Michael Wolf
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On Leaving the Midwest
Initially written - 08/15/17 Last edited - 08/11/18

Saying goodbye to a region I have called home my whole life has been full of mixed emotions and even if I'm not totally settled into this new state, I figured it would be worthwhile to collect a few thoughts here and reflect on the trip across the country.


Anyone who has known me for any period of time can attest to my rather lassaiz-faire approach to decision making. While opportunistic, I am absolutely awful at deciding what to do when faced with a glut of opportunities, each with rewards and drawbacks. In the case of this blog post, that decision was deciding what I wanted to do with myself after graduating college. The decision rushed up on me quickly, in early 2017, I found out I could graduate my dual-degree program by the end of the summer. With hubris, I suppose, I decided to reject the path I had been planning on taking post graduation. By declining a comfortable job offer at a large software company, I decided I would challenge myself for once and pursue something unknown.

Thus began my quest. I left all doors open, applying to positions around the world. Months passed before I ended up right back where I started, the San Francisco Bay Area. However, this time I found prospects much more promising. Despite the loss of the fancy benefits of big-company Silicon Valley, by joining a small company, I was able to settle some deep FOMO. Thus, as I finished by degree in summer, I began planning my trip out west. I packed up my room, my beautiful room that overlooked the Cincinnati skyline. I sent carloads of stuff to my parents house and carloads to thrift stores. My AGILE-buzzword-named guppies, now in the third generation and having taken on the name Sprint 3.0 were taken to my favorite aquarium, Monfort, where they could evangelize in the school of incremental swimming.

The Journey

By July 28th I was still working in Cincinnati and neck deep in final exams, but I decided it would be the best time to drive across the continent. The plan was simple. I would leave immediately after work on Friday, drive through the night, pick up my girlfriend in Denver and leisurely make it back to California before her workday on Monday, including a stop in Zion National Park.

On Friday, I said farewell to my coworkers with mixed emotions and took my last commute down I-75. In the summer heat, I loaded my car up with boxes of crap I didn't have the heart to put in storage. Finally, with the help of my roommate (thanks Kate), I got my cartop carrier settled with my bicycle. Only a couple hundred miles later would I realize that I left the tires in my landlord's garage. But that was it. At 6:45 PM I was saddled, sweating but ready to leave. I hopped in the car to see a flashing light on the dash. I had gotten a nail lodged in my rear driver's-side tire. In a panic, I called a tire shop on my route westward that was open for 45 more minutes. I skedaddled out of the city I loved in sacrilegious haste to make it to the shop in time. I would indeed make it in time, but over a half a year later and two more patches and the tire still leaked.

Indiana and Illinois were a blur as they always are, but St. Louis was a bit of a trip. I got into the city pretty late, crossing the Mississippi around midnight. I was almost immediately flanked by a crew of speeding motorcyclist. I thought I was going awfully close to uncomfortable speeds on the bridge, but these badasses just flew right by me. As I followed their swerving path with my eyes, I caught the skyline of the city illuminated and can say it looked pretty magical for a city I've only driven through. Maybe it was the Ghostly International CD or the eagerness to see something besides corn fields, but I felt that this city would have something interesting in store. The strongest memory I had from this leg of the journey was an encounter I had at a gas station in the suburbs just outside St. Louis. I had pumped my gas and was getting a cup of coffee if I remember correctly. Near the entrance of the convenience store was a group of high-school-aged boys. They had the distinctive look of the kids I hung out with at that age. I recalled meeting up with friends at gas stations and Waffle Houses when we were first getting our licenses and hand-me-down minivans just like this scene. Whatever strange aura of connection there was, the group of teenagers and I struck up conversation-- California, random teenager-level life advice, what life was like in Missouri. After they left to continue their nocturnal activities, I went inside for coffee to find the clerk was dawdling with something on the counter. He was about the same age as the kids who had left and by his workplace apathy-- about the same demeanor. He had placed a pen through the center of a fidget spinner (if that dates this story at all) and was able to make the gyrating contraption draw elaborate and beautiful spirographs of ball-point ink on the counter. We both stared in silence at the forming patterns. This scene was either very profound or I was simply sleep deprived. I paid for my coffee and got back on the road having completed this leg of the caucasian millenial spirit quest.

