Scott Warren is a Visiting Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, focused on youth political engagement around the world. He is the founder of the national civics education non-profit Generation Citizen.
Raia and Me
I merged the rented Dodge Caravan over three lanes, gingerly looking into the passenger side mirror, the rearview mirror rendered useless because of endless stacked boxes behind me. I took the Via de La Valle exit, an offramp I had taken endless times throughout my childhood in San Diego. Raia- my trusted, durable travel companion- stirred from her awkward position, crouched in the median between my seat and the passenger seat, head on my shoulder, eyes closed, swaying as the car veered across the lanes. Her eyes slowly opened. She looked ahead. Ever so slightly, she began to wag her tail. Tom Petty provided inspiration for the last legs of the journey. I turned down Learning to Fly. Slightly less cliche for the end of a road trip than Free Fallin, a song that, of course, Jerry McGuire singing in a convertible made a must-have for any road trip. I wasn’t going to end my own voyage with that level of cliche. We came to a red light as we exited the freeway. “We made it, Raia.” ……. This specific transition begins on February 29th, 2020, Leap Day. What a momentous, unique day. I woke up that morning groggy, having returned to my Park Slope, Brooklyn studio early on Saturday morning. 1AM early. Another late night, courtesy of a delayed flight from Atlanta to New York City. Another conference in the books. My job was as the Chief Executive Officer of a non-profit called Generation Citizen (GC). For the last twelve years, since graduating from college in 2009, the job was my life. My life was the work. I spent almost every waking moment meeting with staff members and donors, writing strategy papers and e-mails, and managing the latest staff crisis of the day. When I wasn’t doing those tasks, I was thinking about doing those tasks. Or feeling guilty that I wasn’t doing those tasks. I was in the last legs of my journey, and my energy. I had successfully (I guess depending on your definition of successful) built up the organization to become one of the most pre-eminent education groups in the country as we focused on transforming civics education, ensuring that young people learned politics by doing politics, bringing energy to a traditionally staid subject. I was proud. I was utterly exhausted. The type of exhausted that a few long nights of sleep does not cure. My complete focus on work meant I was on the road about 50% of the year, meeting with my team at one of our six sites, attempting to convince rich donors to give us money, or attending a hob-knobby conference where do-gooders would converse over panels and breakout sessions in ornate hotel ballrooms, opining on how we were saving the world for the less fortunate. I railroaded every romantic relationship I had been in, constantly professing that I was too busy to concentrate on building a future. I rarely got home before 9PM, oftentimes opening up my laptop before engaging in pleasantries with whomever I was dating at the time. I was always out the door by 6AM, needing to at least get in an early workout before a day of meetings. I slept fitfully, usually because of an unhealthy diet of caffeine and alcohol, that I told myself I deserved, because of my intensive exercise regime, and the aforementioned stressful work environment. I told myself the work ethic was necessary to build an idea to a thriving $6 million non-profit. The schedule more accurately stemmed from a desire to escape everything else in life. In reality, I felt a deep sense of void and loss in my life, knowing that any meaning behind work could not fill the lack of real connection with actual individuals. And so, on this morning of February 29th, I was only months away from leaving Generation Citizen. I had given notice months before and was planning to leave at the end of June. I wanted something new for myself. I wanted the organization to survive, and thrive, without me. I wanted some rest. I was excited, and terrified, about the pending transition. My entire sense of identity was on the table. My ability to run away from the problems in my life was on the table. To that end, I woke up on that Saturday Leap day morning with these emotions at the forefront as I waited for the coffee and water to adequately mix in French Press. Accelerating the process, I stirred the coffee and looked absent-mindedly ahead into the abyss of my studio apartment. Saturday mornings, the reality of not sharing that coffee with someone else was more acute. I wished that I wasn’t heading right into work. But that I was. For that Saturday morning, just having finished that conference the night before, I sprinted to the subway, having just bought another cup of coffee at the Starbucks above the Union Street R line subway, getting ready to attend a training for college volunteers for GC, ostensibly my last one as CEO. But at the back of my mind was another possibility for the day. Months ago, after failing at the most serious relationship of my life , one of six years, which necessitated the move to the studio, I applied to, and for some god-forsaken reason, was approved, to adopt a dog from an adoption agency in Brooklyn. At the time, I wanted to demonstrate that, despite the ending relationship, and despite moving into a studio on my own when friends were getting married and buying homes, I was somehow moving forward in life. A dog, I thought, could