Saturday, June 28, 2008

Volunteer hard, play hard

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE - June 28 -- 'Are you a hug person?' Erin asked me when we met for the first time in the Applebee's parking lot. 'Yes I am,' I responded as we embraced each other. I hugged her twin sister Lauren and Denny followed suit. Erin said she felt like she already knew us through reading our blog, but that she figured contacting us would not lead anywhere. But sure enough, there we were, riding in their car and learning one another.

We met their mother, Marilyn, at her office where she worked on helping refugees have the smoothest transition possible when they arrive to the U.S. She hugged us without asking what kind of greeters we were. Like her daughters, I liked her right away. I ate half of her mints out of the dish on her desk and asked many questions about the refugee process.

By the end of the fourth day with the family we had formed a tight bond. We had even grown close with the other siblings, Todd and Alanna, and the 16-year-old foreign exchange student from Hungary, Koko. Erin and Lauren warned us their mother would likely cry when she dropped us off in Chattanooga. She was wearing sunglasses when we hugged goodbye, so I never did confirm the prediction.


Highlights of Knoxville:
-Denny injuring his wrist while playing tether ball for the first time, yet still claiming the victory.
-Shopping for groceries with an Iraqi refugee for others en route to America.
-Late-night chicken fights in the pool.
-Moving two U-Hauls' worth of donated furniture from warehouses to Marilyn's new office.
-Swinging from a sketchy-looking rope and letting go 25 feet above the water.
-Cooking 22 enchiladas for the entire family.
-Eating Marilyn's mouth-watering meals.
-Listening to a choir comprised of orphan children from Uganda.
-Acting like kids with the kids following the performance.
-Butchering songs on guitar around the dinner table. Everyone joining in to sing.
-Sharing stories of travels to Africa with Erin and Lauren.
-Having new friends

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Foreign exchange

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE – June 25 -- After I got out of the shower room inside the YMCA, Brian told me what the group of little boys said as they ran out of the lockerroom. ‘Did you see that guy in there, HE WAS NAKED!’ I was amused to say the least. Brian and I camped outside the Y the previous night. We had to make a pit stop at the P. Buckley Moss Museum. The impression I got from Brian was that there are more paintings by this woman in his house back home than of the Triplett family. Later, at a gas station, we grabbed a couple of Snickers bars. I noticed a car filling up with gas that had a license plate that read ‘JEFF&ME’. It shouldn’t have stuck with me, but it did.

Brian’s hydration pack ran out of water right in front of a fire station. We started chatting with the volunteers inside about our route. Cindy offered to take us down the road to an overlook staring right into the Appalachians. Cindy was married to Jeff and owned the car I had noticed a couple hours earlier at the gas station.


Silvia and Uwe warmed up to us quickly. Uwe primarily spoke German, which prompted Silvia to be his personal translator. They were in the states, driving from New York to Tennessee. While getting to know each other at the overlook, a camper pulled up and two older people from California asked us to take their picture with the mountain behind them. They were talking to Silvia and found out she was from Germany. When the couple saw Brian and I get into the car they said, ‘You two have fun in our country.’ It felt sort of cool to be considered German. With the help of Uwe and Silvia, we made 350-plus miles of progress through Virginia and into Tennessee.

While staying the night at a Howard Johnson hotel, Uwe opened the door to the assigned room and witnessed a group of ‘large adults’ passing around a joint in their room. Silvia said they could have gotten high just standing outside the room. They will never again stay at a Howard Johnson Silvia told us.

Shortly after crossing the Tennessee border, Uwe stopped at a Subway. Silvia used the ladies room. She came out with a big smile and we knew she just encountered a strange situation by her demeanor. Two women were in their underwear, using the Subway bathroom as a locker room - shampooing their hair even. She asked if this was normal. Our response was no, although it may be a good idea for Brian and I in the future.

My lasting impression of the German couple will be our conversation about visiting each other in the future. Silvia explained that we would have a place to stay in Germany for as long as they live there. I was starting to tell them the same. Silvia stopped me. ‘We’ve met Americans in the past who have told us what you are going to and have not been honest with their offer.’ I paused as I thought about the implications of what I was about to say. It was a genuine conversation with people who have become real friends over a few hours. I finished voicing my offer. I hope that they get a chance to test my word. And I hope I’m not still living at my parent’s house.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NSL Quickies

After only a few hours of sleep, we decided to start walking before 6 a.m. The sun had risen, but it was hard to tell since it hid behind dense fog. We took hilly back roads that weaved throughout the Virginia countryside. Cows’ heads turned as they heard the noises of two creatures cutting through the morning mist. I felt like a ghost.

