BIRD-IN-HAND, PENNSYLVANIA - June 11 -- I turned on my cell phone to check the time. 5:40 a.m. I unzipped the tent to see that the sun had already begun beating down on the earth in central New Jersey, and that no animals had gotten to the granola bars Laurie's mom had given us. Denny and I decided to chuck them outside the night before after hearing animal noises that we were certain could come from nothing other than a bull. We figured if whatever beast was roaming around wanted our breakfast, we'd let him have it. We were recently informed that once wild animals smell food, they can take down two-person tents while yawning. And if we needed help, we knew there was no one around because staying in this state park a half hour after sunset was a no-no. We would later find out that deer are great at bull impressions.
I've watched more sunrises these last three weeks than I have in the rest of my days combined, and this one impressed me just as much as the others. I felt good on this morning, like everything we were doing with our time on this earth made perfect sense. Denny slowly rose from on top of his sleeping bag. We didn't need to tuck ourselves inside them for the first time this trip because of the heat. We also neglected to put the rain cover on to keep our home from turning into a sauna, even though lightning struck from the distance as we tried to fall asleep. Aside from our sweat, we were dry when we woke.
We were up and on the road by 6:15. The temperature reached 96 degrees by 9 a.m. According to weather.com, combined with the humidity this 'feels like 101.' We began the day with our usual 10 minutes of silence before transitioning into several hours of chit-chat and laughter. If I tried to explain our lingo and inside jokes, you may not even crack a smile, yet our conversations frequently lead us to belly laughs and watery eyes.
The honey-oat bars sufficed. Now we would need water, and lots of it. While walking through a modest neighborhood, a 40-year-old guy named Bob approached us with full, ice-cold bottles of the stuff.
'Saw ya hiking from the window. Thought you boys could use these,' Bob said. Even the perspiration on the outside of the bottle looked delicious. I wanted to lick it off, but it didn't seem appropriate as we chatted to Bob about our intentions of reaching the Pacific.
Our bodies absorbed the H2O in no time. I can tell I'm dehydrated when I chug it down and still don't have to pee. We needed more. Seeking out the most basic of human needs was on top of our to-do list on this day, which Denny described so accurately in just two words - 'Friggin' hot.'
We entered a deli off the side of the highway. The two guys working behind the counter stared at us with skeptical eyes at first.
'Do you mind if we fill up our hydration packs?' Denny asked?
'Yeah, I guess you could use the bathroom sink,' one guy said with a thick Jersey accent.
They sensed we weren't going to buy anything, which was true, so I felt slightly uncomfortable sitting with the bags, dripping sweat onto their floor.
'So what are you doing, hiking across the country or something?' the guy joked.
'Yep, that's what we're up to,' I replied.
'No way. Are you serious?' the guy said, hitting his buddy on the shoulder to get him in on the conversation, which was growing warmer by the second.
Denny came out with two liters of fresh bathroom water as I rushed to treat myself to the same. I could overhear them grilling Denny with the standard string of questions - Where'd ya start?, Where ya tryin' ta end up?, That's all the stuff you have with you?, Why are you doing this?, Are you crazy?
'When these guys came in, I didn't even wanna give 'em water!' the guy said with a loud laugh.
Dmitri introduced himself, tossed us a pair of crisp, red apples on the house and wished us luck. A couple pieces of fresh fruit can do a lot for the mind, body and soul.
We walked all 22 miles to Princeton. Although we were pounding the water, Denny said his piss looked like Lemon-Lime Gatorade. We applied body glide to the appropriate places, but our thighs still chafed. Not only is 'chafe' my least favorite word in the English language, it's extremely high on my list of things I wish would never happen to me again.
We found ourselves on the campus of our second Ivy League school in two weeks. We didn't have any more money budgeted for the day, so we took a seat outside and watched a bunch of people much smarter than us roam the downtown before we gathered the strength to continue walking.
The laughter concluded for the day as we went into serious mode. This usually happens when the traffic picks up - a sign that the work day has ended and it's time to begin figuring out a plan to find a place to sleep. We don't have to say a word, knowing we are both scanning the area for dense-enough woods to hide out in. We always start out by satisfying ourselves with a that-would-do-if-it-came-to-it plan, followed by trying to upgrade the accommodations by a star or two. We heard an awful crunch come from a few feet behind us. A massive turtle had tried crossing the road and fell victim to truck tires. The world was too fast for him. I feel the same way sometimes as we walk.
Like we always do, we arbitrarily chose a place to inquire about filling our water supply. This time it was Peterson's Garden Center that we eyed. We crossed the road, having much better fortune than the turtle, and a bit more specific intentions than the chicken. We needed to hydrate.
We were oblivious that the store was closing in five minutes as Mrs. Peterson stood behind the counter and greeted us with a smile.
'You can take from the hose here, otherwise we sell Gatorade in the back,' she said. Aside from having no more money allotted for the day, the thought of Gatorade just made me think of drinking Denny's urine. We opted for the free faucet.
She asked the question we didn't have an answer to. 'So where ya gonna sleep tonight?'
'Ummmm...., we were hoping to make it to the Delaware River to camp along the state park there, but I'm not sure we're going to reach it tonight,' I said.
Mrs. Peterson took the situation into her own hands, calling the police on us.
'Hello, this is not an emergency. I'm calling from Peterson's Garden Center and I have two gentlemen here who are traveling across the country and are looking for a place to camp for the night. Could they camp in any of the parks around town? They look like really nice boys....Uhh-huh....Yes....Yes....Okay.'
No way. We thanked her for her efforts and told her we didn't want her to feel pressured to figure out our predicament for us. She asked her husband if we could sleep in the store, but he cited insurance policies as the good reason why that wouldn't fly.
Sue Steen overheard our conversation. We introduced ourselves, shaking her hand.
'Any boys who shake my hand not only would make their mothers proud, they can also camp on my porch for all I care.'
Mrs. Peterson apologized for not being able to come through and gave Sue some tomatoes for our dinner. She had done more than enough. We hopped in Sue's van and rode toward her house, thanking her ear off. She explained she had a 24-year-old son at home and she would hope people would do the same for him.
The offer and the trust snowballed from, 'Camp in my backyard,' to meeting the family, showering, throwing in a load of laundry, a vegetarian feast (along with a steak to split for the Iowa boys), and finally, 'Go ahead and sleep on the couches tonight.'
Without typing them out in their entirety, it's difficult to reflect how intimate the conversations can become with the people we meet who were previously strangers. It's a shame because they are my favorite part of this journey. Everyone has something to offer. There is something to learn from every individual. From Sue, we learned the specifics of gardening in the Garden State. From her husband Rich, we clarified the differences between mediators and arbitrators. From their son Rich, we learned about car repairing and landscaping techniques. And so much more.
I woke in the Steen's living room the next morning to the sounds of a chirping bird. I hand't noticed the cage hanging in the corner when I drifted off to sleep the night before. I lifted my head and was confused by my whereabouts for a few seconds. The new face of the Polish cleaning girl didn't help. I waved hello anyway.
I love the situational roller coaster this journey lends itself to. One night we slept in a tent, fearful an animal was to strike at any second only to wake in the morning in peace to beautiful nature. The next night we find ourselves in a cozy home belonging to our newest friends. That morning I would find out Denny got attacked by the family cat, ripped clothing and all.
We drove to Home Depot later that day with Rich to help him load and transport 1,080 pounds of sand and gravel to the house for the landscaping project. The heat had come back stronger that day. We made sure to drink plenty of water.