Monday, September 29, 2008

Lee's Summit

It didn't take long to get from Baldwin City to Lee's Summit.  I didn't leave very early Monday, not until around one, but once I started walking I made good time.  Just a few minutes after it got dark enough to turn on my headlamp I was accosted by two men as I walked by their driveway.
"Whatcha doing?" says one, who wears torn jeans and a construction worker's orange vest that glints in the blue beam from my forehead.
"Just walking."
"Never seen anybody through here, before.  You lost?"
"Don't think so.  I'm headed toward Olathe, right?"
"Yup."  The two men look at each other.  Each has a beer in his hand.  They shrug and chuckle giddily.  "Well, pleasant walking to you."  I nod and start off, but before I'm fifty feet up the road they call me back.
"Want a beer?"
I don't actually want a beer, no.  I've never seen any appeal.  (Nor am I of legal age, of course) But I do get lonely quite a bit, on the road, and I've pretty much decided to take whatever chances at conversation seemingly friendly people want to offer.  So I head back.
They lead me out back of the house, where their wives are sitting at a picnic table, chatting loudly.  Introductions are made and they fish out a Dr. Pepper from somewhere, and for an hour we sit and talk.
When I leave the house it's going on ten, and I only make it another couple of miles before pulling over, Olathe's bright lights just up the road, across the ditch and under a couple of big trees.
In the morning I start fairly early, get into Olathe and find some donuts and apple juice at a 7-11, and weave my way through the various, southern suburbs of Kansas City, toward Lee's Summit.  Somewhere along the way I cross into Missouri, and after 26 days leave Kansas behind.  
I was pleasantly surprised by the Sunflower State.  The endless flatlands did, indeed, end.  The feed lots came and went and I stayed a lot more comfortable than the cows.  Eastern Colorado had more mosquitos, and more heat - by the time I got to Kansas it had cooled off.  And I did, sure enough, see quite a few fields full of sunflowers.  All in all, not as bad a state to walk across as I once thought it could be.
My uncle Lynn (father's side) and his wife Barbara live in the far south-east suburb called Lee's Summit.  I don't remember the last time I was at their house - probably at a Thanksgiving, sometime.  I find the house, now, with the help of a local.  Just a few blocks away something goes wrong with my backpack and everything swings off to one side.  I unstrap and as I'm trying to figure out what's wrong a little, red pickup pulls over and a window rolls down.  
"Where you headed?"
Just up the street, I tell him, and he offers a ride.  I figure that it's a good idea, and throw the backpack in his truck.  Three or four streets later we turn onto fourteenth, and I recognize the house at the end of the row.  Jefff with three f's is his name, and he drops me off and waits to make sure it's the right house.  I ring the doorbell and when Barbara appears and welcomes me inside, Jefff hops out of his truck and wants to know my name, before driving away.
I've been here almost a week, now, and it's wonderful.  I've taken more showers and eaten more home-cooked meals in the last several days than I have in a month.  It's been good, too, to catch up with relatives I haven't seen in a long time.  I've read four books, since I've been here - all Grisham novels - and each morning I get to read the newspaper and drink coffee.  It's amazing, to me, how satisfying such little things have become.
But I'm leaving in the morning, heading back out on the road.  If I didn't have any experience in leaving things behind I'd be scared to death.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Baldwin City

I left Marion around noon, and walked through a hot day. Made it twenty five miles into Strong City, for the night.
The scenery is really changing, now. Out of the flat plains, the feed lots and cornfields, have risen rolling hills and copses of trees. There is an abundance of little streams and stillwater pools along the road, and the hills are green.
From Strong City I walked north, up through the Tallgrass Prarie National Preserve. Another hot day, but plenty of places to sit and rest in the shade. Eighteen miles brought me into Council Grove, where I quickly found the library, and then, after leaving, met Steve Hanson.
A man pulled up to the sidewalk and hollered at me from his truck, wanting to know where I was headed and what I was doing, and we talked for a while on the sidewalk, outside the barber shop. After a few minutes he introduced me to the barber, a younger man named Derrick, and shortly took us across the street to a little Mexican restaurant.