I must not be losing as much weight as I thought. As I used my backpack as a bench one morning, the two-liter hydration pack stuffed inside exploded, completely soaking all of my possessions, not to mention leaving me without water. This forced us to visit a Laundromat for the first time in five weeks to dry everything off.

Although we excel in stealth mode and have yet to have a negative run-in with the police, camping illegally still stresses me out. So we’ve gotten bolder as the sun sets each night, arbitrarily knocking on doors we pass to ask if we can camp on the property. The first time we tried this, a couple of 20-somethings, who were clearly on drugs, came to the door looking confused. I opened my mouth despite not knowing what words would come out. ‘Your car door is wide open,’ I informed them. We walked on. On the second attempt, the woman who answered cited the fact she had too much stuff in the yard as the reason we weren’t allowed to stay. The truth was that she was scared s***less of us. The third attempt was a success. Tim and Corinna provided us with level ground in their backyard, electric outlets, a hose for showers we never took, a job in the garden so we could repay the favor in the morning, zucchini bread, Sunny-D, and a send-off prayer.

It felt like my body was a tuning fork that somebody had banged against a counter top as the lightning struck the river I was trying to get out of. I can’t even remember the noise I made, but Brian stared looking stunned from safe ground as he heard my reaction. Our teeth chattered. Our limbs shook. This was the first storm I can recall I couldn’t escape from. No shelter other than big trees.

As we do 100 times a day, we had a choice to make. Turn right toward the small-town business district, or turn left toward the park. I’m not sure why we chose left, but I’m certainly glad we did. All we wanted to do was pee and rest. We saw a giant gathering of people from all ages and wondered if we should approach, not wanting to disturb the party in the shelter. We tried to sneak in and out, but a guy our age stopped us, inviting us to be a part of the McGlothlin family reunion. They were packing the food away and said it needed to be eaten. We fixed plates of banana pudding, coleslaw, chocolate cake, and gulped down some Pepsi. We chatted with half of the huge family and were even invited to crash their photos. A 19-year-old couple was determined to give us a lift over the Shenandoah Mountains. After they sped away, we were thankful we chose left.

I was just itching my head when I felt the little guy crawling around in my hair. Just one of many ticks that haven’t been invited to use my body like a buffet but tried to do so anyway. Even wearing jeans, they can creep up to thigh-high levels. Too flat to smash, we are forced to pick up the pests and chuck them out of the tent multiple times an evening.

‘You guys looking for a place to stay?’ a bearded guy asked. He was with two girls and another guy who looked like him. I didn’t understand what he was getting at. They explained there were no hotel vacancies around town except for one – the place they were staying at. They were hiking the Appalachian Trail and had sympathy for backpackers. They were simply looking out for us. We explained we tried to avoid paying for hotels. As we waited for the police to arrive to help us find a place to camp, we chatted with our four new friends. The two guys, although they looked like brothers, had met on the AT. It turned out both their girlfriends lived in Philadelphia, so the girls met one another and took a road trip to Virginia to visit their boyfriends. As if that wasn’t coincidence enough, one of the girls mentioned she was friends with a couple people from Iowa from working at a summer camp in Maine. I used to date one of them.

When I met Jesse, he said it felt like he already knew me because of the blog. It was a very cool feeling because just a few moments earlier, Brian and I were standing in the audience watching his band - These United States. He is the lead singer and guitarist for the band that is currently touring through Europe. Jesse caught Brian and I off guard when he gave our adventure a shoutout right before his last song. As a response, Brian threw one of our No Stranger Land t-shirts on stage, where it hung from the microphone as the set finished.

Tim Banks was the guy who knew how to get things at the Shenandoah River campground. He brought us a cooler to keep our drinks cold. He found us inner tubes to float down the river on during a day of rest. He even fixed us chicken wings and baked potatoes when we returned in the evening. I think he felt bad we got caught in the hailstorm. Tim had three more Chihuahuas than he did teeth, and he had a total of three Chihuahuas. Beanie Baby was his favorite. He loved it like a child. He lived in a trailer down by the river and we talked by it for hours until it was time for bed. I loved his philosophy, which boils down to the golden rule. He said he bets we’ll remember him the rest of our lives. ‘Just remember me as that crazy guy,’ he said. ‘That way you’ll remember me.’

