Don’t quit on a bad day. And know, there will be bad days, long days, hard days; days that wear you down, and break your spirit; days you think will never end. Do not quit on those days, because those are the days that matter most.
And it was all going so well . . . . The last few nights, seeing old friends, and making new ones; I felt, for the first time, a glimmer of hope, that I just might see this through. So I suppose it was about time for the universe to balance the scales; and reality to come crashing down.
Picking up right where I left off with the previous story, parting ways with the boy and his parents, whom in the span of knowing for only a few short hours, had bound themselves up into my story. They stayed watching until I faded from view, farther down the Raritan Canal Trail. Feeling upbeat, walking on high; there were plenty of faces, walking, jogging, or just enjoying the morning air, and I greeted them all as I passed with a smile and a nod. A few stopped to exchange words and ask me where I was heading with all that gear on my back, overcome with optimism, I’d respond “California.”
Soon enough I crossed over the canal right into Princeton, New Jersey, and the university itself. Now I didn't go to college, so passing through the campus of an ivy league university was a bit surreal. Here I was, voluntarily homeless, walking through the future generation of lawyers, entrepreneurs and baristas. These were people with plans for their lives, and whether or not those plans would come true, it was more than I’d ever had, which was currently a vaguely westward direction and a really long way to go. Around noon I found some picnic tables, and started chomping down on caramel corn, and dried mango slices; some extra gifts from the family I’d befriended in the morning.
It was a long straight blacktop road leading out of Princeton; and narrow too, just two lanes of traffic, and a six inch shoulder on the side that I walked. On either side of the road, barren trees stretched their crooked limbs to the sky. The only breaks in the treeline, were the occasional private residence; large homes with big yards and tall fences. Traffic was few and far between, leaving the air still and silent. I might’ve read all these signs as ominous, but as it stood, I still had a bag of caramel corn, and I was content with life. This was also the first day it had warmed up, and I could lose the thermals, and hang my coat on the back of my pack.
It was after 2pm when the problem started. A minor thing, just some discomfort in my left foot, I shrugged it off, nothing I couldn’t ignore. It ramped up pretty quickly from there. So I took a break, dropped my pack, and kicked off my shoe, to stretch it out. Being stationary felt good, but breaks don’t last forever. After a few more minutes of walking, I stopped again to take some Ibuprofen out of my first aid kit, downed them, and kept going.
By 4pm, it was a full blown limp, and I was ready to call it a night; the problem with that, was that it wasn’t night yet. I was heading towards the city of Trenton, so I called the local police station, and after a bit of exposition the Sargent hooked me up with a tip for a campsite; “by the river,” he’d said “no one’ll bother you.” But of course, “by the river,” was all the way at the far end of the city, another 8 miles away. At the current rate, that would take another 4 hours; 4 more hours, I wasn’t sure I had in me. So much for stopping early . . . .
I had singular focus; just get to the river. Civilization gave a long drawn out welcome, as the remote road slowly gave way to sidewalks and street lights, cutting through residential neighborhoods. Dusk came without that same patience, claiming the sky in a hurry of dark blues and then black. I paid no mind to the people on the street; scanning my surroundings more out of habit than any actual interest. Princeton Pike became Princeton Avenue, became Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard. I stopped only once before reaching the river, at a pizzeria, to fill my water bottle; they let me use the sink. Passing by an empty parking lot, and across a large intersection, I came to a grassy hill, beyond the range of the city lights. A decent spot to hide away for the night, but the slope would keep it from being comfortable. Back down the hill, there was an office building, with lights aimed at the front of it. I set up my tent just at the edge of the light, then carried it up the dark hill, and staked it down. From the top, I watched the cars, and I could see trains roll by on the far side of the river, and cross over the nearby bridge. I heard horns and sirens in the distance. I was completely alone.
When I finally climbed into the tent, and kicked my shoes off, I had a bunch of messages on my phone. I had mentioned something about the pain a few hours earlier, and the family was naturally concerned; so annoying. I also had an email, addressed to Ishkabibbel, and since only 3 people in the world knew me by that name, it was pretty easy to guess who’d sent it. They sent me some pictures from the morning and well wishes for the night. Hoping to sleep off the injury that had plagued me for so much of the day, I turned in shortly after.
Another 16 miles down. 98 total.
