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Go East, Young Man
On trying to walk across the country.
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A few years ago, after my first year of grad school, I took a bit of a walk, a nice solo trek spanning from approximately eastern Colorado to North Carolina. Real casual, like. Slightly sadistic but pleasantly miserable.
The motive was to raise money for RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, but it was something I’d always thought about doing—walking across America and immersing myself in “flyover country,” that dominion of uncharted wilderness and lawless backcountry depravity that coastal elites are convinced is exclusively home to those no-good dirty deplorable MAGA savages. You’d need at least six months at 20 miles/day to walk from coast to coast, but I didn’t have that much time, just summer break, and so I had to improvise and essentially cut the distance in half.
This wasn’t some big to-do or anything like that; I wasn’t looking for the spotlight, didn’t post updates on social media or share it with the whole world. There was no fanfare. I’d say maybe 20 people knew about it.
Obviously there was a fair amount of preparation involved. I spent a good deal of time at REI, mostly because I made the mistake of mentioning to one of the employees what I was buying all the gear for, whereupon he dove headfirst into telling me everything he thought I needed to know about such and such sleeping bags and this or that tent without realizing that I had a pretty good grasp of what I was doing by dint of personal background.
To be fair, he certainly knew his stuff. He would say things to me like: “Now this here is an Osprey Aether 65 UL Stuff Pack Bundle with dual-access stretch-mesh and an injection-molded AirScape back panel. On the other hand, and I’ll be frank with you here”—and he would lean in toward me and reduce his voice to a more hushed, forthright tone, as if disclosing he’d once been caught going number two in the women’s room—“the VariFlex articulated hip fins don’t go all that well with the Pull-Forward construction of the hip belt.” And I would nod slowly, as if gravely considering his sage counsel.
In the end, I brought little with me. As someone intimately familiar with the ancient science of ruck marching, I was keenly aware of how quickly ounces turn into pounds. It’s always funny to me that some folks can’t seem to grasp the more fundamental realities of moving long distances on foot. I’m being a little unfair since I was an infantry dude and learned these things the hard way, but a lot of people don’t give much thought to the simple fact that, generally speaking, moving long distances on your own two feet means you have to carry what you need. . .and the more stuff you carry, the heavier your gear is going to be. . .and the heavier your gear is, the more energy and time it’s going to take to get from point A to point B. . .and the more energy and time it takes, the longer you’ll be exposed to the elements and unable to resupply. . .and so on and so forth.
In sum, even 20 pounds on your back will begin to feel like 200 if you walk far enough, and so I was determined to travel as light as possible.
I had a pack, of course, but most of what I carried inside of it were smaller items of an essential nature, i.e. a solar phone charger, water purification tablets, a Gerber, chem lights, Chernobyl-grade bug spray, a penlight and headlamp, First Strike bars, a camelback, Cerasport, etc.
I somewhat boldly opted to forego a tent. It seemed beneath me, honestly. In the Army you don’t sleep in a tent when you’re in the field. Grunts don’t, at least. And besides, the process of setting up a tent and taking it down seemed like too much hassle, to say nothing of how conspicuous the things are outside of Los Angeles. I opted instead to use a bivy sack, AKA a waterproof sleeping bag:
Basically, though, I just set up a GoFundMe (to raise money for RAINN, not me) and took a Greyhound from Los Angeles to eastern Colorado and started walking. My route was largely improvised. I simply hopped from town to town, careful to make sure I had enough water to get me through each leg of the journey.
It wasn’t the same as being homeless and I don’t mean to suggest as much, but in a lot of ways I did learn what it must be like to be homeless. I didn’t walk with a sign tied around my neck announcing what it was that I was doing; when people saw me, they saw a youngish, unshaven, unkempt dude schlepping on the side of the road with a pack on his back. With my tattoos, I probably looked to some people like a walking exhibition of regret. I was on the receiving end of many narrow-eyed, faintly suspicious looks, and there were several occasions inside drug stores when I was tailed by employees who didn’t much care to hide the fact that they were closely watching me.
Nights were the worst, and always sketchy. I soon learned that it’s ill-advised to pass out like a wino where people can see you. Getting “walked up on” isn’t the most unpleasant way I’ve ever been woken up, but it’s close. There’s something existentially horrific about being jarred awake in the middle of the night that way.