Matt and Amber approached me as I rested in a gazebo in a small town park, waiting for Brian to return with filled water packs. After a short conversation, I found out they remembered seeing us walk into McDonald’s a few hours earlier. Their offer was to take us ten miles down the road, but the ride ended after a forty-mile leap through the Shenandoah Valley.

We had taken cover beneath a gazebo to protect our laptop from the rain and our heads from the hail. This was our third hailstorm in five weeks. Not more than 10 minutes after the storm began, the sky was sunny and clear. We planned to call it a night in the park, so I walked to stock up on water in the tiny town of Shenandoah. All the businesses were closed, so I resorted to knocking on a random person’s door. The woman gladly let me use her outdoor faucet. When I inquired about camping in the park, she said we needed to inform the police. Thirty seconds later, a sheriff pulled up. Apparently the woman had gotten the sheriff his first job, so they were in cahoots. The sheriff handed me his cell phone to let me call the town police. They said they’d let all the officers know two boys would be camping out in the park that closes after dark. I proudly walked down the hill to tell Denny of my recent success. When I returned, he was sitting with a couple McDonald's employees we had seen at lunch earlier that day. We hit the road with the high schoolers five minutes later. All my hard work had meant nothing. As we cruised down the road and I ticked the miles off in my head, I smiled.

Legal advice

Monday, June 23, 2008

No Stranger Community

No Stranger Land is proud to announce an exciting addition to the mission. Introducing - No Stranger Community.

While No Stranger Land is a story of two small pebbles in the pond crossing the country on foot and sharing life with the people they meet along the way, No Stranger Community is about the entire sea of people out there wanting to be inspired, touched and connected. Together we truly can make the world a better place.

This site will be controlled by No Stranger Land, but we don't come up with the content. You do!


If No Stranger Land has encouraged you to reach out to someone, or if you have a tale to tell about a time a stranger affected you in a positive way, we want to read, see and hear your stories and share them with the world.

Whether it be through writing, photos, videos or a combination of every element, please send your No Stranger Stories to: and they'll appear on the site as soon as possible.

We'll gladly accept anecdotes from past experiences, but we strongly encourage you to break out of your shell, connect with someone you otherwise never would have met, and brighten their day today. The encounters can be big or small and can take place in any way, shape or form. The effects can be tangible or intangible, make someone simply smile or affect them forever. Most importantly, we want you to share your stories to help continue making No Stranger Land a reality.

So what are you waiting for? Go check it out!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bill's garden

MCLEAN, VIRGINIA - June 21 -- When I was in middle school, my mom would buy groceries at the store and deliver them to the home of the oldest woman I ever knew. She even took Viva out for a birthday dinner a couple times. I think my mom was the only friend Viva had.

Sometimes I would ride along to help carry the food into the house. One day Viva handed me some acorns that had fallen from her tree with instructions to plant them in my yard and watch them grow into tall trees. I thanked her and immediately began gardening after we pulled into our driveway.

I watered the bare spots where I had buried the acorns, but nothing ever happened. They eventually became forgotten failures beneath the dirt. The next time I tagged along on a trip to Viva's house, my mom told me to tell her they had sprouted and were growing strong. I understood why I was to do this. I even included the fact that 'I loved them.'

Viva died not long after. I never regretted lying to her.


I'm pretty sure Bill Smith is the oldest man I've ever met. A year or two past 90, he's known around his neighborhood as the guy who walks all about the sidewalks every day and mows his own lawn. As Denny, Jerry and I gave Bill's tomato garden a makeover, I wondered if the old man was watching from the window, or if he was even aware of what we were doing. I was hoping to have a chat with him, but he was nowhere to be found.

Bill had told his neighbor Jerry that he didn't know whether he had big tomato plants and small weeds or big weeds and small tomato plants. When we inquired to our new friends Ross and Anna that we'd like to help some folks out around town, they directed us to Jerry, who looks out for Bill on a regular basis. It was Jerry who helped Bill get his new hearing aid. It was Jerry who led us to Bill's tomato garden.

