Have you ever asked a stranger how they’re doing and found yourself entrenched in the hellfire of the day they’ve had? You know the ones where you walk away concerned about PTSD? You didn’t swear an oath to hold their hand under the shower of mortars their personal life is dropping on them, and it’s just not polite to shell shock strangers like that. The trenches are exhausting and most of us are already stretched too thin to handle the chaos of our own lives.
Luckily, this journey has given me an ample amount of time and emotional capacity to be there to offer my hand when a stranger has nothing else. One of strangest things about this journey is the amount of grown men I’ve had break down into tears and open up to me about everything from recent brain surgeries to how painful it is to have their children living down the street stop visiting them once their wife died. These are men that are 50+ and grew up during a time when men were expected to hold the pain and tears in. Men that had spent years drowning in their tears while pain ate them inside out, and when they finally let it out it happens in a flash, and it’s like watching a flash of lightening carve an oak tree into a rocking chair. Sturdy to rocking in a single blink. You can’t believe what you’re seeing — but you can’t deny it’s rocking either.
I’m still not comfortable burdening others with my own problems though. Venting just doesn’t feel fair to me, especially when I’m just a few hours away from realizing the problem just felt big in the moment. This is problematic when the majority of your interactions take place on the road — with strangers.
Every conversation is the first of a fresh new relationship that’ll, more often than not, reach its expiration date before I reach the end of the parking lot we had it in. This means I spend the majority of my time in the trenches alone and that was tough for me in the beginning. All through Missouri I felt alone, insecure, and sometimes scared. Strangers were all I had, and outside of a few, the strangers of Missouri assumed I was scum. That hurt, knowing it would only take a moment of open-mindedness for them to see the beauty of my journey — yet their snarl always beat the moment to the punch. I found myself questioning how often I’d done the same thing. I’m not perfect, I knew I had, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. And that thought turned my stomach. Somebody out there remembers me as an ugly person because of who I was for a brief moment. For me the memory was insignificant, written in sand and immediately washed away, but for them it was carved in stone, never to be forgotten. The axe forgets; the tree remembers.
This was a lesson that taught me a lot about having patience with others. The split second encounters we have with strangers aren’t reflective of them as a whole. Isolated actions do do not define character as a whole. We all have bad days. Maybe it’s the darkest day of their life and a little patience is all they need to find the light. Or maybe they won’t turn it around for another five years. It doesn’t matter, I’ve decided to live my life giving the same patience and forgiveness I needed to give myself when I felt undeserving. When I touch the lives of others it will be as a beacon guiding them to the light beyond the darkness, rather than a magnifying ass focusing in on the darkness.
Walking the Walk
When I was passing through the San Gregorio Beach on my way up the California coast I stumbled upon a distraught gentleman sitting on a picnic table. There weren’t any cars in the parking lot, and judging by his crisp standing collar and the pristine Polo’s on his feet, he wasn’t homeless, which was concerning because It was going to be a cold and foggy night. I decided to go ask him how he was doing to see if I could offer any help. At first, he dodged the question and asked me how to get to town from the beach. “Which town” I asked, “I don’t know, any” he replied. Given that we weren’t fifty miles away from San Francisco, the nearest patch of civilization, he should have had an idea where he meant, but I’m not exactly in a position to judge. I told him San Francisco was to the left, but it was about 40 miles up the road so he wasn’t getting there tonight. His head dropped with the news and I asked him what was going on.
He told me his “crazy” girlfriend was pissed off and left him stranded. He tried to get an Uber, but there weren’t any in the area. He didn’t know what to do. He took a few more seconds to sulk before his head shot up with the realization that the sun was exiting the stage.
He started shooting me with a series of questions; where am I sleeping, what do I sleep in, and how big is it. Knowing where this inquiry was heading I brought it to a halt and told him I was not the knight in shining armor his day needed. Instead I told him his girlfriend would be back soon if this was the first time she’d left him stranded, and I offered to wait with him until she returned. I spent the next 15 minutes listening to the man-child disregard any of his girlfriend’s needs and carry on venting about how unfair she was being and how much easier life was for her. This was gross, but like I said earlier my goal isn’t to reveal darkness, it’s to guide towards the light. Who am I to judge? I was selfish and unaware once myself and with a little time and patience I was able to outgrow it. Who says this guy couldn’t do the same?
Rural Missourians Need to be Socialized
People stopping is never a good thing when you’re walking through rural Missouri, so the diesel engine coming to rest beside me left me a bit unsettled. The folk of rural Missouri never smile at a guy wearing a backpack and always find a way to mention people getting shot around their parts.
