“The magic of the street is the mingling of the errand and the epiphany.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking
When I was young, I became restless each spring, and, having no acceptable outlet, I often made self-destructive choices. All my life, I wanted to answer that springtime restlessness with wandering and freedom that came without guilt or harm. Now here I am on a three-month wander, only to discover that wandering isn’t so easy after a lifetime of structured time.
In 11 days, 11 states, and 2200 miles so far, my approach is basically working. The bones of my skeleton plan are anchor destinations, usually visits to see old friends, with enough days in between to genuinely wander. I’ve been challenged, though, to find a balance each day between the travel and the destination. The knowledge that I have a general direction, and people who expect me to arrive, tugs at me when my curiosity tells me to explore another roadside attraction, promising state park, or scenic highway detour.
To learn to wander, I’ve turned off the GPS (sometimes). (Thanks to my dear husband for pointing out that the faded road atlas in my car was 2003 vintage, and for buying me a new one!) Some days I pick a direction, and at least one goal—generally some hiking mileage—and then I see what comes along. I seek out post offices and grocery stores that force me to drive around in new towns and ask for directions. I avoid big cities and interstate highways. When I do use the GPS, I pick out-of-the way waypoints and “alt” routes instead of “quick” or “short.” In restaurants, I eat at the bar and look for people who might want to talk, or I talk to bartenders. I talk to clerks in stores where I’m the only customer.
Of course, the destinations have also been pretty outstanding. I’ve been reading Jill Lapore’s terrific American history, These Truths, and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi, books that have been a lens for my wander down the east coast, from Valley Forge, to Gettysburg, to Harper’s Ferry, along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, and to the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.
The wild places have also nourished me. I’ve hiked several short segments of the Appalachian Trail, at the Delaware Water Gap, Harper’s Ferry, Shenandoah National Park, and the Nantahala National Forest. I hiked along the forever-preserved section of the New River in North Carolina (where I must return for a kayak camping journey), and yesterday I spent the day wandering the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. As I look at that list, I realize how packed this first week and a half has actually been.
But by far my favorite part of the travelling is hearing strangers’ stories.
At a motel in Harper’s Ferry, I pulled my big duffle out of the car for the first time to lighten my wardrobe for the coming of spring and to find a remedy for the sudden onset of allergy season. (It was winter when I left home and 60 in West Virginia.) Half an hour later the front desk clerk knocked on my door to ask if I lost my camera, which I had apparently dropped in the parking lot while unloading. This incident perfectly illustrates the advantage of travelling in cold places in March: about two rooms in the hotel were occupied, so it wasn’t rocket surgery to figure out who was missing her camera.
I rushed out to thank the middle-aged, worn-out looking white man in a ratty yachting cap who turned the camera in at the front desk.
“I saw this case under my car. You know how these days you worry maybe it’s a bomb or something, but we…me and my wife…this is my wife, Angela…we saw you out there,” he said in a long-time smoker’s throaty rasp. I saw and felt his tremor when he first shook my hand and then pulled me into a bear hug. I was too grateful to be put off by his show of affection to a stranger. “I thought maybe it was full of money. I guess in a way it was,” he said. At my profuse thanks, he said, “I know you would have done the same thing.”
This guy had all the outward appearance of a down-and-out alcoholic, and he and Angela seemed to be living at the motel. I looked for him in the morning to thank him again and maybe learn his story. “We’re from Biloxi,” he said after hugging me again. “Angela lost her job and I’m retired military. We just moved here and we’re looking for a place to rent.” Angela, an African American woman perhaps my age had walked away to smoke her cigarette in peace. I wanted to keep talking, but he walked away as I reflected to myself how often I judge outward appearance, and how honest and kind this man had been.
In Lexington, VA, in search of a postcard (not as easy to find as they were before the age of email), I was directed to a Victorian tchotchke store. Lexington is home to the Virginia Military Institute, and the military connection is readily observable everywhere, from the dress of the buff young people on the street to the ubiquitous “yes ma’aming.” The Victorian Attic was empty save for me and the young, male clerk with the military haircut, abundant beard and physique of a weight lifter, who looked a bit incongruous among the perfumed soaps, candles, embroidered pillows and doilies. But upstairs in a back corner he did stock postcards.
He sold me a postcard of the Skyline Drive, and a stamp, for 86 cents and gave me directions to the post office, but, he said, “You don’t have to go to the post office to mail that. There’s a mailbox right out front. Here’s a pen. You can write it out right here, on the counter.”
While I tried to write the postcard, he tried to tell me his life story. After high school, he served eight years in the Marines. “I would have continued, but they didn’t want me anymore. Besides, by that time, I had a daughter with my ex-wife.”
He continued, “I’m still a little sad I didn’t go to Afghanistan. I did get to go to Korea. I even went to North Korea, actually to the DMZ, to the building where they hold joint talks on the border. You can walk across the room and be in North Korea. But they warn you when you’re in the DMZ that the North Koreans are always spying on you through binoculars so you better act right.”
He said, “I hated Japan. It was cold. I was in the artillery, but I was luckier than the guys who actually loaded the guns. I just had to hand them the shells. They were the ones with the cold hands. I think we were near Nagasaki.”
When he got out of the Marines, the retired Sargent Major who owned the Victorian Attic offered him a job, and he has been working there ever since, even though the place had changed hands. Every tourist town in horse country needs a Victorian tchotchke shop. Why should it not be run by ex-Marines? It was very hard to get my postcard written, but I loved hearing his story.
As you can imagine, I have collected a lot of stories, perhaps under the influence of William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highway, which I have also been reading along the way. Next time I’ll tell you about the guy says his invention will eliminate the need for fiber broadband to the home.
Marcel Proust said, “The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Maybe that’s the central reason for my voyage: I believe new landscapes can help you find new eyes…and ears.