Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Hallowed Halfway Point (Johnson City, TN)

Me & Peggy in Johnson City, TN

When I lived in Zimbabwe it wasn't uncommon that people would come to visit us on foot, usually from the bus stop but sometimes all the way from their home. There was a tradition when that visitor was ready to leave. Someone would be expected to walk them half-way back to where they were going. I thought it was a beautiful ritual, at once both relational and compassionate. Neither the host or the guest alone had to carry the burden of the return travel. It was equally shared, much like the joy (hopefully) of the visit.

If that tradition were alive in America I'm fairly confident I would have a harder time finding hosts. I started in West Hebron, so if you interpret "destination" in its broadest sense either Mary Emmma or Dick & Margaret, who were my first hosts on this journey, would have been expected to accompany me halfway. I've got good news. I've reached Johnson City. They would be able to go home now.

Johnson City was a designated rest spot so I got to stay two nights instead of one. I was hosted on both nights by Peggy Heatherly. I was connected with her through Karen Baxter. Peggy also knows a few of my other NYC friends who attend Cosmos Tree but she and I had never met before Friday evening. I couldn't have asked for a more caring host to celebrate the midpoint of my journey with. I felt like the spirit in her immediately recognized the spirit in me. Namaste. We didn't feel like two people who had just met for long. By the end of our dinner at a Thai food restaurant there was a familiarity that outweighed the total of two hours we had spent together.

The following day was Halloween. Amazingly it was my second straight Halloween in Tennessee. Last year I was in Nashville visiting family and my cousin Jeff and I went at a downtown bar. It was a spontaneous decision so we weren't wearing costumes meaning. Consequently I got treated to a steady stream of those looks which said, "oh, look who is too cool to dress up." Jeff reminded enough people of the magician Chris Angel that he was able to skate by due on circumstance. If my hair had been as long and curly as it is now I would have taken a similar tact and told people, "Hey, I'm Norm MacDonald."

Me or Norm Macdonald?

I have a horrible track record when it comes to Halloween costumes. I dressed up for three Halloween parties during my time in LA and suffered the indignity of poor choices each and every time. My best attempt was when my roommate and Noah and I hosted a party of our own. He was John McEnroe and I was Bjorn Borg. We got the wooden rackets and squeezed into the tight white shorts riding high on our thighs. Noah's hair is already very McEnroe-esque, so he rocked his own natural 'do. I had to get my hands on a long blond wig to mimic Bjorn's flowing Swedish hair. Bjorn Borg must not have the name recognition I thought. The whole night people kept coming up to me and saying, "Hey, Martina Navratilova!". At first I would correct them. Then I just gave up.

A couple years before that I bought a mask went to a party as Al Gore. I hadn't gotten the memo that wearing a mask is the equivalent of sticking your face two inches from an electronic heater and keeping it there all night. By the 10 minute mark of the party the mask was off and I was holding the mask in my hand. I was simply a guy in a suit. In retrospect, had I been a little quicker on my feet, I could have spun it as a conceptual piece. I was a Scooby Doo villian who had disguised himself as Al Gore only to be ceremonially unmasked by Shaggy and his friends.

After my Al Gore and Bjorn Borg missteps I made one last attempt at costume glory. My girlfriend Nikki was accompanying me to this party and made a pitch to go as Adam and Eve. I briefly considered walking around the party shirtless for an evening and vetoed the idea. I would have been way too self conscious. Possibly to punish me she decided that the fall back "duo" idea would be her as a bunny rabbit and me as a carrot. She got to waltz into the party wearing an all-time favorite female costume while I trailed behind in a pair of bright orange sweatpants and matching sweatshirt that had a patch of green sewn on the top of the hood. I am not exaggerating when I say that I hadn't taken three steps into the host's yard when someone came up to me and said, "what are you ... a pumpkin?" That was the moment I retired from the art of costuming.

Seven years later I remain retired. Peggy didn't push me to come back for one last blaze of Favre-ian glory. She and I went costume-less on Saturday over to visit her son John's family in Gray, TN. We picked up John's wife Sherry and their kids Bryson and Riley and drove to Kingsport to cheer John at the finish line of a half marathon he was running. I learned that running a half-marathon on Oct. 31st does not preclude someone from dressing up. I watched a monk, five ninjas, a teenage mutant ninja turtle and an actual pumpkin (not a carrot masquerading as one) cross the finish line.