I reached the border of Kansas before I finally surrendered to sleep. I found a rest stop parking lot that yieled by body a couple aching hours of sleep. I stupidly refused to give myself any more time to sleep and swore to myself (as I had sworn everytime I have made this journey) that I would never do it again. But I continued on my journey, trying to beat my girlfriend to the Denver Airport where we were planning on meeting up. The only issue is that I didn't expect Kansas. I mean no ill-will in saying that there is nothing in Kansas. It is the only stretch of my journey that got me close to running out of gas. I had about 15 miles left in my range when I found an abandoned-looking, but thankfully functional pump about a quarter of the way across the state. I don't think I passed a car for half an hour. It was mesmerizing. I thought Nevada, Utah, and Montana were empty, but Kansas was just void but for the windmills. Yet when I stopped into a tire repair shop in a decent sized town to check on my still- leaking tire, there were a half dozen cars ahead of me! Anyway, I won't gripe about it any more, but the memory of that unending state are fresh wounds in my mind. No amount of podcasting the Methods of Rationality, FM perusing, CD-swapping, or CB-dial twisting could ease that stretch of the trip.

But Colorado was great! Despite rushing to the airport with little time to explore, the sight of ice- capped mountains reinvigorated me. After I picked up my patient girlfriend from the airport, we stopped in Denver for a pizza and a place to readjust my cargo carrier. Unfortunately no one told us that the pizza shop in question was take-and-bake. Nonetheless, that detour granted us access to the Asian Water Festival-- a small expo with a glut of snack-sized cups of noodles and desserts. But we didn't stay long, my girlfriend had work on Monday. We took some detours through the beautiful alpine towns in Colorado for snacks and a place to legitimately rest.

On Sunday we set out for what we hoped would be a leisurely detour through Zion. It started out with waking up realizing our hotel was in the desert and the whole town was crawling with huge bugs. Bugs on the car, bugs on the gas pump, bugs covering the trash can at Subway. I suppose that's what we get for picking our hotel at night. We left about as soon as we could and off on a side road in Utah through gorgeous, painted hills and clear streams. We must have stopped a half dozen times to admire the scenery. The population centers we passed through off the beaten path were surreal-- honest ghost towns that remind me of villages of rural China I have seen depicted in art galleries. But one thing that is for sure, they had more reliable gas stations than Kansas. So when we finally reached the edge of Zion and we hit a column of cars, I didn't think much of it. We underestimated the popularity of Zion on a Sunday in August. The column of cars simply didn't move. It was only hours later that we realized that the bottleneck was a one-lane tunnel through the mountains. So much for that day trip.

We carried on, stopping for a couple hours of fun at Circus Circus in Las Vegas, remorselessly defeating elementary school children at skeeball. From there on, I spent most of the rest of the trip asleep. I thank my girlfriend for driving the rest of the way.

Actual California

I don't remember when we arrived at our temporary home, a strange Airbnb mansion in Castro Valley. We had rented a single room called Tokyo, carved out of a mansion with many other rooms of geographic namesake. It was from this room on the second floor with weird crown molding and doors to nowhere that I spent my first couple days of (more) permanent California living, waiting for the current tenant of our new home in downtown San Jose to vacate.

I spent this first week ferrying my girlfriend to work in Oakland and finishing up my final projects for college at libraries in Berkeley and Piedmont. It was a sort of nomadic experience except for the weight of the enormous move ahead of me and the sinking feeling of how we were going to get settled in on our own.When we finally got the ok to move in, we bade farewell to the Airbnb and its pretty swimming pool that we never touched.

The first load of stuff was from Cincinnati. The second was all of our possessions stored from last year's internship kept in a storage unit far from the city. We have a lot of stuff. Between boxes of light stuffed animals and dozens of boxes of dated electronics, I felt that by the end of this move, I had reached peak fitness. Boxes piled up in the apartment, furnitureless. It would be weeks before I could finally unpack the boxes that sat in walkways. I certainly did not have the real estate that I had come to expect in Ohio.

When we did finally get settled, tension was high. This was our first real place and the beginning of an adult existence. I spend a good many hours trying to assembble my thoughts on the roof of this new apartment complex-- a spot in downtown San Jose. The silence of the nights spent looking at the skyline of the KQED and Adobe building, would never be matched by any profound days in the city obsessed with the progress of Sillicon Valley

San Jose

It was a year that our lease lasted in San Jose. I spent that year walking up San Fernando Street to the Caltrain station, watching the ebbs and flows of the homeless encampments under route 84, watching the sunset over the skyline of power-washed tech companies. San Jose taught me to ignore those around me. My commute was silence and podcasts and evenings were marked by weaving to avoid the drunken, well-off individuals that descended on the city after dark. I fought through the crowds of patient adherents to the San Jose Comedy Club to get into my apartment with reusable-bagged groceries. The few conversations I did strike up were with burned-out hippies, riding the VTA long into the night.

Yet, my work was different. I was fortunate to fall into a position of understanding and intelligent engineers. Certainly there is no shortage in the Bay Area, but this office helped me to justify my move more than anything else. This, along with my girlfriend and lease of course, would keep me from fleeing California after a couple of months.

