On a cold but sunny Thursday in March 2014, I set out from my girlfriend Rosie’s apartment in West Philly to walk across the country. I’d been going to school nearby at Swarthmore, but for reasons that aren’t worth belaboring, left in December 2013, the winter I would have graduated. I walked for ninety-six days, until I reached La Junta, Colorado, where Rosie picked me up three days before the summer solstice. While I walked, I kept a journal, dictating into a voice recorder, writing in a notebook, or typing on my laptop whenever I could stop to plug it in. Every spring since, I’ve gone over the written entries and the transcribed audio, expanding and trimming, sharpening anecdotes until they’ve taken on, for me, a heightened significance. The selections below span the first seven weeks of my trip, beginning outside Philly and ending in Terre Haute, on the border of Indiana and Illinois, where the clock jumps back an hour.

 

Friday, March 14

Icicles on the ceiling of my tent-cave when I arise, before the sun.

Realize pretty quickly that I’m pretty over walking on Baltimore Pike. So cut north midmorning, in search of a smaller road.

Immediately start noticing restaurants are less chain-y, people less distracted-seeming. Drivers make eye contact, a friendly smile here and there. A welcome reprieve from hours of walking along with eyes glued to the Kindle.

When I come upon the scene of an accident—cars backed up for like a mile—I’m able to walk right on through, being on foot and all. Meaning, initially, that I’m walking past cars facing the same direction I am. But when I emerge on the far side, there’s of course another row of cars, facing me—in the shoulder, against traffic—on my side of the street. To which, at first, I’m like, Wow, great, more eye contact! Like, Look at me, connecting with strangers!

Doesn’t take long though for this setup to become awkward.

 

Happen upon a dense thicket, set back and hidden from the road, in Ridley Creek State Park, right at dusk, before busting into a clearing. Cold, canned black beans for dinner; no fuel yet. Think I have the one stove that goes with the most obscure fuel, haven’t been able to find it anywhere. 

 

Saturday, March 15

Huge sack of rice I can’t do shit with stoveless, half a jar of peanut butter. Out of water even, having last night figured, Oh, I’ll just hit it, get up next morning, find a coffee shop or gas station to refuel at before taking off. ’Course I get to walking and find myself on this winding-ass road in the middle of nowhere. 

Finally find a tap, roadside. Fill up. 

Only now I’ve got this huge gallon jug weighing me down, dangling annoyingly from the carabiner attached to my backpack strap.

So ditch the rice, by the side of the road.

 

Wanting to get back to a more centralized area, with stores and people, after finding myself stranded this morning, book it north to West Chester Pike, which ends up being …

Damn. 

Cars flying. 

Fast-food spots every block. 

Wide, almost lane-width shoulder. But cars going fifty-five, sixty.

 

Midafternoon, start seriously considering throwing in the towel. 

Decide the only chance I have at keeping this going is to get off the pike. But before I do, I figure I could use a pit stop. 

Pull up to this Wawa, take off my pack, place it next to the garbage can out front, by the cigarette-butt canister, and what do I see but another backpack. A sombrero dangling off it. A guitar.

Walk in, scan the store, immediately ID the owner of the pack. He’s got green swishy pants, not unlike mine. I’m thinking, Play it cool, maybe I’ll talk to him, maybe I won’t.

For some reason get nervous sorta. 

About to leave, realize I need to pee. Head back in. Pee. 

Come back out, and homie’s out there eating a burrito. I’m all, What’s going on? 

His name is John, and he’s also walking across. From South Philly, two days ago. To Oregon, is the goal. We’re all, What?! John? I’m Sean!

We start walking, keep talking. He’s all, Well shoot, walked a shit ton today, my knee’s fucked, and I got blisters like a muhfucker. Tall, lanky. Six foot five maybe. Older than me. Ethnically ambiguous, looks mixed, Native almost. Been bouncing around jobs—Burger King manager, seller of used cars. Never been west of Nashville. Wants to walk up on a Native American reservation, ask a shaman what he should do with his life. Tells me he slept on a roof last night. Just climbed a ladder, following a hunch, and crashed out. 

I mean, I’d just been thinking I’m done, can’t keep this up with the blisters. But John’s all, Dude, you kidding me? I have blisters all over my feet. You just gotta ignore that shit! 

Sun just eclipsed the horizon but still walking, fuck it.

 

Sunday, March 16 (Full Moon)

Past Coatesville, we book it to … It’s not even a town. Just this major intersection on U.S. 30. With like a McDonald’s, a Walmart Supercenter …

Basking in the comfort of free Wi-Fi, coffee refills, and what becomes basically a Q&A with some McDonald’s employees, teenagers, interrogating me about my degree of vagrancy, I completely neglect to check the weather. Turns out it’s set to snow, and the temp all of a sudden just plummets.

John starts suggesting spots. Behind the Walmart. This trailer that’s just like the back of a semi, parked smack center of the Walmart parking lot. I’m all, I don’t know, bro, that’s a little too sketch. Keep feeling like there’s something conspicuous about camping together. Somehow there’s, like, premeditation there. Whereas, if caught camping alone, can just be like, Was walking, it got dark and cold, had to crash out! We finally decide, or I insist, to go our separate ways and “reconvene in the morning.”

John dips out to find somewhere around nine. Come 10 P.M., I’m all, Okay, can’t keep sitting in this goddamn McDonald’s, gotta hit it. Scope out a little tree-filled area nearby on the Google Maps satellite view, a mile or so down U.S. 30. Pack my shit, start gunning it toward it, only to, on an intuitive one, hang a right at the first cross street I get to. It’s got no streetlights, seems promising. Walk alongside a huge field bathed faintly in the full-moon light. Switch off my headlamp, for cover, and start sprinting across. Can sense the snow is about to come. Make a beeline for what looks like a tree on the far side. Turns out it is a tree, some logs and branches gathered against its trunk all combining to form a perfect lee. And look, I know it’s inadvisable to camp under fallen boughs, but this is too perfect.

