Friday, May 30, 2008

Good strangers go to heaven

TYRINGHAM, MASS. – MAY 30 -- ‘You guys gettin’ in or what?’ Danny shouted out his car window. Ten minutes prior, we had given him directions using our map of Massachusetts, only to watch him take off in the opposite direction than the one we advised. Now, realizing we were right from the start, he passed by to give us a lift despite being late for a meeting with Bank of America. Even though the ride lasted only a couple miles, it was a great way to start the day after waking up in the woods at Walden Pond.

A half-day’s worth of walking had taken a toll on Brian’s left knee and right ankle. As we rested outside a small town convenience store, a man leisurely asked us if we’d like a lift as he strolled out of the store. Since a lawn mower, a hose, and some branches crowded the truck bed, we rode up front with Scott – a quiet, friendly local in his late 40s. He told us of a camping spot 10 miles down the road. We agreed that would be a good destination. ‘Here it is,’ Scott said. As he hung the right turn, his eyes widened. The campground had turned into a new subdivision since Scott’s last visit. As a consolation, he drove Brian and I to his hometown of Clinton, which was just fine with us since it was quite a ways west. We walked another eight miles and set up our tent near the banks of a reservoir. We had no idea the next day would bring us to the west side of Massachusetts.


The blister on the bottom of my left foot was intolerable after Brian and I began walking the next day. Although I’ve been opposed to blister-popping from the start, I went into CVS with the intention of picking up a few needles while Brian waited outside. I came out with a handful of safety pins and a new friend, Monica. The ride Monica ended up taking us on was the furthest by anyone thus far on the journey - around 50 miles. Monica donated granola bars and water to us as we parted ways. As Brian and I walked away, I had a smile on my face while I remembered the discussions in the car, ranging from the truth behind The Salem Witch Trials to her youngest daughter’s ‘Stranger Awareness’ lesson in school. Apparently her daughter came home one day extra fearful of anyone she didn’t know. Monica had to explain to her that there were good strangers and bad strangers. ‘Mom, do good strangers go to heaven?’ the daughter had asked.

Our spirits were high as we walked eight miles toward Amherst, the home of U-Mass. Staying only a couple hours, we were pleased to be moving on to North Hampton by the way of a free bus ride thanks to A.J. the driver. Being a small community, I stuck out with the big blue backpack strapped on my shoulders.

Meaghan, who had hitchhiked through Alaska a year ago, inquired about the pack and our matching t-shirts. After getting to know each other, Meaghan reached out to us by picking us up at our campsite, cooking us breakfast, and giving us a lift all the way to the Appalachian Trail - a destination we had planned to reach in the distant future.

The two days since waking at Walden Pond are a blur as people’s good will has rushed us through the state. We have yet to ask for anything out of anyone along the way with one exception – inquiring about the possibility of sleeping in a jail cell at a small-town police station. The answer was ‘No’ – unless we did something very illegal. We walked out, still stuck at Point A, in-need of place to lay our heads for the night. We took our time, stopping to chat with a man playing guitar on an outdoor staircase. We explained our project to him as he continued to ask questions. ‘Tell America hello for me,’ he said as we parted ways.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Travel and trust

OAKDALE, MASS. - May 28 -- There are a few elements of this trip we didn't consider prior to our departure, like how difficult it would be to find a legal camping spot, and the fact that our bulky back packs would be such conversation starters.

After Nanci dropped us off a bit down the road so we could get off to a good start, Denny and I walked into Massachusetts, and into the town of Newburyport. The sun was shining, people were walking along the river, buying food and gifts from street vendors to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend. Denny and I took off our sweaty shoes and socks to relax and enjoy the festivities. 

As we walked up and down the main street of the charming town, a family and their children stopped us to ask what was up with our big packs. Sometimes we choose to keep our mission low-key knowing it leads to a string of questions, but we were feeling chatty this day. 

'We're walking across America,' Denny explained. Two minutes later, they forced us to order pizza, soft drinks, and potato chips on their tab.

'You really don't have to do this,' I exclaimed. 

'Oh yes we do,' said Ann.

