You ask me if it means anything. I ask, why does it have to mean anything at all? I am content with coincidence, and perfectly at ease with insignificance. Some things only mean what you make of it.
Having faced the trial of winter, this day started as most days should but so few do: with a decent sized meal, consisting of pancakes, eggs, sausage & bacon. I took my time eating; happy to be out of the cold, happier still to be sitting on a cushioned seat. In the bathroom I checked the mirror. Disappointed that I still looked the same, with just a bit of stubble. It was too soon to see the miles on my face, but already I started feeling them on my shoulders and waist, where the pack straps weighed down, and on my feet. Over an hour after I’d entered the diner, it was time to move again. And then I got a message from home; a co-worker of my mom’s was offering a couch for the night. I wanted to accept, so badly, but it did me no good, if it was too far & out of the way for me to even get to. Regardless it didn’t change my morning plans. I put on my outer layers, strapped on the pack, grabbed the stick, and left thoughts of comfort and warmth behind as I walked back into the cold.
Along the Passaic River, and through Newark; I’d walked 12 miles. 47 total.
Throughout the day, I traded messages back and forth, coordinating with Stanislaus, who along with his wife, Ruth, and daughter, Paris, would be my hosts for the night. They were going to pick me up along their drive home from the city. I picked a place to wait while I was still hours away, aiming to maximize my miles, while not inconveniencing them too much, by putting them out of their way. I would’ve had time for a couple more miles when I made it (gauging time & distance on foot never became something I’m good at,) but I decided to wait instead. I went into the post office and charged my phone until they closed. Then back on the street as the wind started to pick up, I knocked on the Fire department next door. It wasn’t vital, mostly I was just practicing my approach, asking for help. I asked if I could wait inside for my ride; they saw my backpack and asked what I was up to. They were a cool bunch, and it turned into a good conversation.
My ride arrived after 6pm, and I couldn't have been more grateful to them; they were the 1st ones to reach out, and offer relief. It was a short ride the rest of the way to their home. They gave me the tour of the place, and then came the questions; questions I would become all to familiar with being asked, though I never got tired of answering. To me, every time I told someone why I was walking, was a reminder to myself why I had to keep going. Convincing people that I was prepared for the undertaking, and able to adapt, lessened my own doubts. Every person that I told where I was heading, made it that much more real, and seem possible that I’d make it.
Mr Stanislaus, an assistant principal and former teacher, however, had at least one question I wasn’t expecting. Everyone asks “why,” and I’m sure he did too, but he also asked, in a way that only an educator could, “what do you hope to get out of the experience?” You might even think those are the same questions, and you could probably get away with similar answers, there’s certainly some overlap. But your reasons should be solid, while your hopes will be more optimistic, albeit vague. I don’t know how I answered at the time, but I know what my answer is now: to form connections with good people; to make some unforgettable memories; and personal growth, to become the person I want to be.
After the long talk, we had some really good fish for dinner, and we watched a movie, Hidden Figures; which I really wanted to see, but my body really wanted to sleep. It was late that night, when I tucked in on the couch, and I was out almost immediately.
Stanislaus, and his family, because of their commute to the city, required them to wake early. I didn’t want to clash with their schedules, so I was up at 5:15, though I can’t really say I was awake. My eyes had that unshakable fatigue, where every blink could conceivably extend for another hour or two. I was always an 8-hour-minimum-for-sleep kind of guy, and the past three days had fallen well short.
They dropped me off at Weequahic Park, which is where they had picked me up, on the opposite side. I thanked them again, and then they were gone. I felt like the only person in the world, that early on the street. From the park, I watched the sun rise over the distant NYC skyline; it would be quite a while before I’d see those familiar towers again. I took the picture, then walked away.
The plan for the day was to walk; no duh. But I intended to push myself, shorter breaks, and fewer distractions. From Newark, through Rahway, and down Lincoln Highway to Metuchen. I’d walked 16 miles. 63 total.
As far as I knew, no one that I knew in Jersey lived nearby. So as 5pm came and went, I was scoping out for possible campsites, and getting into the mindset to knock on a door for a yard-spot, if I had to. Turns out I didn’t have to: there would be heroes this day. I’d posted an update in the afternoon, as I’d passed through Rahway, and some long-time family friends had seen it, and volunteered to help out.
An hour and a half after receiving their message, I was sitting at their dining room table. After eating (stuffed potatoes, good times), and some drinking (a bit o’ wine, don’t tell mom), we caught up on times passed, talking about family, and future plans. Me and my siblings had grown up with Tati’s daughter, who was a few years younger than myself; and Tati had always been the cool mom. The last time any of us had seen each other was at her daughter’s wedding in 2015, and I don’t know how long before that. Now her daughter was pregnant, and I was still in shock.