Keep in mind that you can’t just pull out a map hours in advance and predetermine exactly where you’re going to sleep. You have to wing it, and this is a lot more difficult than it sounds, especially when remaining out of sight is priority number one. By far the best spot I found was one of those little plastic play house things on a bed of turf behind a mosque:
Despite my efforts to remain incognito, though, on three separate occasions I had the cops called on me for vagrancy.
One night, for example, just outside Dodge City — huge letdown, by the way; boring as all hell, nothing but a tiny museum, a strip of fast food joints, a Walmart, and an old train station, though a nice elderly couple at a truck stop did give me some pizza they were finished with, which I promptly slayed — I came upon a big shopping mall. It was like 2300, so the place was empty, and I kind of moseyed around to the back and spotted a small hill that rose up behind the buildings. I followed a gravel path along the side to the top, where I came upon a small, circular clearing of dirt, just big enough for a car to use as a roundabout. No tracks or anything, no trash or any other sign of human activity. It was an ideal spot to bed down for the night, nice and secluded so I didn’t have to worry about someone stumbling upon me.
I was wrong, of course.
At around 0200 or so I was unkindly woken up by a flashlight to the face and a stern voice telling me I needed to leave the premises NOW, and to GET UP. Shielding my eyes, trying to see who it was I was dealing with here, I saw the headlights in the foreground and presumed that it was an especially fractious, glorified mall cop of some sort. It was.
I really wasn’t in the mood. It’s a jarring way to wake up, and I had been thoroughly racked out.
I told the dark figure standing above me to relax and started to pull myself out of my sleeping bag. Not moving fast enough for him, he threatened to call the cops. I encouraged him to do so. “Go for it, Paul Blart.”
He didn’t like that.
Ten minutes later, having descended the hill and skedaddled away from Paul Blart, I ducked behind an industrial-sized dumpster to take a leak when, in the midst of a Niagara-esque piss, I was startled by the telltale flashing lights of Five-0. Nipping it in the bud, I casually sauntered out front and gave a sheepish grin. I’ve seen Cops before, so I already knew what to do and sat down on the curb.
The two cops ran my ID and asked what the deal was. Paul Blart slowly rolled up behind them and watched. I waived. He scowled. I explained to the cops what I was doing — or trying to do — and they looked at me exactly the way you’d imagine they would. It took convincing, this little adventure of mine.
Seriously, my dudes, I’m walking to North Carolina. It’s for RAINN. You should Google it; it’s worth a Google.
They of course let me go and advised me to look for another spot to rack out for the night, which I immediately began looking for since Paul Blart ruined what had really been a fantastic slumber, considering the circumstances.
My other two run-ins with the law also took place after someone apparently saw me trying to sleep and decided they wanted to ruin my night, but nothing came of these encounters either.
It’s a big, big world out there. Duh. Sure, I’m stating the obvious, but the availability of cheap transportation and its distorting effects on spatial realities often leads us to forget how big it really is.
Your appreciation for the scope of the planet changes utterly when you try walking across approximately half the country, believe you me. So, too, does your gratitude for the little things we tend to take for granted. The central feature of my walk was deprivation, and much of the richness of the experience stemmed from removing myself so totally from everyday conveniences that the most ordinary things became glorious pleasures. Every single gas station felt like a Xanadu. It’s an intoxicating experience to be conveyed to the very brink of orgasm by a Diet Coke after days of drudgery, let me tell you.
And if you spend long enough time walking in the middle of nowhere, you’ll soon find yourself equipped with a newfound perspicacity, a heightening of the senses that helps you absorb much of what you’d normally ignore or overlook: Vestigial barns painted a fading garnet red; the long, forlorn whistle of a locomotive calling out across fields of waving corn; figure-eights of fireflies; flecks of mica sparkling in sundried roads; canoe-shaped moons in the milky dilute light of lume and low stars; the insectoid klezmer of cicadas and crickets; the sun creeping up a sky so improbably blue you could just about dive in; highways bordered by fields painted burnt yellow and bottle green; the sweet, wet, heavy air of summer dawns.
During the first few days of walking, there was something vaguely unsettling about spending so much time looking up and around as opposed to down. It was like I’d been conditioned to look at my phone; I felt naked without it in hand. But I never walked with it out, nor did I listen to music or podcasts or audiobooks or what have you. Situational awareness is rather important when you’re plodding along the sides of obscure highways, alone and tired, and so headphones were a no-go for me.