The plants needed help. We spent the afternoon pulling weeds down to their roots, tilling the soil, stabilizing the vines with stakes and twisty ties, taking compost from Ross' yard and placing it around the roots, and finally letting the tomatoes chug some water.

Jerry, a retired scientist, nearly made our heads explode with the information he injected into our brains about subjects I don't feel comfortable trying to regurgitate in fear of Jerry reading this and being extremely disappointed in our lack of ability to understand the universe. We sat in his front lawn during a break while he quizzed us about what the sun is made of and the basics of the atom - stuff a 7th grader would know and stuff I've since put low on the priority list of knowledge I felt it was important to retain. To Jerry it was life. I felt stupid, but I knew Jerry only had good intentions.

Jerry went to get the hose. As we dug at the dirt in the backyard of an old man I had yet to meet, Denny observed our situation and laughed. 'What are we doing here?' he said. I knew it was more of a comment than a question. This is our way of describing the situations we get ourselves into as surreal in a wonderful way. Jerry returned. 'With the elements our sun is made up of, we shouldn't even be here,' Jerry went on. 'So what are we doing here?' Denny and I had absolutely no idea.


Jerry told us what he knew about Bill, much of which remained a mystery. A favorite story was the day Bill, in his 80s at the time, got sick of not seeing the plow trucks come by so he decided to begin shoveling every one of his neighbor's driveways. The people on the street felt so guilty seeing the elderly man breaking his back that they all began to join in.

Jerry explained the rusty, green swing set remained a prominent feature of Bill's backyard because he didn't have the heart to take it down, remembering the days his children used to play on it. The wooden bird that acted as a wind gauge used to have two wings but now it had a half of one. Jerry promised to rebuild it. He was extremely adamant about this. 'The bird will fly again,' he said, choking back tears. Denny and I said nothing, trying not to make Jerry feel embarrassed. He explained it had been an emotional year. I stared into the wooden bird's eye.


While adding the finishing touches to the garden, I looked up to see Bill standing in silence, looking at his new garden and smiling. 

'The garden didn't look like that this morning,' he said.

When Denny and I explained our adventures, Bill told stories from his days as a traveler. Despite being nearly 70 years apart, we chatted away like old pals.

He paused long and hard between his delicately delivered thoughts. I could have listened to him talk for hours. 

'If you climb up any mountains, make sure you get down by walking,' Bill joked.

After a half hour, Bill said he'd better go back inside. I was a better person for having met the man. I suppose I feel that way about everyone I meet, but I remembered thinking this thought at the very moment we parted ways.

Jerry left us with a few final pieces of knowledge that pushed the earlier stuff out of our brains. I was surprised when he had a thought that began with physics and somehow eventually connected back to No Stranger Land and our mission to strengthen interpersonal relationships around the world. Denny commented that he wished he had recorded the theories on video.

'You don't need to recite the words,' Jerry said as we walked away. 'You need to live the reality!'


I hope Bill's tomatoes grow bright red and juicy. I guess I'll never know. And I guess that's not the point. My mom once taught me that. More importantly, I really hope he gets to enjoy them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Month 1 - Maine to Virginia

MCCLEAN, VIRGINIA – June 19 -- It’s only been a month on the calendar, but it feels like Brian and I have been on the road for much longer. I have the images running through my head of waking up shivering during the first night, eating half cooked beans, blistering for the first time, the first person signing my hat (Nanci), receiving the first ride, etc. I think about all these ‘firsts’ and it feels like years ago.

Since then we have learned efficient cooking, how to deal with blisters, accepted multiple rides, and now awake to a decent tempature. It’s been amazing how quickly Brian and I have adapted to this journey.


Timing has been at the forefront of my thoughts when looking back over the past month. Breaks we wouldn’t have taken other than for tired legs have resulted in meeting new friends and having experiences that would have been otherwise passed over. Unforeseen storms have forced us inside to stay dry, but have resulted in places to stay and connections made. Our openness and vulnerability has allowed for positive situations to occur and it's been the most exciting part so far.


Over the past few days I have thought about what I would tell my past self as he sat in the Chicago airport waiting to get on the airplane that would catapult him to Maine. I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach as we landed at the Portland airport. I wouldn't have believed the willingness of strangers to share their life with us. I also had no idea how tough it would be to find a legal camping spot, but how easy it would be to find an illegal one time after time.


