Exiting the subway and walking up the steps to the crossroads of Clark and Division in Chicago, I finally felt for the first time in over half a year that I was going home. I was surrounded by the familiar sights and sounds of the city, and the crisp, cold wind reminded me that I was no longer in sunny California. I followed the same path I would normally take towards my apartment, but that wasn’t where I was going–after all, that apartment has a new tenant, and most of the items that used to fill it are in boxes in a basement in Michigan.
No, this time I was going to the spa in the building next door to get a massage. I’d never had one before, but I figured if ever I deserved to pamper myself with a massage this was surely the time. The masseuse commented on my out-of-season tan, and I told her I had just finished walking across the country. I spent the next hour lying there face down on the table telling stories of my many adventures (and misadventures) of the last six months, interrupted by the occasional groan of pain as she’d knead a new area of my body, tightly knotted from over 3,400 miles of abuse. Afterward, she told me that I had just become her all-time number one most interesting client, and wondered how she was going to make it through the next few days with all of the clients that were sure to be boring in comparison. And it made me wonder: how was I going to get through the next few years of my life?
It’s been over a week now since I completed my goal of crossing America on foot, but I still can’t wrap my head around the magnitude of what I’ve done. My family put together a victory party fundraiser in my honor last weekend, and even after being told by many friends, family members, and strangers about what an incredible accomplishment this is, I don’t feel much different. In fact, that final day when I reached the Pacific was somewhat anticlimactic. I had imagined that moment at least a hundred times during the journey, and each time I thought about it I would feel a rush of energy as I pictured myself taking those first steps into the ocean. Perhaps that’s why the actual event didn’t have the same effect–I’d already been here one hundred times before.
Now the only question left unanswered is “What’s next?” Initially I started this journey to answer that question, but now I find myself even further from an answer. I’ve seen many new places, met a lot of interesting people, and opened myself up to new possibilities. I’m uncertain what the future holds for me, but does anybody ever really know?
Wow, it’s been a while since I wrote one of these things, thanks everyone for being so patient. The last couple weeks have really flown by, and here I am only three days away from the finish line! I passed through the entire state of Arizona and most of California since my last post, so maybe that is a good place to start.
Arizona is an amazing state. I still can’t wrap my head around how beautiful the scenery is there. Not only is it pretty, it varies so wildly and quickly too. In just one day (30 miles) I went from2 feet of snow in the mountains of Flagstaff to the green plant life and scenic red rock formations of Sedona. That evening I was disappointed when looking through all of the pictures I took; none of them came close to capturing the beauty I saw. And if I can’t capture it in pictures, I won’t even bother with words.
The picturesque landscape wasn’t my only reward in Sedona though. For the second time on my trip I encountered someone with a book I was currently reading. This time it was Power vs. Force, a book about consciousness and human behavior I had stumbled across when thumbing through psychology books at Borders. Noticing that book on my host’s bookshelf served as an ice breaker for some very interesting and rewarding conversations over the course of the night.
I stayed with Bonnie and Bob again two nights later in Prescott Valley, and in the spirit of our previous conversations about the search for meaning and enlightenment, we went to see a performance by a group called Here 2 Here that performs in a wide variety of genres with lyrics inspired by higher consciousness. After the show, we talked to one of the singers and the subject of my trip came up. He said that the name of their tour is “The Waking Journey”, which many people confuse as “walking journey” and they have been asked multiple times if they are walking between all of the destinations on the tour. Now they can tell their fans that they have indeed encountered someone on a walking journey.
I don’t know what to expect to feel when I reach the Pacific in three days, or when I catch my first glimpse of the ocean in the distance. I do know though that when I reach it my journey will be over, but it certainly doesn’t feel like that. Many people have told me that this will mark an amazing accomplishment, or will likely be the greatest experience of my life. As nice as that sounds, I certainly hope they are wrong. I’m young, and like to think I have a long life ahead of me, and if this is as good as it gets then it must mean I didn’t try hard enough for the last two thirds of my life. I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of my spiritual side. When I reach that pier in three days the walking journey will end, but my waking journey is only just beginning.
