everyone kept telling me before i started;
“take lots of pictures of oregon…. it is so pretty and green!”
well, i did not get lots of pictures of oregon.
like everything else on my journey,
the image of the green strip of west oregon is burned into my memory.
but green is not what i think of when i think of oregon.
oregon, to me,
will always be the great sandy desert.
from burns to bend,
the great sandy desert was the most challenging stretch of road on the entire trip.
a long, low hill 15 or 20 miles to the south.
a long, low hill 15 or 20 miles to the north.
a long, low hill 15 or 20 miles in front of me.
and nothing in between,
except a sandy plain of sagebrush.
dark green western juniper dotted the hills,
and encroached here and there among the sagebrush.
the relentless desert sun beat down thru a cloudless sky.
as i limped along slowly
my feet and legs battered by the 3,000 miles of road it had taken to get there.
the endless road stretched ahead
arrow straight for 20 or 25 miles at a pop.
day after day i trudged along with unchanging scenery.
not similar scenery.
the exact same scenery all day long.
the same hills never seeming to move.
not a side road.
not a drainage.
nary a house or outbuilding.
nothing to show that i was actually progressing at all,
except the legs that kept moving,
powered by what i no longer knew.
sometimes i thought the great sandy desert would never end.
sometimes i thought i had already been there forever.
the routine became an endless nightmare.
awake to the alarm,
tape my feet,
throw the little stuff i had gotten out back in my luggage
and head for the road to arrive by sunup.
13 hours of walking
before sunset drove me off the road.
i was going too slow to afford the time.
leave at sundown,
hurrying to eat and shower
so i could be in bed as quickly as possible.
hoping to sleep…
as soon as the pain in my legs and feet subsided.
and then when i did sleep,
a restless sleep
where i walked in my dreams all night.
and awoke frustrated to find myself in bed
and had to walk it all over again.
did i hate it?
(well, maybe a little)
there could be no better way to absorb the power
and the magnificent loneliness
of the great sandy desert.
the huge, barren emptiness
a marvel in and of itself.
those passing thru this vastness in cars;
undoubtedly miserable during their mere hours of passage.
those people could never truly feel the immensity
they could never find the stark beauty
of oregon’s great empty.
what i did on my summer vacation
was to trek slowly across america on aging legs.
i began by dipping my toes in the atlantic in newport, rhode island.
then i wandered 77 miles north and east to the boston commons
before turning my back on the sunrise and heading west.
over the continental divide
thru big cities where i was often lost
over mountain ranges
(i never knew existed)
on gravel roads
and then into upstate new york
the legs kept turning
from albany to buffalo
after buffalo i walked across the land below lake erie;
thru pennsylvania and into ohio.
thru cleveland, and toledo
and on thru indiana to chicago.
sometimes i traveled alone
my world in a pack on my back.
sometimes i had crews
and the pack rode in the back of a car.
but oh the things i saw
and the people i met.
on and on,
my legs kept turning.
tiny steps adding up inexorably
the tens of miles turned into the hundreds
and then a thousand came and went.
thru illinois to rockford,
where impassable roads forced me to detour
all the way into wisconsin
to find my way to dubuque
where i crossed the mighty mississippi into iowa.
everywhere i went
i found surprises.
there is so much to be seen
when we go slow enough to see the individual threads
in the tapestry of america.
halfway across iowa i found myself forced into more detours.
left with no choice but to travel north and south
before i could find a new opening west.
moving west had become my everything.
i could barely remember my destination,
but instead followed the compass,
like a migrating animal.
i left iowa behind
and moved on to nebraska.
crews had become my lifeline
they came and they went.
the featureless west turned out to be
an endless jigsaw of unique geographical areas.
the seeming sameness of the desert stripped away
by the time to see that details of the landscape.
and the legs just kept going.
on and on.
2,000 miles came and went,
like all the miles before.
spring had passed
and in the heat of summer
i walked thru the night
and slept away the hot afternoons.
empty roads and star filled skies
the wonder of shooting stars
and satellites making their silent passage.
little cities came and went.
ever further apart.
and as i approached the land of lions and bears
i switched back to walking the days.
and sleeping away the nights.
wyoming was next.
i was in the land of endless ranches
but the mountains made me wait.
while i crossed the endless expanse of the high plains.
happy days on open range roads
and interstates alike.
amazing sights at every turn.
i had embarked on my journey thinking the high mountain passes would be my biggest test.
but the test was every step.
my legs just kept going.
long hours without a break.
the test was getting up each day
and taping my feet.
i longed for a day
when i did not get up and tape my feet.
the test was finding an answer for each injury
if not to treat and cure,
to patch and compensate
so my legs could keep turning
crossing a continent in an unbroken series of footprints.
the test was to push back the pain at night
when it seemed my body was broken
and seek the renewal of sleep
so that it could push on tomorrow…
even if i did dream each night
only of walking
and awoke angry
that i had to walk those miles all over again.
where the sun was so close that i had to duck my head
lest my straw hat catch fire.
where the asphalt turned into a thick liquid goo,
and melted the end of my walking stick.