Proof that a pumpkin did indeed cross the finish line

John crossed too, although in obvious pain from having ingested an energy gel pack that had not sat well with his stomach. We all returned to their house just in time for Bryson and Riley to magically transform into Wolverine and Vampire Bride while an endless parade of neighborhood kids started arriving at their front door. And thus the giant annual redistribution of candy took place. I am convinced that at the end of the night kids across the nation come home with about as much candy as their parents originally purchased. I handed out a little bit of candy myself, managing to slip a few Swedish Fish and Sour Patch kids into my own gob when there was a break in the action. Old habits die hard.

Riley, Peggy, John Sr., John, Bryson & Sherry at the end of festivities Saturday night

All Hallow's Eve this year coincided with the end of Daylight Savings Time. So when Peggy and I returned to her apartment we had a free hour to play with. We did so watching You, Me & Dupree. This movie was not well recieved by critics but I defy you to watch Owen Wilson as Dupree and not laugh out loud five times. His character has an openess and innocent joy for life that is infectious. I hope that I can experience such joy in my next nine weeks on the road. As Peggy and I laughed together, her in her PeggyNESS and I in my GarthNESS, I was reminded that laughter - like most things - is best shared.

On Sunday morning Peggy insured that before I left I had everything that I could possibly need to get started on the second half of my trip. She sent me off with food, a new foot massage tool and a week's worth of Vitamin D, Magnesium and Calcium pills. She then bid me farewell with a promise to keep me in her prayers and keep sending me the Light. I need that most of all.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Who's House? God's House (Bristol & Blountville)

Me, Jean & Eldon Lufi on Friday morning in Blountville

Joel, Anna, Leah, Dwight (Kirk) & Me on Wednesday night in Bristol

Leah Kirk picked me up on Wednesday afternoon in downtown Bristol. I was on the north side of the street at Java J's coffee shop which meant I was still in Virginia. The Tennessee/Virginia line bisects the aptly named State Street. If I been so inclined it would have taken me all of 2.3 second to jog over to Tennessee and successfully step foot into the seventh state of my walk.

Instead I was driven across the state line. As Leah took me to her family's house between Bristol and Blountville she drove me past Tennessee High School, her alma mater. The most distinctive aspect of the school's architecture is the huge stone fortress which comprises their football stadium. It looks so medieval I looked to see if there was a moat surrounding it. Moat or no moat, it is one of the most intimidating high school stadiums I have ever seen. I'm not sure how much the fortress has to do with it but the Tennessee High Vikings are 10-0 this year.

There is another Vikings game this weekend that is garnering a bit of national attention. Something about a guy named Brett and some small town in Wisconsin named after a color. I can't keep it all straight. I've been to many, many sporting contests in my life - pro, college and high school - and I can honestly say the most memorable experiences I've had were cheering on a local high school team.

When I lived in Los Angeles with my friend Noah we attended a lot of Dorsey High School games. Noah taught history there and knew all of the kids and given that we lived less than a mile from the school I became just as passionate fan of Dorsey football and basketball as he was. I loved everything about those games. The teams were always good, the cheerleaders were inventive and gregarious and the crowds were totally invested in the game because the kids playing were their friends, kids, classmates, etc.

There was one cheer which was a staple of every home game. The cheerleaders would call out, "Who's House?" and the crowd would bellow back, "D-House!". It would be repeated four or five times and those of us in the stands would be standing, surging with the adrenaline of what was happening in the game. I enjoyed that cheer in the expanse of Jackie Robinson football stadium, but it was positively chill-inducing in the small confines of Dorsey's basketball gym. It is one of those gyms where if you are sitting in the front row your toes are literally touching the out of bounds line. It seemed to hold about 15 people comfortably and possibly 95 when all piled in on each other if rival Crenshaw High was visiting.

Dorsey's basketball beat down of Crenshaw at home in 2002 ranks at the top of my most enjoyable sports experiences ever. Jammed into that small fieldhouse, pushed up against my friends Noah, Wolf and Schneck, the game was a non-stop, up and down, over the rim extravaganza. Unfortunately it probably should have ranked #2. A few months earlier I faced a scheduling conflict. Either attend my company's Christmas Party or go watch Dorsey play Taft in the City Championship Football game at the LA Colesium. As I write those two options out now, I can't believe I chose to go to the Christmas Party. But I did.

The Christmas Party turned out to be, well, a Christmas Party. If you've been to one, you've been to them all. The City Championship game was one of a kind. The minute I walked back into my apartment that night and saw Noah and Schneck bouncing off the walls I knew my mistake. Dorsey had been trailing 14-13 with seconds left and Taft decided to punt on a fourth down near midfield. Dorsey blocked the punt, recovered the football and ran it in for the game winning touchdown as time expired. Noah, Schneck and all the Dorsey faithful (minus me of course) climbed out of the stands and rushed the field in a euphoric victory celebration. I have always wanted to rush the field! Alas, it was not meant to be.