The last thing I want to reflect on is showering. I’ve probably taken a shower in over ten bathrooms and they all have their own unique style. There’s handles, nozzles, pulling, pushing, lifting up, down, turning, twisting, clockwise, counterclockwise, and all are usually combined together to make the act of cleaning one’s body an adventure all in itself. Why there’s not a universal approach is a mystery to me.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

WASHINGTON D.C. - June 17 -- ‘My name is Benjamin, and I have lots of toys at my house,’ is how my four-year-old relative introduced himself to me for the first time. I would soon find out first-hand as the blond boy and I pieced together a puzzle of the solar system. Benjamin is the son of my cousin, Kala, who after skimming through our blog decided to give us a lift across the Pennsylvania-Maryland border and to her home in Baltimore. It’s been six years since her wedding - the last time we exchanged words. I never imagined the Internet would be responsible for bringing us together again, but I’m starting to learn it’s become part of our journey.


Ross and Anna live just outside the D.C. area. Having never met us before, they still invited Brian and I over for a BBQ at their house in Virginia. They emailed us through the website and offered a place to hang out if needed. Their house is home to seven young professionals, nestled in a nice suburban neighborhood consisting primarily of families.

Shortly after arriving at their home, Brian and I found ourselves part of a corn-on-the-cob assembly line - peeling the ears, buttering, salting, wrapping, and finally placing the corn on the grill. I was the salt guy. Cookouts I’ve had in the past with my friends have never involved a pasta salad like the one Anna concocted. She was extremely pleased with it, as she should be. I even enjoyed the tomatoes, which I would have never eaten a month ago. 

People were circulating in and out of the get-together all day. It was relaxing, fun, and actually made me remember a conversation I had with my mom years ago. At the root our talk was my perception how college graduates are so willing to leave their friends in search for a job that could possibly land them in a completely different region of the country. It had seemed that Ross, Anna and their friends had it all figured out. That’s why it struck me as ironic when Ross expressed his interest in our journey and how he wished he were in our position. It seemed the grass looked greener in both our eyes that day.


Daniel is a third year law student at the University of Iowa and found out about No Stranger Land through an article in the Daily Iowan newspaper about our journey. He’s working in D.C. this summer and emailed us with an offer to feed Brian and I for an evening. We accepted the invitation because of the opportunity to meet a new friend, not because it was a free meal. The food was delicious, however, as Brian and I left no food on the table. But the best part of the dinner was having some great conversation with the native of Louisiana. We promised to meet up again in Iowa when we're both in the area.

I was particularly impressed with Luna's bathroom. I suggested it would be in Daniel and Brian’s best interest to drink lots of water so they could check it out. The inspirational leaders of the past were painted on the pitch-black walls. Messages printed in chalk-like fashion made it one of my favorite rooms of all time, even if it did have a toilet in it.


I got the chance to hang out with Mike for a couple of days. He had some great ideas for ways to maximize the success of the journey. Mike works for the United Way and gave us a tour of their central office. Brian and I had a great chance to talk with some very passionate people.

Mike let us stay in his one-person efficiency in D.C., just a few blocks from the White House. It felt like a middle-school slumber party while we ordered pizza and talked late into the night.

After we parted ways, Juan and Sarah picked us up to have us over for dinner. The 24-year old self-proclaimed professional cook made a fulfilling spaghetti feast. Juan shared his unique version of drinking Corona with Brian and I, adding grenadine to sweeten up the Mexican beer. This was a trademark of his black fraternity, whose colors were red and white. They dropped us off back at our friends Ross and Anna's place.


As I sit in Ross and Anna’s living room typing this post, I can't help but think I would likely have never met any of these people had I not taken off on this adventure. I'm sure glad I did.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Friday, June 13, 2008

Are you finding everything you need?

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND – June 13 – The ceiling fan struck my skull with two of its blades before I could react. I rested back down on the top bunk and checked my forehead for blood. It appeared no medical attention would be necessary, but it still wasn’t the best start to a morning. Niall had warned me of the hazard the night before, but apparently his words hadn’t sunk into to my sleepy head. As I lay back down, however, I was thankful to be on a mattress and to have found cover from the nasty hailstorm the night before.

As we walked west through Pennsylvania the day prior, a man had warned us about the front moving our way. He stopped us as we walked past a Laundromat to ask a few questions about our hike.