We joined their family, which included three children between the ages of five and ten, at a picnic table outside the cafe. The little ones and the adults asked questions about our journey as we continued to answer with our mouths full.

'I wish we could do something back for you,' I told them. 

'You already have,' Ann said. 'Look at all the stories and knowledge you've given my children by just sitting here talking with them.'

That thought hadn't crossed my mind.


We waited outside a church in Newburyport for Amanda to pick us up. The teacher at Seacoast High - an alternative high school in Revere, Mass., had emailed earlier in the week to ask if we'd be interested in speaking to her students. We jumped at the opportunity, but were uncertain if navigating through Boston traffic on foot would be a wise idea. Amanda said she would meet us in Newburyport, give us a lift to her place in Somerville, and put us up for a couple nights.

A bed had never felt so comfortable, despite the fact I had to share it with another man. It was bigger than the tent by a few feet, and Denny and I have gotten used to keeping to our own sides, so I didn't even notice he was there. I slept 14 hours the first night. The next day we spent wandering around Harvard's campus in Cambridge. I got whooped in speed chess by an old-timer pro at Harvard square. It was an experience none-the-less.

The next day I was a bit nervous heading over to the high school. I wasn't sure how they'd react to us. We were told many of them rarely made it out of the Boston area and that Revere could be a bit of rough neighborhood, so I wasn't sure if our idea of travel and trusting everyone would go over so well.

We spent the entire day at Seacoast high, chatting with students, answering their questions that ranged from,  'Why are you doing this?' to 'Are you guys brothers?' We didn't hear the crickets chirp like we feared we might. The science teacher, Mr. Pappas, told tales of his days hitchhiking across the U.S. in 1969. He claimed he was the best hitchhiker in the world. After the stories he told, we believed him. When school was finished for the day, some students shook our hands and thanked us. One even asked if we'd be back tomorrow. I told him sorry, but we had to hit the road.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Good for the sole

RYE BEACH, N.H. – May 25 – Never before had I heard a sound quite like the one a seashell makes when it gets obliterated by a lawn mower. The first time it happened, my bare feet left the earth as quick as the blades spun due to the piercing noise combined with visions of tiny debris firing toward my ankles. Shoes would have offered protection, but I lacked the courage to force them on that day since blisters had formed a colony on my feet as a result of the most walking I’d ever done in a three-day period. Perhaps it was foolish to take on this task, but I wanted to do something nice for Nanci. The feel of the soft, cool grass on my naked soles actually offered relief. Plus, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to cut a lawn along an ocean.

I sang Jack Johnson songs to myself, which were drown out by the roar of the mower. I told Nanci I would happily help her check this chore off the list under one condition – she use her day away from the real estate office to relax. Read a book. Play piano. Something. Just no working. She smiled at me as I rounded the corner of the house, knowing she was busted as she continued to collect pieces of shell from the yard. I couldn’t argue with her when she said she just had to be outside on this perfect Memorial-Day-weekend afternoon, so I just smiled back. Besides, I think she was enjoying doing yard work as a team. She seemed very cheery, like she might even have been singing her own songs. I tried my best to avoid shattering any more shells. My rows in the grass were far from precise as I couldn’t help but gaze at the picturesque horseshoe beach at my side.

I pondered whether or not Denny and I should feel guilty for calling a $2.8 million, oceanfront house ‘home’ for a couple of days. We were still sleeping outdoors in the tent at night, but from the first morning on, we were allowed free range throughout the three-story home that Nanci shared with her sweet mother, Poppy, and her elusive brother, Marshall.

Had we not mingled with the lone woman walking her dog on Rye Beach two nights ago, who knows where we’d be at this point and what we’d be doing? I’m pretty confident we wouldn’t have woken up the next morning to a breakfast of cappuccino, fresh pineapple, bananas, toast, and scrambled eggs with cheese. And from the patterns of the tide we’ve watched out the window the last 48 hours, our idea to camp in the sand that fateful night would certainly have been the first major error of our journey. If Nanci hadn’t been so affable that evening, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have showered yet, and definitely not with cucumber-melon soap. ‘I thought you were tan, but I guess you were just dirty,’ Denny said as I dried off.

