How I Found Life (and Holmes Hall) Without a Map

Sometimes we can only find what we’re looking for if we’re willing to get a little lost.  This was never more true than when I was an innocent and hopeful freshman at college on my first night away from home.

I was insanely excited to begin my adventures on Michigan State University’s campus in the fall of 1995.  My roommate and I moved enough flannel shirts, Ann Geddes posters and boom boxes for 14 freshmen and stacked it all precariously in our 12×12 dorm room, kissed our parents good-bye, and we were ready to roll.  The only problem was, we weren’t exactly sure where we were going or what we were supposed to do.

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“Come down to Holmes!  We’re all headed out to a few parties,” said a guy from my hometown I had met a few weeks earlier.  His cute little dimples were inviting, and my roommate was game for adventure, so we decided to go for it.

Holmes Hall was on the far southeast end of campus.  We had just set up camp in Emmons Hall, on the northwest corner.  We were as far from Holmes as you could be.  Worse, we had never walked the campus and we had no idea where we were going.

This was 1995.  There was no such thing as GPS back then – there weren’t even cell phones.  We had a little white board attached to our door and an answering machine hooked to the phone in our dorm room.  We hardly knew a soul, and we didn’t have our bearings at all.  But we didn’t let that stop us.

“I am NOT carrying a map,” my roommate said, and I looked at her aghast for even thinking that we’d do that.  We were freshmen, we weren’t complete imbiciles.

“The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, right?”  I said.  “And the sun is starting to set now.  So we just have to watch the sunset, and walk the opposite way.”

And thus, a plan was born.  We would walk to meet a boy I barely knew on the other end of a campus we had never walked on by walking in the opposite direction of the setting sun.

Brilliant.

To give this story some context, here are some facts about the campus of Michigan State University:  MSU is a 5,200-acre campus with 2,100 acres in existing or planned development.  It has 545 buildings, including 23 dorms in the largest residence hall system in the entire United States.  About 16,000 students live in student housing, and about 50,000 undergraduate students attend Michigan State University.

It’s not a small place.

A quick search on Google Maps just told me that a walk from Emmons Hall to Holmes Hall is about 1.7 miles long.  Of course, that’s if one happens to know where one is going and takes the most direct route available.  We were walking vaguely opposite of the setting sun and attempting to head a little south at the same time, not carrying a map, and we were unfamiliar with all the campus landmarks.  Sure, we’d eventually tailgate outside the Breslin Center and watch Michigan State beat Michigan in a few games at Spartan Stadium.  We’d paint The Rock in the center of campus.  We’d watch Rusted Root perform at the MSU Auditorium.  We’d buy ice cream sandwiches at the Dairy Store. We’d take our graduation pictures next to the Sparty statue.  But that stuff hadn’t happened yet.  This was Day One.

I don’t know how long it took us to walk from Emmons Hall to Holmes Hall on that fall evening in 1995.  Suffice it to say it took much longer than it could have, or would have if we had followed Siri’s voice to get there.

That walk took a really long time, and it is forever engrained my memory.  I remember hearing and then seeing the Red Cedar River for the first time, and asking what it was.  I remember weaving through some flowers and admiring the layout of a garden without realizing it was the historic, illustrious W. J. Beal Botanic Garden I was meandering through.  I remember laughing with my roommate as we crossed crooked streets and looked at meaningless street signs and talked to fellow students that looked as lost as we were.

“Excuse me, do you know where Holmes Hall is?”

“Yeah, keep going down this sidewalk until you get to the big building with the ivy, then go a couple blocks and turn left,” they replied.  “Have you heard of the Couch House?  We’re going to go there after we get our friends from Shaw.  Do you know where Shaw is?”

“Yeah, we passed it about ten minutes ago – just follow this road until you see a giant tree…” we said back.

We made a few great friends that night.  We also made it to Holmes Hall before the guy I barely knew and the roommate he just met left for a party a few blocks away.  Most importantly, that night, we made memories.  I can still close my eyes and visualize the towering ivy-covered buildings colored with the fading sunset, hear the nervous laughter of students on the streets, and feel the heat, humidity and wonder of a late summer evening in the Midwest.

If we would have had GPS, I wouldn’t have those memories.  We may have made it to Holmes Hall a lot faster.  We wouldn’t have heard about the couch house.  I wouldn’t have met Bell the Beer Man.  Bell the Beer Man wouldn’t have recognized me at a bar in Denver many years later.  I wouldn’t have gone to Bell’s house in Parker, Colorado and met the guy that lived across the street from him.  I wouldn’t have made plans with the two of them when one of my best friends was visiting for a spring ski trip.  She wouldn’t have married that neighbor guy.  I wouldn’t have ended up living on that same street in Parker.  I wouldn’t take The Professor and Huck Finn to the playground in the center of our neighborhood.  They wouldn’t go to the STEM school we first heard about when we were playing in that playground.  And so the dance of life continues – and it all started on that map-less walk across MSU’s campus in 1995.

I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I wouldn’t have gotten a little bit lost on my way to Holmes Hall on my first night in college.  And it wouldn’t have been the same if I had known where I was going, or if I tried to get there as quickly as I could.

In today’s world, it often seems like everyone is in a race to get somewhere or to get the most stuff done. We are constantly in motion.  We tend to judge our days based on the amount of tasks we’ve accomplished rather than the quality of the experiences we have.   We value efficiency, productivity and speed.  And yet, I’m starting to question whether “accomplishment” is really all that valuable.

We don’t always know where we’re going. We don’t always know what we’re looking for.  Sometimes we think we’re looking for something and we find something else entirely.  That’s the beauty of life.

We have all sorts of maps and tools today to get us where we are going, but those things can be downright dangerous if they keep us from exploring all of the sidewalks of life.  Life is meant to be experienced.   Life isn’t found on a map.  Many of us seem to be searching for something more in our lives, but maybe we’re looking in the wrong places.

Maybe we need to look at the sky, start walking, and see where we end up.

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