The following is a letter I wrote during the final week of December 2002 to all my friends/family before leaving for my trip, explaining what I was doing and why. I thought for a long time before posting this letter for full public view...but I hope that people can learn from it. I have decided that if I can maybe help or influence one person, then it was worth it. -AC

 

Hello everyone-

Well, as many of you know, my life is about to undergo a pretty
serious change. Over the past month, I have had countless
discussions with many of you about events that have and are about to
take place for me...but I know that often the question still
remains out there, why? What was the path that brought me to where I
am? Well, as I have told many of you, it is a pretty long story (I'm
sure no one is surprised by this...all of my stories are long) that I
want share with you so that you can get a better understanding of what
point I am in my life right now. Perhaps this letter is more for me
than you right now...I guess I don't know at the moment. I'm not
really sure how to even begin...this will be VERY tough for me to do
in writing. It was hard enough for me to tell people verbally, but
writing scares me. I feel like I won't be able to get across the
feeling and emotion behind all the things that are going on inside me
at the moment. I guess, I just have to go for it so here it goes:

I have decided that I am leaving Baylor...nobody panic...not forever.
I'm taking a year off. I know it might seem like a shock but just
give me a chance to explain.

It really has been something that has been on my mind for well over a
year now. I guess it really all began back in 2001 when I went on my
trip to Spain. Of course I knew it was going to be the trip of a
lifetime and I knew I was not going to want to come back...that's how
it is when you go on vacation. That's why it's called a vacation.
We all go through it. Well, what I was not prepared for was how
strong that feeling to be on the road was going to be. I mean, it
hit me so hard when I was over there. I felt as though I was where I
belonged...I just can't tell you how comfortable it was for me.
Those few weeks of backpacking around had a huge effect on me. The
freedom to move from place to place...meeting new people...being with
people who actually know how to live their lives and enjoy
themselves. It was just overwhelming for me and at the time I
entertained the thought of just saying, "screw it" and not coming
back to the US. We all have that fantasy at some point though, and
at the time, as I said, I was not prepared for how strong my feelings
to stay were going to be. Those last few days I was there, in Ciudad
Real with Lyle's friends were just absolutely perfect and it was VERY
tough to leave. For that part of the trip, I had left my friends and
traveled alone, and in a way, it was the best part of the whole trip
for me. Not that everything else wasn't absolutely phenomenal, but it
was nice to be away from the big cities and the tourism and just
being a local. It wasn't a particular event or person that had this
effect on me...it was the overall feeling of getting a sense of what
life was like for people in this small city in Spain. It was the
feeling of how amazingly warm everyone was and the way they welcomed
me into their lives and culture. On a personal level, I grew a lot in
those couple days, and as I said, it was really hard for me to leave.
Obviously, I did eventually leave there, but the mark it had left on
me was more than significant.

When I returned to the US, I really had a tough time adjusting back
to being here. For the first time I truly understood how it was
difficult it was for Patricia (my girlfriend from Spain that I dated
in College) when she first came back to the States after the breaks.
I always felt sad because she didn't seem as excited to see me as I
was to see her...but now I know that it had nothing to do with me.
It was just tough to come back. That's how it was for me. I was
pretty depressed to be back in this world where the mentality and the
approach to life was so different. Most of all, at that time, the
significance of what I was doing in the lab was just completely lost
on me. I mean, was that really what life was about??? I just didn't
think so. I felt like a hamster in one of those wheels where you are
just running and running, oblivious to the fact that you're not
really going anywhere. Luckily, right around that time, the flood
happened and Baylor was basically closed for three and a half weeks.
I gave me a lot of personal time and time with my AWESOME friends
here that I desperately needed.

A few months later, a series of circumstances made it so that I had
this chance to go to South America. It wasn't some kind of plan...it
just happened...an opportunity presented itself so Tony and I seized
the moment and bought our tickets and we were set. I bought that
plane ticket at the end of Sept/ beginning of October, so I had
several months to think about the fact that I was going to be going
off on yet another adventure of a lifetime. This time though,
because of my past experience in Spain, I had the foresight to know
how I was going to feel being back out there on the road...and
wanting to stay. It was a thought that scared me quite a bit at
first and I was afraid of how I was going to handle it. About the
time December rolled around, just after Tony and I went out to
Juarez, Mexico (first time I climbed a mountain, remember) I started
to really believe that I wanted to go for it and just leave.

