I wondered what the next step would be. I wasn’t looking forward to being stranded by myself for the remainder of the summer. I was already struggling every day, and now the one tangible aspect of my support system was driving back to Indiana. I called Ricky a few minutes later, leaving a voicemail that was half-joking, half-serious asking how could he could have possibly abandoned me like that.

The next day, I drove to Albuquerque by myself for the first time for the regular weekly meeting. I was a few minutes late, but arrived just as Andrew prepared to give his weekly update. Before he got into the metrics, Andrew decided he ought to address the fact that I was riding solo. The others had taken notice.

“Well, guys. As you can see, it’s been a challenging week. I’m sure many of you noticed a couple people are missing.”

Wait, what? I thought, quickly glancing around the group trying to determine who else was missing. Ricky was the fourth person to leave for the summer, but who was the fifth? For the first time, I realized that Travis had also driven in solo. I caught his eye and mouthed Tony’s name with a quizzical look. Travis dramatically cast his gaze to the ground and nodded solemnly.

Andrew went on to explain that Ricky had called him earlier in the week to tell him his grandfather was ill and the doctors were not optimistic about his prognosis.

Wait, what? I thought, again. Ricky’s letter said nothing about a sick grandparent. And he never once mentioned anything like that in the past. While Andrew explained Tony’s absence, I sent a text to Ricky.

Hey bud – sorry to hear about your grandfather. Hope he makes it

The rest of the meeting had a pretty somber feel to it, and only because Andy was in a sour mood. It made sense, though. Andrew made money off of each sale the rest of us made. That’s how this particular scheme worked. But now our group of 16 was down to 11, meaning about 30% of Andrew’s sellers were gone for the rest of the summer. That was going to hurt his bottom line.

When he pulled me aside later in the day, I worried he might call me out on my poor numbers. But instead, he told me he wanted to pair me up with Travis, seeing as both of our selling partners were gone. I was moving to Tularosa.

I was ecstatic. I needed some good news. My attitude and motivation had been trash for weeks and I needed a win in the worst way. This was my win. A fresh start. A new territory where I could find better success.

Travis followed me to Bosque Farms after our Sunday meeting adjourned, helping me gather the few things I had to pack from the house. I then followed him toward my new sales territory.

As we left town, I thought about the first eight weeks of the summer. As hard as they’d been, I’d grown somewhat attached to Los Lunas. After a few minutes of reminiscing, I remembered Deb. Aw man, I thought, I never got to say goodbye to Deb. After the first couple weeks of visiting that diner every day, Ricky and I planned to get Deb a little gift of some sort at the end of the summer. She was consistently one of the brightest parts of our day, and we wanted to show our appreciation to our one and only friend in New Mexico.

Such is life, I thought to myself. I’m sure there will be plenty of other times I won’t get to do things I want to do. It’s just the way it goes. 

Then it hit me.

Damn. I never got to the top of that hill.

The summer had proven to be one of the most challenging times to that point in my life. A summer full of opportunities. Some success. A lot of failure. And a whole list of goals I hadn’t yet been able to achieve. I was mad that my chance to meet my hill goal was unexpectedly gone. That particular goal seemed to be attainable, unlike some of the sales goals I felt completely helpless to achieve. The ONE goal I could accomplish was no longer on the table. That made me mad.

In reality, most of that anger came from the fact that I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. I had been dealt so much rejection and had felt every possible level of doubt. My self-esteem was at an all-time low. My confidence was all but lost. Even my physical health was waning. But I wasn’t dealing with any of that, instead opting to collect it all in a big messy ball and bury deep inside my subconscious. The problem came when I had no more capacity to store the bad vibes. So this hill thing happens – or, doesn’t happen – and I found myself driving down a highway in New Mexico doing 90 miles per hour screaming profanities at the top of my lungs with hot tears streaming down my face.

I can’t help but laugh at the mental image I have of myself at that moment. What an oddly entertaining way for stress to present itself.

Earlier in the day I had been excited at the prospect of getting a fresh start. But the more I thought about the previous eight weeks, the more I feared the next six would turn out exactly the same. I started to feel sick to my stomach. I needed to talk to someone about it, but I didn’t really want to say anything to Travis. He was having a great summer and I didn’t want to drag him down. And I certainly didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone else.

I decided it was best if I just buried it. I needed to be tougher. Mentally tougher. I was 19 years old at the time. A man. It was time to start acting like one.

Fifteen years later I can look back at that thought process and see just how immature I’d been. At the time, it seemed like the only choice. And the right one, to boot. I hope I’m making it clear just how fragile my mental state was. The highest highs and the lowest lows all in the matter of a few hours.

About half way to Tularosa, I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket. I’d gotten a response from Ricky:

Did you mean to send that text to me?

Hmm. That was an odd response. Over the next few miles, I carefully typed out my response using the T9 keypad on my flip phone, like a boss. I’d memorized the keypad well enough that I could type out a complete message without taking my eyes off the road. Pretty, pretty good.

Yeah. Andrew told us about your grandpa being sick

A few minutes later came Ricky’s reply.

I’m confused

I called Ricky and he laughed when I recited what Andrew told us, clarifying that the reasons he chose to go home were the exact reasons cited in his letter. He wasn’t making money, it was stupid hot, and he’d met far too many crazies for one summer. His grandfather was fine.

Something clicked in my head. A few weeks earlier at our weekly get-together, Andrew told us about another group selling up in New York. Evidently there had been two straight weeks of rain, so much that the area was completely flooded. But the incredible part was that all the sellers up there bought rain boots and jackets and kept on selling. Two feet of water, and these kids wouldn’t quit. Amazing stuff.

Except…Ricky was dubious. When we got back to the house that evening, he searched around the internet to see what the weather had been like in New York. He tried to find a news article about the flooding there. The problem was, he couldn’t find any evidence of that happening. I sort of brushed it off at the time, but after learning Andrew had lied about the reasons Ricky left, that memory popped back into my mind and wouldn’t let me shake it.

This should have happened a number of weeks earlier, but I finally realized I couldn’t trust anyone associated with the company. I’d been lied too multiple times and had been manipulated over and over, starting day one of that crazy sales conference. On some level I knew it was happening, but I think I was either too stubborn or too proud to allow myself to believe I couldn’t overcome it. I’ve always been an optimist, and this time it’d gotten me in too deep. The entire summer had been a fiasco, and I was dumbly stumbling through every hour of it.

I let my car idle at a four-way stop about ten minutes outside Tularosa. Travis lost me on a long straightaway a few minutes before. He must have been doing 100 miles per hour, and I wasn’t willing to keep up. There wasn’t anyone else at the intersection and I remember sitting there for a few minutes taking in the symbolism of sitting at a crossroads. Tularosa was straight ahead a few miles. A right turn would take me further West. A left turn would take me East. Toward home.

Just then, I remembered a silly slogan I always say when making decisions.

Always choose left.