Lonely in a Crowded Room

Where do I sleep? Who do I meet? What does it feel like to walk across America?

When I set out for this trek and committed to this project, I was blindly confident in my mental and physical aptitude to succeed. I’d climbed some of Europe highest peaks,  I’d survived motorcycle accidents, been threatened at gunpoint, and herded sheep from a remote pasture in the Austrian Alps. Walking didn’t seem like such a daunting task after all.

So, what could phase me?

Well, there is a reason why fewer people have completed a transcontinental journey across this country than have climbed the tallest mountain on earth, Mt Everest.

This walk is relentless, it’s grueling, it’s unforgiving, and it’s mental and physical agony like you’d never imagine.

I walk about 20 miles per day.

By mile eight I am ready for bed.

Chicago... this is like walking from Navy Pier to O’Hare Airport every day for the next seven months. But between, there are no people, no restaurants, and sometimes... no WIFI!

In early May, farmers on the eastern shore were just beginning to soil their crops, waiting for today, three months later as I walk through the soy-bean-and-corn-lush Flint Hills of central Kansas

Every three miles I break.

The blisters on my feet begin to resurface from last night. The bugs begin sucking my blood for the next several hours. 

Near mile 14 the sun seems to lay still on the horizon perfectly between my eyes, and burning through the thighs of my pants.

I begin to drift.

Head down, peripherals non existent, a mindless beast. The cars come so close I imagine dangling an arm into traffic with half-hearted hopes for a week of pampering in a nearby hospital.

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If I recall correctly it was four days into my walk near Greenwood DE when I fell faint to the heat. Luckily a local landscaping operation woke me up with a few bottles of water.

There are rarely legs of my voyage worth calling pleasant. But at those indifferent moments I’ll put in a few calls to the local press, mayors office, or prospective donors. During the course of those conversations however, I get showered with gravel from a dump truck, or rain from a hovering cumulus. 

In trying times I call my Aunt. That requires much less concentration. She can ramble for hours. I don’t even need to listen, its just nice to have conversation from home.

I can picture her situation...

And whatever it is, it’s more enjoyable than mine. She’s drinking earl grey from a mid-century floral print tea cup; and watching foreign mysteries on her subscription to the MHZ Network. Four hours later I’ll call back because I literally forgot it was the same day the last time we spoke.

Typically I arrive in small and scarcely populated farming community just before dusk. At one intersection, usually the only intersection, there are 360-degree views of the entire town. The gas station, church, liquor store, diner, and dollar store. No hotels, no campgrounds, and with typically under 1,000 people not much networking bandwidth for accommodation.

In cases like this I’ve slept in a barn, a fishing boat, a park, the sidewalk under an overhang in case of weather, and the bathroom of a 24-hour diner to name a few.

I awake to itching and burning from the knees down. Larger welts usually burn from the sun poisoning and the smaller brail-sized bites itch and bleed from the insects.

Is that a large scab or a tick? Ringworm or a mosquito bite? Long term health risk or can I keep going?

Where am I going to sleep tonight?

Shit my credit card bill is due…

Damnit stop calling me dad! I’m busy! Look at the website for updates!

I try to maintain short term and realistic goals. Next gas station is 5.6mi down the road… the hilltop up ahead… etc. I don’t look at a map larger than the state I’m in. Literally one day at a time.

Once per week I find sanity in a proper city, which usually means it has a Walmart. I’m able to shower, wash clothes, and usually find a mattress that smells like cigarettes and cheap perfume.

Finding a town with a Walmart I’d imagine must be similar to the feeling Columbus had when discovering the New World…finally a place with cheesecake and a coke. Now add a few thousand people and a Mexican restaurant; alas America!

This is where I can re-center and come to sorts. Most of these “relevant” communities have a ministerial committee which receives state funding for idiots like me in “extenuating circumstances” needing short term accommodation. Basically, at the discretion of the church, a director or tenured pastor can make the decision to put me up for a night in a local motel if they deem my situation worthy.

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The best part about this is I’m able to spend time with the hosting pastor outside of the church; usually over breakfast the next morning. Because I didn’t come from a family of strong faith, it’s been so enlightening for me to hear their opinions and ideas on restoring safety and gaining the trust of young people in a broken community.

In Princeton, IN I met a family of pastors at a local steakhouse. Just as often times, I’m the center of speculation as soon as I make my entrance. I try to decide on a seat as fast as I can before more people glare my way.

Many recognize me from their morning commute to work, or on the way home from work, or both. Construction workers usually pass six to eight times per day back and forth from sites between towns. Police 10-12 times at least. None of these people know me. They just see my struggle and want to know my story. This is the most humbling part of my journey.

There is nothing more miserable than doing what I do every day but it all becomes worth it in the end because of people like Pastor Langer and his family.

“Come here son,” he says, motioning with his index finger. At this point I’m thinking to myself, are you gonna yell at me for walking in the middle of the road? But that’s never the case. He says, “Son I’ve seen you 9 times today walking route 15, do you mind telling me what the hell you’re doing?”  And after a long conversation, they pay my meal, find me a place to stay, and a week later donate to my cause and dedicate a sermon to my efforts.

It’s not just the ministry who helps. There are others who put me up themselves, invite me in to their homes, serve me breakfast, and do my laundry as if I were their own.

Andrew Chupp, a chef from Greenwood, DE and his brother-in-law Pedro, a Guatemalan coffee roaster put me up in the family camper. We stayed up until midnight and I learned the real craft of pour over coffee.

I was freaked out when Brandt Kindness approached me from the backseat of a small hatchback on a windy road in Crofton, MD. He’d hiked the Appalachian Trail and identified with my adventure so he offered to do my laundry, give me a couch, and just share stories and conversations about life.

A journalist in southern Indiana heard my story and wanted to meet me. Later I found out he just wanted to open up about similar struggles in his own life.

A young, vibrant, and social family of musicians and artists not only bought me dinner but sat down to share in conversation and offered a ride back to my campground.

And how could I forget my good friend Wesley. Oh Wesley. To make certain I was in best mental condition, not only did he feed me the freshest Amish dairy, but Wesley shuttled me back and forth every day from the beginning and end of my daily trek to his 3-flat in Frostburg, MD.

He lives there with his family and uses the other two floors for guests. He’s made a life of helping professionals deal with anxiety and achieve success. So he purchased a farm in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania where he plans to cultivate an intentional community of soul searchers from across the globe to implement his craft.

People have vowed a newfound commitment to Sunday Mass, the beginning of a new career in motivational speaking, a trip to rehab, or likewise a walk for a cause. And that's what this is ultimately about. Taking ownership of the issues going on across the country and finding a way to make a stride toward improving your community.

From the Atlantic Ocean in Lewes, DE, to the Gateway Arch across the Mississippi...

This is bit of what its like to walk across America.