I still remember the day and the moment that I finally knew inside
that I was going to go for it. Now, it may sound cheesy but it's the
truth. It was on Dec. 24th of last year(my mom's 48th b-day!!!). I
sat watching "It's a Wonderful Life" with my brother. Well, this
movie has a special place in my heart just like just about everyone
else who has ever seen it. Anyway, I often quote the movie in a
joking manner and it is actually a fond memory that I will always
share with my family (Don'tcha KNOW ME!). Well, there is a specific
part in there that I have always thought was a big piece of me and
who I am...especially coming from the small town of Normal, Illinois.
Whenever I travel, I often quote it and since most of the traveling
in my life has been in the last 4 years or so, it has become
especially important to me because I knew I was gonna do it. It is
the scene where George is talking to Mary about all the things he
wants to do and how he has this grand plan for his life and he is
telling her, "I know what I'm going to do tomorrow, the next day, and
the day after that..." Well the next thing he says there is a quote
that I am sure you have heard me say, and that ever since I was a kid
was feeling I had inside that always kept me striving forward...

"I'm gonna shake the dust of this crummy little town off my feet, and
I'm gonna SEE THE WORLD."

That's me. That's what I want. THAT is my passion. George had a
dream...and so do I...and sitting right there on my couch that day, I
knew it for sure. It was time for me to go. Don't get me wrong, many
other factors in my life had put me in the frame of mind that it was
time for me to make some changes, and it wasn't just the movie. As I
mentioned, I had been SERIOUSLY thinking about it for many weeks on
end before that point...it's just that, at that time, I finally knew.
Follow my dream. See the world.

I should mention two other things that were very important influences
on me during that time. The first was one that affected many of us,
and that is September 11. I very stern reminder that life is waaay
too short (a lesson, that sadly, many people have already forgotten).
Another major influence and inspiration for me is a man named Doug
McLean. In my searching for places to stay when I got to South
America, I came across this web page (which ultimately became the
inspiration behind my webpage):

http://lonestar.texas.net/%7Emclean/ddm/index.htm

It is an AMAZING story and I suggest all of you take some time to
read about a guy who has probably experienced more than all of us
combined at the moment. I think if you go to his web page, the
stories pretty much speak for themselves. Besides the fact that he
is a great writer, in reading the tales he has to tell, it becomes
very clear how important it is to expand your horizons and get to
know and understand what is out there in this world. When I came
across this guy's story and I was in complete awe of the things he
had done, and I knew I wanted to do the same.

NOTE: Back in June, I had a chance to meet Doug and his wife Luciana
(a very good story, but no time for that), and over the past several
months we have become friends. He is a great person and a true
inspiration.)

So anyway, around that time, I really started the process...I threw a
ton of stuff away, tried to gather up whatever cash I could, wrote letters to everyone and really was preparing
myself to take off and never look back. There was a problem though.
At the time, I was afraid to tell anyone. I was afraid of how people
would react and what they would think of my leaving school. I was
afraid that the people that I love and care about would not
understand why I was doing what I was doing and I just couldn't face
that. So I never said a word to anyone about what I was doing...not
to Mike, or Duane or my parents or anyone. It was a lot to go
through at that time and I really felt alone...like not a soul would
relate to how I was feeling. It was a pretty trying and very
stressful time, but inside I knew what I wanted and what my heart was
telling me.


So on January 31, 2002 I got on that plane, fully thinking I would
never return and deathly afraid of the reactions that would come from
making such a drastic life change.

When I got down there, it was just as I had suspected...it's like a
drug for me, being on the road like that. Different people, places,
cultures...THAT's what it's about. (not to mention the Colombian girl
Johanna that I had met...good lord!) It was just completely
liberating.

When I was in Buenos Aires one day, I met this guy named Tim, from
London. He was an amazing person. Just so wise in his ways and so
sure about his life decisions and what he had done and was doing. He
was so well spoken it was great. He just seemed to have this ability
to articulate a lot of the same feelings that I was having at the
time. We got to talking one morning, and I just totally broke down.
Out flowed everything inside me that I had been wanting to let out
for months. I told him about everything, about not wanting to go
home, and how I was scared of the backlash I would get...the whole
story. He took it all in well and talking to him really made me feel
better. It was the first time that I had expressed my feelings out
loud. I guess it was slightly liberating. That guy really had a
profound influence over me and something he told me was part of the
reason I eventually returned...I'll get to that though. Just
understand, that still, it was probably one of the single most
important days of my life and I just found it amazing that right when
the thing I needed most in the world was a guy like that, there he
was in my hostel, in the same room as me. And we were the only
people in that room so it gave us the opportunity to be able to speak
for a few hours uninterrupted, which can be very difficult in a
hostel situation. Tim from London...I'll never forget him, even
though our paths only crossed so briefly (a very common phenomenon
when you are on the road).