A lot of times, when you’re around people who you used to know, it can be awkward; they may hold onto impressions of you that no longer fit, or maybe you revert to old behaviors to match expectations. This wasn’t anything like that; Tati and Toni were extremely supportive, and I felt at ease and refreshed from being there. They asked if I’d called home since I’d left, which I hadn’t, only texted. So when I retired to the basement, I called my grandma, and then I called my parents. Recapping events, and assuring them that I was doing fine, and not at all ready to quit, took longer than I would’ve preferred; really cut into my plan to sleep early.
It was some time after 11pm, just as I was about to go to sleep, I plugged in my tech to charge; and then the unthinkable happened . . .
. . . The candle incident . . .
An utter fiasco. A catastrophe. An unnatural disaster. Tragedy.
Wax splashed and spilled all over the floor. My expression, one of sheer horror, as any hope of restful sleep, seeped across the tiles and congealed into a crimson pool of despair and insomnia. It looked like a crime scene. They had invited me into their home, so I wasn’t about to leave a goddamn mess in the basement. I wished for nothing more, than to curl up and die. But then they’d have a corpse in their basement too; and I didn’t imagine that would be any easier to deal with. Ugh. Using my knife, I started scraping the wax off the floor.
It wasn’t until 1:30 in the morning when I called it a night.
It was just before 6:30 AM when I woke up. As I got ready, I debated about whether or not to tell my hosts about the waking nightmare I’d had. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that it was hilarious, so I told them, as I laughed about it, still exhausted. I then swore them to secrecy, and we hit the road after breakfast. Parting ways on highway 27, they returned to real life, as I returned to my walking. I anticipated a long day ahead.
I took short breaks throughout the day, and walked 19 miles. Now at 82 total.
I stopped in a clearing off the road, dropping my pack below an electric road sign. Further by the treeline would be a decent spot to camp, I thought, but there was still quite a bit of daylight left, and I didn’t want to waste it. I looked on the map, and saw some patches of green up ahead; those might suffice, or not. I looked up the local police department, and gave them a call. Using my rehearsed introduction, I asked if there was any possible camp spots I could make use of. Clearly not an issue they would ever have expected to come across, they put me on hold, to check protocol with someone further up the chain. They got back to me with a negative.
I was nearly to Princeton, NJ; with the university campus just a few miles away. So next I called the campus security, and posed them the same question. Jackie (I remember her name because it’s the same as my aunt’s), she asked me some questions, and put me on hold, to pass the question off to someone who had the authority to help me. I waited there, watching the sun dip lower and lower. She finally returned to tell me, I couldn’t stay on the campus unless I was invited by a student. More as a joke than anything else, I asked if she could direct me to some particularly charitable students. With my lifelines used up, and a half hour wasted, I carried my weight into the sunset. I’ll find something, I thought.
As daylight faded into nightfall, I turned off the main road, towards the 1st patch of green I’d seen on the map. I had my flashlight out, shining on the street, so I could see, but also so I would be visible to any cars driving by. On the way to the park grounds, I noticed a tree-house in the yard of one of the homes I passed; it stuck out to me for some reason, but I kept going passed. The pavement then gave way to grass and woodland, as the boundary of the park was just ahead. I aimed my flashlight, to get a look at the trees. So many eyes glowed in the dark, reflecting the light. A whole pack of deer was staring at me. My relief evaporated, as I imagined getting trampled in the night. Nope. I turned around, and walked away; not dealing with that crap.
Who needs a plan, when you can improvise? Back at the place with the tree-house, I did my scout check. The lights were on. Passing through the fence, I approached the door, I could see a child’s drawings hanging on the walls past the screen door, in the small foyer area. I dropped my pack on the walkway. There was no bell on the outside, so I nervously opened the screen door and stepped inside. Is this trespassing? I wondered to myself, with a lump in my throat. I reached the main door, and knocked. Waiting. Waiting. Nothing. I knocked again, and waited a bit more. I felt really uncomfortable being in their patio, so I bailed. I went back to my get my pack outside, intending to leave.
“Hello?” Called a voice behind me; a man’s voice. A greeting or an accusation; was I in trouble?
I spun around, “hey, yes, hi. Sorry to bother you.” I said, “I’m actually trying to hike across the country right now, and I needed a place to stop for the night. I was hoping you’d be willing to let me camp in your yard? And I’ll be gone in the morning.”
“Wow. Really?” Yes, that’s the reaction you want. “Sure, go around back.” he said.