 

Monday, March 17

Come to enveloped in snow. On my parka, on my tarp, all around me. Didn’t remove much from my pack though, so am able to just get up and go. Meet John at the Parkesburg McDonald’s.

It snows steadily through the morning. The sun has yet to show, despite having risen hours ago, providing muted, fluorescent visibility. I walk fifty feet ahead of John, listening to the latest WTF with Marc Maron episode (Lena Dunham) on my Ziploc-wrapped iPod classic. Head down, looking up only when an especially threatening-sounding semi passes.

Things get increasingly Amish. Horse-drawn carts, horse shit, bowl cuts, bonnets. Uniformly bearded dudes rocking earth-toned, seemingly handmade garments. Much of the rural land I passed pre–Amish Country seemed to be owned by wealthy folks with their SUVs parked out front their huge houses on these sprawling plots of land, on which they’re not really doing shit, not growing shit. In Amish Country, the land is gated, well tended. Housing livestock and cultivating crops seemingly in support of their livelihood. 

Just don’t feel right encroaching. 

 

When we come across a group of FOR SALE houses, John’s all, Oh, those houses are for sale, meaning they’re empty. Think I’ma just crash out in one o’ those. To which I, cranky, exhausted, go, You do that bud, I gotta do my own thing, it was good hanging.

So, alone again, approaching Lancaster’s outskirts. Things shift abruptly from Amish farmland, fields, the occasional exposed copse in the distance, to superstores, fast-food joints, lit-up signs. It’s by this point 8:30, 9 P.M. Start roaming behind stores trying to find somewhere, anywhere, to sleep. 

In back of a Target I see trees, a fence, a pond, ducks … turns out to be just a well-tended Amish farm. With a pig and everything. Right there, behind the Target superstore. 

Come 10 P.M., I’m trolling the dumpsters behind Target, deliberating whether con of possible death by compactor outweighs pro of untarnished autonomy, only to come out the other side and see a motel. Switch on my flip phone and sheepishly call my uncle, who’d texted me a few days back offering to put me up. 

Take my first shower since setting out. Hang up the clothes and nurse the feet, which have gotten beyond gnarly, before unexpectedly crying, full-body shaking, thinking about how cold John must be, wondering what it was in me that made me ditch him like I did.

 

Wednesday, March 19

Endure a rough walk-morning relistening to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami’s meditation on how marathon running relates to, possibly clarifies, novel writing. How both are feats of endurance, requiring similar temperamental traits: patience, discipline, ritual.

If this walk is a novel I’m writing, then sticking to U.S. 30 all the way across—no back roads, no trails—would be equivalent to jotting down a detailed “plot plan” before even beginning the writing (“this happens to that character, in this or that chapter”) and then executing it as faithfully as possible. 

I don’t know about this approach.

 

Thursday, March 20 (Spring Equinox)

Sitting cross-legged on the curb out front the Rodeway Inn, sipping stale coffee, eating cold instant oatmeal, when a lady beckons me over to her car.

I’m thinking she’s lost, is asking directions, since she’s stopped at a red and has her window down. Latina lady. A mother maybe. 

But once I get to the window, the driver, a Latino dude, hands her a crumpled five, which she then thrusts at me, saying, For you! For you! 

 

Saturday, March 22

The Walmart near Gettysburg I hit midday doesn’t have the butane-propane combo tank I need for my stove either. But I do come up on a pair of ten-dollar flip-flops. Kinda Teva-style, but no heel strap, and sturdier than regular flip-flops. The solution, I’m hoping, to my increasingly troublesome blister problem. 

 

Sunday, March 23

Sandals prove effective, allowing me to switch back and forth: let my shoes dry, let my feet air out. Highway 15 South is rural, green. Just chugging along. 

Biding my time in the Emmitsburg McDonald’s, sipping soda, writing emails. A little worried about the snowstorm that’s set to hit. Up to ten inches expected in nearby areas. 

Head outside to smoke. See this guy low-key checking me out through the window. When I finish, head back in, forget all about it. Now notice him coming over. Appalachian Trail hiker? he asks. Nah, cross-country, I say. Man! he says. Asks whether I mind if he has a seat. Tell him not at all.

Introduces himself as Chad. Starts telling me about times he took his family cross-country in his station wagon. How he biked down the Pacific coast from Portland to Southern California, when about my age. A high school math teacher, father of six. Next thing you know: Hey, I’m just a couple of miles up the road if you’re looking for a place to stay for the night. 

He’s just completed a paper route with Chance, his youngest. They do this once a week, as part of their Cub Scout duties: fill up the wagon, go around town with the news in tow, maybe pit-stop at McDonald’s on their way home to check for stranded hikers. 

 

Chad’s home, in Blue Ridge Summit, is large, and about a hundred yards from the Mason–Dixon line. On my way to the bathroom, pass a bookshelf with every board game imaginable, in a precarious stack from waist to ceiling.

The older kids come home, one after another, shortly after I arrive. They’re all, Dad picked up another one! 

Chad leaves to pick up his daughter, leaving me alone with the kids. They procure an atlas, start asking me route questions.

John, the eldest, assumes a paternal role in his dad’s absence, telling Chance to go to bed when it’s time to, since he’s all hyper, playing video games. The eldest sister, Karly, at one point looks at my feet all horrified and goes, You’re wearing sandals? I’m all, Yup, yup, doing the sandal thing, all nonchalant, as if it’s a thing. 

While I’m showering, Karly sets up the pullout couch. 

