Monday, August 31, 2009

First Friends (Cambridge, NY)

Childhood often only vaguely resembles what our adult lives end up being. It is where the seeds are sown, but ultimately how a life blossoms and matures is totally unpredictable at the age of 10. I left the protective shell of my childhood in West Hebron at that age when my family moved to Harare, Zimbabwe. We left behind more than a town. We left people and families who had been our world and I remember feeling very scared.

Of course, I was mostly sad about having to leave my own friends. My best friend was Jude Clary. I lived in the village and he just up above it on the hill. We grew up together, were in the same grade, ran all over West Hebron, attended each other's birthdays and sleepovers. When you are ten, losing a friend of that nature can feel earthshaking.

Sarah Fronhofer was also one of my first friends. Like Jude, she lived just outside the village. Being a girl, we didn't really play together like Jude and I did, but she had the distinction of being my main academic competition in elementary school as well as my not-so-secret young crush (a point which both Heidi and Ann Waite never missed an opportunity to tease me about).

My last day as a schoolmate of Jude and Sarah was an early winter's day during fifth grade right before Christmas break. Both classes packed Mr. Dunigan's room and said goodbye to me, bequeathing upon me an orange nerf basketball signed by by each of my classmates. I remember it being a little awkward. really knew what to say. I was trying to play it cool but got a bit chocked up as the realization that that only world I had ever known was slipping out from under me. We said our goodbyes and then I was gone, halfway around the world, never to move back to upstate New York.

Fast forward almost 26 years and here the three of us are again at Jude's house outside of Cambridge, NY. If the Waites and Cambpells were each no-brainers for the first two nights of my trip, choosing to stay with Jude next made just as much sense. Given that I never moved back to Hebron, Jude and I didn't have much of an opportunity to stay in touch. But I knew I wanted to include my truest first friend on this journey. That Sarah happened to be up visiting her folks and could join us for dinner was a wonderful surprise. She brought the Batenkill Farms ice cream and a cherry crump pie, Jude plied us with steaks and salad and I sat there just being grateful that after 26 years apart, it still felt really easy and natural to relax and laugh with these two old friends.

As old friends do, we talked a lot about mutual friends and where they are now. But it wasn't just a rear-view mirror conversation. We talked about now. The things we are doing. The things we hope to do. I could have kept talking to them both late into the night. The demands of the road, however, dictate that I need to do some writing and go to bed early. We parted around 9pm. But it felt nice to know that these friends of mine at 10 are now true friends of mine again at 36. I hope it's not another 26 years until we do it again ... and I know it won't be.

My first full day of walking had everything I was hoping for in this journey. It had amazing natural beauty, time for reflection and most importantly, a chance to spend time with people I really enjoy over a shared meal. Do I really need to continue on to New Orleans? I think I proved my point. Can't we all just agree I would have made it and I can call it quits?

I'm only kidding of course. Every day won't be as perfect and fulfilling as this one. But those tough days will have their lessons as well. The simple lesson of this day was one I hope to apply each day of my life from now on: "Have Fun. Be Honest. Enjoy People." 'Nuff said.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Food, Glorious Food, Raspberries & Ice Cream

I am at the starting line. Four and a half months from now and many thousands of expended calories later I hope to walk into New Orleans. But for this weekend it was about enjoying West Hebron, spending time with the people who helped raise me into the intrepid walker I am today and [grinning devilishly] ingesting thousands of the calories that will give me energy over the long days ahead.

When I first decided to take this walk, I immediately knew I wanted to start it in West Hebron. I lived in this village until I was 10 years old, but its impact on me was much greater than those first few years of life. West Hebron was where I learned the joys that come from open homes, shared meals and tight-knit communities of friends that really feel more like extended families. That is what the Waites, the Campbells, the Coldwells and so many others in Hebron are to me. They are family. As a kid, their houses were always open to us and ours to them. It was a place of unlocked doors and tons of shared dinners, picnics and birthday celebrations. It's lasting legacy for me as a child was that I grew up thinking the world was a trustworthy and loving place. I still believe that, by and large, and this journey is less about reaffirming that as it is about simply experiencing it day in and day out for four months.

On both Saturday and Sunday I experienced it in a familiar way with people whose love and care for me stretches back my whole life. I had dinner on Saturday with Mary Emma, her son Rick, his wife Mary Ann, Dick & Margaret Waite and Don & Alice Coldwell. If you look in my parents photo albums, you would think these people are actual relatives for how often they appear in our lives. Effectively, they are. We gathered around Mary Emma's table and they plied me with helping after helping of pork, corn, finger rolls, coleslaw, you name it. Then, the pièce de résistance. Mary Emma's Raspberry Pie. I could tell you what happened next, but it wasn't pretty. l'll let pictures tell the story instead.

