Sunday. March 17. 2013.
Walking. It’s the only thing left to do.
Garth and I recently left our Guerrilla camp in the Tuscon desert to visit his brother, Chris, and sister-in-law, Keri. We’d planned to look for “real” jobs and save up some money to buy a van. Living in a van is one of the few vagabond trips he and I have not yet attempted (altho we did live in a truck in Alaska for a summer). Owning things is complicated for us.
We soon found that getting “real” jobs just wasn’t an option for us anymore. We have horrible job histories and we can’t do that thing… that thing where you go into a place like Lowe’s or Kmart and you put on some lousy fake smile and wear clothes you wouldn’t normally wear and act like you give a shit about things that don’t matter. The idea of waking up to an alarm, putting on polo shirts, khakis and name tags, clocking in… that just doesn’t work for us anymore. We live in a different universe. One where lots of truths other people don’t want to see are so glaringly visible that nothing seems worth doing.
“There’s this thing I’ve always wanted to do,” I said to Garth.
We were sitting on Keri and Chris’ comfortable living room couch, watching their huge flat screen TV, drinking coffee.
“I want to start walking and then do whatever comes up. Like if we’re walking and someone offers us a ride, we just say yes, and we go wherever they’re going. And if someone offers us work, we can do it for a few days, or until we get sick of it, then we can leave. But that’s the only way we’d ever make money. We wouldn’t go looking for jobs.”
“Okay,” he said.
Garth is the person I never thought I would meet. No one else in the universe would just say Okay to that kind of proposition. Especially if they only had $4 to their name. We would be sleeping in the woods, in our tent, and who knows how we would eat. The little backwoods towns along Highway 100 promise no soup kitchens. And we refuse to get food stamps. We want nothing to do with the government.
But this “Yes Trip” is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve been on the road for eight years now, and from an outside perspective, it probably looks like this is what I’ve been doing all along. But such is not the case. I’ve always had somewhere I wanted to be and I had to be there by a certain date. I had to be in Humboldt County at harvest season. I had to be in St. Louis for Obama’s campaign speech. I had to be in Annapolis for the boat show. Etcetera, etcetera. On my way to each of those places, there were many side roads I could’ve taken, but I stuck to my plan. I missed out on things. But now, there is absolutely nothing I want to do. I am completely free. And all I want to do is walk.
This worked out for all three of us, it turns out. Joe, who walked from Raleigh to Atlanta with Walkupy, had come to visit us. He’d been with us at Chris and Keri’s for a week. He was in Pennsylvania with his dad for months and finally decided he had to get out. So he took a Greyhound to St. Louis for $150, and a taxi to Alton for $68. Personally, I would’ve slept in the Greyhound station and taken the first city bus to Alton the next morning for $3, but maybe he was just that excited to see us. He’s kind of new to the road. He’s only 23.
“Have you ever lived outside?” I asked him. “Besides Walkupy?”
“When I was about 6, me and 3 of my younger brothers and sisters lived out of a dumpster,” he said. “My father abused and neglected us, so I basically took care of them.”
Joe hasn’t had the easiest life. He went from one foster home to another until the age of 13, when his current father adopted him. He doesn’t even know what happened to his eight siblings. He went into the army after age 18 and got shot in the ass. They discharged him because, although he could still walk, the bullet was so close to his spine that they didn’t want to “take any risks.” He was in the hospital recovering for a year. He doesn’t get any help from the government or the VA because he was on active duty for less than 90 days. What a great system we have.
Anyway, he decided he’d come visit us and just do whatever we decided to do.
So on Sunday morning, after eating pancakes, folding up the air mattress and saying goodbye to Chris and Keri, who have taken care of Garth and I many a time since I met him, the three of us set out walking thru the suburbs of Alton, Illinois. Snow was falling. I was wearing every layer of clothing I own. We passed a house where a young fellow sat picking a guitar on his porch. He waved to us, asked where we were headed, asked if we were hungry. His name was Jordan. We talked with him and his girlfriend, Sarah, on their lawn for a few minutes.
This is what I like about walking. When people see you doing it, they get so excited. You don’t have to have a message, a gospel, to shove down their throats. You just have to show them that it’s possible to be free and see the world, even if you have no money. It’s like they’re seeing something they thought did not exist anymore, and they’re so glad it does, because they wanted to touch it before it died. Starting a walk with a meeting like this is a good omen. It means we’re doing the right thing. The right thing for us.
We walked a couple miles, passed the Famous Fast Eddie’s, and stopped at McDonald’s for a cheeseburger. Garth and I spent our last $4. Joe had a few of his own, plus food stamps, with which he had very generously fed Garth and me for the past week, while Chris and Keri were on vacation. We hadn’t even walked that far yet, but already the feeling of taking off the pack and sitting in a chair was the nicest thing ever, like a drug. An ancient black man sat in the corner, muttering to himself about Red China, Yellow China and the fact that both Clinton and Obama were apparently born in one of the two.
By the time we left McDonald’s, Garth and I had only a few cents in change left. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see the Mississippi. I couldn’t wait to be next to the river. I liked the idea of doing something so timeless as just following a river. The Mississippi runs through a lot of stories. I liked that it would now weave thru mine and I would be connected to all that ancient muddy madness.
When we finally caught a glimpse of it, on the edge of Alton, snow was still falling on it’s brown waters. The Argosy Casino did the can-can on its banks, dressed in rainbow skirts, waving neon rainbows, showing its knickers to the world. Just after that, we passed a big white factory with a an American flag and the words “Welcome to Alton” painted on its towers, and we stepped onto Highway 100.
“This will go on for miles and miles,” Garth said.
Like Kerouac, the idea of “following that single red line across the country” really appealed to me.
As we walked, cliffs rose up on our right. Tug boats hugged the river’s bank on our left. We took a break next to a pond after a while. It was half-sheltered by a wall of cliffs on one side. Forest hemmed in the other. The water was clear, tinted green. Joe and Garth and I sat on the rocks, staring into the water. It was silent. Snow flakes made rings on the surface. Starting out again, we noticed a warning sign that said 6 people had died in that lake. On our next break, about a hundred pelicans came floating down the river.
“Easier than flying,” Garth mused.
In Godfrey, we found a playground with bathrooms. The men’s had a heater, so the three of us ducked in and sat there for a while to dry off and get warm. By the time we came back out, it was afternoon and the snow had turned into rain. Rain is worse than snow, in my opinion. It gets you wet faster. It soaks right in instead of brushing off.
We walked for a couple more hours, until we came to a bridge. Underneath, there was a huge flat platform that stretched out twenty feet before dropping down to the river in a steep slope. It was perfect. We ducked underneath and threw our bags down. We spread out tarps and sleeping bags. It was completely dry. Rain fell in torrents from the bottom of the bridge and into the river. Wasps nests and cobwebs stuck to the walls around us.
Joe and Garth went to a gas station and bought BBQ chicken. It had been sitting around all day and no one was buying it, so they gave us a huge amount for a really low price. Joe made a fire under the bridge, throwing hand sanitizer and lighter fluid on it to get the wet logs to flame up, and we cooked Ramen to go with the chicken. A raging storm shook the Earth, splitting it with lightening, rattling it with massive peels of thunder. I felt safe under our bridge.
Sleeping on cement isn’t easy. But we were tired enough to do it. That’s another thing I like about walking.