Their mom comes home around 10 P.M. I help her carry the groceries in from the car. 

Chad sits at the kitchen table, attending to his tasks, grading quizzes. Busy, but still present. There, in case any of his kids need anything.

 

Tuesday, March 25

It starts snowing just as I get in to Hagerstown, but lightly, and I’ve got my umbrella this time. Soon as I enter the city limits locate the golden arches, visible above the roofline; follow them to their terminus as if a directional star, or a lighthouse in a gale, not stopping till I’m beneath the restaurant’s condiment-colored awning.

Order coffee. Wait for it in earshot of this father-daughter duo behind me in line. He’s overweight, mustachioed, balding; she can’t be older than thirteen, is in an oversize sweatshirt, ponytail, and generic-brand sneakers that look secondhand. I’m standing right there, so hear her order. She goes, Can I please have an order of chicken nuggets, and a small—just a small—drink. And small fries. He orders like two Big Macs or whatever the fuck he orders.

But so I’m picking up my coffee, earbuds in, when this guy gesticulates abruptly in my direction. I look over at him, thinking he’s addressing me. He’s going, Y’fuckin’ moron, too fuckin’ stupid to know what a goddamn McDonald’s meal is—but to his daughter. I take out my earbuds like, Yoo. The McDonald’s cashier just standing there, going, Sorry mayne, ya order a small drink, small fries, can’t ring it up as a meal. She’s got her head down, tears welling, not saying anything. And he won’t let up, going, Y’fuckin’ dumb shit, orderin’ a fuckin’ small—

Like, bruh. 

And the damn cashier, just standing there like, Nothin’ I can do! McDonald’s rules.

I take a seat. Remove my laptop from my backpack. Set it up on the table, eyeing them from a distance.

 

I’m just doing my thing when this older dude, McDonald’s employee, like the, what, table wiper / tray collector / loitering-rule enforcer, comes over to my table and is all, Ay mayne, y’been here four hours. Just states that, staring at me dead-eyed. To which I’m all, Sounds about right, way to keep track of that, bud. He’s all, Yep, y’been here four hours, not supposed to be here more than thirty minutes. I’m all, What are you saying? You kicking me out? He goes, Not kicking you out. Just sayin’. Then the manager guy joins him, goes Gotta move it along buddy, gotta move it along. I’m like, Bruh, maybe twenty percent of the tables are occupied, there’s a goddamn snowstorm out, why do you give a shit? 

All to say. Got kicked outta McDonald’s!

Forced back outside and it’s snowy as fuck. Want very much to stall longer. I hit a Burger King. 

 

Wednesday, March 26

Pick up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, a hiking trail that runs adjacent to the Potomac, once on the far side of Williamsport.

Figure I’ll walk alongside the river awhile.

Trees on either side reach over the path, creating a sense of enclosure. The Potomac, marking the border between Maryland and West Virginia, moving swiftly on my left. Nippy out, like thirty-one degrees. Still windy, but sunny now. Snow on the ground. I’ve seen only one other human since walking onto this path: elderly guy with earbuds in, scarf wrapping his face like a mummy. 

 

At a crossroads, I pop into a market for supplies. I’m convinced I’m being extra when I ask for directions, since I’m 99 percent sure I know where I am. Turns out I didn’t, as the lady behind me in line quickly points out. I was about to go the wrong way. Good thing I asked.

 

Saturday, March 29

Stomach starts rumbling midmorning, a couple hours in. Look left, look right, drop the pack. Venture into some pathside brush. Dig a hole, drop trou, and start doing the thing—which, I gotta say, I’m quite enjoying the efficiency of, the Kegel-type activation, the physiological accommodation of the digestive tract granted by the squat method. 

Midsquat, a biker, a legit biker, in spandex, sunglasses, fanny pack, bright red rain jacket with reflectors, comes cruising by. Feet from me. And immediately, unthinkingly, I for some reason start to stand. Out of surprise, I guess—he’s the first person I’ve seen all day. Only, the pants are still down, so I’m basically flashing him. He double-takes, for a moment making direct eye contact, before immediately averting his eyes. Pretends to not see me.

 

Starts downpour-hailing just as the sun starts setting. Hasn’t stopped since. Legitimately worried about hypothermia. Everything is drenched, I have no way to make a fire. Completely in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town is. I don’t even know. Far. Haven’t seen any cars all day. Not a single person. There aren’t even any roads around. I’m just in the middle of … somewhere. By the Potomac. 

 

Was listening to some podcast, completely dissociated from my surroundings. Before I knew it, it was pitch dark out. Still pouring. But even then, figured, Oh, I’ll be fine with my umbrella, my headlamp, just trudging along like an idiot.

Finally found a little pathside clearing. Picnic table, trash-filled firepit. Under my umbrella, headlamp on, trying to set up in the downpour hail. Couldn’t even get my tent to stand up right, not to mention there was no way it’d hold up since it’s a single-layer. No rain flap. Draped my tarp shoddily over it, but it’s pooling in here already. Hopefully it’ll hold. Midnight right now. Torrent showing no signs of letting up.

 

Sunday, March 30

Everything soaked. Put on the sopping clothes, just numb all over. Once it finally stops raining, try to break down camp, but midway through it starts hailing and raining even more. No gloves or shoes, both are completely soaked, damn near froze overnight, so I’m wearing flip-flops over my last pair of dryish wool socks. Trying to get feeling back into my fingers by shoving them into my pits, my pants. Clutching onto my balls. To keep the blood flowing.

Finally get everything packed and it all weighs probably twice as much, how waterlogged it is. No phone service—not that I have anyone to call. Quick breaths, trying to keep my thoughts straight. Start walking, even running for stretches.

