I left my comfortable existence in New York on February 17 with 65 pounds in my pack and ten in my dogs'. I made it three miles before I collapsed in exhaustion and with a sense of absolute failure.
Making camp on the spot, I went to work discarding unnecessary gear and ended up with a pile of 15 pounds worth of items that, to any comfort-loving person would be deemed essential -- but to a long distance hiker were considered dead weight. It was especially painful to leave behind my precious foldable padded chair. It was at that point, after nearly two years of planning for my westward trek but only two hours of hiking, that I realized just how roughly I'd be roughing it.
Good bye civilization.
A Wolf in New Jersey
Ten days later my spirits had lifted and the dogs and I had had the Appalachian Trail almost all to ourselves since we started our journey, sharing it only with the odd day hiker and the ever present coyotes.
I was making camp for the night when a deep growl behind me made my heart leap. My resting dogs lept to their feet in a frenzy of snarls and barks, and I spun around to see what looked like a large black wolf not 30 yards up the hill, hackles raised and teeth bared. Torfinn, my Karelian bear dog, was off leash and looked ready to defend us. I knew he wouldn't back down from the animal nor listen to my commands to stay put.
Just as I thought a fight was inevitable, a lanky figure in camo overalls came bounding from behind the hill waving his arms at the wolf yelling "Bruni Bear, no!"
Bruni Bear, I later learned, was not a wolf but a nine year old black German Shepherd who lived up to her name in more ways than one. To humans she had the appeal of a teddy bear; to dogs, the temperament of a grizzly. Her owner, a towering man of perhaps 40, had a stringy ginger ponytail and beard, tattoos on his neck and hands, multiple dangly earrings in his ear and a pair of piercing blue eyes that never left my gaze. His name?
"Wild Bill, pleased to meet you."
I offered Wild Bill a cup of coffee from my thermos and learned that he too was hiking across America with his dog.
"You gotta be kidding me!" I said, partly thrilled at the coincidence of bumping into someone with the exact objective as myself -- and partly annoyed to learn that my project was not unique.
He chuckled. "Yup. Been doing this for fifteen years."
Wild Bill and Bruni Bear had been hiking around the country since before I discovered my first chin hair. I couldn't believe it. Not only had they hiked across the U.S. multiple times, but they'd slept outdoors every night, making homes of any suitable spot of soft ground they pleased.
I had no reason to doubt Wild Bill's story. And I was awe struck. It wasn't until later that night when the dogs and I were snug in our tent that I recalled his tattoos and the odd scars on his face. Probably from prison, I imagined, reaching for my knife to check it was still next to my sleeping bag. And why the hell would anyone hike around the country for any extended period of time? He was probably on the run from the Feds. Yeah, probably committed a string of horrible crimes so he's hiding out in the woods, now just a few dozen feet from me. Oh God.
Eventually I got a hold of myself. What was I worried about? What was it about Wild Bill's unusual lifestyle that had me all flustered. After all, I was performing a bit of an escape act myself, albeit not from the Feds but from civilization, if only for a year.
It struck me that people like Wild Bill, men and women who choose to live like nomads, off the grid, away from the demands of settled societies, are often viewed with suspicion and even hostility. The Romani gypsies in Europe face it everywhere they go, as do the Beduin in the Middle East.
Once I got over my own suspicions of Bruni Bear's wiry owner I quietly decided that he and his fellow nomads should be celebrated and revered rather than feared. Isn't it refreshing and inspiring to know that there are those among us who live their lives in quiet solitude, faring wherever their hearts desire? There is something very American about it. Afterall, this country was made up of nomads (voluntary and involuntary) and their descendants. My own parents left their homes in the Old World to explore the New one.
In his essay titled "Walking," Henry David Thoreau referred to wanders of Wild Bill's type as saunterers. The term, he claimed, derived from san terre, meaning without land or a home. He observed that the Saunterer seems always to be drawn westward. It is no coincident that I've chosen to walk towards the setting sun, in the same direction as Wild Bill, as Lewis and Clark, as my parents and the millions of others who travelled to and within this continent. Thoreau too: "I am not excited by the prospect of a walk [eastward]. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, [and to the west] the wilderness...
Nuclear Coyote Howls
A week or so ago the dogs and I slept near a lake deep in the still woods of the Hudson Highlands. In the middle of the night I was woken up by a distant wail which I recognized as the emergency siren test for the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County, NY.
The siren was immediately followed by the howls and yips of a pack of coyotes a stone's throw away from my tent. And for a few minutes I enjoyed a beautiful duet between the most advanced (and deadly) technology system in the modern era, and the wild canines who've roamed this country for millions of years. The arias of Civilization and Wilderness harmonizing.
The sirens soon stopped but the coyotes carried on until I was fast asleep.
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Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Indian Point is in Long Island. It is located in Westchester County, NY.