prove that. My friends had willingly lied in reference checks and said that I could be a responsible dog owner despite the hectic travel schedule that allowed me to evade life. For months, my better angels had prevailed. I had talked a big game of getting a dog, but never came close to pulling the trigger. I figured that as my work and travel schedule had impeded any meaningful and sustainable human relationship, assuming a dog could fill the void was probably something close to animal abuse. But something felt a little different this Saturday morning. Maybe I had enough. Maybe the work transition was close enough that I felt change was actually possible. At the training, acting more as the personable boss than as a responsible person, I couldn't stop showing my staff members a picture of a dog I had recently spotted on the adoption website. Over the last few weeks, I had pulled up the pictures of this particular dog on the Badass Brooklyn adoption website at least three times a day. The dog was a Beagle mix from Alabama named Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser from the Netflix show Outlander (which is literally an impossibly long name for a dog). Having grown up with a rambunctious Beagle of my own, I was smitten from the picture. Tan face, black body, playful eyes. Her cuteness was not up for discussion. My decision itself definitely was. Was I actually serious about adopting a dog? After playing with the idea for so long? My upcoming schedule, after all, was already filled with three different work trips to conferences in Austin, San Francisco, and Boston. Just in March. “You won’t get her,” said one staff member, Brooke. “There’s no way.” “Maybe I will!” “Bullshit.” “Maybe I’ll get her to prove you wrong.” I left the training and stared at the picture on the subway back into Brooklyn. As I walked from the subway at Union and 4th to the Petco several avenues over, I ran into Boris, an old friend- one of those rare but fun encounters in the vastness of New York City. He ran another social entrepreneurial organization, and I knew him to be as busy as I usually was. “Great to see you man! How are you?” I gave him a hug. “Doing alright! Just had a baby boy- man is it a lot of work!” He showed me a picture of his new son and regaled me with stories of how different his life had been. He was trying to travel less, be there for his wife and son more. I couldn’t help but feel that his life was moving forward, precisely by focusing less on work. We both promised to catch up soon. I slowly walked into the pet store. The desire to do something that would cause my life to be fundamentally different had strengthened significantly in the short walk from the subway. I needed a change. I took a deep breath as I walked in. “I’m here for the Beagle mix?” At the back of the store, I was greeted by a cute dog, no taller than six inches, but long, almost like a dachshund. She saw me, quickly jumped up, surprisingly high, lifting off her hindlegs, to say hello, reaching my face. She jumped three times. She just as quickly went back to the others around her. The adoption agency staff didn’t have too much time for pleasantries, or for my existential musings. “Want to play with her a bit? She really is great. Playful. Cute. Housebroken.” What more could you want in a dog? “You have until 11:30 to decide if you want her!” Great, I thought, 25 minutes to decide whether I want to say yes to an animal that would be in my life for at least the next twelve years. I have trouble committing to dinner plans. I had woken up that morning assuming that this would be an exercise in vanity. I sat down, the dog jumped in my arms, and wrestled with my red windbreaker, attempting to puncture it, and pull out the feather inner lining. This one could be a keeper. I thought about the exhaustion from another Friday night conference. I thought about how Boris’ new life had fundamentally forced him to change his old ways. I thought about Brooke telling me that there was no way I would actually adopt a dog. I needed a change. A change more foundational than just leaving my job. A change that would cause me to lead my life differently. Why not have a change instigated by something as cute as the dog chewing on my arm? Typing into my phone as the dog attempted to nose it away so I would keep petting her, I texted my friend Brad, who had agreed to come with his wife Julia. I needed affirmation. They arrived as the dog and I engaged in another wrestling match. “She’s really cute.” “Should I get her?” “It’s a big commitment. But she’s really cute.” She was really cute. Not sure one is supposed to make big decisions entirely based on looks. 11:26. I needed a change. She was incredibly cute. My mind raced. This was one big way to force a change in my life. A real way to mark a needed transition. I needed to force the change. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I told the adoption agency. “I’ll take her.” Brad and Julia laughed. “Holy shit! You’re actually doing this!” The agency shoved paperwork in front of me, seemingly wanting to make sure I didn’t back out. Five minutes, a few signatures, and a decent sized check later, they gave me a leash, and a dog. “She’s yours!” The agency took a picture of the two of us, our first as a family. They showed me the picture after. I had stifled a smile. The dog looked completely terrified, clearly trying to escape my embrace. The agency never posted the picture to their Instagram account. “What do I do now?”” I asked Brad and Julia. “Well,” Brad said, “You probably need some...stuff? Food? Bowls?” “Right, of course.” I ran around the store, dog nervously accompanying me, scooping up gourmet dog food, and bought inexpensive bowls, a bed, and a kennel. I added in a stuffed hedgehog to replace my fleece as a chew toy. Brad and Julia walked the dog and me to my apartment a few blocks away. “You know,” Julia said, trying to change the subject, “McKinsey is talking about halting all travel because of this COVID-19 thing. Maybe you’ll actually get a lot of time with this dog.” “All travel? That’s absurd,” I had heard a bit about the virus. I assumed it would inconvenience a few people. But travel? Who could survive without travel? Certainly not me. We stopped in front of my apartment. “By the way, what’s her name?” I looked at her for a second. “Raia,” I said, “Uraia means citizen in Swahili. So, Raia.” I had lived in Kenya for three years in high school and visited many more times. I had thought about the potential name from time to time, whenever I played with the idea of getting a dog. I appreciated the symbolism of the Swahili version of my organizational name. But I had not known to leave the U off until that moment. It just sounded right. The first decision of the day that I categorically felt good about. “True to form. Good luck!” They took off, and we were alone. Just the two of us. Raia’s stubby legs refused to climb the five stairs leading up to the Brooklyn Brownstone. I picked her up, struggling to carry her, her new kennel and the food. I placed all three in my left arm, jockeying my keys from my pocket with the right hand, and kicking open the outside door. I placed Raia on the ground and opened my studio door, but, despite gentle coaxing, realized she would not be descending the four stairs leading down to my first-floor studio. I threw down the kennel and the food into my studio. It crashed down, but the move allowed me to carry her with two arms this time around. I placed her down gently, and tore open the kennel vigorously, trying to put it together quickly, without even glancing at the instructions. My phone rang. My friend Emma, wondering if the picture I had sent her of a dog was actually now mine. I ignored the call. I looked to see how Raia was acclimatizing. She was christening her new abode, squatting on the rug my dad had purchased while serving as a Foreign Service Officer in Afghanistan. I picked up her poop with tissue paper and attempted to flush it down my toilet. It began to overflow. I plunged it quickly, and sat down in my bathroom, cross-legged. I closed my eyes. Had I actually just adopted a dog? And that’s how Raia and I began our life together. …..
Raia spent most of the day on the other side of the studio apartment, eying me warily. She continued to relieve herself on the rug whenever I looked away. A dog walker came by to meet her before commencing weekday walks. She met us for about ten minutes, making sure that dog and owner were both sane. As soon as she left, Raia cried, and attempted to follow her. Raia seemed quite obviously dubious of this new arrangement with me. Pleading for help. I told my parents I had gotten her on Sunday, more than 24 hours after the fact. My dad refused to talk to me because he thought the idea was so dumb. My mom asked if I could still return her. That night, after yet another incident on the rug, making me wonder what else the agency had lied about, I lay down on the non-rug covered portion of my studio. I began sobbing uncontrollably, the sort of tears I had not experienced for years. The type where you have to attempt to take a deep breath in just to get air. Raia wandered over, quizzically looking over me, probably wondering what she herself had gotten into. Probably missing Alabama. I was supposed to transition from the only job I had ever had, that had defined my entire identity, in three months. I had no idea what was next, professionally or personally. And now I had this new dog. The fact that I had no one to help me take care of the dog compounded the loneliness that had come to define the last year, and the many transitions in my life. Ten minutes later, I had no tears left to muster. I locked Raia in her cart and ascended the stairs to the small loft that held my bed, and nothing else. I stared at the ceiling, the noisy cars of Union Street providing their nightly symphony. I wondered how the dog was sleeping downstairs. The next morning, as it always seemed to do, travel saved the day. I ran away from life. I left my apartment for a train to Rhode Island at 5:30 AM for a full day of meetings and guest-lecturing in a college class. I wasn’t completely heartless. I took Raia for a quick walk at 5AM. I took her for another walk at 9PM when I returned, splurging on the Acela to make sure she wouldn’t be home alone for too long (she did have a walk with her new dog walker in the middle of the day). When I returned, she jumped at the kennel that had entrapped her for the day. I quickly let her out. She was clearly excited by her freedom, running around the apartment. It seemed, though, that this excitement did not extend to me- the couch got more attention than myself. At the moment, she felt more nuisance than man’s best friend. I realized that I couldn’t quite use travel as an excuse to escape life, when life now included an actual dog I was responsible for taking care of. Not that I would have that option for much longer. The first week together was an exercise in getting to know each other better. Every morning, I