where i added a hailstorm
to the electrical storms, floods, tornadoes, and even an earthquake that i had walked thru.
after all the adventures i had been thru
the high mountain passes seemed like nothing.
after all the mountains i had climbed
what were a few more?
my legs kept turning.
it mattered little,
uphill, down, or flat,
10,000 feet above sea level
i had become a metronome.
a slow metronome.
all i needed to measure distance was my watch.
i knew within a few seconds
the time it took for each mile.
by wyoming it had become a race.
and a miracle.
after the disastrous detours in illinois and iowa
i was far behind schedule.
i expected each crew to be the last.
to find myself alone in some motel
figuring out how i would get home.
but people were the greatest discovery on my journey.
from the countless strangers
who stopped to offer help
or simply handed me a bottle of cold water
to quench my thirst,
to the unending stream of people who came to help me continue my quest.
and people i had never met
who traveled across the country
and gave their valuable time
to get me another day down the road.
sometimes i think i wasted my life
seeking the riches of experience
over the accumulation of wealth.
but this outpouring of generosity from the community in which i live
left me marveling at the extent of the real fortune i had amassed…
idaho came with a fresh set of surprises.
it seems like every state is filled with secrets.
not hidden secrets.
they are plainly visible from the road.
but we cannot truly see them
except at foot speed.
already i had seen more america in one summer
than those poor unfortunate bastards speeding past me in cars
will see in a lifetime of vacations.
the automobile is a wonderful device.
traveling one step at a time
i could not help but envy the speed with which it can get places.
but, it is also a trap.
locking us in a prison
of metal and glass
deluded into thinking we can see what we are passing.
even when they stop
the prisoners cannot take in what is around them
because they are in too much of a hurry to get where they are going next
to enjoy where they are now.
in idaho i was searching for shortcuts.
desperately trying to milk my failing body into a finish before my time ran out.
and in this search came another unexpected surprise.
all across america i had followed in the footsteps of pioneers.
from the first americans,
to the earliest european explorers of the east coast
the pilgrims, the dutch, the french,
the english and the irish
i had traveled the same paths as slavs and mediteraneans
mormons and quakers
and in the remote mountain passes of western idaho
and eastern oregon
i found myself on the “cutoffs” taken by others seeking shortcuts on the most famous path american migration route of all;
the oregon trail.
all the way across america
in my legs i could feel the weariness of those who came that way on foot before me.
and in those rugged, mountains of igneous rock
i could hear the curses of anyone trying to maneuver a covered wagon thru those passes.
did they not question why the main road went the long way around?
i know i did.
but with only my two feet,
i could travel just as fast on rugged terrain as on the flat.
they probably often lost more time than they saved,
but i had done that on a few of my shortcuts myself.
i guess we were all just desperate to reach our destination.
it seemed like i had been traveling a lifetime
when i finally came to oregon.
still more than 450 miles from my goal
it seemed i had yet another lifetime to go.
if i were at home,
i would not have started a 5 mile walk with my feet and legs in the shape they were in.
here i faced more mountains
more high desert
the great basin
the great sandy desert
and then more mountains
the willamette valley….
and still more mountains!
each day, i simply lived that day.
each step, i simply took that step.
i tried to patch the wounds
and prayed that my legs would continue.
i had long since passed the point where i had any idea what kept them going.
but they kept going.
i told them to go,
and they simply kept going.
3,000 miles came and went.
and still they answered the command.
leaving me to wonder how far it is possible for us to go
if we simply keep telling our legs to move.
summer had turned to fall
and the mornings got colder every day.
i found myself racing the sun
trying to start as soon as it was light enough to be safe
and walk till it was getting too dark.
the approach of the pacific was welcomed
as much because i wanted to be done before the weather turned harsh
as the sheer desire for the journey to be over.
my most ardent desire,
the thing i longed for most
was to wake up and not tape my feet.
a few days before i reached the green part of oregon
i finally cut my distance down to where i knew i could finish on time.
the frantic sprint to make up lost time was behind me.
all i had to do was keep my legs moving.
the last few days were almost anticlimactic.
i walked along enjoying the last few surprises.
the last few days spent on the road with friends;
both new and old.
i had wondered what emotions i would feel
when i first caught sight of the ocean.
but it was just another landmark,
like so many before.
and when i got there,
i wondered if there would be a tinge of sadness
that my great journey was over.
instead i was just irritated that there was a steep hill to climb down to the beach….
because it meant i would have to climb back up it before i was truly done
i just went down to the ocean,
and waited on a retreating wave to chase down and slap my shoe sole in the surf.
(keeping my feet dry had become an obsession)
then i climbed back up that dam hill,
and sat down to contemplate.
all i could think was that i was glad my legs had held up long enough to make it….
and that i was not going to have to tape my feet tomorrow.
ps. to tell the whole story would take a book.
every day was an adventure,
full of fresh surprises.
so many obstacles reared their heads along the way.
many of my fondest memories are of the particularly difficult problems….
figuring out a solution,
then looking back with a sense of victory,
before turning west
and walking on.
it was, all in all,
the adventure of a lifetime.
but i really should not have waited until i was so old.