Eight Weeks in America

A Love Story

"It’s Monday,” said the keyboardist at a crowded bar in Nashville, Tennessee. “You have all week to repent for this.” Then he played “Highway to Hell.”

One floor above the stage, Matthew J. Glazer ’06 and Andrew H. Golis ’06 sat at a tiny round table and listened. Late into the cross-country road trip that had occupied the last month and a half of their summer, they had exactly one week left. This might have made them feel sad, but, as one learns quickly on a road trip, a lot can happen in a week. They slouched backward and ordered drinks. Below them, women with teased hair swayed to the music. A big-bellied man lip-synched soulfully into his Budweiser, trying to serenade the object of his attention.

Later, outside the bar, a guy in a University of Pennsylvania t-shirt was shouting. “Harvard?” he asked, emitting an astonished stream of “holy shit!”s. “What are you doing here? You must be the only Harvard kids to walk down this street in—well, don’t tell anyone—holy shit!—don’t tell anyone about the Harvard thing. What are you doing here?”

He sized them up. Matt’s straightened hair had grown since the spring; it fell gracefully onto his white dress shirt, framing a full beard. Andrew, who styles his shorter blonde hair with gel and has a habit of stroking his goatee, wore small-framed glasses and Diesel jeans. “Well, you gotta try to blend in,” the Nashville native told them. “You gotta master the Woohoo! and the ye-ah.” He laughed. “Oh man, holy shit. Well,” and he looked them over one last time, “good luck.”

He wasn’t the first to offer it. Just before they began the trip, Matt and Andrew ate dinner with friends in Tribeca. Their plan was to leave New York and make a 45-degree angle into the Midwest. From there, they’d head west to Seattle, dip down the California coast into Texas, and snake east through the South. Fifteen thousand miles later, they’d end up back in New York. Their dinner companions were impressed, but wary. “They said, ‘Be careful, there’s crazy people out there,’” Andrew told me later. “Out there, quote unquote. Whatever that means.”

Traveling is standard fare for a Harvard summer, but traveling in the United States is something different. “People know the streets of Prague better than they know the streets of their own country,” Andrew told me. Indeed, representatives at STA Travel say the Harvard students they advise rarely want to remain within this country’s borders. Matt and Andrew wanted to try something different. They weren’t trying to be radical; they just figured it’d be fun.

But, like it or not, Matt and Andrew had stumbled onto a landmine. Driving in search of escape, adventure, self-realization—that’s great, but Jack Kerouac died a long time ago. In the aftermath of the 2000 election, the American road trip has become a political act. No less a figure than Bill Clinton said so in a June speech at the Washington Convention Center. “How do the Democrats win again?” Clinton asked. “We have to go to so-called ‘Red America.’ And you listen to this, every single one of you listen: Wanna know how we can win again? There can be no single person we do not see.”

None of this was on Matt and Andrew’s minds as they stood outside the bar in Nashville, trying to figure out where to go next. Sure, Matt is from Long Island, Andrew just north of San Francisco, and between them they have only ever lived in sky blue, major metropolitan areas. But by that night in late July, all that stuff in the middle was starting to feel like what it is: their country.

Wearing exactly zero cowboy hats between them, they said goodbye to the stranger, shook his hand, and accepted his offer of luck. Not that they needed it.

FOR WHAT?

“New York to New York, by way of America,” Matt had said when the guy in the Penn shirt asked what they were doing in Nashville. The truth is, the exact details depend on whom you ask.

In Matt’s telling, providence played a leading role. At the start of last year, someone posted a map of the United States at the bottom of Winthrop’s F entryway; around the same time, Winthrop’s housing director assigned Matt and Andrew to F-43. It was like when the stars pulled Romeo and Juliet to the same costume party, except without the untimely deaths. Soon, they were spending idle time at the bottom of the entryway, staring at those 50 states, so many oddly shaped unknowns, longing. By the spring they made their intentions clear, and by Commencement they were officially committed.

Andrew is less romantic. “I remember us at a certain point kind of jokingly being like, ‘Oh, we should travel around a little bit,’” he told me. “And then at one point we were like, ‘We should really do that. Do you want to do that? Okay, let’s do that.’ And then the rest of the year—neither of us had an internship or anything—‘We’re still doing this, right? ’Cause I haven’t applied for—we’re still doing this, right?’”

Road-tripping across the country may be the last American cliché that is also simultaneously a revolt. To do it requires the ability not to do anything else, a special challenge in the summer before one’s senior year, when so many Harvard students exit internships with job offers in hand. Friends and classmates struggled to grasp the concept; “going on a trip” didn’t seem like much of a plan. “For what?” people would ask. “What are you doing? Is this for your thesis?” Matt and Andrew have long been of the David Brooks, today’s-college-students-have-sold-their-souls school of thought, so issuing an emphatic “no” probably brought each a fair amount of satisfaction. Why were they dropping everything to drive around America in a 1999 Volvo sedan? Just ’cause.

The concept may have been difficult to grasp in part because Matt and Andrew might be this school’s least likely candidates for rebels against the Harvard grind. Last spring, when Matt ran for Undergraduate Council president, in a campaign even his predecessors agree was the best organized in UC history, Andrew was his number-one asset. As campaign manager, he woke up at seven every morning to prepare a schedule for Matt and his running mate, Clay T. Capp ’06. He organized an army of supporters to escort Matt and Clay around the dorms for door-knocking and quick chats, ordering each escort to politely yank him out should Matt, who likes to talk, spend more than five minutes in one place.

Since then, Matt’s job has taken up nearly all of his time and much of his sleep—frequently this summer he would excuse himself from a relaxed meal to use his Blackberry—but he has no regrets. “I love it,” he told me. “I love my job. I have a lot of exploring to do, but I really do love having a public service job.”