Free of distractions, horizons spanning in every direction and side roads stretching contentedly nowhere, I often found myself enveloped in a peculiarly intense stillness intermittently broken up only by the occasional car or two. Coming from Los Angeles, this was a revelation.
Walking, especially diversion-free, long-distance walking, facilitates a sober acuity difficult to replicate under other circumstances. Conditions are ripe for the kind of deep, uninterrupted thought that’s practically prohibitive to our busy-as-a-badge-of-honor society and becoming increasingly difficult due to ever-shrinking attention spans.
But after hours absorbed in the business of just pushing forward, deep thought evolves into something else entirely. It’s not a meditative state, per se, it’s more like tranquil tedium that facilitates radically honest introspection, a uniquely “soul-searching” type of contemplation that helps while away the hours when you literally have nothing else you can do. Thinking your way through miles with the benefit of a rare clarity; figuratively stepping outside the protective narrowness of your own preset boundaries; lowering the volume of the egocentric internal monologue that can trick you into believing your immediate needs and wants should be the criteria that determine the world’s priorities—it’s like you discover a version of yourself you forgot even existed.
I wasn’t always alone, though. It was a solitary endeavor, this walk, but it entailed quite a few interactions with random folks.
In our digital age, any felt sense of the outside world tends to be delimited by the warping effects of social media and TV, which is why leaping over the walls of self and locale to coexist with strangers is an endangered experience. Everything exterior to our little solipsistic, skull-sized kingdoms exists only insofar as it affects us somehow. We tend to spend more time immersed in screens than we do in reality, and not just because so many of today’s virtual platforms have been specifically engineered to monetize dopamine-induced feedback loops. The screen provides a refuge; the mediated world is much more predictable, not to mention safer, than the real world and its uncomfortable demands.
But putting yourself in situations where you’re dependent on the generosity and kindness of complete strangers most definitely has a positive impact on the way you see the world. It’s humbling. Being vulnerable always is. But embracing that vulnerability rather than resisting it presents you with unique opportunities for personal growth.
Think about it. Rarely does day-to-day life require us to establish empathetic connections with people outside our personal orbit. As a matter of course, folks more often than not decline to bear the emotional costs associated with being present around unfamiliar faces.
But whilst wayfaring, out of both necessity and a rekindled natural curiosity, yours truly interacted with some real characters, people whom we tend to keep on the periphery of life because they fall outside the sphere of our own preoccupations.
I met Gerald in Granada, Colorado, a town so small that you’d be hard-pressed to find it on a generous map, and so remote that the cafe owner whose bathroom I used had never heard of WiFi (granted, she was likely a nonagenarian), the police force consisted of two cops, and I came across more stray animals than human beings.
A bearded Gandalfian figure and absolute giant of a man who gave off a Big Lebowski vibe, Gerald was relaxing in the shade, seated on a bench next to a vending machine that sold cans of snuff outside one of those small-town trifectas, a grocery store/café/gas station type of place, the kind of far-flung family-run establishment that necessitates an acute aptitude for deductive mathematical reasoning.
Heavyset and in his fifties or sixties with a face showing the deep tan-lines of a life spent in the sun, he was dressed in the sort of getup that a man wears when life hasn’t presented him with many opportunities to wear a suit: Genuine, sky-blue weathered jean overalls, just like the ones seen in old black and white photographs of farmers in history books—big side pockets, shoulder straps, a buttoned flap on the front that in Gerald’s case failed to conceal his jungle of chest hair so that he looked, in a word, wild.
Gerald spoke thickly, like molasses pouring from a jar. He had a penchant for illicitly homebrewed moonshine (he offered me some out of a flask; I politely demurred) and a habit of scratching himself while engaged in conversation the way a dude normally scratches himself only when alone and out of sight.
During the hour or so that we talked, he spat tobacco into a spittoon (an actual spittoon, yes) with a degree of accuracy and consistency such that you knew he’d probably been dipping since he could walk. I found myself wondering what his childhood must have been like. With his spectacularly inventive foul mouth, he was teeming with indelicate locutions and anecdotes that would interest anyone with a pulse. The man made Donald Trump seem tame as a Teletubby.