Get to a road. A trail map. The road, I learn, switchbacks into the mountains, looking like a damn calculus equation. No towns nearby. Only option is to keep chugging. Two cars pass. Each time I’m like, Shit, shoulda thumbed it. But even then, they’re just, like, hunters, people living in the middle of nowhere. Where would they even have taken me? 

Thinking, Get to the closest town, get on a bus. Or something. Just, I’m done! Over it. 

I’m only able to really get going once I stop trying to seek a way out. Once I accept that it’s up to me and me only to make it to the next town. And once I do, I’m efficient: walk for fifty, take a ten-minute break. Walk for fifty, take a ten-minute break. Keep doing that. Keep doing that.

 

Come upon a little bar that doubles as a grocery store, Bill’s Place, in Little Orleans, after an interminable-seeming ten miles. Have a seat, order coffee and a burger. A group of maybe eight, mostly elderly, guys at the bar. All know one another seemingly. Eyeing me when I enter. Not really in a state to socialize though. Sitting alone at a table, staring at my map, just to be doing something. Trying to figure out “where I am.” Only, the map was in my side cargo pocket, so is completely drenched, and “where I am” happens to be right on the crease where the map was folded. So just holding this fragile thing in my numb hands like it’s an injured bird, unable to decipher the one region where I actually happen to be … 

Besides one young guy and the girl he’s with, everyone has hunting or baseball caps on. NASCAR playing on the TV in the corner. One side of the room is the bar; the other, dimly lit, is the “general store,” consisting of a couple shelves of dry goods. Above the bar, a sign reads BIN LADEN PISSED ON THE WRONG BUSH. 

Scarf down my burger, am about to leave, when I realize I only have five dollars. Figure I should withdraw some cash, start fiddling with the ATM. A couple guys notice me struggling, start unplugging, replugging the machine.

Still not working. I’m all, Okay, got enough for the burger. Pay, am about to leave, when the young guy comes over and goes, Hey man, you don’t have a beer. Want a beer? 

I’m all, Sure! 

Put my pack down, have a seat, at the bar this time. Scott orders a round of Buds. We get to talking. And before I know it, he’s introducing me to his girl, the guys. His dad’s even there.

Scott keeps emphasizing my “courage,” going, What you’re doing is brave. I’d be scared shitless. He’s all, Haven’t you ever seen that TV show? Where the hitchhikers get murdered? Haven’t you run into any shady people? I tell him I haven’t, which, at least so far, is true, before jumping into the story of meeting Chad. To which Scott, alarmed, with near “no-homo” incredulity, is like, The fuck?! That sounds creepy as hell! Backtracking, I’m like, No, dude! He was a high school math teacher, he had a bunch of kids! And it’s not like he out of the blue went, Wanna come over to my house and sleep. Y’know, we started talking, and next thing you know … y’know? Scott’s like, No, I don’t. I would never pick up a hitchhiker. Even a guy like you? Clean-cut? By the side of the road? I’d be like, Fuck that. Not doing that!

Around the end of our respective second and maybe fifth beers, he’s like, Wait a sec, I’m going to D.C. tomorrow, for work, I could take you. To which his girlfriend’s like, That’s the wrong way, dummy! He’s going west. Scott’s like, He is? Right. But here I’m all, Waitaminute, thought you said you wouldn’t pick up anybody no matter what! He’s like, Oh, right, I did say that. But we’re talking! I know you now!

 

Monday, March 31

This tunnel I just walked through, the Paw Paw Tunnel. According to the sign: 3,118 feet. Pitch-black in there. 

It was built, turns out, by German and Irish immigrants, in the early 1800s. They only had shovels, wheelbarrows, and black gunpowder, which is apparently super unpredictable. Injuries and fatalities, according to the sign, were “commonplace.” Pass a tunnel-builder cemetery. So homies were just getting got. Basically, employers said, You get a few bucks a day, plus free meat and whiskey. So all these immigrants came through, probably hammered, tryna blow a hole into this mountain. It must’ve been like, Oh! There goes … Hans! Hans is down. Someone go fish out his body. 

I mean, it makes sense. They had to keep the canal going, and their options were to either wind around the mountain or blow a hole through it. 

Same time, y’all need to move those things from over there to over there that badly?

 

Tuesday, April 1

But so I’m walking along, a lot of the time with headphones in, mostly unaware of my surroundings. But every now and then, I’ll remove my headphones, focus on my breathing, and attune myself to the sounds around me. In those moments, I keep hearing, have for the past couple days, these little plops ahead of me. I’ll go, Hm. What was that? Then notice, on the surface of the canal water, concentric circles moving slowly outward, from where whatever made the plop plunged in. Unable to identify the source of the sound
though. 

At one point, after a plop so loud I for a moment think someone’s following me, throwing rocks in the water to fuck with me, I stop. Get up real close to the water. Just stare at it awhile. Sunny out, so I’m able to see beneath the surface. Can make out the outlines of some … bass maybe? So okay, maybe that’s it. But why would—? Like, bass, far as I know, don’t jump. 

Keep moving, but now looking ahead on the canal, in anticipation of the next plop. Start noticing these turtles—black, with dark, smooth, bituminous exteriors. Shiny, like freshly coated asphalt. Just sitting there, basking on logs. Maybe a mama turtle, a baby turtle, couple of homie turtles off to the side, all basking. And whenever they hear my approach—maybe my foot hits a stick, makes a noise—one of them jumps in, and the others immediately follow suit.

 

Lots of people fishing on the canal the closer I get to Oldtown, which I book it to on fumes. 

See OLDTOWN SCHOOL, an old, brick, rectangular building. On it a sign that reads FOOD. 

It’s a huge classroom, maybe the ex–band room, that’s been converted into a little makeshift café. 

