Words like winter snowflakes.
HOMER: The Iliad
Bearish, I hibernated upon my return. The thousand-mile hike from New York City to Bardstown, Kentucky, had taken a stiffer toll than I expected. Not only was I physically pooped, I had lost over 30 pounds. Literally walked my ass off.
Eventually I shook off the torpor and mustered enough strength to arise and call my father to tell him not to expect me for Thanksgiving. Then I spoke with my daughters and friends in New York, just to let them know that I was, if not totally well, at least alive.
George Hoover was doing some freelance publicity and public relations. He suggested I should send him my bio and a sketch of my adventures. A bit of publicity now and then could be useful, he said. People might be more helpful in providing food and shelter if they thought I were a celebrity.
At first I was reluctant. Too much of my time had already been spent talking to the idle-curious. Still, it was no more time than that spent in search of food and shelter, so I gave in and sat down at my word processor to begin preparing a journal. Other than weekly press releases of one or two paragraphs for The Place, I had never done any serious writing so getting started was tough. Soon, though, I began discovering the joy of writing words instead of music. Recording the journey became fun. And, I can assure you, writing it was one hell of a lot less stressful than living it.
Chronology sometimes presented a problem. Yet with the help of photos that I had taken almost daily (which had the dates printed at the bottom), and maps (on which I had carefully marked my route, placing a red dot wherever I spent the night), I managed to totally reconstruct the trek.
It was amazing how clearly I could remember details, especially since I often have trouble remembering what happened a moment ago. Memory seems the first thing to go as we age. Next are eyesight, hearing, taste, smell, stamina, and all the other that make life bearable. The only gains other than weight and pain are more frequent trips to the woods at night.
I used to wonder if memory loss is physiological or merely due to the dull routines we place ourselves in there simply isn't enough worth remembering! Now I am certain that the latter is the case. Living deliberately as I had been for the past three months where if you aren't careful every single step may be your last makes a truly deep impression in the old gray matter, even if the old gray matter ain't what it used to be.
Over the thousand miles passed Id become more intimate with the stress of solitary trekking than I'd hoped for. Foreign languages had not yet been added to the mix unless you count what passes for American English in Brooklyn, the Bronx, New Joisey and Pennsyltucky as foreign languages. So from the library I borrowed several books and videos on China, Mongolia and the Gobi Desert. Cynthia gave me audio cassettes for learning Mandarin Chinese "Mitout a trace ov an haccent!" and after long sessions at the typewriter I set about preparing to break the language barrier while waiting for winter to pass.
Winter proved a false alarm. Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Old Year passed without so much as a frost or a snowflake. Days were often balmy. 50s and 60s. Nights were well above freezing.
When February came and winter hadn't, I decided to resume my trek. All aches and pains had gone. My calluses and muscles, too. So again I began working out and taking long walks to rebuild them. Five days a week, often with a pack on my back, I would hike to Cynthia's school, a distance of four miles. She would drive us home, then before preparing dinner I'd jog several laps around Schiller Park. Sometimes I'd stroll downtown to the library and back to borrow or return books. My strength and resolve returned. I regained some weight. By March, I was "ready as Freddy" to march.
March came in like a lion. It left the same way.
April fooled me also. Evidently, ashes from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo plus dust from Desert Storm and the smoke billowing about the atmosphere from the flaming oil fields in Kuwait had really played hell with the weather. It was far too cold to spend time outdoors so I continued my studies and scripting.
At the insistence of her teachers, Cynthia had switched to accounting. They thought her talent was wasted on a secretarial course. She had maintained a 4.0 grade average, won an award for perfect attendance, and had made the president's list twice. Not bad for a middle school dropout. Especially a dancer.
Cynthia had shown samples of my writing to a couple of her teachers. They were suitably impressed. George, Jim, Jerry, and my daughters had also given positive reactions. Though it was not originally my intention to write a book, encouraged by them, all avid readers, I began fleshing out the sketches. With luck it might even be published though the odds of winning an intergalactic lottery were far less.
I could sure use some money. That from the insurance claim was in an interest-bearing money market account. But the interest rates had dropped well below 3%, and the current bearing was no longer very interesting. Aware by now how expensive it is to travel afoot, I knew that I would be hard-pressed to make it the rest of the way across America, much less around the world. Especially since the form letter I'd received from the Chinese Consulate said that to enter China I would need a round-trip airline ticket. I guess they want to make sure Id have a way out, so that they wouldnt have yet another mouth to feed or body to bury.
It wasnt my plan to fly to China in the first place. I wanted to walk there. I thought my letter to the consul had made that clear. Evidently not! I was hoping to catch a boat sailing from San Francisco across the Pacific, then to walk through Japan and Korea. And, if possible, to continue through North Korea. If not, Id sail the Yellow Sea.
Flying out of China was totally out of the question. Theres no airport in Aksu at least none that I know of. But the consul informed me that visas are valid for only one year. And though they could be renewed in any major city, how could I be sure I could cross China in a year? Major cities not to mention airports are scarcer in western China than hair on Chairman Maos chinny-chin chin.