Speaking of The Donald, Gerald was sporting the ubiquitous fire-engine red MAGA hat, a sartorial statement that I apprised him was akin to murder in Los Angeles. Upon learning that I was living in the City of Angels, he became noticeably standoffish, so much so that I felt compelled to reassure him that I wasn’t a liberal and it was only temporary, at which point he exhaled with relief.
As twilight faded into night, he announced that it was time for him to get going or “the raccoons would be waiting.” When I inquired about this, he explained that every night he fed the racoons living in his backyard. All eight of them were named Ralph.
Tim was a middle-aged black guy I ran into on the outskirts of Kansas City. A self-described urban hermit and unreformed shoplifter (“appropriation artist” was how he described it), he was a spitting image of Spike Lee, gregarious and affable, someone you could file under the increasingly rare subphylum of individuals capable of radiating sincerity sans effort.
I was walking late at night, late enough that the sky was freckled with cold stars and road traffic was at a low ebb. Tim called out to me from across the street where he was sitting on a forlorn-looking pew in front of a CVS. My first thought was “Dude, shut up!” because it had been so anvil-heavy quiet until then and it felt like his shouts would wake the entire world.
I kept walking. He called out again, his nicotine-soaked rasp of a voice echoing down the empty street.
“Yo! I see you! Ain’t no shame, baby!”
I distinctly remember that line because it was so odd. He waved me over impatiently, as if my uncertainty was ridiculous.
I thought he seemed alright. Friendly enough. So, I trotted across the street and said hey.
Upon closer inspection I saw that Tim appeared very young and very old at the same time and was wearing the weirdest attire I’d ever seen on a person. It was like the sort of “outfit” you’d imagine a guy would only ever wear in public if he’d lost an alcohol-induced bet: A long pair of black basketball shorts on top of a pair of soiled gray sweatpants, lurid orange shoes stained with the green tinge of cut grass, a mauve bathrobe with a Kansas City Royals t-shirt underneath, and a pair of black, lens-less, square-rimmed glasses.
Apparently he’d seen me walking and wanted to let me know it was “cool that I was homeless, it didn’t matter one fuckola,” and that there were a number of places within walking distance that offered free meals weekdays at 6 P.M.
I started to explain how I wasn’t really homeless, I just looked homeless, but he waved me off thinking I was trying to save pride.
The other half of the bench he was camped out on was taken up by a garbage bag full of what looked like the collected hoardings of a devoted dumpster diver, so I plopped down against the wall. We talked for maybe half an hour. It was a meandering conversation chock-full of jargony argot and parenthetical excursions and circumlocutory spirals through a dizzying array of topics—baseball, the South, his mother’s birthday coming up, something about an L&L not letting him “bum” anymore because he was selling Menthols out front for $1 each, his girlfriend and another woman souring on an arrangement that I thought sounded highly dubious, the time he was arrested for stealing wine out of a church sacristy, etc.
When I got up to leave, Tim reached into his bathrobe, pulled out a Snickers bar, and tried to give it to me.
His kindness wowed me. I politely declined, but then he gave me a look that more or less indicated he’d done unpleasant things to certain people in the past for saying no to a lot less, and so I reconsidered and graciously accepted. We fist bumped and I went back to walking.
I’m a big believer in the idea that the richness of life is reserved for those open to new experiences in heart and mind. Nothing so effortlessly broadens your horizons like stepping outside your comfort zone, diving headfirst into the unfamiliar, and taking up a challenge. Such experiences, in addition to radically raising the bar for what you consider intolerable levels of discomfort and risk, have a way of cracking open what’s become brittle with certainty.
I think a lot of people out there would be pleasantly surprised by what it’s like to go on an adventure, to be tested and found not wanting. And I think they’d be surprised by what it’s like not having one’s eyes glued to a phone screen 24/7, or not being distracted by any other creature comforts for that matter, and to know that survival depends solely on self-reliance and perseverance.
If you ever get the chance to do something like that, something that challenges you and strips you down to your essence, forcing you to take ledger of what inner resources you have and all but demanding you let go of the predictability of life and its attendant sense of security and the gentle conceit that you’re individually special in this universe—do it. You’ll learn a lot, or at least walk away with a better understanding of the world and your place in it, and maybe even a newfound appreciation for what’s important in life and what’s not.