Down a bunch of coffee. Then pie. Stare at my map, trying to orient myself big-picture. Decide I want to go through St. Louis, since that’s where my parents met; through Taos, New Mexico, because I’ve always wanted to; through Las Vegas, because how crazy would that be? Also mark all the places I’ve been: like, okay, I have been getting somewhere!

Once moving again, I’m charged up. Walk back to the parking lot marking the trailhead, through an empty baseball field. See a lady—middle-aged, purple hoodless sweatshirt tucked high on her waist into matching purple sweatpants. Straight gray hair. Organizing things in her trunk, against which her bike is leaning. 

We start talking. Beautiful out, innit? Stoked for this bike ride. Walked from Philly, huh? That’s pretty cool. Some pretty cool sandals ya got there, how’re those workin’ out for ya? Oh, thanks for asking, they’re doing the trick so far. 

Then: You have Bibles you’re handing out while you walk? I go, Bibles? She goes, How’s your relationship to Christ? I go, You know, went to Sunday school when real young. Got confirmed. Well, she says, you need to talk to God! Saved my life, once I started listening to the Lord. But you’re walking cross-country, and don’t have any Bibles?! Here, let me give you—rummaging through her trunk. I go, No, no, it’s quite all right. I gotta carry everything on my back. She goes, Okay, well here, let me give you a pocket Bible, hands me one. It’s laminated, on the cover is an image of a golden … rock slab I wanna say? 

 

Continue farther down the path. Start noticing that all the turtles, soon as I approach—stomping along, sure of my destination, insensitive to the creatures around me, to the fact that they might have different relationships to silence and stillness—keep jumping into the water. Noticing them in advance now. Like, when are they gonna jump in? Oka-a-ay now! And then they jump in.

I round a corner and see this turtle who’s about twice the size of all the others. Maybe a dad or grandmother turtle. Getting closer, craning my neck to see if she jumps in. She doesn’t. Getting closer, closer. Still not jumping. Almost past her now. Still hasn’t jumped in! I’m feet from her, on the shore of the canal. I kick the dirt. The turtle stays utterly motionless, like a rock. I start yelling, at first quietly, just, Argh! Nothing. Then: ARGH! Full-on bellowing. 

Still doesn’t jump in. 

Just sits where she is, like: I’m good here. 

 

When night falls, I successfully make a fire. It’s glorious. Stay up later than usual, watching the pages of the pocket Bible curl amid the flames. Guess all I needed, last night, when I failed to ignite my pile of waterlogged logs, was some kindling. 

 

Thursday, April 3

Midday now. Walking to La Vale, about five miles, on foot, from Cumberland. Warm out, but there’s a bit of a breeze, a prestorm wildness. Thunderstorms 100 percent set, according to the internet, to hit at 4 P.M. Heading for this movie theater. Gonna watch Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, try to bunker up, hide out from the storm.

 

The movie theater, turns out, is inside and part of a huge mall. The roads leading into it are an absolute clusterfuck to traverse on foot. No shoulders or sidewalks. 

The movie is slow, distractingly stylized, and gratuitously long. Perfect for maximizing my sheltered mall time. 

By the time I exit the mall, after traversing a damn independent municipality of a Walmart, it’s dark out. Before I’m even across the parking lot, a thunderclap resounds and it starts pouring buckets. Sprint down the escarpment at the lot’s outer perimeter with my head down. When it levels out again, I look up, and there’s an Econo Lodge right there.

Look, I’ve just accepted I’m gonna run out of money. Fact is, I’m feeling like I need to get a room at the goddamn Econo Lodge, so what I do is I get a room at the goddamn Econo Lodge.

Once settled, check in with Rosie. Some old dude has apparently been coming to the café expressly during her shifts. Has been harassing, possibly stalking her. Her manager finally eighty-sixed him, but has been trivializing the whole thing. 

I feel like I’m right there with her, right next to her, as she tells me this. I’m of course not. I’m sopping, disoriented, unsure what I even intend to do come sunup. I start going off on her. Who the fuck is this guy? Should I come back? Can’t you quit? She doesn’t need me to come back, she needs the money for rent, and she’s been walking home with a coworker whenever she closes. Just bummed about how her manager has been treating it is all.

I can’t wrap my head around this, this helplessness not being paired with some drastic, possibly violent action. I snap at her, saying I can’t—. I’ve gotta “do me” awhile. 

Hang up, throw on the parka, grab my laptop, and head downstairs, all set to stare at a screen and chain-smoke until I either feel better or pass out.

Go outside. Someone’s in my seat. On the smoking bench. 

No biggie, I’ll go around the corner and squat on the sidewalk.

The guy gets up, goes, Hey man, I’m about to leave. You can sit. 

I stop, take my headphones out, and, in exasperated parody of a “friendly person,” go, Aw thanks! So what brings you to town? 

This kid looks about my age. Sturdy frame, wavy hair.

He takes a drag, smirks, and goes, Actually, as it turns out, I’m trying to walk across America.

 

Friday, April 4

Andrew, twenty-four, is from Iowa City, where he studied literature and worked at a nursing home after graduating. He quit his job, flew out to D.C. to meet up with a friend who’d proposed taking a stab at walking across the country together. Three days in, she decided she wasn’t up for camping, so Andrew’s been rolling solo since.

Andrew’s walking mentality is workmanlike. Brisk clip, nonstop. Tough to keep up with, not least since he’s pushing all his gear in a cart with wheels, whereas I’m carrying all mine on my back. Each time he’s like, You good to keep walking? I’m like, Shoot, I don’t need to rest, you good? If not for our hourly smoke stops I’d be dunzo.

