Before I started my journey, when I first decided I would write a blog during the trip, I made a pledge to myself that I would try not to hold anything back when it came to my thoughts and experiences. I knew there was bound to be good times as well as bad, and I knew that I’d be experiencing such a wide range of emotions and feelings on such an epic undertaking. That’s why I feel I’d be remiss not to talk about the thing that’s been in the forefront of my thoughts today.
I should probably give a little background on the situation first. My parents were very young when I was born, my mom was 16 and my dad was 18. I have a younger sister and brother, and that my parents stayed married until just shy of my brother’s 18th birthday is nothing short of amazing. Sure, they had their share of arguments like any married couple–my mom saw my dad as lazy, and he just thought she nagged too much–but I’d say I had a pretty normal childhood. But in the later years, the arguments became more than mere bickering, so when my parents announced they were getting a divorce it didn’t surprise me.
Actually, I could already sense it coming with the change in behavior in my father, and if that wasn’t enough to tip me off, a call to me asking, “If your mom and I split up, how soon would be too soon to start dating?” was a big hint. Now I was always more successful academically growing up. I played some sports, but my dad shared a different bond with my brother, who was actually good at them. After the split, there would be periods where he would seem interested in our lives, followed by weeks where he wouldn’t talk at all. This didn’t bother me much, but I could tell it was really affecting my brother. As for my sister, she had a young daughter and son and told him she wouldn’t stand for a grandpa who would come and go into the kids’ lives. Somehow this all led to a falling out, and I hadn’t spoken to him in over two years.
Early on in the run I would think about him from time to time. I wondered if he knew about what I was doing. Secretly, I wanted him to know, and one day while checking my email in a Missouri motel I found out that he did. He had sent me an email telling me that he was proud of me, and how it broke his heart that we didn’t even talk anymore. I was glad to be reconnected with him, and was eager to start putting the past behind us and start moving forward. However, it wasn’t to be. Like many times before, he turned from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. He wrote back, accusing me of neglecting him and his entire family, blaming me for putting him through all of this pain, and calling himself a martyr for sacrificing 20 years of his life to raise me and my siblings.
Somehow though, emailing me wasn’t enough. He tried posting to my blog, and even in the comments section of the Tulsa World article about my run to throw a pity party for himself, even going as far as to request that I change my last name because I allegedly hate that family. The nerve of this guy! I’ve tried to be as forgiving as possible through all of this, but I feel he crossed the line when he tried to make what should be a very private matter public.
However, it’s not anger that has been at the forefront of my thoughts today. I still believe there’s a part of him that really is proud of me and really does love me, as well as his other estranged children and grandchildren. Today I’ve mostly wondered when, if ever, he will realize what he is missing–especially with my sister and her family. He has two grandchildren that are now 4 and 5 years old, and he has missed out on making many precious memories with them in probably the most important years of their lives. If this is all just a game to him, I hope he realizes soon that he’s the one with everything to lose.
It’s also made me think a lot about family. They say that blood is thicker than water, but that in my mind is a definition of a relative, not a family member. Blood alone doesn’t make a family, and I wouldn’t even count it as a prerequisite. I’ve been fortunate in my life, and even on this trip, to know and feel part of many different families, and to me being part of a family is about selfless giving and caring above all else. When my father realizes and internalizes this, I’ll be willing to welcome him back into my family.
Oh, also, I got bitten by a dog today. How did I not even mention that?! I’m ok though, just one of the many challenges I face trying to get from one end of the country to the other on foot!
Today will mark three months to the day since I left Boston. I’ve usually tried to stick to state highways or smaller roads, but in Missouri I had often walked on the interstate–I found it safer to be on the shoulder than following the parallel Route 66, which had no shoulders and many steep hills and sudden curves that restricted the visibility of oncoming motorists. However, upon entering Oklahoma, the interstate became a turnpike, which actually didn’t affect the road surface any, but did affect a certain police officer’s attitude towards it, and me.
Now, I’ve been stopped by many police officers along the way. Most of them were responding to a call from somebody thinking I’m stranded and have a baby with me. I tell them my story and they let me carry on, and once one even gave me a $5 donation! But the cop that stopped me on the turnpike was on some kind of power trip. I tried pleading my case to him to let me continue on foot at least until the next exit, but he just kept looking at me from behind his dark sunglasses saying that it wasn’t an option. It was either his way or the highway. Well, not even the highway. He said my only options were to have him drop me off at the next exit or he’d have to take me to jail if I tried to keep going. Well, out of those two I was leaning towards jail. I wasn’t about to let this jerk ruin the 1,800 miles of effort I’d put in so far. My mind was searching, there had to be another way.
