On February 26, 2011, I set out on a long walk. The plan was to walk from Lewes, Delaware to San Francisco, California and experience as much of America as I could along the way.
I did my best to approach the trip without expectations, to just walk and see what happened if I kept an open mind. Since getting home about a week ago and having some time to reflect, I've realized that whatever expectations I didn't shake were greatly exceeded by how much I enjoyed the trip. It changed everything for me.
Things were tough at times, but I just kept on walking. On October 15, 2011, about seven and a half months after I began, I walked into the Pacific at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and completed the journey.
Here are a few big realizations about America that I got out this trek.
Many people I talked to on and before the walk warned me about strangers. They said what I was doing wasn't safe.
The truth is, I can only think of a small handful of times where people were rude to me or tried to harm me in any way, but I could tell you hundreds of stories of incredible kindness shown to me by complete strangers.
Like the time I knocked on someone's door to ask if I could camp in the field near their house and was invited in for dinner then asked if I would stay in the house. A week later, they drove over an hour each way to pick me up so I could enjoy an Easter Sunday meal with their family.
Then there were all the times that people would pull their car over and hand me a drink or a lunch they had gone home and made for me.
In Ohio, I walked into a small pottery shop to take a break and look around. Immediately I was brought to the back of the store, shown how the pottery was made and offered a delicious lunch. I slept in the owner's spare room.
I ate at a restaurant in southern Indiana and the waitress asked what I was doing. I told her I was walking across America. Before I left, everyone on staff that night put a few dollars into an envelope and gave it to me.
Dozens of times local police or sheriffs would make an exception for me and let me camp in a town park where camping wasn't allowed. Then they would drive by during all hours of the night to make sure that I was safe and that nobody was bothering me.
Those are just a few examples.
I heard stories that made me laugh. I heard stories that made me cry.
A man drove me to his house, which was nestled in a small valley down a long dirt road in West Virginia, and told me stories of his childhood there with no electricity and a pipe that fed water into the house from a natural spring in the hills, which is still how the house gets water today. His eyes lit up with pride.
I heard stories of fierce combat from veterans who fought to preserve the freedom that I was using each day I walked West. A Vietnam P.O.W. told me how he escaped from a prison camp. A pastor in Illinois told me he lost his son in Iraq. I always made sure to thank those who sacrificed so much.
I met a couple who, while living well below the poverty line, would carve wooden spoons for friends as gifts because they couldn't afford to buy anything. A friend recommended that they try to sell their spoons at craft shows. Their first show they made almost as much money in one day as they made in the entire previous year. They now operate a hugely successful carved wooden utensil business.
There were a lot of stories of struggle. It's very clear that times are tough, especially in small-town America, where I spent almost all my time. I met hard working people who seemed sure that things would get better. They were beaten down but resilient, struggling but still willing to help out a wanderer like me in whatever way they could. I saw the true spirit of America in them.
For as long as I can remember, I had been itching to explore internationally. I longed to leave a country I didn't really know or appreciate.
I learned that America is beautiful beyond anything I ever imagined. At times it actually became overwhelming: Topping the Appalachians in West Virginia; looking around in awe at the rolling hills and fields of the Midwest; finding out that Kansas is more than just flat monotony; climbing the Rockies and feeling like I was standing on top of the world; meandering through red rock canyons in Utah; walking the Loneliest Road In America across Nevada; struggling up the Sierra Nevada mountains at the brink of exhaustion only to be energized by a seemingly never-ending view at the top. This country took my breath away again and again.
A common question I get now that I'm done with the walk is, "Did you find yourself?"
I most definitely did not, and I'm not sure if that's even possible. What I did find is this: a place I'm proud to call home.