After eating we went back across to the barber shop, and I played a song on Derrick's piano, there, before some students arrived to take lessons.
Steve invited me to stay the night at his house, as we left the barber shop.
'You'd be more than welcome. I just need to run home and let my wife know that you're coming. I'll meet you back here in an hour or so.'
I sat outside the barber shop and listened to Derrick give a mandolin, and then a fiddle lesson, the music coming out the open door and into the street.
When the lessons were nearly finished, Steve came back up the street, and when Derrick closed the shop the three of us walked to Steve's house. His wife, Leah, a fifth grade teacher, welcomed me and the four of us watched 'America's Got Talent' before switching to CNN.
I stayed the night on the couch, and woke up early in the morning, but didn't leave town for a long time. After saying goodbye to Steve and Leah I ate breakfast in a little bakery downtown, then walked back up the street to the library and spent a few hours looking at an American Sign Language dictionary and reading Hilary Clinton's 'It Takes a Village.'
I didn't leave Council Grove until five o'clock, and only made it seven or eight miles before putting up my tent in the ditch.
The next day I started early. Walked through the little towns of Allen and Admire and ate a spaghetti soup lunch by a little creek. It took me until nine thirty in the evening to reach the town of Osage, and I slept beneath a timber town in the city park, a thirty mile day behind me.
Saturday I walked through Burlingame, and Scranton, and stayed near the road a little before Overbrook, and then yesterday I walked all the way into Baldwin City.

My spirits are good, on the whole. I feel motivated, feel like I'm making ground, and my feet aren't bothering me too much. But I've been getting a little bogged down, lately, by something that I can't quite place. It's kind of a spinning feeling, like a hamster on his hamster wheel, or something close. I feel like every day is becoming too similar to the last, like every town is too similar to the one before. The grocery stores and the 7-11s have somehow lost their glamour.
I think that this is in part because there are more towns, now, than there were before, and it's almost too easy to get from one to the other. The fifty mile stretches of nothingness are over, the careful rationing of water and jelly sandwiches is over, and the incredible, sometimes painful, sense of distance, seems over. It's not a constant feeling, by any means, nothing that's got me down, on the whole. Just something that's starting to creep in around the edges.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


The first night out from Great Bend I only walked ten miles, into the little town of Ellinwood, and slept next to a Methodist church. In the morning I woke up to an odd scraping sound, and pulled my head out from the sleeping bag in time to see a lady walking to a car, nearby. 'Nothing scary, it's just breakfast,' she called, and drove away. A tinfoiled plate sat nearby, with magic marker writing on the top. 'Enjoy breakfast. Have a great day. God bless. -Ellinwood Lady'. Inside I found half a loaf of zucchini bread - a favorite.
I walked in sun throughout the day, past cornfields and wind farms. By five in the evening I reached the town of Lyons, and stocked up on Ramen at the Dollar General before finding a library.
Around nine, the sky started misting, and I set up for the night in an alcove outside the local museum. Just having crawled in, the police stopped in front and found me with their flashlights. 'Uh-oh. Can't sleep here, man. This place has a really funky alarm system, and somebody across the street already called us, saying you were up here. Gonna have to move down to the park.' They're actually really nice guys, and seem to regret making me leave, but insist that the park has a good spot to stay dry, if it rains.
So I pack up, head down the street in the drizzle, and set up again under a picnic shelter.
It starts raining heavily soon after I crawl inside the sleeping bag, and continues throughout the night. The concrete floor of the shelter started to fill up pretty early on, and I moved my things up onto the tables, and moved my pad to a different spot, but the water crept there, too, while I was asleep, and I woke up fairly wet. I moved a third time, essentially back to where I started, and managed to get some sleep.
Still raining heavily, in the morning, I found a laundromat and stuck the sleeping bag in a dryer for half an hour, then sat and watched the weather channel on the twelve inch t.v. above the pop machine. A spot that I didn't vacate for a good majority of the day. When I did leave, I threw the poncho over my pack, and made it back to the library, where I read a book on card tricks and another about Harry Houdini.
By evening the rain had let up, but I wasn't going anywhere, with the weather channel's forecast in my head. I slept under the picnic shelter, again.