descended the stairs of the studio loft, knowing that my first act of the day would no longer be enjoying my first cup of coffee or quickly heading to the gym, but rather, walking Raia. I felt bitter. She was still cute, but not as cute at 5:30 AM on a frigid New York City morning. We were still very much getting used to each other. That weekend, our first full weekend together, a Generation Citizen Board member, Tom, invited me to his place in upstate New York. I almost cancelled to take care of the dog, but he said she was welcome to come, as long as she was housebroken. I abided by the words of the agency, rather than my own experience. Of course she was. We got on the Metro North train together on Saturday morning- both of us having no idea what to expect from this first train ride. Every single person who walked by stopped to remark how cute my companion was. After some initial nerves, and panting, and barking, and crying, Raia settled into the bed I had brought to place on the seat next to me. I worked, typing with my left hand, petting and calming her with my right hand. We arrived in Hillsdale, and Tom picked us up at the train station. He first remarked on her cuteness. He secondly remarked on how incredibly crazy I was to get a dog, since he knew my travel schedule. We set off for a hike with his dog, Sparky, and Raia. I wondered how Raia and her stubby legs would handle the steep, four mile hike, but I followed his lead and let her off the leash at the beginning of the hike. She was the happiest I had seen her in the week since we became family. She ran in front of us on the trail, only to turn on a dime and come sprinting back to us. She chased Sparky off the trail. In the last, steep ravine to the top, she scampered in front of all of us, looking back at the top, wondering what was taking so long. I caught up to her at the top and sat on a ledge. She put her front legs in my lap, clearly delighted to see me join her. I smiled. This was a dog worth changing life habits for. But then. Just as Raia and I were getting used to life together, life changed. The mysterious virus had descended into New York City, disrupting life as we knew it. I was making the call that our team would work from home indefinitely. We quickly had to move to shift our civics education curriculum online. I celebrated my mid-March birthday with Brad, Julia, and their dog Lizzie. It was the last time I entered someone else’s apartment in New York City. Everything in New York City shut down. Raia and I made friends at the dog park- only to have it locked shut. We made friends with neighbors down the street who had a Beagle, only to have them leave for family in rural Georgia. Zoom calls became the norm. Studio apartment became office and office became studio apartment. Raia couldn’t imagine life without me home all the time, and I couldn’t imagine being in quarantine without her. I told GC’s Board of Directors that I would stay on as CEO longer than I had planned if it would be helpful, with an uncertain financial climate, and a search process for my successor made infinitely harder because of the pandemic. They accepted, extending my tenure from June until the end of December. My team, the same who joked around with me when making the decision to get Raia, expressed deep frustration. They said it was because of a lack of clarity on the direction of the organization. It was hard not to take it personally. Our original plan was to have a glamorous, end of CEO-tenure gala in April, celebrating everything we’d accomplished in our 10-year history: educating over 100,000 young people in our experiential civics education curriculum, passing laws in states across the country, spearheading a national movement to lower the voting age to 16. Instead, weeks after the announcement to the team that I was staying longer, I sat in front of my laptop, starting over an e-mail I had written and rewritten dozens of times. “Today, I regret to confirm that we will be reducing the size of our GC team. In order to do so, we will have to eliminate a number of current positions. All role eliminations will be communicated on an individual basis by the end of today.” We were letting go of 20% of our 40 person staff. The long e-mail, attempting to be as empathetic as possible, outlined why we were making the changes, expressed deep apologies, and contained explicit notes on how if individuals were being let go, they’d be invited to a Zoom video call later that day. I hit send. It seemed both dramatic and unceremonious. I had nothing to do but wait. I walked across the room, and lay down with Raia, who was starting to stir from her morning nap. At that moment, I was beyond grateful for her. She just wanted to go out for a walk. But she was the only thing in the world providing me comfort, some sense of purpose, and hope that I would feel better than the lonely, ineffective leader I felt that I’d become.