I was awake just as the first light hit my tent. I was right about being uncomfortable, sleeping on the low-grade slope of that hill; everything kind of slides real slow throughout the night, and I would squirm and shuffle back into place, repeating the process as needed. I couldn’t tell yet, if the pain was gone, or just silent; I’ll know soon enough, I thought as I packed up my gear. This morning I didn’t have to change into my hiking clothes, I had something to do, and fortunately it was just one mile, and directly on the route I was taking. Wearing a pair of blue basketball shorts, and a black spider-man t-shirt, which were essentially my pajamas. As soon as the pack was on my back, that first step hit with a vengeance, and nearly brought me to my knees. It was foolish to think anything that hurt so much, could be anything but permanent. I winced and gritted my teeth, as I slowly descended the hill. It’s gonna be a long day . . . .
This early in the morning, the world was barely awake; the streets, almost completely empty. The clouds were thick with blue and purple, as a sharp orange glow burned a narrow strip on the eastern horizon. I was alone, which was good, so no one could see how long this mile took. The longest mile I’d ever walk. If you could call it walking. I crossed the bridge into Pennsylvania, the third state of my walk, and now looking to be the last. It should’ve been a triumph, a milestone worth a bit of celebration, instead I only felt defeated. I stared down into the deep blue waters of the Delaware River below, at least I got a good view. It took me 40 minutes to walk that first mile of the day. My destination finally reached, I entered Canal Laundry.
The day’s already off to a rough start, might as well do chores. I dropped my gear by an outlet, plugged in what needed to be charged, and tossed my clothes into a washing machine. There weren’t many people here, but I already felt completely out of place. Like a homeless guy doing laundry; it’s the perfect analogy. I made use of the WiFi and watched some YouTube, scribbled a bit in my journal, and ate the rest of that caramel corn. A little girl, maybe three or four, stood a few feet away, staring at me; I made a gesture and asked her father if I could share the popcorn. He came over and, without a word, pulled her away from the strange man. I couldn’t even be offended, that was absolutely the right thing to do, good parenting. I had put my clothes for two dry cycles, then suited up in the bathroom. It felt like putting my skin back on. Everything else went into the pack, and I walked out unceremoniously, much to the relief of parents doing laundry.
The day was nothing but slow, pained progress and constant breaks. I wrapped an extra sock around my foot, just for some extra padding; and it helped, for like, a few minutes, but not really. Hell, I even tried hopping, to avoid the sharp pain shooting up my foot, but it wasn’t very practical. I leaned heavily on my walking stick, using it to propel me forward, but no matter what I couldn’t get away from the pain. Every other step, was preceded by the anticipation of it, dreading when my left foot would hit the ground and that spike of agony would spring up again. It was pretty clear, all my efforts were for nothing. In just a single week, my plan had come undone. Why am I even still walking? I was forced to wonder.
As the last rays of sunlight retreated to the west, I carried on limping down the lonely Pennsylvania road. After an excruciating day of torment and anguish, more than anything I was frustrated and bitter. I set out to see what I could accomplish, just to be wholly underwhelmed. Coming to an intersection, on the corner next to me was a bar and grill, The RoadHouse Inn. It was a rather unassuming large white building, with dark accents and a black metal door. This was about the time to find a campsite, but as I stood at the crossroads, I just didn’t want to deal with it. Instead it seemed a choice between continuing on the course I had chosen, and seeing it through as best I could, or giving up entirely and wallowing in self-pity. With hardly a thought, I turned away from the path, and went inside. Self-pity would be easier.
It was about what you’d expect inside, dimly lit, with music playing out of a jukebox, from before I was born. The bar was right in the middle, with pool tables off to the far side. I grabbed a table as far from the door as I could dropped my stuff, and took a seat. It was only six o’clock, and most of the tables were empty. A waitress came over to take my order, I just got a burger; no interest in solitary drinking. It was a decent sized burger though, with a big pile of fries, the perfect comfort for a crippled hiker. But I didn’t come here looking for comfort, I was waiting for a miracle. At your lowest point, someone would come along and help you out; isn’t that how it always works in these stories? The family back home sent some messages, asking if I found a place to sleep, and how it went today? I answered back, “nope,” and “pretty bad.” I was then inundated with concern, advice, and my mom going full crazy, offering to drive out and pick me up. So I got the hell off my phone and ignored them all, while I scribbled some more words in my notebook.
This wasn’t going to be one of those stories, where everything just magically works out. But if it was going to end, before it even started, it wasn’t going to be with me needing saving. Hell with that. I kept circling back to one thought, something I was told before I left. It was a few weeks back, I was in the hospital visiting my dad, he’d just had a toe amputated due to an infection. Me and my mom were there keeping him company, and my aunt, Jackie, and her fiance, Will, had come to visit too. I still hadn’t told many people about my plan to walk cross-country, and so my mom decided to bring it up, in the hopes that a few more voices could talk me out of it. It felt like being back in school, giving a presentation in front of the class, except it was about something I actually cared about doing, and it was to people whose opinions actually mattered to me. But when I answered their questions, and they naturally had a lot of questions, they only offered their support. It was unexpected, to say the least.