‘What, ya couldn’t get jobs or something?’ was one of his lines that told me we had opposite ideologies. Washing clothes must have satisfied this man’s lust for adventure.

‘Storm should be here in about an hour. Where ya sleepin’ tonight?’ he asked.

We told him we didn’t know, thanked him for the warning and moved on. It was hard to believe bad weather was approaching since the sky was sunny and clear at that moment.

We walked no more than 20 minutes before a car pulled over. ‘Thank you!’ I thought, figuring this was our savior stopping to help us avoid a harsh evening. We recognized the man from the Laundromat, who was now with his family.

‘Hey, what’s that website of yours?’ he yelled from the driver’s seat.

We gave him one of our cards. ‘Thanks!’ he shouted, driving off, leaving us feeling vulnerable and helpless as the storm showed its ugly face four minutes later.


We had to make a decision. Hang out under an overpass? Knock on someone’s front door? Find a business with late hours? Then Denny spotted Starbucks. They were open until 10 p.m. Seemed like a fine choice.

We threw down our clunky bags near a table by the window and, more importantly, an outlet. Denny was wearing a gray t-shirt that day, making the sweat outlines all the more obvious. The manager welcomed us with warming words nonetheless. We told him we were traveling across America, trying our best to discover what it was all about. He shook our hands and we picked out the best-looking muffins.

Not long after we devoured our dinner, the hail pounded down. It sounded like there was a driving range next door and the coffee shop was the target. I’m still surprised the glass didn’t shatter.

Each time we refilled our water or walked by the counter, the staff – invested in our well being at this point – asked if we had come up with plan. The storm showed no signs of stopping, so the answer was no. Had this been the first night of the journey, I think Denny and I would have been a bit more concerned, but we knew something would work out. It always does when you’re flexible and open to anything.

I did what I always do when I’m feeling overwhelmed by a present situation. I called home. I chatted with my dad for a few minutes about the flooding back in Iowa. My mom was at work. My grandma suggested we get a hotel for the night. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford it, but that would be bending our rules, so I wanted to keep that a last resort. It was dark by now. Denny and I had never gone past sunset without knowing where we would sleep, but this is a trip of many firsts. Plus, talking to grandma always made everything seem okay.


When I came back from the bathroom, the pair of girls - both named Megan - that had been sitting behind us since we walked in were chatting with Denny. After a bit of questioning, the offer was on the table. We could camp in one of their family’s backyards. We were saved.

They had to switch cars but promised to return. Denny and I checked our email, reading one telling us our experience would be enhanced if we made ourselves more vulnerable to the world. I laughed. Denny was pissed. This lifestyle seemed to get pretty high marks in that category if you asked us.

Another email came from a sponsor of the Bonnaroo music festival – the biggest concert of the summer. He liked what we were up to and said if we could make it to Manchester, Tennessee, by the weekend, he had tickets with our names on them. Denny and I were giddy liked kids on Christmas morning. Deep down we knew it wasn’t plausible. On the surface we glowed at the thought.

Melody, a Starbucks barista, winked as she told us she was supposed to throw away all the expired food at night. A few minutes later, she came back with a goody bag filled with sandwiches, wraps and parfaits. We thanked her endlessly and hopped in the car with the Megans.

‘Change of plans,’ one of them said. ‘If you’re okay with it, my boyfriend has an extra bedroom and he said you guys could stay.’

The apartment was a 45-minute drive west – the direction we were heading. One hour of driving on the highway equals three days of walking with backpacks. We, of course, couldn’t refuse.


As we approached the place, we thought it might be awkward to meet a guy whose girlfriend had called him not too long ago to inform him she was brining back two guys her age she had just met. Two minutes after meeting Niall, we could tell we were going to click. His dog, Molly, gave me a punch in between my legs as I walked up the stairs. Niall apologized. When I caught my breath, I commended Molly for a nice shot.

He said his sister was a world-traveler, so he took well to our kind. We offered everyone our plethora of Starbucks cuisine. After some conversation, Niall and I found out we knew the same people who went to school at the University of Iowa – just one degree of separation. The world is sometimes more connected than we think.

Denny and I played rock-paper-scissors for the bottom bunk. I lost.


The Megans dropped us off in the heart of Amish country the next morning. I agreed to work on the blog while Denny explored. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the table of ten retired men sipping coffee and munching bacon.