China was still a long way off. There was still two-thirds of the US of A to cover. Since the Tienanmen Square riots, relations between Amurka and China were shaky anyway. Who knows what they would be by the time I got there? It might become necessary to take a more southerly or northerly route. To broil or to freeze? That might become the question.
Weather permitting or not, I decided to resume my walk on May Day, where I left off in Bardstown, Kentucky. That should put me in Arkansas around Memorial Day, Oklahoma by Independence Day, deserts of the southwest by Labor Day, and LA. on Election Day. It meant crossing Oklahoma and Texas in July and August, but that still beat hell out of walking through Arizona during the swelter of summer.
Again I charted all campgrounds and parks, this time from Kentucky to Southern California. Believing that since he knows the state so well I would let my father help me select my route in Arkansas, I made a list for a northern and a central route. I did the same for Oklahoma. Though I would love to avoid all of Texas and its enormity, its Panhandle might still be cooler in mid-July than the sand dunes of the panhandlers of Oklahoma.
The worst part of the walk would be from Arizona to the Coast. Rt. 66 would give no kicks. It goes through Needles and the Devil's Playground. As the names imply, two of the hottest, prickliest, most hellish places on the barren backside of planet Earth. First time I saw them was in 1943, when our family moved to the "City of the Angels." Even in February, and viewed through a peephole scratched out of a blacked-out window of a wartime troop train, I shuddered at the sight. I had also driven through there in my early days as an itenerant musician, and would easily forego the pleasure again. Especially not afoot.
The southern route from Phoenix wasn't much better. There was a stretch of two hundred miles with only one town. Some RV camps were between, about a days walk apart, but the campground guide said they won't allow tenters.
Surely they wouldn't deny a person traveling the desert on foot sanctuary, would they? Here in America? Land of the Freeze and HMOs and Braves?
Just in case they wouldn't (and who knows what Arizona Conservatives are capable of?), I had a friend in Tempe, a trombone player named Sid Rice. Sidley ("I said kidley, diddle I ?") once worked the cruise ships that came to San Juan. We kept in touch after he moved to Arizona, and he promised to play Gunga Din for me. He swore he'd bear water and food daily at least up to the California border. I'd arranged with my brother Bill, my sister, Lola, and my friend Richard Hurwitz to provide backup from Blythe to Indio on alternate days. Indio to LA. had mucho places to stay. From there on, no hay problemma!
There was another worry, though. Taking that route meant walking on I-10, something that might possibly be frowned upon by the local authorities. To make sure, I called both the California and the Arizona Highway Patrol.
Neither seemed certain what the laws were evidently the question had never arisen before. They were positive, though, that I would not be allowed to walk on the road. (Duh!) Walking in the margins was at best "iffy," but they knew without question: "Hitchhiking is illegal!"
The only other choice was to travel small winding roads. But there were few towns on them, and they would take me several hundred miles out of the way. I figured it best to take my chances on the Interstate. With even a modicum of luck the troopers would be just as stupid as the office workers were.
Hoping to resolve my cash flow concern, I got together with a financial consultant. After I explained what I was considering doing, he recommended money market mutual funds. Whenever I needed cash, I could call from anywhere in the world and he would make an immediate direct-wire transfer. Wow!
My "personal banker" gave me an ATM card, which she said would be good in all the states adjoining Ohio. Let's see, that's Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky. WOWIE! Elsewhere, I could call anytime, and she too could make an electronic transfer. WOWIE! WOW! WOW! WOW! It all sounded too good to be true.
And it probably was. I seriously doubted that there would be much in the way of phones (or Dixie cups and waxed string, for that matter), much less banks (decidedly not PIGGY banks) in the Kyzl-Kum Desert, or on the Plateau of the Ust-Urt.
Money and maps taken care of, I went to pick up more supplies at the sporting goods store where I had purchased most of my equipment. I told the salesman Chad Williams how pleased I was with the equipment he had recommended. Especially the backpack, an external-frame pack that rides like an internal-frame.
"That Jansport Sawtooth is great," I said. "It really rides well." "Yeah," he agreed. "I've sold several of those since I told people what you were doing. I show them your post cards up there on the bulletin board and the customers snap em right up. Unfortunately, Jansport has discontinued that model." That seems to be the case with everything Ive ever really liked. "There is a slight problem with the back bands though," I said. "Its difficult to keep them tight enough. Especially the lower one." I referred to the wide nylon mesh bands that keep the pack frame away from your back so that air can circulate. He shook his head. "That's definitely a problem. I have the same trouble. You just can't get to the buckles without taking the whole thing apart." He then told me of an elaborate rigging system that he had devised to keep them tight. My ken of knots is considerably less than that of even Alexander the Great, so I instantly forgot how.
"Does your pack ever sing to you?" I asked. "Sing to me?" He looked puzzled. "I don't know what you mean." "Well," I said. "It usually starts to happen in late afternoon, when the pack is sweat-soaked and the nylon straps are stretched a bit. They start making a sound like lines creaking on a sailboat. Between the tread of my boots and the thump of my staff and the squeak of the shoulder straps I can really lay down some swinging rhythms. It helps a lot at the end of a long day when you're tired." He laughed. "No. That's never happened to me. I wish it would, though."