 

Saturday, April 5

The number of reference points Andrew and I share is almost disconcerting. We’re like, How is it possible we’re doing the exact same thing, at about the exact same amount of time since college, at about the exact same stage in our twenties? Coulda sworn we were the unique, original deciders of our respective destinies, rather than channeled along a specific preexisting cultural and literary path such that a quest like this is almost archetypically in order at this stage. 

Nonetheless, there’s no better walk fuel than this: discovering another person with overlapping interests, ranting to each other about them. 

 

Sunday, April 6

Still mountainous, a lotta ups and downs. Each time we stop, people are like, Man, y’all are walking west? Y’all got a huge mountain comin’. Three miles, straight up! Multiple corroborations. So with each incline, we’re like, Was that the mountain they were talking about? That wasn’t too bad. When we finally hit it, though—an absolute slog. People yelling shit out their windows like, Keep going! Some guy even honks this handheld horn at us, which he for some reason has on deck. Cheering us on. Or, maybe. I chose to interpret all honks as supportive.

 

Thirty or so minutes presundown we find ourselves on the lawn out front the Summit Inn. It’s still closed for the season. Venture down the hillside, off the highway. Alight on a camp spot. Figure it’s not too conspicuous since there are no guests, but we nonetheless stay vigilant since it’s still light out.

So much so that, when a guy shows, before even considering his attire and general demeanor for clues to possible motives for his arrival at the mountaintop, we immediately jump into a semi‑defensive mode, deeming the anomaly of his ambulatory arrival as cause enough to be like, Yo, what’s good with this dude? Best vet him. 

I head over, leaving Andrew to set up camp. 

Once in higher-focus eyeshot, observe that he’s barefoot. Straight white hair, down to his waist. I try to strike up a convo, like, Howdy! Howbout that, uh, sunset? He stays utterly unfazed though, intent as he is on doing whatever it is he’s doing.

Which, I learn, after standing there awkwardly for some time, is this thing sungazing. You stare directly at the sun, for as long as you’re able, in order to absorb the sun’s energy, incorporate it into your body. But apparently you’ve gotta build up your ocular tolerance, in ten-second increments per day, to avoid damaging your retinas. He’s been at it awhile. Tells me, without taking his eyes off the setting sun, barely blinking, hands behind his back, that he’s up to twenty-four minutes. Being barefoot apparently key to maximizing the energetic absorption into your bloodstream. Or however sunrays are absorbed.

All to say, the recon I bring back to base camp, where I find Andrew brushing his teeth, states conclusively that homie could give two shits about us sleeping out. 

I mean, I’m flossing, for Christ’s sake, Andrew adds. If anyone questions whether or not we belong, we’ll just say, Look. We floss. 

 

Monday, April 7

Once down the three-mile descent, hit a mammoth Walmart shortly thereafter, perched atop a hill. For rations, initially. 

On a whim, end up throwing down on a cart—one of those three-wheeled baby stroller / bike-trailer buggies that jogging moms, say, push their kids in. Andrew helps me assemble it out front, by the shopping carts. Parts strewn all over the sidewalk.

It’s a glorious come-up. Pushing it now, on the narrow shoulder of a single-lane highway. Rocking the reflective vest, copying Andrew, that I also copped. This sense of being able to stand upright, of not carrying the entire weight of my survival on my back—this is utterly new. Perspective-altering.

 

Thursday, April 10

The astoundingly priced carton of Reds (thirty-two dollars) I impulse-purchase immediately upon entering West Virginia, if nothing else, tangibly indicates our traversal into a new state, with a new set of taxation priorities. 

 

Friday, April 11

After a final night together in Lansing, walk the few miles with Andrew up until his turnoff, in St. Clairsville. Mood bittersweet but invigorating, as if we’re performing “autonomy” to each other. 

Couple of hours later, I stop for lunch, a Nutella-and-banana bagel, on a patch of roadside grass overlooking a creek. Mid–sammie assembly, hands a sticky mess, receive a call from Rosie, breaking our weeklong silence—since Cumberland, moments before meeting Andrew. Odd how that works—this reconnection just hours after I split with my temporary, surrogate partner. I’m excited and perhaps a little thirsty, how enthusiastic I am to hear from her. Ask how she is, this time genuinely ready to listen.

Put in my two weeks, she tells me, adding that she’s applied to a bunch of literacy-related nonprofit jobs, including one in the Bay Area. Not because of you, though, she’s quick to add. Hearing how proactive she’s become, I initially feel slightly guilty about my complete disregard for our shared future. But once I stop relating her projects to my own, take them on their own terms, her enthusiasm energizes me. 

 

Palm Sunday, April 13 

Enter Cambridge, I think on the “nice” side. Historic-looking. Houses quaint and I wanna say dainty, if enormous, some of them. Once downtown, spend way too long at McDonald’s, trying to figure out my taxes. Deadline’s right around the corner. Get stuck on “current mailing address.”

 

Tuesday, April 15 (Total Lunar Eclipse) 

Zanesville’s vibe is confusing, contradictory even: placards with historical facts and statues of horses and old American heroes everywhere, on the one hand, but then most of the people I see out and about in real time seem bummed out. Heavy. Lots of on-one tats, people in sweatpants and oversize tees, baggy sweatshirts, looking like they just woke up and stumbled outside to smoke their first cig, not giving a fuck about. I don’t know. Just an air of reckless, semiconfrontational nihilism all around. Infrastructural makeup overbearingly statuecentric, is maybe it. As if they, posted atop their plinths, are saying, Damn right we’re up here; we did shit, important shit you low-life fucks will never do.

 

Holy Wednesday, April 16

Get up early, manage to walk fifteen miles by early afternoon. Come 4:30 P.M., though, am pretty much done for the day, damn near falling asleep at the wheel. At the baby-stroller handle. Liable tah push mah baby into the road! But I’m of course on a goddamn highway, in central Ohio, so where the fuck am I gonna nap? Roadside? In the ditch?