By nature, sports are very territorial and adversarial. This is OUR house. We won. You lost. In a sports context, this can be fun. In the arena of human relationships and material possessions I find it to be rather off-putting.

Both the Kirks, who I stayed with on Wendesday, and Eldon and Jean Lufi, who I stayed with on Thursday, display a refreshing lack of any such traits. If I had started a cheer in either of their homes and called out "Who's House?" I am positively certain the answer back would have been "God's House." That is a beautiful thing.

Dwight and Kristie Kirk and Leah, Anna and Joel went out of their way to let me know that I should make myself completely at home, despite the fact that all they knew about me was the night before I had stayed with Leah's co-worker Debbie in Abingdon. Eldon and Jean, who I was connected with through their son Sam who I worked with at ABS, created the same welcoming atmosphere. They even left their front door unlocked for me on Thursday afternoon since I was arriving before they would be back from a church seminar. I was able to let myself in, take a shower and grab a snack as if it was my own home. Eldon said as much the following morning. They had to leave after we had breakfast but he assured me I could depart whenever I was ready. "This is your house," he said. A colorful dawn had just broken above the hills behind their house. The generosity of the Lufis and Kirks with their homes was something of equal beauty and I appreciated it even more than the sunrise because of the spirit in which it was offered.

I've given this a lot of thought as I've been walking because I want to be very intentional about the environment I create when I get an apartment in New York. I know that if I don't think of it as "my" apartment, or any possessions or money as "mine" in any absolute sense, I will be more compassionate and selfless with their use. It want to model in my life what has been modeled to me by the Kirks, the Lufis and every other person who has hosted me on this journey and made me feel as though what was theirs was mine.

I guess it boils down to a person's individual perspective on the source of what they have. If you choose to see God as the source - a God that is part of all of us and yet greater than all - then you will be a steward of your possessions with arms open wide instead of a fist clenched shut. Right now I get to be the receiver of such blessings. When I stop being a nomad I'll have a chance to give back what I have been given and hopefully even more. It will be my turn to say, "This is your house."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Tale of Two Genders (Emory & Abingdon)

(Left to Right) Donna, Debbie (my host), Virginia, Angela, Darcy, me & Matthew in Abingdon on Wednesday night
Me & Mary K. Briggs in front of the Emory & Henry Chapel on the morning after my stay at House 17.

On Monday afternoon I walked to the small town of Emory, VA, home to the fighting Wasps of Emory & Henry College. I decided to take a novel approach in finding a place to stay in Emory. A week before arriving I emailed the school chaplain Mary K. Briggs and asked if she could help. She didn't hesitate in asking around and finding a place for me to stay with a group of students who live in a designated Spiritual Living house (House 17) on campus. She even had the forethought to leave me two meal tickets for dinner and breakfast so I could eat with them at the cafeteria.

Three of the five housemates met me on the steps of the chapel at 5pm along with two of their friends. We started to exchange the usual introductions and all was going smoothly until I reached the last guy.

I shook his hand and said, "Hi, I'm Garth" and waited for him to reply in kind. "Hi" he said. Then he added, "Garth." There was an awkward pause. I waited for him to tell me his name. Nothing came.

I decided to help him out. "And what's your name?" I asked. He looked at me oddly, waited another beat and then said, "I'm Garth."

For a second it simply didn't compute. Then it dawned on me. At this very moment, in the second month of my 37th year on this earth, I was being personally introduced to the first Garth I have ever met. I felt myself get excited, like Lewis & Clark glimpsing the Pacific coast for the first time. Wow! Another Garth. How cool is that? I felt an instant bond with this freshman. He knows my pain. He has experienced the Garth Vader jokes, the Wayne's World references, the cliched "what is your last name ... Brooks?" comments that all Garth's are expected to chuckle at as if they have never heard it before.

This Garth has a good reason for his name. His father is named Garth. For me it was apparently some name my parents plucked from a name book after a few too many glasses of Merlot and the B side of a Peter, Paul and Mary album. I'm only kidding. In all seriousness I have never been a huge fan of my name. Up until this night the one benefit has been that wherever I am, no matter how large the group of people, I know that when someone says Garth they are talking to me.

This Pavlovian reaction to hearing my name turned the rest of the night at House17 into a mild Vaudevillian comedy. The first couple of times housemates came in and would say "Hey Garth, how's it going" and I would launch into an answer before realizing they weren't talking to me. Later, when they were talking to me, I would have these long awkward pauses before I answered while I tried to make sure I was the object of their conversation. I just couldn't get the hang of it. Turns out having a roommate named Garth wouldn't be as cool as I might have initally imagined. Take away the uniqueness from my name and what do I have? An oddly sounding moniker that half the world's cultures have a hard time pronouncing because of the "th" sound. Maybe I should just start introducing myself as Sheldon.