It was just yesterday that a lady, at least 70-years-old,, drove her ATV a mile down her driveway to let me know I shouldn’t be walking on these country roads. “People will shoot you out here, ya know?” Granny said, in an icy tone that highlighted the lines she wanted me to read between. Missouri, a state full of threats. A state where the discomfort caused by something unfamiliar is all the validation you need to make threats to outsiders. Provoked or not, they show their teeth and growl at the stranger walking down the road for getting too close to their food bowl. They live in fear of what they don’t know, treating anything unfamiliar as something dangerous that needs to be scared away; like a food-aggressive dog growling at the child playing in the kitchen.
The dog growls because the child is uncomfortably close to its bowl. The dog knows what could happen in this range. Is that what is going to happen? It could, and that is what the dog is scared of. It is the presence of the question mark that makes the dog feel threatened. This is why dogs need to be socialized. Socializing your dog gives them positive experiences with the unfamiliar and teaches them it does not need to be feared. The dog will continue growl at the question mark, regardless of whether it poses a threat, until it has enough positive experiences with it to learn its presence does not represent a threat. This is why country folk living out in the sticks are so unwelcoming to outsiders. I’m not the question mark coming for your knick-knacks lady.
I know how terrible this sounds, for me to be comparing country people to dogs, but I grew up in a rural community and know they aren’t rude like this because they’re bad deep down. They just don’t know how to handle the unfamiliar. They need to travel. They need to be exposed to more. Mark Twain actually has a quote about this that was an inspiration for my journey.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.Mark Twain
Anyway, now that everyone back home is going to want to kill me, back to the guy asking me why I’m on his property. I was never actually on his property. I’m on a county road. Surrounded by empty cornfields. There isn’t a house in sight, this guy is a long way away from his bowl. I don’t want any trouble though, so I flash my best smile at my new friend Cujo and share my story. Well I tried to anyway. “I’m walking to California” was all I was able to say. “How the f!ck are you going to walk to California” he spit out in a filthy tone full of disgust. He made no effort to hide his intentions to fill me with shame. This guy needed these words to matter.
Do you know what’s cuter than an angry person? An angry person who needs you to know they’re angry, or even better the flustered reaction you get from an angry person when you don’t get their angry memo. I flashed him the same innocent schoolboy smile I used every time I’d ever been scolded for talking in class and acted like I thought he was joking. “I was planning on using my feet, but I’m sure you already knew that, so you must mean what route. I started on the American Discovery Trail, but that polar vortex is flaring up so I’m going to switch to a more southbound…” Cujo’s cuts me off, growling with disapproval “There is no way you’re gonna walk to California.” Immediately turning around, not to chase his tail, but to retreat to his truck and drive away. About an hour later I found out Cujo called the cops on his drive home. The cop detaining me informed me that I had nothing to worry about, he knew Cujo was a grumpy old dog.
This journey has had few conversations like this one, and almost all of them were in Missouri. I’m grateful for these encounters though. Being crippled by these doubts from strangers made me feel alienated and forced me to lean on myself from the beginning. I grew closer to myself during this period, and it changed the way it felt to be alone. “By myself” went from meaning alone to meaning beside myself. I was connected to the deepest part of myself, and after years of avoiding being alone with my thoughts I embraced and cherished the newfound comfort. It did take practice to learn how to be alone without any distractions, but as the relationship with myself bloomed, the patience I needed to finally forgive and start loving myself flowered into something beautiful.
This growth was emotional in the beginning. The first few weeks I would recall random memories where I’d chosen frustration over patience and find myself overwhelmed with feelings of sorrow and regret. I deserved better than that. Eventually I realized I couldn’t apply my newfound patience to my past so I decided to start giving it to others in the future instead. Now I give the patience and forgiveness I needed when I felt I was undeserving of it.
Missouri built the self-love that carried me through Oklahoma, where I would spend the first hour of my day waddling down the road to in pain as I laughed at myself for being an old man. An old man trying to figure out how his shoes could be filled with more blister than foot. An old man that knew he wouldn’t break. I had overcome doubt, my confidence never wavered again. I sang and danced my way through the Texas ice storm and its single digit temperatures, remaining unfazed by the snotcubes dangling from my nose. Oblivious to the passing cars laughing at the epileptic Rudolph dancing on the side of the road. I had everything I needed. I had become my own best friend, my own hype-man, and it was the most beautiful thing to ever happen to me.