Finally, we came to an agreement. He would let me climb up an overpass and hop a fence to get on a country road and take the backroads into town. I agreed, but soon discovered this wasn’t as easy as it sounded. The hill to the overpass was steep, and covered with tall grass and weeds. Some of the weeds had thorns and pickers that I could feel even through my pants as I fought to keep the weight of the cart from pushing me back down the hill. I thought the worst was over when I got to the top, until I saw the fence.
The fence was about four feet high, with barbed wire at the top. I definitely wasn’t going to be able to simply ‘hop’ it as suggested. I searched up and down the length of the fence to see if I could find an opening. There was nothing. The best spot I could find was near the top of the hill where a small tree was leaning against the fence. I was able to maneuver the tree so it pushed the barbed wire down a foot or so, which was fine for me to cross, but I still had the stroller to deal with. I was angry. Didn’t that cop realize how much that thing weighed? It’s not like I was pushing an empty cart around. Wait! That was it! I started throwing stuff out of the cart over the fence until it was mostly empty. Then I balanced on the tree and pulled the cart over, then hopped off to the other side. I made it!
It wasn’t very long before the anger and frustration of dealing with the police officer subsided. I was walking along a dirt country road that was quite peaceful, and there wasn’t a cloud or car in sight. Soon, a little black and brown Rottweiler puppy joined me. He would run ahead a short distance and then turn and wait for me to catch up only to sprint off again, or he would pounce into a patch of weeds on the side of the road as if to scare off a critter. That little pup didn’t have a care in the world. He was playful and fun and enjoying life, and he reminded me there’s no reason I shouldn’t be like that.
If I try hard enough, I can remember the feeling I had leaving Chicago about a month ago to continue my trip. I felt a bit reluctant and uneasy, knowing that each step I took was taking me farther and farther away from last familiar place along my route. But that feeling has all but disappeared after being welcomed into four different homes during my trek across Missouri. Even in as little as a day or two I’ve felt like part of two families I had never even met before, playing ‘pick the winners’ with Mike and the boys at the Migliara’s, and carving pumpkins with Jay, Kirsten, and the girls at the Gibbs’s.
Staying as a guest with all of these different folks in so few days has made me think a bit about the relationship between a guest and a host. For some people, like my aunt, being a host just comes naturally. She’s always having friends and family over at her cottage in northern Michigan, and any event or party she hosts just has a natural flow where everyone can just purely enjoy themselves. But I’ve also been to various places where things didn’t have that flow, regardless of how much the host tried to be a ‘good’ host and the guests behaved like ‘good’ guests.
I’d often wondered why this difference existed, and I believe it’s because sometimes we become aware of ourselves. Imagine you’re having a few friends over for a small gathering. Suddenly in the middle of a conversation you may realize, “Oh, I’m the host, what would a good host do right now? Should I offer my guest a drink?” That moment of sudden self-awareness pulls you right out of the genuine interaction you’re having with someone and casts you as a character in a play in your own mind. The organic moment you were both enjoying now feels slightly contrived, even though your intentions are good.
In college, I gained my own experience as a host when my seven roommates and I would throw parties at our big red house we affectionately called ‘The Barn.’ What I learned was that the role of a host really only exists before and after the party. You gather all the things you know you’ll need during the event, such as cold beverages and a party music playlist (usually hand-selected by Dave), and you accept that there’s going to be clean up work required afterward (which was almost always fully completed by Zack by the time anyone else woke up.) Once the guests arrive, you just exist in the moment, allowing everything to come as it may.
On my way into Springfield, Missouri, I reached mile 1,700, which puts me by the numbers in the second half of my journey. I’m trying not to think of how far I’ve come or how far I’ve yet to go, but just enjoying where I’m at every moment. It’s difficult at times, but I feel it’s the way I should be focusing my energy. I’ll leave you with a passage from the book I’m currently reading, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which says it better than I can:
Our life can be seen as a crossing of a river. The goal of our life’s effort is to reach the other shore, Nirvana. The true wisdom of life is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached. To reach the other shore with each step of the crossing is the way of true living.
I’ve crossed the Mississippi and stepped through the Gateway Arch, I’m officially in the West! Crossing into Missouri and spending the weekend in Saint Louis has been an amazing experience, but before I get into that I should put it into perspective. Last week I was talking about a ‘fear of the unknown’, which probably isn’t the best way to describe what I had been feeling, but after another week of crossing the plains of central Illinois I have a better grasp on what I was trying to describe.