Precisely! That’s exactly what I do.

 

Tuesday, April 22

To maintain pace; or, to resist increasingly pressing urges to power-nap roadside:

Technique number one: Imagine the white line dividing shoulder from road as a narrow rope bridge, or the top of a wall on which you are balancing. First: try not to fall off. Also: imagine the surrounding scenery, what’s effectively “down there,” as an ever-changing rotation of undesirable landing pads. Now it’s a jungle: see the trees, the predators lurking; smell the smells; paint the imagined scene as vividly as possible. Oh! It just changed. Now it’s an ocean: waves crashing violently against a jagged reef.

Technique number two: Fix your gaze on some point ahead. That curve in the road, that driveway, that telephone pole, say. Now imagine that point as an island. You just fell off your raft. You’re swimming, except your feet are your arms, each step one thrust in a concerted survival-related breaststroke. That island is your salvation. Repeat as necessary.

Technique number three (the most recently discovered, and I think the best yet): Make your body as languid as possible. Languid, but also upright; meaning, chest and back held straight, with your head erect on your shoulders, but with your arms loose and fluid. Push the cart with one hand, alternating as necessary, your off hand swinging back and forth. Imagine that, from the vantage point of someone looking at you in profile, your off arm is the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock. Meaning your arm must continue swinging, in rhythm with your steps, if Time is to continue. Meaning you, the Time-setter, have no choice but to continue (until the clock breaks).

 

Wednesday, April 23

Plunk down to rest on a bench out front a pizza joint in Lewisburg, last town before Indiana. Enter the shop to refill my jug. No one’s behind the counter, but a guy I can’t tell whether or not works there hops up, vaults over the counter, and says, I got you. Fills it up. Hands it back to me.

Head back outside. Light a cig. This same dude comes out, joins me. Asks where I’ve been, where I’m headed. High-strung, crazy energy. Starts telling me all about himself. 

When I on a whim go, Hey, wouldn’t happen to know of any places to camp up the road, would ya? Churches? Gazebos? he says, Naw, but there is a church in town that offers hot meals—tonight, actually, is the one night a week they do. Adding, Know what? Didn’t have a place to live for a minute there, really needed a spot to crash one night, so I talked to the pastor, who hooked me up with a voucher for the motel down the road. Pretty sure he’ll do that for you! Hm. Might try that, but thinking honestly that no matter how raggedy I look, don’t think I’m the person those voucher funds are intended for. 

I’m not twenty paces down the road when this same guy, Rick, catches up to me, goes, Hey, how about we walk over, dinner starts in an hour or so. I’ll introduce ya to the pastor. I go, Sure, why the fuck not? Meet ya over there, he says. Gonna drive. 

Rick arrives moments after I do. We convene in the parking lot. Enter the church together. All kinds of people are gathered, and not just the homeless. The elderly, middle-aged couples, kids. Seems like this is the happening spot in Lewisburg on Wednesdays.

Rick goes, Sit tight, gonna find the pastor. I join the food line. Strike up a convo with the lady behind me, who, upon getting her food, offers me a seat at her table. I join them once I fill my plate. Pasta salad, canned corn, green beans. Start talking to my tablemates. Then go, Hold up, where’s the drinks? I get up, start weaving my way through the room, taking in my surroundings. Pour myself a cup of water, look over to my left, and. Who do I fucking see. Sitting at a table. John. John! From way back! Looking just the same, a little tanner maybe. He stands up—all six foot six of him—and we hug it out, shoulder-slapping like, Look at you! 

 

Friday, April 25 (Major Rogation Day)

John, after a dinner of cold black beans and tuna next to a storm drain just past Dublin, goes, Hey, know what I sometimes think?

Nah, I say. What?

That I’m Jesus.

He goes quiet a sec, as do I, ears perked up, spine chilled all of a sudden. Ever think that?

Hm, I say, my head swimming, face clammy and hot, whether from the cigs or swamp fumes or general fatigue unclear. Honestly can’t say I have. What makes you think that?

I mean, I’m twenty-seven, John says. And twenty-seven is how old Jesus was when he started his travels, y’know?

I consider this. The crickets I could have sworn were just humming have gone silent. I take a breath, before hastily concluding: Well, shoot. Better enjoy it while it lasts—only got six years left!

 

Saturday, April 26

We’re not twenty minutes into our day’s walk, which we start, packed and moving, at 8 A.M. sharp, when a pickup pulls over. The driver’s all, Hey, headed two towns over, y’all want a lift? At first I’m like, Nah, we’re good. But then, upon seeing the look on John’s face, I’m reminded of the look he gave me way back in Pennsylvania, on that miserably cold day we ended up going separate ways—

It had been on-and-off snowing all day, we were soaked to the bone, when this friendly-seeming younger dude pulled over, offered us a lift into Lancaster. John clearly wanted to take it, but I declined, nonchalantly and perhaps not uncruelly saying, “I’m good, but you should.” What felt most shitty though was not the fact that I now had to continue walking in the snow, nor even that my presence encouraged John to bypass the lift. It was, rather, the kindness and kinship John conveyed in how he said “You don’t want to? I won’t either,” combined with the realization that, somewhat, somewhere deep down, I’d wanted him to take the lift, in order to establish myself as the Most Out-There Walker. This realization, that I’d been somewhat flexing on John, that there were latent suspect elements to why I sought to walk in the first place, is what really fucked me. Possibly contributed to me feeling like I needed to go my own way later that day, just to parse through what I was even feeling.

Not wanting to repeat that mistake this time around, say Fuck it.