While I had a car, I was able to use it to travel around the Bay Area, to hike and go to the beach. We could go to places that didn't require buses and buy things that we didn't have to carry home. Truly the public transportation of the Bay Area--particularly in San Jose are abysmal when compared to that of Hong Kong or Berlin. So it was this car, clunky as it may be, that kept us engaged with the region. However, after my windows were smashed in twice in San Francisco and once in the garage in San Jose that I had paid to park in monthly, I decided I was done with driving. These acts of pointless vandalism pushed me over the edge. All optimism I had about the City and the South Bay were gone. I knew that we would not be staying in this suburb-locked landmass of offices, luxury condos, and obnoxious bars after our lease expired.

Six Months Later

I took a couple weeks off of work in April of 2018 to visit with my friends and family in Ohio. Coincidentally, it was the time that many of my friends were graduating and moving out. As I learned about everyone's future plans-- Knoxville, Austin, Berlin, New York, Seattle. Hardly anyone was staying in Cincinnati. Some research highlights this trend in the macro-sense (Trulia) (New York Times). The midwest isn't keeping college-educated people. So as I went back and revisited the places I held sacred, the rosy view I held of the city faded. Rake's End is closed, my friends are moving out, and I've found that my ties to the city are dwindling.

Twelve Months Later

When I returned to San Jose, the scooters had begun to multiply. Beginning with two or three outside the train station, they soon became stacks of twenty, thirty, fifty. While I have no right to criticize a mode of transportation that has taken down the number of Ubers and Lyfts choking the road and driving backwards on the light rail tracks, the amount of times I had been hit by people on scooters, not paying attention on the sidewalk is non-zero. In these months up until my lease was up, I stayed inside mostly. There was nothing the city had to offer us aside from Recycle Books, Needle To The Groove, and sandwich shops.

So we looked elsewhere in the Bay Area. We couldn't leave the Bay because my girlfriend was still in school at SJSU, but given that her last semester would only be once a week, we were able to look a parts of the Bay that were accessible by public transit. We loved our experiences visiting Berkeley and I couldn't help but desire to live close to places that could access genuine culture without requiring a hotel in the City or an all-stops-to-San-Francisco Caltrain ride. But housing sucks in Berkeley and we weren't willing to compete with two dozen UC Berkeley applicants for a $2.3k/month one-bedroom apartment. The prospects were not great and it seemed that we might actually be stuck in San Jose when our lease ran up.

Fortunately, we came across a posting for an apartment in a small apartment building with a strong 60's style in Mosswood, Oakland. It was full of light and windows. The apartment featured a patio, hardwood floors and actual recycling pickup. And the neighborhood made me feel at home. A steadfast liquor store with a rotating cast of loitering denizens, a hipster bagel shop with a line consistently out the door, and a scrappy Chinese restaurant (in defiance of all of the Koreatown restaurants) called Big Daddy's now meet my eye as I walk home from Macarthur BART station.

This place feels like the experience I had been missing in Cincinnati. No, I'm not going to parties and spending snowdays getting wrecklessly intoxicated, but the community feel of the neighborhood is there. The streets are not powerwashed, the storefronts are not culled to make room for coworking spaces and overpriced cocktails. Mosswood sits between Temescal, Piedmont, and Uptown and I honestly didn't realize how much a view over a tree-lined street would increase my comfort with California.


It's hard to say whether my decision to leave the midwest was for the best. I have certainly learned much about engineering and grown up substantially. But I'm not rolling in the cash, high off the ecstasy of creative endeavors or extracurricular activities, or willing to stay in the Bay Area for much longer. Instead, I think my departure from Cincinnati was a way of allowing me to restart my approach to life. The environment I had come to expect-- the food, the culture, the obligations and expectations-- was not universal. As I look toward what I want to make the rest of my life look like, comfort with these shifts is critical.

As for what is next, I can say I will be in Oakland at least until my lease is up. With my girlfriend graduating, we no longer have any obligations to be located here. The jobs, the nightlife, the culture, are nothing that can't be found in a cheaper place anywhere in the world. The Internet has made that possible. Travel has afforded us the ability to look at the cities we would want to live in, but opportunity or that final push out of the Bay has not yet arisen. We've got a couple years left to be wild in our movements and I don't think I will ever regret moving out of Cincinnati or the Bay Area.

I do hope to one day return to the Midwest. I think back to the time that I spent visiting northern Michigan. It seemed an elysian world to raise a family in. We'll just have to save up for winter coats.

My roommate helps me to tie my bike to the roof of my car. Thanks Kate!
Out of the plains at last
I got some time to relax at least
Zion was okay when there were no cars
Thanks Utah
This is it. This is Tokyo.
View from the roof of our apartment in San Jose
A pleasant part of my walk home in San Jose
A scene that is more my speed, Mountain View Cemetery
Goodbye, forever, old Midwestern room