It seems much longer than two days ago that Denny and I awoke in the middle of a maze of trees in Maine after a restless night of wondering if we’d get caught because camping was not legal in that neck of the woods. The morning of the day we met Nanci, our stomachs growled since our last meal of uncooked beans failed to provide proper nutrition. Our mouths were dry and our main goal was to locate the closest clean-enough drinking water to fill our hydration packs. A few hours prior to peeing in a multi-million dollar home, I resorted to sh****g in the woods since there had been few signs of civilization for miles. The same evening our serendipity really kicked in, I had briefly contemplated following the folks I chatted with on the trolley ride into the homeless shelter they were heading for.

I’m not claiming we needed Nanci. Denny and I have been surviving well enough on our own, and had we been soaked by the rising tide two nights ago, we would have managed. But after pondering our present situation, do I feel guilty about it? Hell no.

When you leave yourself open to any and every experience, you deserve whatever lies on the road you’re traveling that day. Sometimes the road brings uncooked pinto beans. Sometimes it brings calamari. And a goal of this summer’s adventure is to taste all life has to offer. Just as much as we’re not trying to force anything to happen, we won’t avoid certain types of scenarios because they seem too good to be true. As long as our minds are open, each new experience, positive or negative, has value. We want to hang with the homeless as much as we want to mingle with millionaires. And we want to see all that lies in the middle because this is America.

I’ll admit that the fact I write this from a third-story balcony overlooking the Atlantic makes me wonder what people might think of our project so early in the game. But just like we seek no sympathy for the rough times we are to face along our journey, as long as we are appreciative of the good fortune that comes our way, we shall not regret any of it. And trust me, I can speak for Nanci that she is tired of the words ‘thank you’ by now. I suppose if I could change anything, I would push this experience closer to the middle of the summer, perhaps when we are desperate for a morale boost. But this adventure isn’t meant to be predictable. The randomness is what makes it unique. And who knows what the rest of the road might bring?


As she showed us a good area in the yard to pitch our tent the night we met, Nanci mentioned that her and Poppy had agreed to inform the police that we were camping in front of their house just to be safe. Denny and I nodded in acceptance, understanding that 20 minutes earlier we were complete strangers to our new friends. While learning about our trip, Poppy, a big fan of crime shows, said we shouldn’t trust anyone. ‘But you’re trusting us and we’re trusting you,’ I challenged. As I write this, 48 hours after arriving to Rye, I can hear Denny and Nanci on the floor below, talking away like old friends. We all laughed hysterically at the dinner table last night when the ladies admitted they actually never called the police that evening. In two days, we’ve warmed up to each other quicker than the sun warms our tent when it rises each morning. We’ve been able to sleep in a bit, because in front of Nanci and Poppy’s house, we know we are safe from prosecution.

Yesterday, I ran errands with Nanci while Denny was left with the house to himself. As I filled Nanci’s gas tank, she told me stories of her own spontaneous travels. As we drove to the post office to ship some unnecessary supplies back home, I told her all about my family back in Iowa. As we drove into the bank drive-thru, Zoe the rottweiler began to drool in the backseat. ‘Why is she so excited to be at the bank?’ I asked. ‘Because of this,’ Nanci replied as the teller sent over the transactions receipt along with a doggie biscuit. I got the pleasure of hand-feeding Zoe, who now seemed to be my friend as well. Nanci told Zoe she was a ‘good girl’ in French, which is Zoe’s first language. I have yet to get over this fact.

Denny and I volunteered to make dinner for everyone that night, but Nanci refused to drive us to the store, citing that it was too nice a day to spend shopping for groceries. Little did we know, that evening, Poppy was preparing a feast. I took photos of the sunset hitting the lilac bushes – New Hampshire’s state flower – while Denny helped Poppy grate cheese. The lilacs reminded me of the ones in my parents’ backyard. The cinnamon and sugar cappuccinos we drank in the morning made me think of Party Toast – a dinner my father used to make when I was younger. It was getting cozy here, and that’s why I knew we had to leave.

