My first couple years in college, after school let out for the summer in early May, I would climb inside my parents’ red GM van and drive down to Athens, OH to visit Matt. Ohio University, where he went to school, was on a different schedule than Bowling Green State University, and Mattâ€™s classes didn’t end until June. There was always one weekend I could drive down and hang out with my childhood friend.
I’ve always loved solo drives through the long stretches of greenery Ohio has to offer. Something about all of that vegetation, all of that life, renews my soul. The drive to Athens takes you through the southern portion of the state; the farther down you travel, the hillier and greener the landscape becomes. With a stack of cassettes scattered in the passenger seat, a couple cans of Coke, and a bag of some greasy, salty snack (generally Bugles — you canâ€™t go wrong with Bugles), the road trip to OU was how I marked the beginning of summer.
In the spring of â€™89, after completing my freshman year at BG, I made the voyage for the first time. After work on a Friday afternoon, I left the Cleveland area and drove for four hours listening to the same tapes over and over. Upon arriving in Athens and navigating the cryptic directions Matt had given me over the phone, I finally located his dorm, parked the van, and found my friend, smiling broadly with squinty eyes, standing kind of wobbly. In a word, drunk. After a loving embrace, he sheepishly explained that the excitement of my visit got to him early in the day and to remedy the anticipation heâ€™d had a beerâ€¦ or six. Basically Matt drank away most of the afternoon. By the time of my arrival he was too far gone for me to catch up. He led me on a whirlwind tour of his dorm and introduced me to the friends heâ€™d made, many of which wound up in Seattle with him in the ’90s. By 10 oâ€™clock we were back in his single room, surprisingly barren of any posters or indication of Mattâ€™s personality, and he was passed out.
The following day, as my chum staggered through a hangover, the two of us went uptown to Athens, ate at the local greasy spoon, hung out at a comic shop, browsed the indie record store and drifted around the campus at a leisurely pace. It was hardly the wild and crazy weekend I thought it would be. Still, just spending quality time with Matt was worth it. He had changed since we’d last seen each other at Christmas. No longer was he the preppy teen who wore Polo shirts and boat shoes; his hair was growing out, and his attire was cut-offs, a grungy t-shirt and Chuck Taylors. I wondered if he recognized how Iâ€™d changed, or of he just saw me as the same old Scott. We wound up back at his dorm room where he could lay down and recuperate. The mood felt very similar to the years weâ€™d spent in my parentsâ€™ basement listening to music and conspiring about girls.
Suddenly, with a renewed burst of energy, Matt hopped to the floor and exclaimed, â€œListen to this!â€ His hands fumbled as they dropped the needle onto a scratchy old LP. Anticipating some obscure underground band I was surprised to hear just an acoustic guitar and the sweet, reedy voice of Bob Dylan singing â€œThe Times They Are A-Changinâ€™.â€
Initially I thought, â€œOkay, itâ€™s Dylan. Iâ€™ve been listening to Dylan for years. So what?â€ But watching Matt, hanging on every word with his eyes closed, I realized that perhaps I hadnâ€™t been really listening to Dylan, not the way Matt was. The song played through and the two of us sat silent. When it ended he looked up with a grin. â€œWasnâ€™t that, like, weird? Wasnâ€™t that the coolest thing youâ€™ve ever heard?â€
There, between the cinder blocks and the tile floor of his dorm room, as a cool breeze came in through the window, I was witnessing a metamorphosis take place. The Matt I grew up with was fading away like the tail end of an LP. Over the next summer he would give up shaving, pick up smoking Marlboros, and spend hours alone in his bedroom mastering Dylan’s songs on his guitar. It was at that point our lives began veering in different directions. In some ways our friendship deepened, yet it was never the same again. From that point forward he was a new man. At times he was very serious, at times sinister, and at times he was one of my most sincere friends.
We spent the remainder of our visit kicking around the campus, even took in some function where we tie-dyed shirts and tried to impress some girls with our wit and charm. By nightfall we were back in his room drinking cheap beer and listening to more music. The next morning, after dragging our asses out of bed, we ate a heart breakfast before I loaded up my duffle bag and said goodbye. Sure, Iâ€™d see him in a couple weeks later, but as I said, things were never quite the same. As the sun shone down on a lovely Sunday morning, I climbed back into the red van and left Athens. Driving through the tree covered mountains and grassy fields of southern Ohio, I thought about the future, the past, and how things had changed.