For those of you who don't remember, or who were missing a Y chromosome, here is a snapshot of the life of the college male. College guys pretty much live in a state of loosely organized chaos. There is almost always nothing in the fridge. Bathrooms range from nominally clean to outright disasters. There is a lots of video game playing, the coffee table is piled with a mixture of empty cups, snack food and various remote controls and clean towels are inevitably in short supply. There is a lot of good-natured humor but far less conversation that could be classified as "emotionally vulnerable". Wait a second, I think I just broadened out to describe the whole male species, regardless of age. Either way, I can pronounce myself an expert because I am a man and as recent as 14 years ago I was still a part of that college genum. Monday night simply allowed me to relive that experience with a new generation. The only thing that has changed is the sophistication of the video games. Tecmo Bowl, Rest in Peace.

All kidding aside I understandably felt very comfortable in this environment on Monday night, like returning to my former tribe. Kyle, Alex, Garth and Noah were all exceedingly nice and hospitable to me. College students usually have five to 18 things going on at the same time, so there was a lot coming and going, but it was nice to just be able to sit there, watch some Monday night football and be talk to them about life at Emory & Henry.

Tuesday night in Abingdon was quite a bit different. I spend part of the night at a birthday celebration for a woman who is a close friend of my host Debbie Harvey. Debbie had graciously agreed to host me on somewhat short notice after being contacted by Pat Holden who I stayed with on the first Saturday night of my trip. But given that she had an existing committment to go out for pizza to celebrate her girlfriend's 50th ... er, I mean 29th birthday I got to join the group for the night. Debbie did invite her son Matthew to come as well so that I wouldn't be the lone male at the table.

Conversation at this table did not revolve around World of Warcraft or the Washington Redskins. Professional women with kids in college don't seem to care a lot about either of those topics. They talked about their kids, about their jobs, about what is going on in their lives. It was an altogether different energy. Then, after I destroyed some amazingly good riccota and broccoli pizza, it was time to break out the present's for Angela's birthday. She gave her friends some specially embroidered key chains that slip around your wrist. In turn they gave her specialty picture frames, candles and body lotions. Most of the gifts came with a cute card, gift bags and colored wrapping tissue. Somehow I have a hard time picturing one of the guys at Emory & Henry buying one of their roommates a scented candle for his birthday, let alone taking the time to think about wrapping it.

Lest I miss the forest through the trees there were vastly more important things that united these two evenings. Laughter. Friendship. Fun. A group of people who choose to spend time together because they care about each other, even if they express it in vastly different ways. One other thing. Both the college guys and the mothers of college girls made a 36 ... er, 29 year old stranger feel very welcome for a night. Highlighting differences might make for better comedy, but remembering what makes up our common humanity makes for more grateful living.

Now where is that scented body lotion catalog? My dad's christmas gift isn't going to buy itself.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together (Marion, Va)

(Back) Alan, Dr. Jones, Kelley, me (Front) Aidan, Lily & Collin on Sunday night

When the seed of the idea for this walk first came to me five years ago, I somewhat naively thought it would go exactly like this: I would look for a host in a town where I had no existing connections by emailing a local church, explaining what I was doing and magically the pastor's family would welcome me with open arms.

I believed that because if someone had contacted my dad's church with a similar request when I was a kid that is exactly what would have happened. Well, except for the email part. Al Gore hadn't invented the Internet yet.

In the real world it hasn't been quite that easy. I have met wonderfully hospitable people through contacting random churches - Ginger Will in Schaghticoke & Rev. Cherie Philips in Peekskill. Equally there have been a lot of churches who haven't responded to my emails or calls at all. Granted, what I am asking is altogether uncommon in our day and age. My dad pastored for 30 years and my mom has been a church administrator for almost as long and neither of them can remember getting a request from a complete stranger for somewhere to stay on a walk across America.

Some part of me wanted to believe that the Christian tradition of hospitality would trump the fear of strangers that is daily sown in our psyches by the American media machine. In my request I try my best to allay any fears, giving plenty of phone numbers for personal references and attaching a letter of recommendation from the President of the American Bible Society. Even with all that I was experiencing an extended drought finding hosts through contacting churches. Until Sunday night.

I sent an email to Royal Oak Presbyterian Church in Marion, Virginia a week before I was scheduled to get to town. I gave my usual references and noted that I would call in a day and a half to introduce myself. Less than a day later one of my references contacted me to say she had received a call to ask about her experience hosting me. That was a good sign. Later that afternoon I called the church to say hi and talked directly to Rev. Alan Gray.