I overheard Denny and Poppy discussing the origins of the seafood we were having for dinner. Although Denny had never tried any of the dishes before, he did his best to seem excited. I heard Poppy express concern that we might not like it. The four of us spent the next two hours at the dinner table shoving the plethora of food in our mouths and talking the night away as Neil Diamond played in the background. No television, no awkward moments of silence. Just four new friends telling stories. Tears of laughter dripped when Poppy touched the tattoo on Denny’s ass. Tears of sorrow were nearly shed as tales of loved-ones lost were told. It didn’t matter where we came from, what we did for money, how old we were. We were simply people enjoying people. That was all that mattered. As Denny and I reached for seconds, Poppy smiled proudly to herself.

We’ve learned a lot since we’ve been in Rye Beach. Denny is now an expert cappuccino maker due to the guidance of Nanci. And we read all about the first direct ocean telecommunications cable between Europe and America because our tent happened to be placed directly on top of it. We even have a new nickname. In the five minutes we chatted with Marshall, he collectively coined us Brian Dennehy.

At first, Denny and I were helpless to help in any capacity. Nanci and Poppy would tell us that they were the ones who should be taking care of us since we were the guests. It was a challenge at first, figuring out how to keep the focus of our summer project. But Denny and I have gotten smart. Instead of asking if there is any way we can help out, we started telling them we were going to pitch in whether they liked it or not. We eventually resorted to taking them by surprise by doing small stuff  like yard work and tidying the house. As we carried in groceries for Poppy yesterday, I heard her say, ‘It’s really nice having these two boys around.’

Last night Nanci said we should figure out what Denny and I were going to do today since she had to work 12-5.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll be leaving soon,’ I said. ‘We don’t want to outstay our welcome.’

‘No,’ Nanci replied straight-faced. ‘I don’t want you guys to leave while I’m gone. I’m going to be traumatized when you go. Plus, I was thinking you might as well stay another couple nights so you can see the Memorial-Day fireworks on Sunday night.’

At that moment, I forgot what gave Denny and I the impression in the first place that our society needed a band-aid. Weren’t we supposed to be the ones this summer helping people redeem their faith in one another? Maybe this whole time it’s been us in need of the redemption.


As much as Denny and I have gotten used to this place, Nanci and Poppy have gotten used to having us around. Nanci never had kids of her own, yet for the past two and a half days she’s been one heck of a mother figure. As we looked at the orange moon hovering over the ocean after dinner last night, I knew under normal circumstances I would be perfectly content staying a while longer. But when I jumped in the icy Atlantic this afternoon, I knew it would be the last time I would touch that ocean for a while.

We leave town in the morning, destined for Massachusetts. I’m ready for the road again. Our feet have healed for the most part. We’ve filled our bellies, soaked in a beautiful environment for two-and-a-half days, and hopefully brightened the lives of a couple people who not so long ago we could have called strangers. What we didn’t know when we began walking is how much our new friends across the country would effect our outlook on the life. As it turns out, we need people as much as people need us.

Losing weight

We mailed home the following to lighten our packs by eight pounds:
-big video camera (we still have our digital)
-video tapes
-Henry David Thoreau's 'Walden' (848 pages)

Bad foot-age

Friday, May 23, 2008

Rye tide and low tide

RYE BEACH, N.H. – May 23 -- As I sat on the stone wall that protected our tent from the angry Atlantic, eating a day-old hazelnut pastry, I could not help but think it was a result of Brian waving down a red mini-van in Maine earlier that day. We started the day with hope of reaching New Hampshire by sunset. Anxious to focus on performing ‘random acts of kindness’, we started the day by chatting with a friendly mother who waited for the school bus with her two young boys. An unsuccessful attempt to help a middle-aged man chop wood was followed by Brian’s effort to help a man work on his car. People were reluctant to let us help out in any way, citing the fact they needed the exercise, yet conversations with locals resulting in small chuckles and smiley faces were enough to keep our spirits high. Our stomachs growled. We failed to see anything resembling a town and succumbed to making a couple packets of chicken-flavored Ramen noodles on the roadside.

