It took five weeks to walk from New York to Pittsburgh. After about 270 miles on the Appalachian Trail I headed west on Route 30 till I got to the old steel city to pick up a canoe and begin my river journey on the great Ohio.
One week and 80 miles later I found myself on the border of Ohio and West Virginia. My muscles ached, my skin was cracked and sore from wind and sun, and everything I owned was caked in mud and grime, including my dogs who sat patiently in the bow of my 14-foot boat, looking at me from time to time wondering, perhaps, why I kept yelling curses at the wind and water. I had been paddling with all my might, yet I made little progress against the strong headwinds. Just when I thought my wind-whipped face could take no more abuse hail the size of acorns began pelleting down from dark clouds above.
"I give up!" I yelled. "I'm going home!"
That night I lay in my tent between my two dogs on the bank of the river while trains rumbled past not a dozen yards away and cars whizzed by on Route 7 just behind the railroad. I begun to make plans to return to New York. I had never felt lonelier.
I normally welcome loneliness like a good friend. I love the woods, the mountains, the sounds of owls and coyotes at night, the rustling and cracking of trees and the smells of pine and fallen leaves. In the wild I seek solitude, and if I ever feel lonely out there I drink in the sensation like a refreshing glass of cool water.
But there, in my canoe in the Ohio River Valley, where more than a tenth of Americans work and live, where the sounds and smells of industry and highways overpower what little wildlife there is left, I felt like I was on the fringes of society, neither in it nor outside of it. I saw, heard and even smelled other people and the evidence of their presence, yet they didn't notice me, and those who did saw only a skinny, dirt covered man and his dogs in the mud. Each night I slept on the narrow strips of trash-littered land between the barges and the freight trains, where loneliness is about as refreshing as a cup of tar.
The morning after I declared defeat I walked my dogs up the hill, over the train tracks and onto the highway, heading towards a truck stop a quarter mile south. Once there I ordered the biggest, most artery clogging breakfast they had. I could feel the eyes of the other diners on me, no doubt these truckers were wondering what hole I'd crawled out of.
My clothes were stained, my hair knotty and wild, and I imagine the aroma I gave off was less than appealing. The women working the restaurant had noticed my dogs sitting patiently outside and asked me about them. I explained that I was traveling across the country, avoiding any mention of my new plans to quit. Soon, half the restaurant was asking me questions, exclaiming how impressive my journey was, and how brave I must be.
"You've inspired me to get off my trucking ass," one bearded man said. "Let me buy your lunch," another said as he stuffed two twenty dollar bills in my hand. "I feel like I'm part of your trip!" Tracy, the waitress told me after she'd peeked at my website. I stood there, internally smacking my forehead with shame. "But I've given up," I wanted to whisper.
After breakfast I joined my dogs outside the diner. There stood the bearded trucker, a tall, handsome man of 50, with shoulder length salt and pepper locks. He had a jittery way about him, and I imagined that his eyes, which were hidden behind dark aviators, darted around as fast as the words he spoke.
"You know I travel with my pet too?" he said. "A tom cat. He lives in my semi truck with me. We've seen the country. You know, been back and forth across the states in my truck. But you're lucky man. You're not just seeing it. You're really experiencing it."
Living Life Freely
It's true, I thought. I am. I recalled one day a few weeks earlier in Pennsylvania when the temps hit 80 and the dogs and I lay down on the side of the highway. We were so hot we couldn't walk, and I was beginning to contemplate camping right there, in a ditch along Route 30. The sun was setting when an expensive looking SUV stopped next to us.
The man inside, well dressed and groomed, beckoned me over. I noticed his watch, which struck me as being a particularly large and fashionable piece for that area of the state, mostly farmland and Amish country. He didn't ask me where I was going or why my dogs and I were walking the highway while schlepping a wagon with a remote control plane on it. He simply said, "There'll be thunderstorms tonight so you're welcome to camp in my yard." I accepted the invitation. Dave didn't need to ask what I was doing.
"When I saw you on the road my first thought was 'There goes a guy that's living freely.' I should know, I did it once myself on my motorcycle across the country," he told me over beers in his kitchen. A traveler always recognizes another traveler. Over dinner in his massive house on a hill, Dave told me his stories and a few times I wondered if I had glimpsed tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
"Martin," he said before I went to join my dogs in the yard, "what you are doing is you are giving yourself a gift. You are one of few people who will ever know what it is to live freely. To live from day to day, with no watch, no schedule and no expectations of what you'll experience tomorrow, that is living life freely. Most people aren't living life. You are."
That man, traveler turned insurance agent, spoke the truest words I had heard in a long time.
And those words resonated strongly the following day, when, in a town about 15 miles west, I found myself drinking cheap beer and sharing a McDonalds meal in front of a bonfire in a trailer park with about a dozen locals, all somehow related to one another. Though I struggled to understand their thick Appalachian accents, their hospitality and warmth was unmistakable. Dogs and a half-naked toddler played in the yard while my hosts bantered, joked and argued into the night. I was welcomed to one of their vacant spots and camped there for the night.
And then there was the time in Pittsburgh, when, the morning after I shared sleeping quarters with two homeless men under a bridge, a short, tough looking lady named Pat rushed up to me, laid a strong hand on my arm and handed me a wad of cash while informing me that the spot I stood on was the very spot George Washington stood once before the Revolutionary War and wasn't that just something. As an after thought she added, "you mist be traveling."
Later that day Pat tracked me down after checking my website update and fed me cakes and gyros from local shops. We sat for hours at a dock in Southside Pittsburgh while she began to tell me her life story. (I bumped in to Pat on several occasions and our bizarre encounters will likely take up an entire chapter in my book. More on this crazy character in my next post.)
On the Road Again
At the truck stop in Ohio, sitting on a bench with the longhaired trucker I found myself smiling at all the memories I had made just six weeks into my journey. They were full of chance encounters with what my mom calls "Americans at their best."
My trek, which I had originally envisioned as a lonely and wild hike through the wilderness of America, had transformed into something entirely else. Every day on the trails and roads I had met someone who touched my life in someway, and I theirs. As I spoke to the bearded trucker it occurred to me that I was not lonely at all. I'd made more friends in the past six weeks than I did during four years of college. Right there, outside Buch's Truckstop in Steubenville, Ohio I made the decision to carry on and continue westward. The trucker and I shook hands and he strode off to his truck and his cat.
And now, two weeks after I left Ohio I find myself on foot again, and the dogs and I are happier for it. We're hikers, not paddlers. Not only are we on foot, but we are 1,500 miles away from the truckstop and 8,000 feet above sea level. How the dogs and I landed ourselves here is a long story, which I'll detail on my website in a few days. But I can tell you that Pat has something to do with it.
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