It’s been about a week and a half since I’ve returned to the run after taking a break for Christmas and New Years, and I’m finally starting to get back into the swing of things. Though the vacation was nice, I was surprised how quickly I fell back into my old habits, even after being away from home for nearly three months. Watching too much TV, playing too many video games, eating unhealthy, indulging in all of those mindless actions I had tried to free myself from over the course of the journey. It made readjusting to the run a difficult process–after all, the cross-country journey requires patience, diligence, discipline, and hard work, but if the holiday break was any indication, those efforts weren’t bearing any fruit. I was beginning to question why I was even continuing this quest.
I’m not sure why falling back into my old behavior patterns surprised me, seeing as we humans are creatures of habit. Often when we think of a habit we have a bad connotation, like biting fingernails or smoking. (At Christmas, my grandpa told my sister that smoking is a $3,500 a year habit. Overhearing this, my grandma said, “If I had known that I would have married someone richer!”) But in fact, we develop habits mostly as a survival mechanism. The human brain is designed to recognize patterns, and once it learns responses to these patterns, it starts to ingrain automatic responses into our subconscious so that we don’t have to waste time thinking about a response for every situation. Even our own personalities are a collection of habits containing preferred actions and responses for when we interact others.
It’s the subconscious nature of habits that makes it difficult to change our diets or change the way we treat people. To change a habit, we have to pull the decision making process back into our conscious awareness. Not just once, but every time a pattern arises that would generate the behavior we are trying to correct. New Years has always been one of my favorite holidays because it gives me a reason or excuse to redouble my efforts toward this process of self improvement.
This year, my resolutions are to finish walking across the country, quit drinking soda, and become more positive in the way I talk to myself and others. The first is obviously in progress, as is the second. I’ve been pop-free for over two weeks now, and I’m proud to say so has my brother (we even went through the worst of the caffeine withdrawal headaches at the same time.) The third will take a lot of time and work, but there are proven benefits to having a positive mindset and attitude, especially when working to change habits. I’ll save the talk about those benefits another time, probably when I myself need to be reminded of them. For now, I’d like to wish everybody a happy and healthy 2010, and good luck on any resolutions you may have for the New Year! And feel free to share any of your own personal resolutions here, I’m interested to see what habits others are striving to change!
The wind is blowing fiercely now, incessant, drawing tears from my eyes and drying them into white streaks of salt. I know that I still have to keep pushing to get to the stopping point I have planed, a rest area 2 miles ahead where I’ll set up camp. It’s me in a race against the sun, but the long shadows cast by the pebbles on the highway shoulder tell me it’s a race I’m about to lose.
The sun recedes from the cloudless sky without much fanfare, ducking behind the ridge of a mesa miles ahead. The coming darkness of dusk reveals something in the distance, the towering light posts of the rest stop ahead. I know it’s closed from the signs I saw a while back, but this is a good sign. It means I won’t have to worry about being disturbed by any motorists during the night.
When I reach the rest area, I see there are many picnic shelters, each with a roof, two high side walls, one back half-wall, and an open face. They are all oriented in different directions, so I choose one in back that has one of the side walls blocking the wind. It’s barely past six o’clock, but the sky beyond the rest area is already pitch black, and the disappearance of the sun has caused the temperature to drop suddenly. I sit at the picnic table and log on to my computer to update my progress and consider reading one of the books I have, but the wind and chill soon remove those ambitions. My priority quickly shifts to getting into the sleeping bag and huddling up against the side wall to keep warm.
It’s still early in the night, and the sun won’t rise for another twelve hours, but there’s not much I can do besides lay there on the concrete and wait for sleep. When sleep finally does come, it’s in increments of one hour or less, moving from one side, to my back, then to the other side to minimize the discomfort. By the time the sun rises though I’m already packed and ready to go–somehow I received a full night’s rest during all that tossing and turning.