Growing discouraged from seeing no signs of the New Hampshire border, Brian flagged down a mini-van. The driver informed us we were a 15-minute drive – which translates to a couple hours on foot. After a half-mile more of walking, we sensed a vehicle slowing to our side. Jessica, the mini-van driver, said she had felt bad about not offering us a ride earlier, so she wondered if we might be interested in a lift to the next state over. We accepted. The 23-year old even stopped to snap a photo of us under the ‘Welcome to New Hampshire’ sign. The three of us starting chatting like old college buddies as we headed for Dover. As we continued to warm up to each other, Jessica continued to take us further and further, going 15 minutes past her intended destination and all the way to the coast. Jessica thought it would be a funny idea if we brought the Subway sandwiches we grabbed to-go in an earlier town and ate them at our drop-off zone – another Subway in Portsmouth. The only thing she let us do for her was buy her a medium-sized fountain drink.

Eager to update the blog from the previous day’s events, we strolled into a coffee shop where an employee named Alexandra wrote down her and her friend’s phone numbers in case we needed a place to sleep. Their town was in the opposite direction we were heading, but we thanked her none-the-less. Leaving the coffee shop, we accepted free pastries that would have otherwise been thrown out that night. I couldn’t help but think of San Francisco when I saw the trolley outside the coffee shop. I was oblivious to Brian chatting with our future friend Wil. As Wil, a regular rider, gave us a hard time about paying a fifty-dollar fare, Mary, the driver, said since we were newcomers, the ride was free. Wil, an outgoing soul who already knew everyone else on the bus, asked us about the hydration packs. Overhearing the conversation, the man next to Brian said if he were walking, he’d fill the pack with Tanqueray. Wil really got into our project, lending great advice to us. ‘People are what matter in life,’ he said. ‘Not power, control, or money.’ This continued to soak into our brains as Mary wished us luck before we stepped off the trolley, on our way to sleep at Rye Beach.

After a three-mile walk to the beach, the sign that read, ‘Beach Closes at Midnight’ didn’t discourage us from our mission as much as a woman telling us there would be no way to escape the rising tide on the beach. We walked with our new friend, Nanci, and her French-taught, broccoli-eating, rabbit-chasing rottweiler. She graciously let us camp at her breach-front house just down the way.

The day, in its entirety, was Brian and I bouncing around like pinballs. The grape-sized blisters forming on my feet were of no concern as the waves crashing down in the background made it hard for me to fall asleep. I didn’t want the day to end.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Broke backs

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - May 22 -- It's a toss-up of what hurts worse, our feet or our backs. Yesterday morning we spent a few hours in a cozy beach town in Maine, chatting with some locals in a bagel shop. Word spread quickly that we were attempting to travel to the Pacific coast -- a peculiar conversation piece when you can see the Atlantic out the window.

Once everyone in the bagel shop knew our story, they treated us with great respect. When I asked to use the bathroom, the manager said, 'Of course', almost as if she was honored I would urinate in her facilities. One guy said he'd drive us all the way to California for $1,000. We laughed and declined. A curious woman with her kindergarten-aged daughter clinging by her side asked a handful of questions, very curious of our adventure. She then told little Sophie to hand these gentlemen a $20 bill and wish them good luck. We were flattered by the generosity, to say the least. I offered to take over one of the worker's jobs of washing the shop's windows. She laughed and said, 'Sure honey!'. She told her coworkers to look at what the kid in the cowboy hat was doing. "How sweet," I heard her say as I got down real low to reach the bottom of the glass, trying to hide how much this made my legs ache.

Then we walked, and walked and walked some more. We approached a few people out in their yards and asked if there was anything we could do to help them out. Most were kind yet seemed a bit skeptical of our intentions. Denny and I have been brainstorming better ways to approach future folks. The rain drizzled down, but nothing too threatening. As we walked through a construction site, the head of the team stopped us. We thought we were in trouble. He asked us with a smile what we were up to. 'Holy s**t,' he said. 'That reminds me of the time I went to motorcycle from the tip of Maine to the keys in Florida when I was your age.' Our eyes widened as we prepared to hear tales of adventure and greatness. He proceeded - 'Yeah, and then once I got to Portland, I said f**k it, and I turned right back around.' We parted ways with handshakes and laughter.