Alan said that I would be very welcome to stay the night with him and his family. It was just that easy. I might as well have been in a time warp talking to my Dad a generation ago. Score one for small town Presbyterians. Alan and his wife have ministered in Marion for about 11 years, the same amount of time my family had been in West Hebron circa 1981. My brother was 10 and I was 8 at the time. Alan's sons Aidan and Collin are 11 and 9. He also has a 6 year old daughter Lily.

Alan met me in the parking lot of the church at 5pm and after asking if there were any errands I needed to run took me out to the house. Kelley cooked a wonderful dinner and we enjoyed great fellowship around the table. Another member of their congregation, Dr. Jeff Jones, joined us for dinner. It just so happened that he had lived in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) when he was in his 20s. We talked and laughed and then had an intermission from our feast to allow the Rev. Lily Gray (Masters of Divinity pending) to lead us all in an impromptu church service, complete with bulletins, worship songs, a sermon and an offering. I have it on good authority that this service set an offertory record - $7.40. How often do you get a financial report 30 seconds after the offering is taken? Churches, feel free to borrow that idea.

After "Boxwood Pres" services we went back to the table for dessert. Their kids were very inquisitive, asking great questions about my journey and I answered them all, seeing in their eyes a young me growing up in loving family ensconced in a tight-knit small town. They changed into their Christmas pajamas and we posed for our group picture and then bedtime drew its curtain on the Gray household.

In the morning they served me a full breakfast. I even tried grits and didn't hate them. The South must be starting to rub off on me. Kelley left to take the kids to school and Alan and I remained to talk a bit more. Alan spoke of his continuing desire to sustain a church community that is marked by hospitality, especially within the congregation itself. There are built in challenges to bringing people together face to face in the modern world. Yet it can not be a coincidence that all of the world's major religions place such a premium on showing hospitality to friends and strangers alike. Ultimately it makes us more compassionately human and brings us closer to God at the same time. It brings joy to the giver and comfort to the receiver.

That Grays had gone out of their way to comfort me. Hopefully I brought a bit of joy into their house. Five years ago, dreaming in my living room about this trip, this is exactly what I envisioned it would be. As Hannibal from the A-Team used to say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Friday Night Lights (Rural Retreat, VA)

Rural Retreat Indians prepare to take on Northwood on Friday night

Jim & Betty Bear along with the newest Rural Retreat Booster on Sunday morning

I woke up Friday and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could still walk. My blisters were tender but they weren't going to keep me from my appointed destination. That destination was Wytheville. Originally I was going to walk the full 20 miles to Rural Retreat, but I've learned on this trip not to try and be a hero. Instead I would limp the 9 miles to Wytheville and Betty Bear would pick me up at the library.

Betty is the sister of Kennan Campbell who I stayed with last week in Fairfield. She and her husband Jim graciously offered to host me for two nights so that I could take a rest day on Saturday and allow my blisters to heal.

Before my Saturday rest we had a little business to take care of. Friday nights in Rural Retreat mean one thing: high school football. The hometown Indians were hosting Northwood High School and despite a light misting of rain we had reservations on the 50 yard line.

Let's just be polite and say that there have been more memorable years than this when it comes to Indian football. When the Bear's sons Steven and James were playing, the team was more of a regional juggernaut. This year they brought a humble 2-5 record into Friday night's game, but they had a couple of secret weapons. First, it was senior night. Secondly, they had a secret little weapon I like to call .... me. So far on this trip I have attended one football game and UVA trounced Indiana 49-7. I expected another Follow Your Bliss brand blowout.

The first quarter ended in a 0-0 tie. I was just about to start questioning my mojo when the Indians completed a 95-yard pass down to the Northwood's 1 yard line. The flood gates stayed open after that. By the end of the third quarter the Indians were sitting on a 35-0 lead and Jim had me sitting in the radio booth being interviewed by the local station about my journey.

Jim and Betty have lived in Rural Retreat for many years and know just about everyone. Jim has even served as mayor. He is now retired after selling his quarry business and he and Betty fill their time with lots of travel, spending time with their grandkids and kidding with each other. I wasn't immune from the good natured ribbing. When I waltzed down for breakfast on Saturday at 9am I got a sarcastic "good afternoon" from Jim. And he seemed to take special delight in referring to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression a couple of times over the weekend.

Having grown up across the street from the Waites, the Bears' sense of humor felt like a slice of home. For two days, the Bears house was just that- home. I lounged around on Saturday and watched college football with Jim (much to his delight and my dismay the Tennessee Volunteers squandered a perfect opportunity to upset Alabama at home). I visited with their friends Jack and Lucy who stopped by on Saturday night. Betty even made a pumpkin pie, suffering an flesh wound in the process. She now has a restraining order out on all serrated pie cutters. All the while I was enjoying this wonderful hospitality, my blisters were healing.