Walking along the New Mexico highway I’m rewarded with some stunning views. Giant, wide open landscapes spotted with shrubs and cacti, and bordered by mesas and rocky cliffs. Even a roadrunner came out to play for a bit! The scenery here is unlike anything I’ve seen yet on the journey, but it signifies the most difficult leg of the trip. With less than 1,000 miles to go I’m entering the most challenging segment by far, both mentally and physically. Towns are spread so far apart that many nights will find me a day or two away from civilization in any direction. The Rocky Mountains are coming, meaning I have some uphill battles to face. Not to mention I’ll be doing this all during winter.
I had considered continuing on during the holiday season, which would put me a tent somewhere near the Arizona/New Mexico border on Christmas, and outside of Flagstaff for New Year’s Eve. I was debating whether or not it would be “cheating” to take some time of to visit with family and friends, but one specific incident finally tipped the scales for me.
On my way into New Mexico, an SUV pulled over and parked on the shoulder of the highway in front of me. As I approached it, a man and his wife and daughter got out and came to meet me. He said that he had seen me on the Amarillo news a couple days ago and then saw me walking along the side of the road the day before. He said that God had told him to give me some money, but that day he was already running late, so he couldn’t stop. He had told his wife about this that night, and she said if God really wanted it to happen then another way would present itself, and there I was. He handed me one hundred bucks and asked if I didn’t mind if he prayed for me. I said sure, I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I thought he meant that he and his family would keep me in his thoughts and prayers, or something like that, but he put his hand on my shoulder and linked up with his wife and daughter until we were all in a circle, bowed his head, and began to say a prayer aloud right then and there. Now I’m not a very religious person, but I found the gesture and the words very touching, and while I was there with his family I though about mine. I had already missed spending Thanksgiving with them, where I likely missed standing in a circle with them and saying grace, and then each saying what we were thankful for. It was then I knew the trip could wait a couple weeks, I’d go home and spend time with my family and friends, and New Mexico, Arizona, and California would still be there when I got back.
Sitting cross-legged, facing a wall. Counting my breaths. One. Am I doing this right? Is my posture correct? Straighten your back, pull your shoulders back. Two. Was that a good breath? Should I be breathing deeper? Three. My leg hurts, my foot is falling asleep, maybe I should readjust. Four. How far do I have to go tomorrow? 22 miles, ok, not bad. Five. Ok, how long has it been? 5 minutes. That’s it? 10 more minutes, I can keep this up for 10 more minutes, I walked for 8 hours today for crying out loud, I can handle 10 minutes. Six. Ok, this is tougher than I thought. Try to think of something. Wait, I’m not supposed to be thinking of anything. Seven.
I’ve decided to give this zen thing a chance. I’ve been reading a lot about it since I started the trip, but never sat down and tried it. In the books, zen masters describe a feeling of one-ness with your surroundings, and they call this experience enlightenment. In our minds, most of us see and experience daily life as us versus the world, not so much a struggle or competition as that may sound, but just that our mind and body is a separate entity from everything around us. I really can’t explain it much deeper than that since I myself haven’t experienced it, but I do know that before I started this journey I knew there was something I needed to discover about myself or about the world, and I believe this may be it.
As you can probably tell from the first paragraph, I still have a long way to go, but at least I am on the path. Reading about Zen Buddhism is pretty interesting, it can sound so simple and yet so complex at the same time. Maybe I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, so I’ll give it some time. I’ve also been reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It’s quite amazing to read a Roman emperor’s words that sound just as applicable today as they were nearly 2,000 years ago. He talks a lot about how to accept different people for who they are, and how to keep your mind and emotions under control when dealing with difficult people or circumstances. It’s hard to separate one good quote from his body of work, but here’s one I particularly like:
When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?