In the morning the skies were practically clear, though the forecast had called for solid rain. Having eaten breakfast, I headed out.
I didn't see so much as a cloud for the majority of the day. The twenty nine mile stretch between Lyons and McPherson was warm and dry, and I made good time. In town I found a Wendy's, and played solitaire and practiced my newly acquired card tricks until it got dark, and then tried to find a place to sleep. The police (sounding familiar) found me fairly quickly, walking down the sidewalk.
'Where you headed, guy?'
'Looking for a place to stay the night. Where would you suggest?'
'What did you have in mind?'
'Just someplace to put up a little tent, or something.'
'We could write you a park permit, if you want.'
So they give me permission, in written form, no less, to camp in a nearby park. I set up my tent, play a few rounds of frisbee golf, and then turn in for the night.
I didn't leave McPherson very early in the morning. I wanted to use a library, but being Sunday the hours were bad (2:00 - 5:00) so I waited around all morning. The weather had also turned a little sour, with a strong, cold wind blowing down from the north, and I didn't know if rain was headed my way. But by the time I'd used the library, the sun was back out and the wind had died down, and I made my way out of town.
I stopped for the night just before the town of Hillsboro and camped by the road, then walked a shorter day into Marion, yesterday.
Last night, in another picnic shelter, the sprinklers found me again. Around midnight I woke up to the terrible sound, and quickly found myself drenched. The sprinklers aren't positioned perfectly, so even in the middle of the shelter the spray hit me, and my things, fully. I dragged everything to a far corner that was staying dry, and tried to get back to sleep, but failed. Roughly an hour later, the first section turned off, another turned on, and I got the reverse spray. Moved again. Cursed again.
But as Michael and I joked on the phone, I might be able to make good of my experiences. I could - say - go into the sprinkler business, with my adept ears. For instance: 'That sprinkler sounds a little weak off of the 180 turn, there, ma'am. Best let me take a look at it.' Or: 'Sounds like your intake valve is a little clogged, ma'am. Best let me clean it out for you.'
You never know.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Great Bend

I left Garden City Tuesday morning. Bill drove me out to the edge of town and I started walking. I made good time, though I didn't start early, and walked through the evening and into the early morning before getting to the town of Cimarron and camping in a park by the river.
Wednesday I stayed around town for the first half of the day, and then made it to the outskirts of Dodge and slept behind a hotel.
The weather had started turning as early as Monday, but not until Thursday did it produce anything. I stayed all day in Dodge - mostly at the library and wandering through the mall - and slept behind a church, where the rain found me. I had a wet night, but dried off in the laundromat the next day, and waited around some more for the weather to clear up. It didn't, and I stayed in Dodge all day, then finally decided to walk around nine in the evening. I made five miles before putting up my tent near the ditch, and stayed drier than the previous night, when the rain came, again.
Saturday I started walking early in the day. Made it to the little town of Spearville in good time and got some groceries, then walked another twelve miles on the day to get into Offerle, and slept in a picnic shelter. Another night of rain, and some hail thrown in, but I stayed dry.
Sunday I walked to Kinsley in the morning, and stayed practically all day. I visited the local museum and played solitaire for three hours at the gas station. In the late evening I started walking, again, northwest on Highway 56 - the first time I've left 50 since home.
I pushed on through wind and rain until two in the morning, and took shelter in the town of Garfield, outside the co-op building, a mile short of 2000, on the whole.
Yesterday I crossed the 2000 line, and walked to Larned, in the morning, and then holed up through the day. I found a piano at the community building and played for a couple of hours, then shot a basketball in the gym. In the evening I found a laundromat, and washed a load of clothes before making dinner. As I finished eating, still in the laundromat, a policeman came inside and said that some lady had driven up outside and seen me and freaked out, and that he was seeing what I was doing.
"Are you doing laundry, sir?" I said that I did some earlier, but that I was done.
"Well, sir, technically, when you've done your business here and then stay around, it's considered loitering." He continues to tell me that I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing, and then decides it's best for me to get a ride to Great Bend for the night.