The highlight of the day - $2 cheeseburgers from a local shop in Saco. Food has never tasted more delicious. The lowlight - a pair of high school kids yelling 'Brokeback Mountain' out of the car window as they flew by us. We walked in silence for a few seconds until Denny opened his mouth - 'You're not....ya know.....?' He asked with an attempt at a serious face. We laughed hard and walked on, sore feet and broken backs.

We found a nice place to camp by a river and, for a second night in a row, fell asleep before sunset.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Day 1 - On track

OLD ORCHARD BEACH, MAINE - MAY 21 -- I couldn’t help but think we were just like the kids from ‘Stand by Me’ as we headed south down the railroad tracks. I sang all the songs I could think of from the film, which included the title track, the one about the rollercoaster, and Lollypop - the one that calls for you to pop your thumb out of your mouth followed by buh-dum-dum-dum. Denny joined in on this part, helping finish out a series of butchered songs duet-style. We didn’t care how it sounded. There appeared to be no one around for miles.

I had always wanted to walk down railroad tracks, but it never seemed to be an acceptable thing to do in familiar territory. I associate it with exploration. So this was the perfect chance to try it for the first time since our new friends Tom and Lynn had just dropped us off at an endless row of tracks they promised would lead to the Eastern Trail, which would take us all the way to New Hampshire. They might as well have blindfolded us in the back of their black pickup truck filled with kayaks and other outdoor gear, because we had no feel for where we were going. After a little less than a 10-mile lift, we hopped out of the truck bed, studied Tom and Lynn’s map, shook hands, and thanked them for their generosity and for being the first friends we made on our adventure. As we began to forge on, Tom asked if we’d like a beer for the journey. We couldn’t say no. We walked along the tracks that ran parallel to the Atlantic, sipping our beers, oblivious to our aching feet and shoulders, nothing but smiles and some bad singing.


We were feeling independent, almost a bit too independent. It seems as simple of a task as any, to find a place to sleep, but it’s more intimidating than one might think as they lie in their cozy bedrooms at night. As the sun threatened to set on our first night as amateur outdoorsmen, I scanned the landscape for a good place to set up our tent. I could sense Denny was doing the same. We were also both listening for the whistle of a train, but none ever came. The sound of the ocean grew louder as we neared the edge of Maine. A few modest hotels and beach houses appeared to the left of the tracks. We eventually decided to walk intro the trees along a trail off to the right. The trail carved it’s way through a thick gathering of trees along a perfectly smooth lake where many geese called home. A few plastic chairs along the lake looked like they hadn’t been used since last summer. A bundle of blankets made us a bit skeptical as they screamed homeless person. But hey, who were we? We walked down the path until any sign of human life was nowhere to be seen. Denny cooked up a packet of Ramen noodles as I set up the tent – chores we agreed to trade off every other day. We were asleep before the sun set in our new summer home. Train whistles woke us throughout the night, but in between, the sounds of nature made us sleep like babies.

What we're walking with

-2 sleeping bags
-2 hydration packs
-cooking burner
-2 ISO gas tanks
-10 packs of matches
-magnesium fire starter
-8 t-shirts
-3 pair of shorts
-2 pair jeans
-2 rain coats
-2 hooded sweatshirts
-4 pair of socks
-4 pair of underwear
-2 belts
-1 pair of shoes each
-stocking cap
-2 bags of beans
-bag of brown rice
-8 packs of Ramen noodles
-2 toothbrushes
-body spray
-toilet paper
-bug spray
-sun screen
-Denny's glasses
-Denny's contact stuff
-2 hats 
-2 journals
-4 pens
-3 books
-video camera
-video tapes
-digital camera
-wireless card
-2 cell phones
-extra battery pack
-2 flashlights
-1 big-ass knife
-2 forks, 2 spoons, 2 butter knives
-business cards
-4 bandannas
-first-aid kit
-3 trash bags/rain covers
-2 backpacks
-grandma's good luck charms