The next week was just absolutely bliss for me down there. Johanna
and I decided to travel together to Uruguay and then I headed for
Iguazu. I had a lot of see-saw feelings about what I ultimately
would do, but at that time, the end of the trip seemed so far away
that I had some time to really enjoy and soak up the unbelievable
experience I was having. I just can't tell you how much a trip like
than can change a person and their views. The following week, Tony
would arrive, and I knew I would have to tell him about my plans to
stay. I was ready though, thanks to the time I had with Tim.

After we left Rio and Tony and I were alone in Buzios, I finally told
him. It was tough, but of all the people I know, I knew he would
understand the best. See, that's part of what makes he and I such a
great team. His since of adventure and ability to adapt to any
situation even surpasses mine. He also loves to travel and just
experience as much as he can in life and I just don't think you meet
very many people like that in this world. After I told him, he was
very supportive and thought what I was doing was the right thing. In
fact, he mentioned how jealous he was because he wanted to do the
same thing...but felt too tied to the job that he hated, plus a few
other things back home (seems funny now, doesn't it Tony). Anyway,
he told me to go for it and we lived the rest of that trip like it
was going to be our last days together. It was perfect.

When it came down to the last day that my plane was supposed to
leave, it was the toughest day ever. I was agonizing over what to
do...it was the biggest fork in the road I had ever faced...here is
what I wrote in my Journal that day, which probably captures the mood
better than I could today:


"I just don't think I want to go back to my life there. Sadly, I see
the reality of the whole thing and I know I have to go...I'm starting
to think that maybe I just want anyway to get out. I mean, break
away from the stupid American life style. Live a bit more. I
really just feel like the more I get around, the more I feel like I
belong somewhere else...it just seems, to me, like there is so much
more out there for a guy like me. I'm still scared as hell. If that
plane leaves without me on it, my life will change FOEREVER. I'll
never be able to go back to the way things were. As I said, the
reality is, I should go back and leave right...save a little cash,
cut BCM ties, say goodbye to people. The thing is, once I get back,
it's like being stuck in quick sand. That is, it will be much harder
for me to leave everything when it's all right there in front of me.
It's like breaking up...not so easy when that other person is right
there in front of you and all that love is staring you right back in
the face. Also, I think I will have trouble facing everyone, even
though it would feel right...the right thing to do that is, I would
still have some heavy feelings that in a way, I let people down. I
think of all those people that are pulling for me...my parents, Norm,
Castellino. I just don't think any of them would ever understand.
I?m not sure if I could live with that. This is what I want though,
and what my heart tells me to do it, so why look back..."

Well, that day, things were just too much for me and there was no way
I was going to get on that plane...so I called the airline and
changed my ticket for the following Sunday. I said goodbye to Tony
and once again I was on my own. The next day, (thanks to Tony
actually missing his plane, giving me the idea for the story) I sent
everyone this BS e-mail saying I missed the plane and decided to stay
another week.

I have to say that, those next few days in Sao Paulo, I never felt so
free before in my entire life. They were without question, the
happiest days I have had on this earth. I mean, PURE contentment.
It was probably one of the few times where I really understood that
money isn't everything. I had this contentment about me that was
like nothing I had felt before, and I didn't have damn thing...just
me...on the road, in a new place, hanging with great people from all
over the world. It was all I needed. I was truly happy. It is a
feeling that I will never forget, and wanting that back, wanting to
be at complete peace with myself and the world...THAT is why I'm
taking this trip. THAT is why it is time for me to go. THAT is why
I want to follow my dreams, and my heart, and my passion. It's
because of that feeling and knowing I took the potential of my life
all the way to edge.

So if that was my feeling, why in the world did I come back in the
end? The truth is, there were mainly three reasons. One was what
came from Tim from London. If I was going to leave, I needed to let
people know that's what I wanted and why. Letters weren't going to
do it. I needed to talk to the people that I love and care about the
most and hear what they had to say. It's interesting...one thing he
mentioned back then was that I would be surprised by the number of
people that would be supportive of what I was doing. He was right.
Now that I have told several people, I have been surprised at the
amount of positive response.