By the time Sunday morning came around I felt up to the task of biting off another 15 miles of road. I attended the early service at the Methodist Church with Jim and Betty and then set off for Marion. If you would have told me before this trip that I would meet two Bears on the road and they would help salve my wounds I would have been confused. Yet that is exactly what happened. I guess that's just the magic of this rural retreat.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Ballad of Unhappy Feet

Adam & his daughter, Robin & Jeremy White, me and Michelle in Radford on Wednesday night

On Tuesday I was scheduled to walk from Salem to Christiansburg. The original plan was to stay with Barry & Francine Helms Tuesday evening. But on Monday I received a call from Barry to say that Francine was quite sick. Before I even had a chance to think about plan B, Barry told me he had already taken care of it.

He arranged for a hotel room in Christiansburg and when I arrived Tuesday afternoon there was a hand written card waiting for me expressing his regrets and wishing me a comfortable stay. I wasn't in the room ten minutes before Barry called to make sure I had arrived and everything was okay. I thanked him, said all was well and we arranged to meet for breakfast the next morning before he went to work.

So at the crack of dawn on Wednesday we met at the Denny's next to the hotel. Barry and Francine are the parents of Mary Vissani. I've never met Mary but she and her husband Dan know my parents and are now in Zimbabwe starting an agricultural mission project in urban townships. Barry's other daughter lives in Germany. It must be hard to have both children living on different continents. I was impressed that he and Francince already have plans to visit Zimbabwe next summer. Of my three living grandparents at the time we were in Africa only my dad's mom ever made it over to to visit. For her trouble she almost got charged by an elephant. The other two were just not interested and that was back when Zimbabwe was much more stable. So kudos to Barry and Francine for supporting their daughter and son-in-law. My only advice would be stay clear of early morning safari walks on Fathergill Island. The elephants can get a little jumpy.

After a night in a hotel the promise of meeting new friends drew me toward Dublin after sharing breakfast with Barry. It was a 20 mile walk across downtown Christiansburg, through the college town of Radford and on into the sleepy village of Dublin. I hadn't done a 20 mile day for a while and it reminded me how much difference those extra two miles can make. By the time I arrived at Jeremy and Robin's house my "tank" was on low and my feet were sore. Any illusions that my feet would become immune to blisters after 8 weeks on the road were shattered. The back of both of my heels throbbed and my left pinkie toe felt raw.

When I get to a host's house the first thing I always do is get out of my shoes. Walking around in bare feet is positively liberating. Since we were headed back out to dinner I was internally lamenting having to squeeze back into my hiking boots. Being seasoned hikers, Jeremy and Robin must have read my mind. Before heading out the door Jeremy pointed to a pair of flip flops and offered them to me. I gratefully accepted. My feet would continue to breathe free.

Dublin isn't terribly far from the Appalachian Trail and Robin and Jeremy do their share of day and weekend treks. Recently they got to play superheroes for a thru-trekker in distress. This guy had injured his leg nearby and was in danger of having to abandon his journey. He limped to the nearest internet access, got on couchsurfing, found they were the nearest hosts and sent them an email. Like responding to a Bat Signal above Gotham Robin and Jeremy drove over an hour to where he was and took him back to their house. He recuperated there ... for 8 days ... and then returned to the trail. He was due to summit in Maine that very night I was with them.

Like the other couchsurfers I have met they really live out its ethos. It truly is a beautiful community of like minded individuals and I can't encourage people enough to become a part of it. After dinner with their friends Adam and Michelle in Radford we returned home to catch some of the Phillies game. I went to bed early but Jeremy stayed up to watch the flickering embers of his beloved Dodgers' season slowly burn out.

When I woke on Thursday morning my feet were still tender. I was staring down the barrel of a 23 mile walk over a mountain and into Max Meadows. With my feet playing a mournful wail on the bagpipes I wanted no part of that distance. I asked Jeremy if he would drop me off 6 miles down the road and trim the walk to a more manageable 17 miles. He happily obliged.

He took me to the Walgreens in Pulaski where I stocked up on foot care supplies. Bandaged up I headed out into another day. There aren't any tricks to walking with blisters. It hurts like hell for the first few minutes then you gradually start to get used to the pain. Once you become acquainted with it it is best to just keep on walking. If you do stop, or God forbid stop and take off your shoes, you are sentencing yourself to the tortuous process all over again.