‘I heard that people over in Europe think that someone will try to shoot Obama,’ one man said, creating quite the reaction.

‘I heard the same thing about people in Spain,’ another man replied.

‘Spain is part of Europe,’ a third man offered.

I tried my best to concentrate on my task-at-hand, although it was difficult. Denny returned, telling about his interactions with the friendly Amish in a local store. He said he was hesitant to mention our website and reveal the digital camera from his pocket. As I saw the horse-and-buggy cruise down the road, I didn’t blame him. It seemed like a pleasant existence. ‘Are you finding everything you need?’ the Amish man asked Denny. If only we knew exactly what we were looking for.


We walked down a picturesque highway not more than half a mile before a guy with his belongings on his bike stopped us. He introduced himself as Ray. He was decked out in cycling gear and rode alone.

‘I saw you guys off highway 30 and thought I’d see what you were up to,’ he said.

We told him we were traveling on foot to California via the south, trying to connect with strangers along the way. To our amazement, he was doing the same thing on two wheels. He had a partner until two days before, but his friend had badly injured his knee, so Ray was continuing on solo. We exchanged business cards, stories of searching for illegal camping spots each night, and agreed to meet up again in New Orleans to help rebuild the city. As Ray rode off into the distance, Denny and I shook our heads while smiling. We loved our world.


We sat outside the gas station, sitting on our bags and eating Snickers bars, looking like a couple of guys without a care in the world. A rugged-looking man stared down at us and spoke.

‘What’s the difference between a vacuum and a guy on a Harley Davidson?’

Denny and I shrugged.

‘Not much. Dirt bag’s just in a different position,’ he said. Without waiting for our reaction, he hopped on his motorcycle and rode off, exchanging peace signs with us.

‘Who says that?’ Denny asked while we finished laughing.

‘That guy,’ I said.

The storm had cooled the temperature by a few degrees, but we still had to make our steps quick, otherwise our feet would sink into the melting tar on the road.


‘Where are you guys going?’ asked a girl cleaning her car.

‘The Pacific ocean,’ Denny yelled. We get this question a lot. Sometimes we choose to name our same-day destination. Other times we opt to say California. As you’d imagine, the answers get different reactions.

Her name was Jessica, and she was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She performed in the local theater. After some formalities and chitchat, we walked on, certain we’d never see her again. A half-hour later, we saw Jessica checking her oil.

‘You’re not going to believe what I did,’ she said. ‘You might think this is crazy, but I was actually hoping to run into you guys again. I left some tickets at the entrance for the show tonight for you guys. I thought maybe you’d like some free entertainment and would like to get out of the heat.’

We told her we had planned to make it to the campsite on the Susquehanna River by sunset. She said if we accepted her offer to see the show, she’d drive us to our destination. Denny spoke for the both of us. ‘Yes.’

Jessica had her own rehearsal to attend, so we parted ways, leaving our big bag in our new friend’s trunk and agreeing on a meeting spot following the show. Denny and I split the special at the diner next door. His phone rang. It was an unknown number. I could tell by his facial expressions and his side of the conversation that something big was about to happen to us. I was certain we were on our way to Bonnaroo.

It turned out a cousin he hadn’t seen in years would be coming to give us a lift to Baltimore the next day. It would be our eighth state in three weeks without transportation to call our own aside from our sneakers. We were moving and moving quickly. The waitress told us she was jealous of her friends who left on a road trip to Bonnaroo the night before. Denny and I smiled. Fate was a funny thing. Missing an opportunity by a day only meant something else was bound to happen the next.


Neither Denny nor I are very religious. I joked with him not to pull out his book on existentialism as we took our seats at the play about Abraham and Sarah at the Christian theater.

Women pulled out Kleenex and wiped their tears while Denny and I tried to understand how a guy who cheated on his wife could possibly offer moral guidance for the young children in the audience. The entertainment was very refreshing, no matter what our beliefs were.

What I enjoyed even more was the conversation with Jessica. The way she spoke so softly as we coasted over Pennsylvania’s rolling back roads made me feel at ease. She gave us a DVD of one of her singing performances. We promised to listen and to let her know if we were ever in the area again.

We chose a campsite right on the creek. We let our raw feet soak in the cool waters and talked about our thoughts on God. I slept outside beneath the open universe that night. It was the first time I had ever done so, but surely not the last.