Three weeks later, June 19th to be exact, Raia and I went for our morning run around Prospect Park, which had become a much needed staple during the pandemic. When we started the routine, I thought her short stubby legs wouldn’t be able to handle it. But she had come to love her long ears flopping in the open wind, galloping gleefully for all those around her to admire. About a mile in on this morning, she began to tug and pull on the leash. Is this a joyful act of play, or a forceful symbol of resistance? Pull back, and we’re playing a fun game. Ignore, and she doesn’t stop. Yell at her, and well, nothing. So instead, I run forward, harder, pretending she’s adding to the workout. At the end of the run, rather than heading back home to make breakfast and get ready for another day of endless Zoom meetings, we stopped at a car-rental agency. I picked up a mini-van, driving it three blocks down Union Street, parking in front of my apartment. I had told my landlord in January that I’d be taking off and extended the lease from April to May to June, finally deciding it was time to go- to head back to my hometown of San Diego. Given the size of my apartment, the fact that my parents were in San Diego, and, well, the uncertainty of everything, I had decided to leave. I felt guilty to leave New York City as it had just endured the worst of the pandemic, and so many had left its borders. But in seasons of change for me, I knew this was the right move. The decision to move wasn’t impulsive and wasn’t really due to the pandemic. I spent my childhood growing up abroad, moving every two to three years. I had been in New York City for ten years and needed a change- figuring that leaving GC was as much of an impetus as anything. New dog. New city. Eventually, new job. Maybe. I locked Raia in her kennel, placed my quarantine-bought dumbbells in front of the two building apartment doors, and began transferring up my shoddily-packed boxes of books and clothes into the minivan. The sound of Raia crying and tearing at the cage that entrapped her accompanied me throughout the formal moving process. An hour later, the boxes took up every spare space in the mini-van, save the seat behind me. I plopped Raia’s bed on the one open space. I gave a silent prayer that she would survive the 45 hours of driving. We left the apartment for the final time. We took one last walk around the block. One last jaunt into Konditori, which had served as my local coffee shop for every day of the pandemic. One last ice cream from Uncle Louie’s, the Italian ice connoisseur directly next to my building. I threw Raia’s bed onto the one spare ounce of space in the entire minivan. I plugged in directions for Newport, Virginia. Eight and a half hours away. We took off east on 5th Avenue. As I merged onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, I realized the weights were still blocking the doors to the apartment building. ….. Loud whimpering persisted from the back of the van. I glanced back. Raia was attempting to shuffle around, but she had no space to move. The endless turns and mergers of the highways that surround New York City finally gave way to the interstate moving steadily south. Raia decided to give up, sighed loudly, and collapsed into her bed. With Raia down for the count, the open road ahead became a mirage of thoughts fading as the buildings of New York City faded into the background. Twelve years of running a non-profit. Three serious relationships ended. Four months of leading the organization from my apartment, having just conducted the first round of staffing cuts in my tenure. The recognition of the privilege I had to be leaving New York City and wondering if it was actually the right decision. Fear for our country, with a pandemic that had ravaged so many, including a city I had loved for so long, and exposed all of the inequalities that we attempted to hide behind closed doors. Leaving New York City, which had become the epicenter for both the pandemic and the protests for racial justice. On Juneteenth, perhaps the first Juneteenth that the entire country had actually paid attention to. And then, just as reflections started in earnest, I stuck in one of my Air pods and joined a conference call on Generation Citizen’s budget with our Board Finance Committee. The failsafe, years perfected way to avoid thinking about my feelings. A few hours and a few calls later, Raia had finally started to stir, and I needed to make my first stop for gas. We paused in southern Virginia, two hours south of Washington, DC. Over the past few months in New York City, mask wearing was omnipresent, stores sparsely populated. I had left before outdoor dining, or really anything, had opened up. I entered the mini-mart. Not a mask in sight. A line of eight people deep waiting to pay. I had read in the news that individuals in the rest of the country were not taking the pandemic as seriously. But to see it in the flesh after living in the epicenter of the pandemic in New York City in March and April was both horrifying and astounding. I felt irresponsible even being inside the mart. “That’ll be $8.75. And what’s that on your face?” The attendant snickered. A few hours later, we stopped at the Foot of the Mountain Cafe in Buchannan, Virginia. Views of the Shenandoah Mountains abound as the sun set in the distance, an orange hue lighting up a sky devoid of the buildings I was so used to seeing in New York City. Loud music came blasted from within the restaurant. Old college football games on the televisions overlooking the bar, devoid of the opportunity for any current sporting events. All stools occupied. I gingerly kept my distance from the waiter, placing an order for a hamburger I felt I desperately deserved. I took it to the parking lot, away from the mask less. I bit in, Raia jumping up to get some, me kicking her away. Juicy, tender meat- so necessary after the endless day of travel. Feeling guilty, I realized the need to feed my companion. “Dinner time for Raia,” I sang! One of the few sayings that came out of my mouth that she genuinely understood. She jumped up, her hind legs almost getting her to the height of my face. “Sit!” She sat. I filled up her bowl in the van and put it outside. So began our routine for the next week for feeding. An hour later, we arrived at our remote farm, booked via Airbnb, who had assured us they had followed all necessary safety precautions. Using my iPhone light to find my bearings, I followed the check-in instructions, entered my room, and passed out within minutes. I was awoken by a hound’s distinctive howl. “Raia!” I looked at my phone. 