So for my second night camping, I would be setting up in the dark; I imagined it wouldn’t be the last time. In case anyone looked out the window, I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing. I put down the flashlight, aimed at the tent, and pitched my tent nice and easy. I retired into the tent, and unpacked some food. On the menu today: peanut butter, and graham crackers. Again.
It was about 6:30 in the night when I had knocked on their door. Over two hours later, almost at 9, I heard someone call from outside the tent. It startled me, just a bit. You like to imagine there’s nothing beyond the walls of your camp; helps you sleep better. I called back, and unzipped the doorway. Standing outside was the man of the house, he held 2 bottles of beer; universal sign for: ‘let’s talk.’
*Out of respect for their privacy, I won’t give their names.*
We sat cross-legged in the tent, exchanged names, and drank. Naturally, he was curious about the guy camping in his yard, talking about walking thousands of miles. He asked where I came from; where I was going; how long would it take; why I was doing it in the first place. He also asked what my parents thought about it. He asked if I had knocked on many doors, and what made me knock on his? And he told me, he doubted I’d have had much luck with some of his neighbors. I told him my method for choosing a house, but that ultimately, I just picked his door, because they had a tree-house. I figured they must’ve been at least a little adventurous. And I was right.
He had built the tree-house for their son, now four years old. He told me that him and his wife had done quite a bit of traveling, around Europe & Asia. And on one particular trip, he told me, their bag was filled with CD’s and too much stuff, so they resorted to throwing it ahead of them and walking up to it, so they wouldn’t have to carry it. I told him about my own too-big-pack, and how I’d tried and failed, to start this walk a week earlier. And now that I was a few days in, nearly everything hurt.
We talked for about an hour. In the end, he invited me in for breakfast in the morning. I accepted as quickly as any hiker would, the offer of food. He went inside, and with nothing left to do I turned in for the night.
I woke early enough to start packing up, before I was invited into the home. I met the wife, and the four year old son; two cats wondered around the house. Bacon and eggs were served for breakfast. And it was so good, in a special way that human kindness and hiker hunger makes any meal you’re eating, the best you’ve ever had. I learned more about my family of Trail Angels (the term for those who go out of their way to aid a hiker on their journey); that they had lived in the city, but preferred the quiet places close to nature. I learned about their careers, and that they’d been married for over a decade. And The Kid showed me his train set, so we played with that for a bit. He also had magnetic souvenirs from some of the trips they’d taken.
I was on the couch when it happened, talking to the mom. The Kid ran over, and crashed right into me. He looked up at me, and blurted out “Your name is Ishkabibbel!”
“Ok.” I said laughing. Of course I had told them my name, and that certainly wasn’t the one I had given. “I have no idea what that means.”
On my left, his mom asked “Do you already have a trail-name?” As unfamiliar as I was with hiker culture, I didn’t even know the term, let alone have one. She explained it to me, that hikers on trail will use pseudonyms, or monikers, to write in the logbooks along the trail. And she told me that you can’t pick it yourself. You have to be named by someone else.
My 1st thought was, I don’t even know how to spell “Ishkabibbel.” 2nd: how would I go about telling people that’s my name? Regardless I was nowhere near a trail, anyway, and I wouldn’t see any other hikers. It was very recently, within a few weeks of leaving, that I had even decided to try and tackle some of the Appalachian Trail, along my route. And still, I hadn’t looked into it yet.
We talked about my plan, things I would see, and experience. My improvised route, and they suggested too, that I try to hike on the AT if I could. It was the second time, two days in a row, it had come up; as I had also gotten a phone call from a hiker the day before, talking about it. I decided to seriously look into it. We also traded contact information, and I promised to keep in touch. (A promise I still keep, if a little infrequently.)
When it was finally time to move on, I felt a bit of sorrow. These were exactly the kind of experiences I’d set out to find. I finished breaking down my camp, this time with spectators, to judge my performance. So I tried to look like I knew what I was doing. I suited up; hat, pack and all. The family joined me for a bit of the morning’s hike along the river. I walked slow, grateful for the company and all they’d done. They’d given me extra boons too, snacks and food for the road, including the last of The Kid’s favorite candy treat. I took a final picture of the family, and they took some of me. Then our paths diverged. I walked away along the canal trail, waving back as they stood watch, and waving back. The kid stood farther ahead of his parents.
The three of them had made an indelible mark on this journey, so close to the start. And they even gave me a name. It would be longer than I would even have thought at that point, before I would eventually use it to identify myself. But I would come to love it. Just after I learned to spell it.
Walking that morning, I felt better than ever. So of course, I was due a curve-ball, and the universe would oblige . . .