Sunday dawned cooler and overhead was a beautiful mix of blue sky and clouds. More importantly, I got an early start seeing old friends. I took an refreshing walk around Barkley's lake with Sarah Fronhofer, her father Frank and her two cute daughters Maya and Marley. After that it was church and more hellos, old friends and words of encouragement. I picked up my backpack at Mary Emma's and set off for what I might call my "honorary" first walk - the one and a half mile stretch from the Cambpell's back into the village of West Hebron. Luckily I didn't collapse half way. That would, methinks, have a been a bad omen. Instead I arrived at the Waites no worse for wear and in fact invigorated by the promise of more hours of walking in this beautiful part of the country.

I would have time to genuflect later. For now, it was back to storing up some more of those glorious calories. A lunch of tacos (with plenty of sour cream) and fresh fruit and then a midafternoon stop at Batenkill Creamery for a coffee milkshake took care of that. With my stomach happily following its own bliss, Dick and Margaret and I wove our way around Salem and East Hebron and took a literal drive down memory lane. I wish I had a pen that could describe the beauty of nature as descriptively as John Steinbeck, whose To A God Unknown I am currently reading. But I can't. So instead l'll borrow from a hymn of my youth and one that I always associate with West Hebron. It popped into my head today as we drove past lush rolling hills and bubbling streams and I thought back to those years from 1973 - 1984 that I had a chance to live here. These lyrics speak to me on two levels, both in a larger sense as someone who is daily awestruck by the beauty of creation and more specifically as a son who grew up in one of the most beautiful places in the country.

This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
His hand the wonders wrought.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Things I Carry

I've had a few people ask what I'll be carrying. I'm glad you asked.

3 pair of walking shorts
4 polyester athletic shirts
3 pair of Therlos socks
4 pair boxer briefs
1 pair of lightweight pants
2 cotton t-shirts
Rain Jacket
Wide brimmed sun hat
Phillies hat
Aluminum water canteen
Ziploc bag with Engery bars
Ziploc bag with fruit fiber strips
Ziploc bag with multivitamins, advil, moleskin, bandages, body glide,
Ziploc bad with stretching strap and elastic pull band
Dell Mini computer (not pictured)
Ziploc bag with powercords and rechargers
iPhone with headphones and backup battery
Backup Verizon cell phone
Ziploc bag with ravor, toothpaste, toothbrush, retainers, deodorant, floss sticks & Q-tips
Paperback copy of "To a God Unknown" by John Steinbeck
Mini New Testament
Foot Powder

And yes, that all fits into the small blue North Face backpack shown at the top of the picture above.

Tomorrow I will walk two miles around Barkley's Lake and then another mile and a half from Mary Emma's to the Waites. Call it an appetizer to the many days of 15-mile entrees in my future. Luckily, I'm hungry.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

First Timers

If this is your first time on this website, please read this section first as an introduction to my journey. My other posts are reflections on things I found interesting as I prepare for my walk. Starting in September, I will be updating this site 2 or 3 times a week with stories from the road.


Here is the understatement of the year: walking under rain clouds is not nearly as fun as walking in the sunlight. I had a chance to experience that again this Sunday when I walked from Hastings-on-Hudson back into Harlem on a day that alternated between drizzle and torrential downpours. Somewhere in Yonkers, it struck me. It wasn't the rain that made the day feel depressing, it was the gray sky ... the utter absence of healing Light.

That became clear to me when I remembered how truly wonderful and almost mystical it was to play in a sun shower when I was a child. Two beautiful forces - sun and water - brought together in an unlikely dance that would only last for few fleeting minutes. It is hard to not crack a smile in a sun shower.

The sun only made the briefest of appearances during my walk on Sunday. I started at 9:30am and ended at 3pm and gray was my constant companion. As if I was room decorator trying to pick out drapes that matched a bedspread, I decided to start the morning off with a podcast that mirrored the somber mood of Mother Nature. I chose a Terry Gross interview with a teacher and poet who had lost her 21-year old daughter to a vicious murder. Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno has recently published a book of poems about her agonizing experience.

If you are a podcasting kind of person, you can download it here or on iTunes. Appropriately, the poem that affected me the most as I plodded along with rain dripping off the brim of my hat was one called "A Poem About Light". This was a poem she wrote for her daughter's memorial service, and then later read to the man convicted of her daughter's murder as her Victim Impact Statement during the sentencing phase of his trial. It said all she needed to say about that her daughter and that tragic day. And in a way, it says all that there really is to say about Light period. I want to share it with you here:

You can try to strangle light:
use your hands and think
you've found the throat of it,
but you haven't.
You could use a rope or a garrote
or a telephone cord,
but the light, amorphous, implacable,
will make a fool of you in the end.

You could make it your mission
to shut it out forever,
to crouch in the dark,
the blinds pulled tight—

still, in the morning,
a gleaming little ray will betray you, poking
its optimistic finger
through a corner of the blind,
and then more light,
clever, nervy, impossible,
spilling out from the crevices
warming the shade.

This is the stubborn sun,
choosing to rise,
like it did yesterday,
like it will tomorrow.
You have nothing to do with it.
The sun makes its own history;
light has its way.

- Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

I took a nap after I finished my 15-mile walk. When I awoke, sun was shining through my bedroom window. It made me remember those last lines: The sun makes its own history; light has its way.