 

John rides shotgun while I sit in the flatbed, holding down the carts. Suddenly no longer an ant on an endless, senseless climb, instead looking back at all these drivers staring at me like, The fuck? Or maybe they aren’t; maybe riding flatbed is totally commonplace in Indiana. 

Ten minutes or eight miles later, reducing our day’s goal from a ridiculous thirty-three to a doable twenty-five miles, the driver, a fifty-something-year-old logger guy, drops us off at a gas station. Ends up giving us a couple bucks and a little baggie of weed.

He just gave it to you? How’d that even go down? I ask.

No, yeah, John says. Right before pulling over, he’s all, You guys party? To which I’m all, Yeah!

Over dinner, John says, Dude, don’t think I can make it through Indy with you tomorrow. Just gonna take my time and figure it out as I go. I tell him, All good. 

Realizing this will likely be our last night together, decide it’s only fitting we indulge in some of the herbal remedies endowed upon us earlier. 

I’m fine, being moderately stoned. Initially at least. Once I retire to my tent, suddenly realize that all the trees around have fallen—are falling. The two directly above me, in fact, are creaking. One of them is leaning precipitously against the one across from it. Stay up half the night peeking out of my tent to see if they’re about to fall. As if I’d have the reaction time, stoned and exhausted, to jump out of the way in time.

 

Sunday, April 27

I’m up and ready to hit the road at seven on the dot. Exchange contact information with John and start booking it into Indianapolis. 

Goes exactly as expected; exactly according to all my fears.

Downtown feels like New York City—Pacers arena right there, hordes of tourists, people in suits. Feel naked, weaving through crowds in short shorts, tiny runner’s tank, sandals. Like I’m in a loincloth. Make it past the city zoo, into West Indianapolis, where, suddenly unable to handle the intensity of late-day traffic, busted roads, confusing intertwined networks of on- and off-ramps, I cave.

Get a motel with about eight miles of city proper to go. Do end up logging 26.8 miles though—first walk day exceeding a marathon.

 

Monday, April 28 

Stop at a McDonald’s to hide out from the thunderstorm that’s set to hit. I’m not there thirty minutes when who do I see stumble through the entrance but John. It’s been so many times now I’m not even surprised. I’m just like, Oh, hey, what’s up, man? He ended up taking a bus for a dollar fifty all the way through Indy—that whole marathon I walked took him less than an hour. He camped right by the McDonald’s. 

 

Tuesday, April 29

John’s asleep when I get up, is still asleep once I’ve breakfasted and broken down camp. So tell him, through his mesh tent door, Meet down the road in St. Louis maybe, yeah? 

Around 2 P.M., just shy of Stilesville, see a white-haired shorter guy up ahead and on the opposite side of the highway, walking out to his mailbox. Checks the box, then just stands there, watching me. I half wave; he beckons me over. Once in earshot, he asks what I’m up to. I tell him. He nods, asks if I’m hungry. Says, I could make ya a ham sandwich.

We walk the hundred or so feet down the driveway to his farmhouse. Turns out he, Charles, owns most all the cornfields in the vicinity. Grew up right down the road. 

Saw ya walking earlier, he says, watching me eat. Gotta be careful though, he continues. ’Bout a year ago, there was a guy who was walking across the country for Jesus, Pacific to Atlantic. He’d made it all the way—Charles points over at a bend in the road—to that little truck pull-off. Right there. From the Pacific! Till one night, or early one morning—while still dark out—Bam! Hit by a semi. Died instantly. 

Damn, I say, through a mouthful.

That’s too intense for me, man, he says, shaking his head. Walking for Jesus? Then die for Jesus?! 

 

Wednesday, April 30

Trying to figure out why I’ve been such a cop when it comes to my walking mode, my schedule, my habits. Why I for a third time insisted on parting ways with John probably prematurely, before I learned all I could from him. 

John’s habitual MO—take Time, stay present, enjoy the ride. Something about it disrupts, or at least fails to sync squarely with, my established routine. All of John’s stories about people helping him. Part of me is like, Yo, how is he getting so many rides? Like sure, the majority of offers I’ve gotten I’ve turned down. But honestly still feel slighted for not getting them. 

Part of it has got to be: I’ve got a traffic vest on, I’m pushing a stroller, hauling ass, a focused look on my face. People have got to be like, Okay, that dude looks intense, I don’t even know what he’s up to. Whereas John’s got the guitar, the sombrero, the backpack with all the gear, just idling along—immediately signals “Wanderer Guy,” nonthreatening.

But it’s his outlook also. Of letting things happen … 

Can’t help but sense something reactive or performative in how adamantly I’m trying to instill a sense of “rigor” into my walk-grind. I mean, I’m after all choosing a life-mode that most who wander highways, who drift, are forced into. 

John is utterly unconcerned with how accepting aid makes him appear. He’s not clinging to any fixed image of himself. Especially not an image as some paragon of autonomy. 

I lie to myself about the ways I’m supported—by strangers, by family, not to mention Rosie, who fields my calls and pleas for comfort whenever, even if I, pleading circumstance, don’t reciprocate—because …

Because why actually?

 

Thursday, May 1

Midafternoon, a car pulls into the shoulder and the driver, over his partly rolled-down window, says, You okay? Need help? Nah, I say, defensive.

Before adding, Well actually—know of any camp spots in walking distance? The driver tells me Hawthorn Park, just up the road, accessible via a scenic, cars-prohibited bike path that runs adjacent to the congested, shoulderless roadway I’ve been trudging along on. 

No shit, I say. Good looks.

Stars are aligning, I think, and feel chipper.

 


Home page image: W. Eugene Smith, from Jazz Loft in issue no. 190, Fall 2009.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Terre Haute is on the border of Ohio and Indiana.