On a cold but sunny Thursday in March 2014, I set out from my girlfriend Rosie’s apartment in West Philly to walk across the country. I’d been going to school nearby at Swarthmore, but for reasons that aren’t worth belaboring, left in December 2013, the winter I would have graduated. I walked for ninety-six days, until I reached La Junta, Colorado, where Rosie picked me up three days before the summer solstice. While I walked, I kept a journal, dictating into a voice recorder, writing in a notebook, or typing on my laptop whenever I could stop to plug it in. Every spring since, I’ve gone over the written entries and the transcribed audio, expanding and trimming, sharpening anecdotes until they’ve taken on, for me, a heightened significance. The selections below span the first seven weeks of my trip, beginning outside Philly and ending in Terre Haute, on the border of Indiana and Illinois, where the clock jumps back an hour.
Friday, March 14
Icicles on the ceiling of my tent-cave when I arise, before the sun.
Realize pretty quickly that I’m pretty over walking on Baltimore Pike. So cut north midmorning, in search of a smaller road.
Immediately start noticing restaurants are less chain-y, people less distracted-seeming. Drivers make eye contact, a friendly smile here and there. A welcome reprieve from hours of walking along with eyes glued to the Kindle.
When I come upon the scene of an accident—cars backed up for like a mile—I’m able to walk right on through, being on foot and all. Meaning, initially, that I’m walking past cars facing the same direction I am. But when I emerge on the far side, there’s of course another row of cars, facing me—in the shoulder, against traffic—on my side of the street. To which, at first, I’m like, Wow, great, more eye contact! Like, Look at me, connecting with strangers!
Doesn’t take long though for this setup to become awkward.
Happen upon a dense thicket, set back and hidden from the road, in Ridley Creek State Park, right at dusk, before busting into a clearing. Cold, canned black beans for dinner; no fuel yet. Think I have the one stove that goes with the most obscure fuel, haven’t been able to find it anywhere.
Saturday, March 15
Huge sack of rice I can’t do shit with stoveless, half a jar of peanut butter. Out of water even, having last night figured, Oh, I’ll just hit it, get up next morning, find a coffee shop or gas station to refuel at before taking off. ’Course I get to walking and find myself on this winding-ass road in the middle of nowhere.
Finally find a tap, roadside. Fill up.
Only now I’ve got this huge gallon jug weighing me down, dangling annoyingly from the carabiner attached to my backpack strap.
So ditch the rice, by the side of the road.
Wanting to get back to a more centralized area, with stores and people, after finding myself stranded this morning, book it north to West Chester Pike, which ends up being …
Fast-food spots every block.
Wide, almost lane-width shoulder. But cars going fifty-five, sixty.
Midafternoon, start seriously considering throwing in the towel.
Decide the only chance I have at keeping this going is to get off the pike. But before I do, I figure I could use a pit stop.
Pull up to this Wawa, take off my pack, place it next to the garbage can out front, by the cigarette-butt canister, and what do I see but another backpack. A sombrero dangling off it. A guitar.
Walk in, scan the store, immediately ID the owner of the pack. He’s got green swishy pants, not unlike mine. I’m thinking, Play it cool, maybe I’ll talk to him, maybe I won’t.
For some reason get nervous sorta.
About to leave, realize I need to pee. Head back in. Pee.
Come back out, and homie’s out there eating a burrito. I’m all, What’s going on?
His name is John, and he’s also walking across. From South Philly, two days ago. To Oregon, is the goal. We’re all, What?! John? I’m Sean!
We start walking, keep talking. He’s all, Well shoot, walked a shit ton today, my knee’s fucked, and I got blisters like a muhfucker. Tall, lanky. Six foot five maybe. Older than me. Ethnically ambiguous, looks mixed, Native almost. Been bouncing around jobs—Burger King manager, seller of used cars. Never been west of Nashville. Wants to walk up on a Native American reservation, ask a shaman what he should do with his life. Tells me he slept on a roof last night. Just climbed a ladder, following a hunch, and crashed out.
I mean, I’d just been thinking I’m done, can’t keep this up with the blisters. But John’s all, Dude, you kidding me? I have blisters all over my feet. You just gotta ignore that shit!
Sun just eclipsed the horizon but still walking, fuck it.
Sunday, March 16 (Full Moon)
Past Coatesville, we book it to … It’s not even a town. Just this major intersection on U.S. 30. With like a McDonald’s, a Walmart Supercenter …
Basking in the comfort of free Wi-Fi, coffee refills, and what becomes basically a Q&A with some McDonald’s employees, teenagers, interrogating me about my degree of vagrancy, I completely neglect to check the weather. Turns out it’s set to snow, and the temp all of a sudden just plummets.
John starts suggesting spots. Behind the Walmart. This trailer that’s just like the back of a semi, parked smack center of the Walmart parking lot. I’m all, I don’t know, bro, that’s a little too sketch. Keep feeling like there’s something conspicuous about camping together. Somehow there’s, like, premeditation there. Whereas, if caught camping alone, can just be like, Was walking, it got dark and cold, had to crash out! We finally decide, or I insist, to go our separate ways and “reconvene in the morning.”