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A Greyhound To Gainesville

by Dar Mikula

    Dar at FSM: May 1992

It’s December in Buffalo and a mixed blessing for us in this City of Good Neighbors. The warm glow of red and green holiday houselights reflect the crisp season of cheer in the freshly fallen snow, and meanwhile the bitter wind is ripping its way across icy Lake Erie and straight into my bones. I’m living in my sister’s basement in a room she built for me when I moved back 19 months earlier after living in Seattle for the latter half of the 1980’s. It’s 1991, I’m 30 years old, I’m working part-time as a cashier at the Convenient Food Mart and part-time as a page in the Lancaster Library. My bachelors degree in creative writing sits stalled on my desk in a black 8×10 picture frame after a successful yet brief career in journalism. I jump up and down on a mini trampoline to keep warm and stay lean because it’s too frigid to exercise outside. My mom and dad live two miles from me; my brother, grandmother and other relatives are within a five-mile radius. This is my home.

I’m still close with one or two friends from my childhood; in fact my buddy Roger and I have been dabbling in massage. He’s bought a massage table and so we take turns giving each other a back or foot rub. He’s got an irritable back from standing and bending all day and has read that massage might help. I’ve just come from five years of living in the Pacific Northwest where it seemed every other person I met was a massage therapist. I’d received plenty of bodywork and informal training as a result, so I just repeat on him what I’ve had done or shown to me.

Friends have told me before: “You’ve got great hands.” But it’s not until my mother starts to go to the new trend of “toning” at a local salon that my life’s path takes another trajectory. She nonchalantly tells me one day after her session that the woman who sets the machine for her is a massage therapist. I learn further that there are legitimate schools for that, and one in particular in a state I have not yet traveled to. Mom’s attendant says it’s “the best school in the country.” 

When I sit down with my parents to inform them I‘m leaving town again, my dad starts to cry. My mom comforts him, “Honey, it’s only for five months. She’ll be back.” He says, “You can’t do massage. What are you going to do when a 300-pound man comes in?!” He’s looking at my 98-pound frame with his sad and doubting eyes. “I guess I’m going to learn what to do,” I say confidently. His eyes turn downward and he shakes his head. I hunker down next to him. “I love you dad.” He knows he’s raised a strong-willed middle child and that his only choice is to watch me go. But it’s going to take him a minute or two of his own variation on foot-stomping until he comes around to accepting that scenario again.

With my mind made up, I send my application to the Florida School of Massage on January 8th and am accepted into the Summer 1992 program via a letter from Paul Davenport the following week.   Looks like I’m moving to Florida!

Since I have no car and I have never traveled the east side of the country, I decide to take the Greyhound. I make an adventure of it, researching and planning a hostel-based journey that will include stops at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and then the World of Coca Cola in Atlanta, all within my limited budget and the time constraints of the 7-day Greyhound saver pass.

My parents take me to the downtown bus station. Dad doesn’t say much, but he navigates the city maze and gets us there in a timely manner. And mom maybe wishes she was more like me on days like this – confident and independent. His tender hug betrays his stoicism, and her outward optimism hides her internal anxiety. Meanwhile I board the bus and quietly wonder, “What the hell am I doing?” – as I look out the window and watch as they bravely wave me down the highway.

I arrive in Gainesville the week before Mother’s Day after a quick six-hour bus ride from Atlanta. I say “quick” because the last two Greyhound rides as planned (Buffalo to Nashville, and then Nashville to Atlanta) have been grueling all-nighters at 16 and 12 hours, respectively. It’s May-hot and humid in Tree City USA, sunny and nearing 80 degrees already, but I’m excited and ready to walk. So that’s what I do – with my 21-pound pack of clothes and essentials strapped to my back, I amble out of the downtown area and up SW 13th Street, waiting for the esteemed Florida School of Massage to appear. I walk, and walk, and walk, a full five or more miles, and at some point I fear I may have walked in the wrong damn direction. The numbers are going up, I’m waiting for the 6421 address, but this highway seems to be going nowhere except on and on. I’m clearly overdressed for this new climate. My shirt with the pack rubbing against my back is sweat-soaked. I have not thought to carry water. I cleverly think: If I can do this, I can massage a 300-pound man!  

Finally, there it is, a nondescript blue building sitting behind a small parking lot set back from the road. I enter through the front door and a helpful man named Ron greets me. I haven’t made an appointment; I’m just here to check the place out. I start the program in seven short days and need to find a place to live, and I was told I might find housing if I look on the school’s bulletin board. He shows me to it and then introduces me to the woman in Admissions. Her name is Nancy and she’s got a smile as wide as the highway I just walked up to get here. She’s very enthusiastic and arranges for me to stay a few nights at a colleague’s house until I can get my bearings and search out a place of my own. I’m appreciative because I didn’t really have a plan other than to just get here and trust what’s next.

I found a place to live within a day or two, returned to the school to fill out my enrollment agreement, found a cheap used bike to get back and forth, and basically didn’t look back. I had fully intended to take the New York track and go back to my hometown to set up a practice. But I fell in love with the weather, I fell in love with the school, and I also fell in love. But that’s a story for another day.

Dar at FSM: Dec. 2016

It’s now approaching 2017 and I’ve come full circle. About a month ago, I looked up my original FSM application and the biographical statement I’d offered in January 1992. Here is what I wrote in that basement room one wintry night two-and-a-half decades ago: “I believe that I am living now, at this time, on this planet, to learn, challenge, risk, grow, and ultimately transform. I trust massage is an integral part of my personal journey towards that end.” I could not have predicted that the early days of trading massage with my best friend would have laid the groundwork for the life-changing experience I received at FSM, and then beyond.

Postscript: My parents eventually accepted the fact that their wandering daughter had finally found her home away from home, albeit 1100 miles away. They never really doubted my choice once I landed here and started school. My grandmother, mother and sister all passed away within quick succession of each other in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively – and my dad followed shortly thereafter in 2013. Somehow, from somewhere, I suspect they are waving at me now as I wander off again on my next inspired ride down this blessed adventure highway.

You can read more in my letter to the FSM Community.