, I found it much easier to readjust to American culture than I originally thought. Northfield Mt. Hermon School, a private preparatory school in Gill, MA, was a school of 1,100 students when I arrived, 25% of whom came from overseas. I entered an atmosphere with which I was totally comfortable: different faces, different races, different languages, etc. This alone made the transition from “Spongebob Who?” to “Dibs on the remote during the Superbowl!” much easier!

Being secluded in the woods of New England also gave me a lot of time to read, write, and be active in rediscovering my American roots. I threw myself into American History and Government classes; I read Jefferson, Adams, and Paine of my own volition; I listened to more NPR than ever before. But more importantly, I got involved in American politics. National politics, more than anything else, got me over the hump of a shaky national awareness. I took ideas learned in Europe and applied them to Democratic politics in this country, becoming an avid supporter first of Gen. Wesley Clark in the ’04 primaries and then of Sen. Kerry in the national campaign. If there is anything that will make a vigorous teenager get in touch with their long lost national heritage, pride, and patriotism, it is most definitely politics-no matter what side of the aisle.

But still there was something missing. By the halfway point of my senior year, I felt more American than ever before, having worked my butt off canvassing and stumping for Kerry. Yet, I felt out of touch with the both the people I’d worked with and the people I’d tried to win over. I couldn’t relate to the stories I heard from them: a family visit to the Grand Canyon, road-tripping down the East Coast, even growing up in the same small town with the same friends-simple stories that most Americans can connect to in some way. I could not. So I decided to change that.

The idea of an Australian-style “walkabout” lingered in the back of my brain throughout the college application process, but I was unsure of how to make that idea reality. All I knew was I had a bad case of itchy feet that wanted nothing more than to traipse around the country! I was in absolutely no rush to go from one academic routine straight into another and, more importantly, I was determined to give myself the educational and spiritual experience of a lifetime. Thus was the “gap year” seed in my head fed and cultivated, sprouting quickly into an all-consuming weed that refused to die! But to make anything of it, I needed a plan.

I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac in the 7th grade, inspired by a friend who raved about it. I, too, was taken by the book and the lifestyle Kerouac so vividly described. So five years later, I knew his was the model I wished to emulate, minus the hitchhiking and heavy drug use. To see the country, I would need to free myself from the constraints of both time and direction. More importantly, I would need to do it alone. The only question that remained was “How?”

The first item I tackled was the question of transportation. For a road trip, one needs wheels, but I didn’t know what kind would be best: station wagon or pickup? I looked at both and came to the conclusion that a pickup with a hard cap over the bed would provide both the optimum living space and the muscle for handling mountains and off-road trails. My parents lovingly provided the funding for the used Ford Ranger I bought over the summer.

Next, I drew up a travel plan to head south and west during the winter, then work north and east through the spring and summer. Hardly rocket surgery. There were obviously specific places I wanted to see and things I wanted to do, but I could figure out the nuts and bolts of how to get there when the time came…like the day before I arrived. The idea was to leave as much flexibility in the plans as possible, because when you’re not tied down by schedules and maps, you can do anything and go anywhere!

Finally, I took on the most consuming and, sadly, the most important problem: money. How on Earth was I going to pay for this trip? Ten months on the road = 335 days of gas; 1,005 meals; and God knows how many other expenses ranging from oil changes to postcards to showers. Whether using a calculator or my imagination, I could not come up with a number that didn’t scare me stiff. Thankfully, with two paid summer internships at State under my belt, by October 2005, my personal coffer left me just over $9,000 to use. I withdrew $5,000 from the State Dept. Federal Credit Union to create a checking account with USAA, which provided me with a credit card that I use almost exclusively for gas. The remaining balance I use for cash withdrawals. It can be confusing keeping the accounts balanced and updated, but it works and that is what’s important!

Having developed a somewhat organized plan of attack, the only thing left to do was get on the road! That was the easy part. I left rain-soaked Northern Virginia on October 7, 2005 and, except for a family tragedy in late November, haven’t looked back since.

In four short months, I’ve seen more of my country than I had in the seven years spent living here. I’ve walked beaches from the Outer Banks to the Gulf of Mexico; I’ve slept under the stars from the Appalachian Trail to the Grand Canyon; I’ve shared stories from Bourbon Street to Hollywood Boulevard; and with every mile traveled, I have met extraordinary people. But the journey is not yet over, and many chapters have yet to be written. I don’t know how it will end, but I do know one thing: after four months and 14,000 miles, I am no longer hesitant to call myself a proud American citizen.

Douglas Garrison is 19 years old and currently lives in Vienna, VA. He graduated from Northfield Mt. Hermon School at “the top of the bottom” of his class in June, 2005. As of this writing in February 2006, Douglas is a deferred freshman at Colorado College. He is the son of proud parents, Jeff and Susan Garrison, both retired FS, and has lived overseas in England, Russia, and Germany. This is Douglas’ first published online article.

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