6:30 AM. “Go back to sleep!” She didn’t stop. I sat up. Her small but mighty hind legs jumping up incessantly at the window. Grazing cows, feet away, ignored the little creature. “Goddamnit, dog,” the goodwill that had built from months of her serving as my muse was dissipating. We went for a short run through the farm area in Newport, passing cows and pigs and chickens along the way. The smells overcame me: grass replenished with morning dew, the manure of the cows that had woken Raia up, crisp air, filled with the many trees, still green after the spring. After living in New York City for months, it was all intoxicating The hills provided such a workout that Raia’s stubby legs had to constantly work to catch up, leaving no energy to pull on the leash. The homes with Trump 2020 flags menacingly flying outside the front porch provided perspective. After a breakfast of fresh-laid chicken eggs, we were back on the road. Raia fell asleep quicker this time around. I spent Saturday morning calling friends. When talking to Pete and Dave and Emma, I was present as I headed westward on I-40- unable to surf the internet on my phone while talking. I had no ready-made excuse to hang up, no Zoom call to attend to. The result was deeper conversation: on my feelings leaving New York City, on how Pete was doing with plans for a large wedding foiled, on Dave and his wife’s challenging attempts to get pregnant, on Emma’s struggles taking care of her aging father. On the realities of life in pandemic times. The weekend’s accommodations were at a cabin ensconced in a farm in Sparta, Tennessee, about an hour outside of Nashville. I decided that we’d break up the trip with two nights in one place, and a staff member had recommended the spot. Dan, Joanne, and their two German Shepherds greeted us. No masks, of course. They showed us to our quaint studio cottage, approximately the size of my Brooklyn apartment. But instead of being adjoined to noisy Union Street, it was directly next to a chicken coop. The anxious chickens proved as loud as the speeding cars down the narrow Brooklyn street. Raia successfully pulled the leash away, immediately ran over to the wire coop structure, vaulted off her hind legs, and howled. Despite being fully protected inside the structure, the chickens panicked. Feathers flew everywhere. “Probably best not to let her off leash,” Dan laughed. “Can mess up their eggs.” That night, we joined Dan and Joanne as they played guitar and banjo on their patio, dulcet bluegrass tones harkening back to a simpler time, providing a needed companion to my Angel's Envy bourbon. I could barely believe that I was in such a scene only two nights after leaving Brooklyn. It was almost too perfect of a stereotype. I was relieved. I relaxed for the first time in months. Which naturally led to me feeling guilty that I was allowing myself to even feel those thoughts. I could tell Raia was similarly elated. She began the impromptu concert playing with Dan and Joanne’s German Shepherds before tiring, lying peacefully in my lap. She too seemed relaxed, unperturbed by moving cars or small studio apartments. The farm life seemed to fit her. “How have things been the last few months?” “Rough man,” Dan sang. “Rooooough.” Joanne continued in harmony while he simply plucked at the strings. “Farming business is down. No one is visiting. No one is buying shit. We’re fine, but goddamn it’s hard. And this goddamn government won’t do anything. We gotta get this Trump asshole out.” I told them about how challenging it was in New York City over the last few months. Dan sympathized but articulated his different reality. “We basically socially distance all the time from everyone anyways. We don’t know anyone’s who’s gotten the Corona.” The pandemic was visceral for me- it was rare to go a day in New York City without hearing someone who had gotten it: neighbors and friends alike. I knew people who had died. But many people, most people, like Dan and Joanne, did not know anyone who had contracted the disease. Their economic livelihood had been decimated. And a government that they did not trust in the first place had provided very little support. The cultural warfare that had emerged between the masks and the mask less led to misplaced anger. The blame lay primarily, and almost exclusively with a federal government that did not take care of its people. And lied to its people. There was no sense of one America, all united to defeat the virus. It was every person on their own. The next morning, our one day of pausing from driving, we went for a beautiful five-mile hike in nearby Burgess State Falls. Upon arriving at the hiking trail, several dominating signs noted that dogs were not allowed on the trail. I pretended not to see. The hike was down a ravine and up over a waterfall, through various streams of flowing but harmless water. I carried Raia over every body of water. She can stand up to cows and chickens. But water is where she draws the line. We returned to the parking lot, wind picking up, thunder in the distance, drops of