The way it goes, there’s not much story in the actual walking. The real story happens in the breaks, in the gaps, in the places you stop.
I picked up from Astoria, where my failed attempt had ended. From there through Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, on a mission to cross into New Jersey on the George Washington Bridge. I remember little things from that day; a field covered with frost and duck crap, on Randall Island. Stopping for a burger, in the Bronx, and answering questions from the manager about what I was trying to accomplish. He seemed too excited though, and recommended a more extreme approach; bushwhacking and survival tactics, avoiding civilization, and roads altogether. Hunting for food, and crafting my own supplies, like MineCraft with better graphics and fewer zombies. I think my reply was something along the lines of “Hell No!”
When I finally got to the Bridge, just before sunset, I found the walkway closed, due to windy conditions, and ice left from the blizzard, days earlier. After about 30 minutes of cursing at the sky, I made peace with the roadblock. We could call it a day; home was just over an hour away by train. I could get some sleep, and pick up at the bridge tomorrow.
But I didn’t want to go home.
Or more accurately, I didn’t want to have to leave from home, for a 3rd time; frankly, the big emotional send-off is a bit awkward if you do it more than once. So instead I texted a friend of mine. Throughout your life, there will be people who utter the phrase “don’t hesitate to reach out, if you need any help.” For the most part, it’s just a platitude; nice words they say because they’re expected. But occasionally, the person actually means it, and you can feel the weight of that trust. This friend falls squarely into the 2nd category. Her family welcomed me in, and gave me a room. Of course we stayed up until midnight talking and watching YouTube videos, though.
I walked 13 miles that day. 24 miles total.
Back at the bridge, in the morning; still closed to foot traffic. I took the loss, and rode a shuttle across. In Jersey, I walked through one neighborhood after another, through Overpeck Park, and then along highway 17 for a few stress filled miles. Because it was a divided highway, and I had to be on the far side of it, meant I had to walk with traffic, instead of against it. Just to hammer that point in: when you’re walking on the shoulder of a highway, pretending that the painted white line is any kind of protection from the cars zipping by at 50, 60, 80 miles per hour, the only real comfort is being able to see them coming. When they’re coming from behind you, it just adds an extra level of tension.
Boy, I sure hope no one swerves today; you’ll think, as you keep looking over your shoulder.
Snowed over sidewalks, and getting used to sore shoulders; I walked 11 miles on day 2. 35 total.
The sky was getting dark, and the temperature was dropping. I had to camp; pitch a tent, and hope to survive the night. It would be my 1st night in a tent (and I had only ever set it up once before, as practice, so of course I was a master at it.) But the biggest issue, and the point of dread, would be finding a place to camp in the first place; there aren’t exactly campgrounds all over the country, not within a days walk of each other anyway. How convenient would that be?
I’d have to be well-hidden, the last thing I want is for someone to stumble into my camp-spot, in the middle of the night, with a pointy object and mal-intent.
Nor did I particularly like the idea of being arrested, or worse: ticketed for trespassing. So this suburban neighborhood, nothing but private property and 3-story homes, presented a certain challenge. But it also presented a certain solution: yard-camping.
Knock on the wrong door, and they’ll call the cops, I thought, to myself. Knock on the really wrong door, and wind up dead. Not that I was really worried about that, after all, I’d read a book* about this; what could possibly go wrong? So there’s a lot of things to look for, and a lot of things to avoid, when you’re deciding to approach a total stranger for help and a place to camp. 1st of all, you want to make sure there’s a decent place to camp; that means grass; not gravel, not pavement. 2nd, you want cover; you don’t want to be visible from the road, or to passersby. Check the condition of the property, and the state of the home. If you’ve gotta play hopscotch, over so much trash and junk, just to reach the door; keep moving. If the place looks rundown; keep moving. You’re looking for signs of life; that people live here, and care for the world around them. And I would avoid overtly threatening signs, and political posters, because whatever side of politics they’re on, I’d rather not deal with it. The number of cars in the driveway, is a good indication, and if you can read any bumper stickers. The point is you don’t want to go in blind, just quickly scout the place as you’re walking by.
I walked up & down the streets of Carlstadt New Jersey, passing by one place and the next, for one reason or another, deemed unfit. Mostly though, I was stalling. I was apprehensive to ask for help, and it takes a certain level of desperation to overcome that.
As the sun continued to set, and the air got colder, I soon found the desperation required.
I stood on the sidewalk, looking at the house on the corner; the lawn was snowed over, and a tall line of hedges separated it from the street. It was a 3 story home, with a sloped roof and an attic window; 2 mailboxes and a blue door. The light was on in the 1st floor window, and the curtains were open; I could see the news playing on the TV. And then I nearly walked away. I stopped; now or never, I thought; realistically, the worst outcome is they say no, and I find a spot somewhere else.
I walked up to the door. Deep breath. I reach out and press the bell. And then wait.
It always seems like such a long time, when you’re waiting for someone to answer the door.