I decided to take a metaphysical approach to the plaintive wail of my feet. I simply accepted its presence. As a great thinker once said, why argue with the "is-ness" of the world? Better to face it with a spirit of acceptance than try to wish it away, because wishing things were different doesn't change anything. At least acceptance allows me to make friends with the present moment, however uncomfortable it might be.

At least with this physical pain I knew when it would end. With emotional pain we don't usually get a time line. I knew that as soon as I got to my hotel, removed my shoes and lay down on the bed I would have sweet relief. That's exactly what happened. For the rest of the night the only time I got up was to limp over to the Mexican restaurant next door.

Back in my hotel room I briefly felt sorry for myself. I had forgotten my lesson from hours before about making friends with the present. Instead I was caught up in imagining that I wouldn't be able to walk the next day. I reminded myself tomorrow would come in its own time. All I had to deal with was the present moment. That meant laying on the bed and watching Thursday night NBC comedies. My feet weren't singing any sad ballads. They were propped up on a pillow singing Doo-Wop. That is some "is-ness" I had an easy time accepting.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An Ode To Joyful Living (Salem, Va)

Above: Me, Judy and her corgi Joey in Salem on Tuesday morning.

When I meet someone for the first time (and this trip has ushered forth many chances to do just that) I can't help but get a sense of their energy. This isn't easy to put into words. Sometimes that energy is subtle, other times it is more pronounced. When I met Judy Walz on Monday evening in Salem, VA it was obvious.

I was walking up Market Street to her house, hopelessly on time as usual. Judy was walking her corgi Joey with a friend and coming down Market Street from the opposite direction. We collided right in front of the sidewalk leading to her house. Talk about perfect timing. We greeted each other and I immediately sensed an unmistakable joy and zest for life.

I've met a lot of people on this trip, all so welcoming and full of care for me, but only a handful that I think could muster the energy to keep up as a walking companion. I'm going to go ahead and add Judy to that small list. The amazing thing is she is 40 years my senior and seems to have every bit the amount of "get up and go" as I do. Soon after I arrived we set out for dinner, taking a brisk walk across the beautiful Roanoke College campus which adjoins her house. She matched my pace easily, taking three strides to my two, as she filled me in about the college and her experiences living here for the past twenty years.

We ate at a local eatery called Mac & Bob's. Bob lives near Judy and we hoped he would be at the restaurant as he is also a friend of Fritz Knapp who I stayed with in Louisa. Unfortunately he wasn't there. What was there were some amazing crab cakes, two perfect glasses of wine and a few pesky little gnats intent on sharing our meal. Judy and I sat there talking excitedly about our travels while periodically detaching eye contact to follow the unpredictable flight of a nearby gnat and then try to quickly catch it with a well placed clap of the hands. I felt like it was Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san all over again, recreating a scene from the favorite movie of my youth - Karate Kid.

When we returned home she did not ask me to paint her back deck or wax her car. Sorry, another Karate Kid reference there. After all, I did watch it seven times in the theater in Harare when I was 12 years old. In fact, after I check off "walk across America" from my bucket list one of the only things remaining will be "attend a Halloween party dressed as a shower". But I digress.

What did await me upon our return home was a homemade apple crisp. My love of desserts had clearly preceded me, fulfilling my devious plan of constantly mentioning it in my blog posts for hosts down the road who might read it. I devoured a hearty slice and immediately started to feel the siren call of sleep.

Both Judy and I are morning people so we picked up our conversation over an early breakfast. I should back up for a second and say how we got connected. Joey (our mutual friend, not her dog) is married to the daughter of Judy's best friend Devere. Devere and her husband Jerry have known Judy for many years and she has an abundance of affection for the important role they have played in her life. They originally met while living in the Midwest and then they briefly both lived in Salem when Judy relocated here 20 years ago.

Devere and Jerry moved to Connecticut but they have stayed best of friends. Judy has a close knit network of friends in this area as well. Over breakfast she showed me hilarious pictures of nights she and her friends spend together acting out sketches written by one of the group. For a whole night they dress up and act out the characters they have been assigned, often into the early morning hours. From the photos I saw it looked like an absolute blast.

Seeing those photos took me back to the last time I participated in a homemade character skit. It was New Year's Eve 1985 and my dad had roped both our and John's family into recreating the biblical story of Lazarus. What transpired was one of the worst displays of acting not just on the African continent, but on any continent. I smartly chose the role of Lazarus, thus negating my need to memorize any lines. My brother Aaron even more astutely grabbed camera man duties, erasing the need for a costume at all. Thus it was all captured on tape for posterity. John as a enthusiastic Jesus who often went off script, my Dad as the disciple Thomas with a sofa blanket draped over his head, my mom as Martha drumming up crocodile tears and finally me in the starring role, coming out of a side door draped in a bed sheet after Jesus' extended soliloquy challenging me to rise from the dead. It was corny, yes. But it was fun at the same time and was followed by a rousing sing along replete with drum and Shona choruses.