rain beginning to sully the dirt. I started the minivan. I drove forward. The van came to a screeching halt. I had driven over a large log meant to indicate a parking spot. I accelerated forward. Reversed backwards. Nothing but smoke and burnt rubber. A park ranger ran over. I continued to wonder if mask orders had not yet arrived in this part of the country. But I needed her. She looked under the van. “Oh, this is a doozy. I need backup.” Twenty minutes later, she arrived with two other rangers. They realized they didn’t have the equipment they needed to prop up the van and saw off the log. They called for more backup. More backup did not include any masks. They saw a whimpering dog in the back of the van. “Did she hike with you?” “Sorry.” “Some pretty obvious signs at the front there.” I guess I pay attention to mask regulations, but not state park rules. They pried the van up, and finally sawed off the log. “Try to see if you can get it to start?” I had been observing them outside, Raia inside. I reached inside my pockets. “Oh shit,” I realized my pockets were empty. They started howling. “Really? You left your keys in there?” Raia frantically jumped on the window. While the rangers went to call a locksmith, I pried open one of the back windows, pushed the boxes even further in, and squeezed in. I unlocked the car from the inside. “We’re good to go!” “Shit man. Might want to relax a bit there.” I guess my relaxing the night before had been a mirage. We all laughed. I expressed my gratitude. Monday morning, we were back on our way. The road to Memphis on I-40 was paved with endless work phone calls: with other civics education organizations, my direct reports, our Leadership Team. Raia, bored of my jabbering, passed out quickly. There’s something about driving endlessly on an open highway that is profoundly humbling. Most of my identity for the last decade had been fundamentally predicated on being a non-profit CEO. I found value and self-worth in attending high-profile conferences, leading a big team, gaining accolades. No one in the middle of Tennessee cared about my job as a non-profit CEO. Despite the highfalutin language I used with donors about Generation Citizen’s huge reach and big systemic impact, the vast majority of young people in this country had no idea what GC was. Most young people were still not getting an effective civics education . The next few days were full of new sights and sounds, a geography that varied from floral to forest to desert, many conference calls, and new explorations for Raia and me. We walked through a ghost-like Memphis, disappointed that we could not visit the famous civil rights museums, recognizing that urban dwellers were indeed wearing masks irrespective of the party of their governor. We were able to enjoy mouth-watering take-out barbeque, a take-out, pulled pork sandwich that I ate in the backyard patio of our Airbnb, Raia jumping up the entire time, trying to get a piece. We stayed for a night in Mountain View, Arkansas, a town of 2,786 people known for, well, its views of the Ozark mountains, and folk music. We entered a mobile home park that promised a folk concert, only to realize that the concert was indoors, only comprised people above the age of 75, and had zero masks. I did sit down in the back of the room, attempting to enjoy the music for at least a few moments. Raia, however, was either not a fan of the environs, or of the music. She loudly began whimpering, wanting to get outside. I received a barrage of angry looks. Mask-use optional, but disrupting music is completely unacceptable. We ventured to Oklahoma City, a town I had visited many times because GC had opened up an office in Oklahoma’s capital. I had an outdoor dinner with one of GC’s staff members, Amy. I realized it was the first time I had seen a staff member in months. It’s challenging to know how a team feels about you when your only engagement with them is through a computer screen. The ability to connect, to listen, to talk, was so needed for the soul. I was grateful that my team, or at least Amy, recognized the lengths to which I had gone to ensure the organization survived in the midst of a pandemic. It was the first time in months I felt actually appreciated as a leader. While we engaged in conversation about work and life alike, Raia ran amok in their backyard, exploring every corner, smelling trash cans and the grease that emanated from the outdoor grill. She ended the night passed out in my lap as the bourbon once again flowed freely. When you talk to coast-to-coast road trip warriors, which is a surprisingly large group of people, everyone notes that the stretch on I-40 between Oklahoma City and Albuquerque is the worst. They are right. It is completely straight. It is completely desert. It is completely devoid of civilization, save the town of Amarillo, whose “Big Texan Steak Ranch” 72 ounce steak competition is advertised for 200 miles outside the town (because again, there is nothing on the highway). If you eat the 72 ounce steak in one hour, on a stage, you get it for free. I ventured inside the steakhouse to buy some water for Raia. I quickly left when I realized that the steak competition was alive and well, crowded and mask less. I had a temporary lack of empathy for any Amarillo citizens participating in the endeavor, but quickly harkened back to my astute analytical thinking that it was the government, and the broader dysfunction of our civic culture, to blame. Albuquerque’s desert vistas were breathtaking at sunset and