Another reason I came back at the time was that I had convinced
myself that I only have few years left to finish this PhD. And I
could make it...just get through those 3 years or so and THEN I could
travel and do all the things I wanted (I will address this later).
The last reason I came back was the worst of all, and I am still
somewhat ashamed to admit it (especially after what I just wrote) but
it's a reality. Those damn little green 6x2.5 in. pieces of paper
that make the world go round. Unfortunately, being a grad student is
not one of the best ways to beef up the savings account and since I
came straight from undergrad, those damn student loans haven't gone
anywhere. Not to mention that Citibank doesn't approve waiving of
payment due to "love of travel". Anyway, staying on the road meant
working odd jobs to make ends meet (which is cool with me) but also
it meant that when I came back, there would probably be people
waiting to hall me off to the slammer. Strangely, I think I was
almost ready to face those consequences. I just saw it as a problem
that I had no solution for...the eternal evil had me and there wasn't
much I could do.

So getting back on that plane was probably the hardest thing I have
ever done. Again, I refer back to my Journal that I wrote that day:


"Well, here I am...the fork in the road has been taken. I am on the
plane at the gate in Sao Paulo, just about to take off. I have
passed through the full gamit of emotions in the past few hours. I
left Luis around 5:15 today to begin my journey to the airport. Up
until that point, I really wasn't feeling too bad...But when I got on
the bus at Tiete to come to the airport, I was an absolute mess. I
just lost it. I was listening to Arjona, "Mexico" and that
line..."sin un centavo, me sentia un hombre de exito" [translation:
without a cent, I still felt like a man who had succeeded] hit me
hard. Here I am, going back, with money being a major reason and the
guy (who is hands down the best song writer in English or Spanish) is
talking about how on the journey when he became who he was, that
money had NOTHING to do with feeling like he succeeded. You see,
it's about following your heart. Right now, I feel like I didn't do
that. I followed my brain. Something tells me that I may have just
broken one of the cardinal rules of what I think life is
about...follow your heart. DAMN. How could I!? How could I do this
to myself?? Because I have to go back and finish school, that's why.
But who knows what I will be thinking of doing 3 years from now? I
feel like this is the moment for me. This is the time when my heart
is saying go for it. As I always say, your feelings don't care about
the circumstances surrounding you...they don't give a shit about
money, or school, or jobs. I think we spend a lot of time battling
with that suppression of feelings...especially in the US. I'm tired
of it and I want to follow what I feel inside. I'm not like the rest
of them. I feel VERY weak and as though I have made the wrong
decision here and I am not proud at all. I can say, and I can only
hope that Tim from London was right...maybe this was just a big step
in the direction of what my heart is telling me. I hope so. My
biggest fear right now is that the last moment before I die will be
spent knowing that I had the chance to go for it...to follow my gut
and chase my dream, and I DIDN'T DO IT. Lets just let that one sink
in..."


Wow, I hadn't gone back and read that for a couple months. Well,
when I got back to the US, I was miserable. I mean, my stomach was
literally in knots for days...I daydreamed and wrote about the trip
for hours on end. I consider myself very lucky though...I have such
an awesome group of friends here and I could have never made it
through that time without them (even though they didn't know what was
going on.) There was a lot happening in the spring and we were
having a TON of fun. Right around then, Tony bought his house and we
had some crazy parties. We started going to Monterrey and then the
summer came. There were so many awesome road trips and great times
that I didn't have the time to hate myself for the decision I had
made. I started using the website as my refuge...I place to pour all
my energy of the great experiences I was having and trying to make a
" Chronicle" of what was going on around me. Things just returned to
this non-stop action state and I remembered why my life here in
Houston was so good after all...mostly though, because of the great
people that surround me. But still, Tony and I had loooooooong talks
about what could have been. I often sat back and wondered where I
might be if I had stayed in South America.

By the time late August came around, I knew that it was time for me
to go. I decided, I had done all I could do here in Houston...it had
been an unbelievable time here, but it was time for me to go. Mostly
because of what I had said up above...I just couldn't handle knowing
that when it came down to it, I didn't go for it. I asked myself, if
I was going to die tomorrow, could I honestly say that I am content
with the way I have lived and decisions I have made...and the answer
was no. There was one decision that I had made that was wrong...and
that just isn't acceptable. I cannot live with myself knowing that,
and IF YOU CAN’T LIVE WITH YOURSELF...THEN WHAT ELSE HAVE YOU GOT?
So then I made the decision...I would finish the constructs I was
working on in the lab...then sell EVERYTHING I own and hit the road.
A month ago, I finished the construct in the lab and I decided it was
time for me to tell people what was going on with me. I started with
Mike and it was tough...of course, he was supportive and it felt good
that he understood where I was coming from. He said a lot of things
that gave me the courage to tell everyone else.