"I can't really picture any place you could stay, here in town," he says. "I'll call the county and they'll get you a ride up into Great Bend." He seems pretty set on the idea. I don't know what to say, because he doesn't seem to understand when I tell him that I can find a place to stay in town, and he still seems to be thinking about charging me with loitering. Eventually he puts me in the cop car and drives me out to the edge of town and drops me by the road and promises that the 'S.O.' will be coming in ten or fifteen minutes.
I sit for an hour, in the cold, and no one shows up, and so I start walking. In the three hours it takes me to get to the next town I see three sherrif's vehicles (or the same one three times) but none of them stop, and so I keep going until Pawnee Rock, where I find a picnic shelter to spread out under for the night.
This morning I made it the last thirteen miles from Pawnee into Great Bend. The weather is finally clearing up, and I walked in sunshine.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Garden City

I'm staying, now, in Garden City. My parents emailed me, a few days ago, with a possible contact here - Danna and Bill Jones - and gave me their number to call, and I did. When I got to the edge of town, yesterday, Danna came and picked me up and took me back to their house. I showered and cleaned up, and after a while we went out to eat at a local Mexican place. Danna works at the animal shelter, here in Garden City, and one of her fellow workers, Tony, and his girlfriend Heather met us for dinner.
Afterwards, we all came back to the house and Bill showed us his classic cars and we ate peach pie, and put Build a Bear sweaters on their chihuahuas.

There seems to be a balance, out here on the road. As if someone has perched me up on a weighted scale, and watches to see that I don't spend too long swinging one way or the other. Not that they keep me steady, but that when the balance takes a shift they swing me about. A mediocre day is mediocre all the way through, whereas a good morning might have a bad night, or a great night might be the result of a terrible morning. Whatever the weight, its opposite is applied to bring me back to level.
I crossed into Kansas on Thursday. Ate dinner in the little town of Coolidge and walked until ten, then pulled over in the ditch. In the morning I made it to Syracuse. Found a gas station and had breakfast, then watched a movie at the Hamilton County Library. I didn't leave town until five thirty in the afternoon, when the heat seemed to be dropping away. Within an hour, just a few miles out, clouds started rolling in behind me, and lightning started to flare in the west. Another hour and the rain was blowing in, and the thunder was all around. I pulled off in the ditch, when the lightning seemed too close, and pulled my poncho over everything, and spent the next few hours with rain pounding through and lightning touching my ears. And I got lonely. Got really lonely. Sitting in a ditch, wet and cold in a thunderstorm, two hundred and some odd miles from home. Lonely lonely lonely.
When the storm finally let up I shivered away the cold and started walking. Made another ten or twelve miles in the dark, with the headlights of passing cars gleaming, and the white line running away, forever to the east.
In the morning I walked to Lakin. The sun came out and turned all of the puddles into heat, and it seemed absurd to think of the cold, just the night before. When I got to town I found a gas station and drank through 44 ounces of Lemonade/Dr. Pepper mix and ate two blueberry muffins and a man came over to talk, as I sat. Latino, fairly thin, a short goatee and a blue baseball cap.
"Where you headed?" he says, with such a strong accent that I barely made out the words.
"Florida?" He squints. "Why you wanna go down there, man?"
"Just a destination," I say. "Just want to get to the ocean."
He nods. "You need a place to stay, man?"
I don't, exactly, being that it's midday, but I say 'sure' and pack up my things.
We climb into a little, green pickup truck and he pulls out slowly.
"Es not mine," he says, of the vehicle. "Mine is broken, now." He forgets to push in the clutch when he stops to shift out of reverse and the engine dies. He grins and turns it back on. "I don't drive a stick," he says, "but I try to learn."
We go shakily down the street and pull up in front of his house. I unload my pack, inside, and then we get back in the truck to take it back to his brother. "What is your name, man?" he asks, and I tell him. "I am Carlos," he says. "Do you drink the beer?" he asks, and I shake my head. "No? That's too bad, amigo. Where we are going there will be lots of beer." He says it dreamily.
We pull into a trailer park and he stops the truck. A man and a woman are sitting in lawn chairs, nearby, with a twenty four pack open. Carlos grabs one as we walk up and introduces me.
