The glorious gifts of the gods are not to be cast aside.
HOMER: The Iliad
Why would a man your age want to do such a damn-fool thing as walk across America with a pack on his back? Are you walking for a cause? Are you going for a record? Are you writing a book? You must meet a lot of interesting people? On my 3000-mile odyssey from Atlantic to Pacific, those questions were more abundant than road-kill.
When you're walking 20 to 30+ miles a day in 90+°F with 50+ pounds on your back, you dont want to waste your time on people burdened with idle curiosity. Especially if you're on the first leg of an attempt to walk around the world and there's a whole lot of world left to walk. So my answers varied, largely depending on my mood at the moment and my perception of the sincerity of the questioner. The usual response was "Mama wouldnt let me join the Boy Scouts." It was quick, it satisfied most people, and it often brought a laugh or a smile with the notable exception of those persons possessing the women's movement mindset.
I wasnt going for a Guinness record though I may have qualified as the oldest fool ever to try such a stunt. Neither was I walking for a cause unless it was 'cause I'm crazy. Nor did I intend writing a book though after three thousand miles absent feminine smiles, one did come to mind: The Complete Collection of Womens Lib Humor. Naturally, all the pages would be blank. And as far as meeting interesting people? Not as many as one might expect - it's difficult meeting people when they're cooped up in cars. The truth is, I dont know why I was doing such a "damn-fool thing." If I knew why, I wouldnt be doing it.
Seeking an answer, I meandered from among the homeless on the Uptown streets of Manhattan, through mile after mile of New Jerseys suburban sprawl and upscale shopping malls. Finding no response, I wandered on down the drought-plagued Appalachian Trail amidst the perpetual poverty of eastern Pennsylvania, then crossed over to Pittsburgh's tony Shadyside.
West Virginians were openly friendly; the poor often are. But there were very few "HIs!" between the Os in Ohio, and you'd be hard put to find a more tightlipped bunch. So I trudged up and down the hills of Kentucky, past stately mansions with white board fences and thoroughbred horses in bluegrass fields. As I wended west, then south to Tennessee, opulence gave way to fallow fields and unsightly trailer homes parked in parched patches well off the road, as if trying to hide their shame. What the "Farm Program" giveth, it also taketh away.
Loggers, miners and ranchers exploiting Federal land in Missouri and Arkansas offered no answer. Gloomy ghost towns in Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle, wiped out by dried-up oil wells and shutdown uranium mines, echoed no reply.
Throughout New Mexico and Arizona, the daily exodus of autos out of California made it seem like the 1930's dust bowl migrants were all blowing back. Still I found no satisfaction in the great Southwest. Merely sorely neglected Navajos, New Age communes, old agers in RVs (the barbed-wire-strung Interstate strewn with their hypodermic syringes and adult diapers), and a 200-mile stretch in southern Arizona inhabited by scorpions, tarantulas, scrub and saguaro, and RV camp owners who disallowed people afoot a pied-à-terre.
Endless acres of airy date palms and power generating plane-less propellers, mixed with medieval high-walled retirement communities studded with swimming pools and golf courses and shady winding bike paths, all made Southern California seem truly the Promised Land. Until on the way to soak my feet in the blue Pacific, I hobbled through the squalor of East L.A. and stumbled across scorched South Central.
I'd lived abroad during the seeming prosperity of the Reagan-Bush years. Evidently, during that interlude voodoo wasn't limited to the Carribean. The Reganomics trickle-down seemed to have rapidly evaporated after it passed the upper-middle class; the unseemly gap between the haves and have-nots had widened into a yawning chasm. So perhaps I had found an answer after all, at least for the first part of my quest:
Here in the land of those well-heeled,
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© Copyright 1999 Robert Bowers
This page was last modified April 12, 2002