My family has been amazingly supportive. Most people seem to be
excited and happy that I have made such a major decision. I thought
people would think I was crazy but most people that I have talked to
even say they are a little jealous. I mean, as I said, you just have
to experience as much as you can and live your life to the
fullest...few people ever do it (especially in this country)...most
don't even come close. Most just sit and think about all the things
they "could" have done. Not me though. I'm going for it.

So in the last few weeks, I have sold virtually
everything...furniture, TVs, stereos, ALL of it (anybody want to buy
a Jetta?). I moved in temporarily with my friend, Sunny, for the
next month. I now have with me, my computer, my clothes and a few
personal belongings. That's it. I remember one time in college,
after Xmas break, when I was leaving for ND, I had put all my stuff
in a pile in the living room to take to the car. Just before I
started, I looked down at that pile and thought, "I can't believe
everything I own and all I am worth fits right here in a 3 by 3
square in my living room." Then, a couple years later, when I was
moving to Houston, I filled up an entire moving truck with my stuff
and I was feeling like I had really accomplished something because I
had so much crap..."LOOK AT ME!!! I AM MAN!! I FILL MOVING
TRUCK!!!" As if somehow a measure of what you have done is how much
stuff you have. Anyway, after I got everything to Sunny's the day I
moved I looked down at my little pile of stuff...and there I was, six
years later, right back to that same 3 by 3 square! This may seem
weird, but it feels good to have downsized and gotten rid of all that
material stuff. Now it's like, if I needed to move or go somewhere,
it really would take very little effort. There is so much less tying
me down now. Funny how material things can do that to you. I mean,
just back in August, I had this huge concern about moving to
someplace where I could fit all my stuff so I didn't have to lose it
all. Amazing. Cool is to think that in a few weeks, that pile will
be reduced to whatever can fit on my back.

So I have talked to the graduate school at Baylor and I will be
taking a one year leave of absence. A year ago (and really, even 2
months ago), I was thinking I would just leave and the would be
it...but after many discussions with friends/family, I know that
science is what I want to do...and I don't want to throw that all
away. For now, I just want to take this chance, while I?m young and
have it, to seize the moment and take some time off.

My last day at Baylor will be on January 17, and I leave Houston on
the 20th. I will go home for 10 days to see everyone and on January
30...I'm out of here...I am going back to South America. I will
start in Brazil, wouldn't you know it, just in time for Carnival:) I
will spend Carnival in Recife with friends and family of Doug/Luciana
and then move north to a city called Belem, from which I will take a
boat down the Amazon. From there I will just float around South
America...going from country, to country, city to city, just living
life in each place and experiencing and seeing everything that is out
there, living my dream...seeing the world and all it has to offer.

A few important logistical things...since I will be leaving here, my
contact information will change a bit. First and foremost, my e-mail
address will now be:

acnd98 (at) yahoo

It will really be the only reliable way to get a hold of me for a
while. That is the account I am sending this e-mail from. I will
send a separate e-mail restating that and a few other things because
1) This e-mail isn't going out to everyone, and 2) I probably lost a
few of you by now since this e-mail is so long.
Another way you will always be able to find me is through the e-mail
links on my website:

www.thecooperchronicles.cjb.net

I plan to keep the website updated and going strong while I am
traveling. You will all be on an e-mail list that will become my
connection to the United States so you will all be "briefed "at least
once a week on where I am and what is happening.

So that is my tale, folks...I know it is a big shock to many of you.
Sorry to hit you all with so much. I just wanted you all to know
what was happening with me and for everyone to be with me as I embark
on this journey. I am reaching the end of my time here in Houston
(for now). Besides tying things up in the lab and making the MANY
preparations for leaving, I will doing my best to enjoy my last few
weeks here in Houston. I need to start nailing down my travel plan a
bit more, but no need to get too specific. I already have a few
friends that I will meet up with along the way which is cool. The
bottom line is that my life is about to take a drastic turn, and I
couldn't be more pumped. Who knows what will happen, who I will
meet, or what I will see...but no matter what, I will know that I
followed my heart and my passion. Everything else is gravy. This is
my life folks, and I LOVE IT!!!

AC

  Back to The Quest Main Page