“Well it sounds like he’s done a lot of research into it, and that he’s going to be smart about it.” Jackie said to my mom.
But it was what Will had said, that really stuck with me, and still rang inside my head back in the bar, all these weeks later. He said, “Even if you don’t make it all the way, no matter how far you get or not, just going for it, attempting something like that, is more than most people will ever have the courage to do.”
Is that what I was worried about? Ridicule? I mean, it was embarrassing, sure, to be heading back home so early, but that didn’t seem like the reason I was angry. And I wasn’t leaving until I got it figured out. I had wanted to see what I was capable of, and here I sat 100 miles from home, after a just a single week, seemingly at the pinnacle of my effort, and I hadn’t learned a damn thing. Just that I wasn’t ready to call it quits. Nothing had changed, to go back now, so why should this be the end?
Another employee came over, an older woman, I’d already paid for the food, plus a decent tip, so she asked if I needed anything else. “No,” I said, “I’m just stalling.” She was curious, so I told her I walked from NY, (I don’t think she believed me,) and that I had meant to walk farther still, but I’d hurt my foot, and now maybe I was done. She asked why I was walking. “Right now, I don’t know. But it hurts like hell.” She wished me luck, and went back to work. I packed up, and went back to work as well. No more stalling.
There are certain instances of incredible resolve, they’re rare, but can’t be ignored. This was one of mine. I wasn’t going to walk as far as I’d hoped, but I was going to walk farther than this bar. I was nearly to Philadelphia, and I was going to get there, if it was all I could do. Whatever happens after that, doesn’t matter. For two and a half hours I’d sat in there wallowing, now I stepped back out into the pitch dark night. I tied the light to my walking stick, and aimed my flashlight at the road ahead. They’ll see me coming. Cuz I ain’t done. And I walked.
A few more miles down the road, an hour later still, I came to a medical center. The sign in front said they were closed today, and tomorrow, so I walked around back, and ducked into the trees. I pitched my tent, nearly at 10 that night. I had a bunch of messages, when I stopped responding to the group chat, mom had everyone message me individually. Pfft, amateurs; like that would work. It was a short convo after that, just “tent’s up!” And “Goodnight.”
12 miles on a crippled foot; makes 110 total.
If this should be the end, let it be a blaze of glory. I was up before daylight, and on the road. It wasn’t any easier walking on the injury, but it didn’t matter anymore. I just had to get a few more miles, and I could be done.
This road seemed like so many others, trees on either side, broken by the occasional home. At one point I came to a curb with candles and stuffed animals. A kid had been struck and killed here, not a month earlier. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in silence. I took a moment before passing on.
By eight in the morning, my mom was on the phone again, dead set on coming to my rescue. “Do what you want,” I said, “I’ll be in Philly.”
The pace couldn’t hold the entire way, soon enough I had to resort to stopping, and taking the load off, again and again, for some relief. Little did I know how close I was. Stopped again some miles down the road, I heard a voice call out to me. Behind me a station wagon had pulled over and an older woman was coming over. She asked if I was hiking. I told her, I was trying to. Her name was Michelle, and she was a traveling missionary. She asked my story, however short it was, at this point, and then interviewed me on a Facebook video. She said a prayer for me to heal, and to keep walking. She also told me, that Philadelphia was just ahead of me, and I was nearly there. It was very sudden, and incredibly bizarre but I thanked her for stopping, and tossed on my pack. And with that I was off.
Just a few minutes later I was standing under the “welcome to Philadelphia” sign. And then the strap of my pack broke, again, so I taped it back up, like I’d done at the end of day one. My mom and sister, were on their way to Philly already, so I just found a place to wait. From the gas station on the corner, the song blasting out of the speakers was Juke Box Hero; that made me smile.
That day was only 5 miles, and it took me nearly 5 hours, reaching Philly just after 11am. 115 miles total, walked, and I was just getting started.
When my ride showed up, we got some Philly cheese-steaks, and they drove me to a clinic. I suspected it might be a stress fracture, for all the pain it caused me, turns out I only sprained the arch. We did a bit of sightseeing, before I gave in and decided to head back to New York. After all, I needed time to heal, might as well do it in my own bed. But already, I was planning to come back.