"I'm really happy with the Chief of Staffs, too." I said. "Not only does it make a good mono-pod for my camera, it saved my life several times. It's a bit bent at the bottom now so I can't close it all the way, but it still works OK." He asked what happened. "It got caught between two boulders on the Appalachian Trail," I answered. "I went ahead. It didnt. Has that ever happened to you?" He laughed again. "More times than I care to count."
"Oh, by the way," I said. "Did the crutch tips for it come in yet? I ordered them almost six months ago." "No, they haven't," he replied. "We've been having a lot of trouble getting them. They should be in the next shipment though. That'll be in a couple of weeks." I frowned. "I'm afraid I can't wait that long. I'm leaving on the first. There's no rubber at all left on the one I have. Its been impossible to find anything else that fits. Is there anything you can think of?" He went over to a rack and unscrewed the tip from a display model. "Here. Take this one. I'll replace it when yours comes in. You ordered a half dozen, right? I'll mail the others to you. Also, if you ever need anything at all, just call and I'll mail it right out." Kyzl-Kum and Ust-Urt came to mind again.
"Look," I said. "My compass has clouded over. There's a big bubble covering almost the whole face." He gave me a new one. "Yeah, that happens with these things sometimes . . . but usually not this bad. Did you give it a hard bump?" "Not that I was aware of," I said. "Though I had taken a couple of hard bumps, myself, and maybe the compass had too.
"Oh, and I'll need some more patches and glue for my tent. You can't always choose where you pitch it, and there are some small holes in the bottom." He chuckled. "I know what you mean." Chad's in the army reserve, so he definitely knows.
"How about waterproofing?" he asked. "We recommend that you do it once a year and you've easily put that much wear and tear on it in just a few weeks." "Actually," I said, "It's only rained twice in all the time I've been gone, and it didn't leak at all." Then I told him the tale of my experience at Gen. Butler State Park, the first time I tried to pitch it in the rain. "Well," he laughed, "You might want to waterproof again anyway. Where you're going it rains a lot in the spring. You do use a ground sheet, don't you?" I told him that I used my thermal blanket. "It's loaded with patches too. But even with it, my Therm-a-Rest mattress and my down sleeping bag, sometimes I still get cold." "You might try putting newspaper between the ground sheet and the tent," he suggested. "It helps a lot. Also, that candle lantern you bought can raise the temperature as much as ten degrees." "My top side isn't what gets cold," I joked. "And the places I stayed were very short on newspapers. There was plenty of other crap around though." He smiled knowingly. "And I mailed my candle lantern home at the beginning of the trip," I continued. "It didn't throw enough light, and wasn't worth the added weight."
I said how much I liked my Walrus ARCH-RIVAL, as did everyone else who saw it. And how glad I was that I'd gotten the two-man instead of the one-man tent. The added space was well worth those few extra ounces. "Yeah, I like mine too," he said. "Take good care of it though; the company's in Chapter 11." See what I mean about things I really like? "Other than the few small holes in the floor it's in perfect condition," I said. "Whenever I stay in a motel, it gets a shower right after I do."
I explained why I had to return to Columbus and asked if he had experienced similar problems. He reiterated what the chiropractor had said. "The body will only do so much, no matter what age you are. Then it needs a rest. I'm truly impressed that you made it as far as you did. Did you take any time off at all?" I told him that other than the two three-day breaks with Durough and Proctor and a few days here in Columbus, I had walked seven days a week. He said that I'd do better if I took a day's rest every week, too. "God did!"
"I'll bear that in mind."
The only other major purchase I made was a micro-cassette recorder. Now that I had decided to write a book, I thought it might come in handy helping me remember what happened where and when. I also recorded my Chinese lessons onto the smaller tapes so I could continue trying to learn it.
Thinking that if my pack straps were wider and better padded I might eliminate the problem with my shoulder, I called Jerry Proctor to see if he knew of any lightweight material that might help. He sent me some samples of polyurethane similar to the material my mid-soles were made of. I sewed strips of them into terry cloth pouches, and affixed them to my pack straps with Velcro. It seemed to do the trick.
All that remained was to make up packages that Cynthia could mail ahead as I needed them. I packed several small boxes with ramen, Lipton rice and noodle mixes, little cans of tuna and Spam, corn nuts and trail mixes. The reason for selecting those particular items is that they are not readily available everywhere. Beef jerky, yes! Corn nuts, no! I also included the maps and state by state camp-lists, and made up individual packets of powdered milk and cereal. That's necessary in the USA because everything is packed for the average American family: two adults and three and one-half kids. I didn't seal the boxes so that she could add extra soles and tips for my staff when they arrived.
So, still out of shape, foot calluses peeled off in solid sheets suitable for framing, twenty pounds heavier than when I arrived, I was finally ready. Or as close as I was going to get. Tomorrow, Cynthia would drive me back to Bardstown, Kentucky. The trials and tortures and torments, and all those terrific unexpected treasures that accompany a long-distance tramp would resume.
May Day. M'aidez!
(Click thumbnails for a larger image)
Chapter One Home
© copyright 2001
This page was last modified April12, 2002