But maybe I just have more experience knocking on doors than most people. I thought of what I’d say: “Hi, my name is Michael. I’m walking across the country, as crazy as that sounds; and I’m hoping you won’t mind if I camp in your yard for the night.” I recited it over and over in my head; you only get one chance for a 1st impression, so you really got to sell it. You gotta smile, don’t look intimidating, but also don’t look like a pushover, in case they try something. Present yourself as self-reliant, because you are doing a thing; but also you are in a bit of a jam and need a favor, and that also needs to come across. By the time my inner monologue had finished, I wondered if maybe the home-owner wasn’t going to answer the door.
Then the door opened. A small, middle-aged woman, with dark hair, opened the door.
Her expression was clear enough to read, “who are you? What are you doing here?”
Except when she actually spoke the words, they were in Spanish. And it completely threw me off, I forgot my introduction, and I forgot any Spanish I knew, which admittedly isn’t much to forget. I’d been failing to learn Spanish, for my entire life, in spite of being Puerto Rican; it was a constant source of disappointment to every hispanic mother I’d ever met/ bumped into/ or passed on the street, because it always comes up. I’d like to think I recovered gracefully, but I know myself too well. More likely I bumbled my way through a poor explanation of my purpose, in Spanglish. I didn’t even remember to give my name. But whatever I had said, it got me what I needed: pity and a campsite.
The sun was below the horizon, light was running out; and I had to get to work. The crust layer of snow, was 4 inches deep. It gave way under my steps. So I stomped down a rectangle, and rolled out a tarp, and then my tent on top. I had to take off my gloves to slide the tent poles through the sleeves. It took me about 15 - 20 minutes to set it up. It wasn’t much; just a free-standing, 2-person tent, that I had bought off eBay for cheap.
I tossed in my pack, and crawled into my home, for the very 1st time.
I checked my phone, it was going to be about 26 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 Celsius) or lower, all night long. Without factoring the windchill, or the fact that my tent was on top of crushed snow, I thought, that’s not too bad.
It would in fact, get bad.
I wore my thermals, and tucked into my sleeping bag. I texted home, to let my parents know I was camped up for the night, and sent them my location. My parents were surprised to find out I had knocked on a stranger's door, which I found silly; I reminded them that they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they knock on doors literally all the time, and so had I for the first 20 years of my life. Next they worried about the cold; it was a few hours later, at that point, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling the chill. So I lied and said I was doing fine.
The ground was uncomfortable, and my limbs were numb with frostbite. I woke from my shallow sleep over and again, and tried to rub some warmth back into my toes and fingers. In the middle of the night, I was googling techniques to warm up in a tent. I started doing push-ups; I ate some snacks, and I taped an emergency blanket to the top of the tent; a lower ceiling to reflect more heat back down. And I kept trying to get some sleep. It was a long night. The last time I woke up, before sunrise, I decided I was going to have pancakes for breakfast, and found a diner nearby on my phone.
Just like that I’d established the 1st rule of the trip: a bad night, needs a good morning.
It was after 5:30 the evening before, when I had knocked on the woman’s door; now I crawled out of my tent more than 12 hours later, at 6am. My tent was covered in frost. I collapsed my camp, and packed up. At one point the woman had left the house, when she came back, she gave me a tall styrofoam cup of hot tea, with so much honey. It was amazing. She said it broke her heart that I was out in the cold; I thanked her for the tea, it was genuinely the best thing ever; and I also thanked her for letting me spend the night. And I told her it wasn’t that cold.
Her name is Gloria. And when I told her my name is Michael, she nearly broke down in tears. “Michael is my angel.” She said. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but we both had to get going; her to work; and me, to get some pancakes.
It was 7:45 when I left, that morning, still sipping tea.
It would be months later, on September 5th, after so many miles and many more uncomfortable nights, that I would hear from Gloria again.
I had sent her a postcard, as a means of tying off an old thread. I didn’t know if she’d remember me, so long after that cold night in February, but I wanted to let her know that her kindness wasn’t forgotten, and that that stupid kid was still alive and making progress. She used my name on the postcard to find my Instagram account, and sent me a message. And it nearly broke me down in tears.
(Both the message I had written her on the postcard, and her response were translated in Google.) Her message follows:
Hello Michael ... I am Gloria, today in my mailbox I found a card that you sent me ... thank you very much for taking the time to write it and send it to me.
I want to share with you everything that happened in my life that night.
I hope someone can translate to you, since my English is very limited. I am very happy to know something about you, I tell you that the night you stayed in my patio was a very sad night for me, I could not sleep, I could feel the cold you felt there, since the grass was covered in ice, I felt very bad for that, for not having the courage and confidence to host you inside my house, having a room available. I did not have the courage to do it because we always think that something bad can happen to us. But deep inside my heart I knew that you have a good soul.
There was no lack of the person who called me to tell me, to get you out of there or to call the police ... I did not understand what you wanted to achieve, but I asked my Archangel Saint Michael to protect you and help you, and that everything would turn out well with you. When you left the tent I gave thanks that you were well, and I offered you a tea to apologize for not doing something else for you.
When I heard his name, I saw this situation as a message from the divinity. Since I am a devoted devotee of the Archangel Michael ...
I wish you many Blessings and successes in your life.
To be continued . . .
*How To Walk Across America (And Not Be an A**Hole) - Book by Tyler Coulson