"I find this guy at the gas station," he says. "He is a good guy but he does not drink the beer." He turns to me. "This is Rury," he says, pointing at the man, "and this is my sister in law, Sonia."
After a while we go inside the trailer. There's a seventy two inch t.v. along one wall, and a speaker system that looks like it's from the Pepsi Center. Sonia puts in a cd and some kind of Spanish music blasts out. We start dancing around the coffee table. The first few songs don't really seem to have any steps, and I just try to mimic what they do. We spin in circles and they pretend to grope each other. Carlos and Rury somehow start wrestling on the floor. But as another song comes on, Sonia says "Oooh. Salsa," and motions to me to follow her steps. "One two three," she says. "One two three. One two three. And step. And step. One two three, step. One two three, step." She shakes her head at my attempt, grabs my hips, and tries to correct me. I get it down at a slow pace, but lose it again when she says "Faster, go faster" and I end up kicking Carlos in the shin and falling on the floor. It's a great time.
After a while we switch trailers. I get confused about whose is whose, but I think we go to his brother's. It's empty, compared to the first one. Just a couch and a t.v. and a goldfish bowl and a refrigerator.
"So you are walking," Rury says to me, as we sit on the couch. I nod. "What is your point?"
I tell him that I just wanted to get out and do something, that I just want to see the country, and he doesn't seem to understand. "But what is your point?" he says, again. "Do you have a job? Do you work? What is your point?" We go around the issue for a while, without making any head way. After a while he tells about himself.
"I grew up in Chihuahua," he says. "I took a train into the U.S.A. Risked my life to get here. For a while I tried to get up in the world," he says. "Cocaine and dope. I sold them all over. But I was always looking over my shoulders. Now," he says "I don't try to get up. I just try to stay the same. Just try to put a meal on the table. Not go up or down but stay the same. Just working to stay the same. That is the American dream, no? Just working and working to stay the same? The American dream. Our dream. Nuestro sueno. Trabajando y trabajando. Working and working. And I am living the American dream," he says. "Because I can put food on the table for my family."
We sit and he talks and I listen. Sometimes he goes off on tangents entirely in Spanish and I have no idea what he's saying. But I listen, anyway.
"We are all brothers," he says. "You and I and all of us. We are all the same. I don't care if you are black or white or brown or anything. We are all the same. Eat and drink and living. All of us just working to stay the same."
After a long time Rury gets up to leave, and Sonia goes, too, and Carlos and I walk back to his house.
"I don't know your thing, man. I don't know what you did, but you can always say sorry. Just say, 'Mom and Dad, I am sorry' and they will forgive you. My mother," he says, "my mother never told me she loved me, in her whole life, until she was dying. She say, 'Carlos, I love you,' and then she died in my arms. Your parents love you, amigo."
I try to tell him that I'm not out here because I ran away, or because I did anything wrong. But I can't get through. We come from very different places.
"I can get you a job," he says. "Sixteen dollars an hour. That is where I am working," he says, "and they will hire you. You have i.d. and social security? They will hire you and pay you sixteen dollars an hour. You can stay here with me until you get some money for an apartment. You can stay on the couch and we will go to work together. You can start making some money and then if you want, you can rent a room from me. You are wasting your life with your pack," he says, motioning at it, leaning up against the couch. "Do not live on the streets, anymore, amigo. Stay here with me and make some money. And then you can get a wife and make a family and you can take care of them."
When I leave Lakin it's late in the afternoon. 'I have to go,' I told Carlos, and he said 'yes' but he had sad eyes as I pulled on my pack.
'We are all the same,' Rury told me. But we are so different.
A long while ago - I don't remember where, exactly - someone asked me if I was walking for career or walking for vacation, and I didn't know what to say. But now I feel that this is, on the whole, just a trip. Just a vacation. Because no matter how long I'm away, or how many storms I sit out in ditches, or how lonely I feel, I'm out here by my own choice.
So many people that I meet have worked their entire lives, have risked their lives, even, to get to where they are. To get to the point where they can sit in their trailers and drink 'the beer' and say that they are living the American dream. Working and working. Trabajando y trabajando.
Me? I'm just walking.