There was a transition taking place during my week off in Chicago, the change of seasons. I was striding up the lake shore path enjoying the Summer sun and 70 degree weather, but when I hit the road the next week Fall was in full force. Also, most of Route 66 through Illinois is pretty boring between towns–train tracks and cornfields on the left, freeway and more cornfields on the right. When you mix together the 45 degree temps, completely overcast skies, days of endless rain and drizzle, and unchanging, flat scenery, you get a pretty depressing result.
There are a lot of parallels in life to this type of depression. It’s something we face in many different forms, a transition period where we are leaving something comfortable and familiar behind in favor of something we are sure is better in the long run, but requires some struggle to get there. Maybe after a difficult break up, or the beginning of a diet or training regiment, sometimes the gray skies don’t clear right away we seek the comfort of what we had before, ignoring what we know and feel in our hearts that the sun is behind those clouds and better days lie ahead. Well, the sun literally and figuratively came out for me on Saturday morning.
I’d been looking forward to Saint Louis for some time, it’s the biggest city on my route that I’ve never visited before, and I was excited to cross the Mississippi and see the Arch. I also knew I had a couple friends that lived there that I’d be able to visit. One was a buddy from college, Reid, whom I already had contacted and planned to stay with. The other, Matt, was a friend I had known since 4th grade and had been a very close friend all the way through high school, but I hadn’t seen or talked to him in 7 years. I knew he was in Saint Louis from his Facebook page, so the night before I arrived I thought I would surprise him with an email letting him know I would be in town for the weekend. However, I was the one surprised when I got his voicemail message the next morning: “Hey Joe, this is Matt. Yeah, I’d love to see you while your in town, and I have something you might be interested in doing. There’s a wedding reception I’ll be going to tomorrow night. Mine.”
Now it definitely took some time to fathom what just happened. We all have those times where things fall into place in such a natural way that we classify it as fate or karma or God or simply say “Everything happens for a reason,” but I don’t even know how to begin to classify this event. What are the odds first of all that I’d even undertake a cross-country trek, then factor in that I hardly know what city I’ll be in more than a week in advance, and somehow I end up randomly reuniting with my elementary school best friend on the day of his wedding? Simply indescribable!
I know I’ve still got a long way to go, but this feeling of coming full-circle will surely help me for more depressing and lonely times I’ll face ahead. I’ll keep this experience in my pocket for the next time I’m wondering why I’m wandering through gray skies when I don’t know what lies ahead, because it’s the not knowing that allows what finally comes to fruition to be something above and beyond anything I could even imagine!
After a little more than a week of rest in Chicago, I’d all but forgotten I was in the middle of a cross-country run. Yes I had covered over 1,100 miles, but somehow being on the road again felt strangely new to me. As I was reluctantly making those first steps onward, I became aware of an emotion I hadn’t fully experienced yet on this trip–fear.
Now I’m not really talking about fear in the most literal sense. Sure, I felt a sense of fear when a motorist stopped me near dusk in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts to warn me she had seen a bear crossing the road a few miles ahead. But that fear was more a sense of terror that brought my mind and body to a heightened state of fight-or-flight awareness–a hormonal adrenaline rush more than anything else.
The fear that now surfaces is a fear of the unknown; a fear that lingers in my mind as it grinds away trying to solve a problem that has no solution. With the bear, it’s easy to rationally think of the possible outcomes in the event of an encounter. I have many options of what to do if a bear were to attack: run, play dead, somehow try to fight it; but only three possible outcomes: I either end up unharmed, injured to some degree, or dead.
Leaving the familiarity of Chicago I was entering the unknown, physically, mentally, and spiritually. The feeling brought me back to the days when the idea of doing this journey had invaded my thoughts and kept me up nearly every night. One particular night I was lying awake with a pen and a notepad, jotting down any thought that would pop in my head. The thoughts were pretty random and mostly unrelated, but they formed a steady stream of consciousness that seemed to be flowing somewhere.
It’s difficult to put into words what exactly I was thinking or where the thoughts were leading, but I finally reached a climax when I went to grab some McDonald’s breakfast after a full night of swirling thoughts. One particular idea suddenly led to a revelation. It seemed there was a simple formula to achieve success in any given profession or game or endeavor–all one needed was an understanding of the rules of the particular system, and the execution of the actions required to meet the conditions for success according to those rules. I briefly saw in that instant that so much of our world is comprised of these systems and rules that are not real, tangible things. I was looking at the Matrix! I felt an overwhelming rush of excitement with the feeling that whatever I decided to do, I could be successful by applying that basic formula. But immediately following that was a wave of fear that I’ve never felt before. Being unplugged from the Matrix brought me face to face with an odd realization: knowing I had the potential to do whatever I wanted, what was it that I wanted to do? Feeling this immense excitement and fear simultaneously, I began laughing and crying at the same time.