sunrise, the sun lighting up a cloudless sky as we descended into the town from a windy highway. Chicken enchiladas with a southwestern, tangy red sauce could be a diet onto itself, and proved to be my dinner and breakfast alike. I contemplated extending the stay. Unfortunately, after the second serving of enchiladas, this time, the breakfast variety, we set off at daybreak, An hour into our drive, in the middle of yet another conference call, I looked out my side mirror and realized that my flopping bike was nowhere to be seen. Somewhere, either at our adobe studio, or enchilada-making restaurant, someone had taken my entire bike rack off the back of the minivan. It had survived a pandemic, six-eighths of a cross country road trip. But it could not survive New Mexico. I was both furious and impressed with whomever now has a purple Signature road bike. The last night of the road trip was spent outside Flagstaff, Arizona in a cross-country ski area, doubling as a hiking area in the summer. We had an outdoor dining excursion to a Flagstaff brewery. IPA and pizza in tow, compliments to Raia flowing. Unlike Foot of the Mountain, masks were adorned everywhere at the brewery, which was strict on the number of occupants it allowed outside at a given time. The beer was good. The mountain views were stunning. Sipping the bitter IPA, brewed at the high altitude of Flagstaff, I smiled at Raia, who, exhausted from the day, was asleep at my feet. I wondered if she had any sense of our collective journey. Maybe she was frustrated that she was sleeping in a different bed every night. I was sure she was sick of the van, putting up more of a fight every time we circled close to it. It’s a strange relationship- human and dog. I had shared this intense, immersive cross country journey with an animal who had no sense of the gravity of it, and whom I could never reminisce with it about. But I was so grateful that she had been on the journey with me. My constant side-kick, who wouldn’t judge me when I left my weights behind and drove over parking structures and lost bikes. Who had met and barked at cows and chickens and old Bluegrass musicians. Whose exuberance, and incredible jumping hind legs, endeared her to everyone she had met along the way- from Trump conservatives in Virginia to farmers in Tennessee to GC staff members in Oklahoma. Whose nose had picked up every smell along the way- from crisp, newly dewed green grass to pulled pork sandwiches to spiced enchiladas. I had decided that Raia should enter my life because I know that I needed a change. Everyone I knew thought I was crazy for making the decision. Thousands of miles away from New York City, on the verge of a new city and a new life, and eventually, a new job, Raia was now the one constant. On our last day, we stopped in Sedona, Arizona, for a hike up a red-rock butte, Raia gamely making it to the top and stunning views, in 90 degree weather. She began the hike scampering, passing other hikers who feigned jealousy at the small dog with the stubby legs who was making a mockery of their own efforts. Closer to the top, closer to the sun, further away from the shade, she began to struggle. I carried her up the last steep ravine. I opened up my backpack as she panted heavily, nosing in, expecting water. Nothing. I frantically looked around me. Some fellow travelers at the top, who had been jealous of Raia minutes before, lent me a bottle. “You hiked all the way up with a dog without water?” The judgment was evident. Pet control could be on its way soon to repatriate Raia. “Give me an effing break,” I thought, both frustrated and ashamed. I had, after all, successfully traveled across the entire country, keeping a dog alive and healthy. What did he know about me? About my ability to raise a dog in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of a transition, in the midst of a road trip? “Thanks,” I said though. “I really appreciate it.” Which I did because I’m not totally sure Raia could have survived without it. When we got back down, Raia, perhaps for the first time in the entire trip, bounded into the back seat, desperately seeking shade. It was the last time she had to hop in the van. We sped through the Arizona desert, averaging around 90, as we hopped on the 8, traveling just north of the border, signs warning of migrants who might be passing through the freeway. As the 8 turned into I-5, the freeway I had taken so often growing up in San Diego, I was finally able to turn off my phone’s Google Maps function for the first time in days as I knew the freeway routes intimately. The feelings overwhelmed me. Only eight days earlier, Raia and I were in New York City. Now, together, we were in a town where I was born, but had never thought I’d ever live in again. I felt lucky to have made it, to be close to my parents. I felt grateful to have seen so much of a country that was so vast and diverse in ways I never knew before. And I felt deep appreciation for the dog next to me, who showed her love constantly, but would never understand just how much she had meant to me. How much she means to me. The Pacific Ocean was on our right. The sun was setting, a pink hue overtook the horizon. I could make out the white tips of the waves as we passed over a bridge. Raia curiously looked over. She had seen mountains and prairies and deserts and red cliff buttes. This was her first ocean. We pulled into the driveway. Raia eagerly hopped out of the car. I picked her up and kissed her. She, oblivious to it all, but what a damn trooper.