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.