Looking at the pictures Judy showed me I sensed that same kind of community and fun among her and her friends. I am sure having such a close knit group of friends is part of why she leads such a joyous life. Another part of it is surely her infectious optimism. We each make a choice every moment of the day whether we are going to exist in a spirit of gratitude or whether we are going to concentrate on lack. I struggle with that as much as anyone, even on a trip that I chose to take which gives me a freedom few others have the luxury to experience. I really appreciated Judy's living example that optimism is always the better choice.

Before dropping me off on the outskirts of town she gave me a copy of one of her favorite magazines. It is called Ode and its mission is to cultivate a spirit of optimism through stories that sow hope rather than fear. It was the perfect small gift from a woman whose whole life seems like an ode to joyful living. It got me wondering as I walked away from Salem why I don't cultivate more cross-generational friendships. It seems like a bit of an enigma in our culture. Maybe all cultures, who knows. But someone with Judy's joy and life experience would be the exact kind of cross generational friendship I would like to have. I would even throw my hat in the ring for one of those character skits. I might even take a speaking role this time.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

You Must Zip It (Roanoke, Va)

Above: Preparing to take a zip line into darkness on Saturday night

Above: Still alive at the bottom with some fellow zip-liners from McLean Bible Church

Above: Playing the Partridge Family with host family Sunday night - Brendan (left) and Mitchell (right). Not pictured - their mom Laura, band photographer

There are a few things I didn't think I would get to experience on this trip. Near the top of that list would have been "take a zipline 900ft down a mountain into the pitch black night while screaming like a little girl". But life is full of surprises. Given that I can't predict them, the least I can do is go with the flow.

That is the mantra I was repeating to myself as I climbed up the side of a mountain on a moonless night with zip line gear thrown around my neck. My host for the weekend Laura and her two sons Mitchell and Brendan were with me, quietly marching up like turkeys to the slaughter. When we reached the top the attendant asked us who would like to go first. Silence. I wish I could say that I boldly stepped up to the plate, chivalrously volunteering to test out the line's strength for the woman and teenagers in my group. Instead I looked around awkwardly and blew a sigh of relief when 15-year-old Mitchell said, "I'll go first."

I jumped at going second, now suddenly Ponce de la Garth. As I stood on the wood frame with Mitchell poised to go off, I was hyper alert of everything going on. I knew that 900 feet below lay the braking cable and a small group of people waiting to come up. I knew that only because I had just been down there. From where we stood, there was only darkness.

Mitchell went off and all I could hear was the whir of the zip line for about 15 long seconds before the sound of the bungee break came wafting back up the mountain. I guess he didn't die. That was good news. Now it was my turn. The attendant repeated his checks and cross checks, attached me to the line and I turned around for the "I'm going to smile and look like I'm not anxious at all" photo op. I was told to step off on the count of three. "On three or after three" I wanted to ask but he was already counting and the line got taut right at three and sent me barrelling into the darkness.

It felt like I hit the maximum speed of 35mph about 1.2 seconds after taking off. The speed and the cold air and the dark night was exhilarating. Once I realized I wouldn't be falling to my death I gave out a few rebel yells on my way down to punctuate the experience.

At the bottom I was unhitched and got to wait around with some of the other guys waiting to zip down. There was a group from the McLean Bible Church and between lightening the mood with movie quotes and good-natured kidding some of them asked me about my walk cross country. If only there were a zip line to New Orleans, I could get this trip in the books much quicker.

Laura and Brendan also made it down without incident and we were hay-rided back to the main lodge for cookies and hot chocolate. Many thanks to the folks at Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing for making sure I didn't die and we all had a good time. If you find yourself lost in the mountains east of Roanoke, follow the screaming and you might find their zip line. They're good people.

*****

I met Laura and her boys through the couchsurfing website which has turned out to be a real boon for me in Virginia. I stayed with them for two nights instead of one so I could work in a rest day on Sunday. My rest days are important because they are my opportunity to sleep in a little bit, catch up on email, try and contact potential hosts for weeks to come and give my tired feet a chance to recuperate from the rigors of the road.

After my experience with the cold last week I wanted to gear up a bit better. Laura took me into downtown Roanoke and I bought some new North Face pants, long johns and gloves just in case an another arctic high pressure mass decides to walk a few days with me in the coming months. After that I got a free therapeutic massage (Laura's a CMT) to add to the free chiropractic adjustment I received in New Jersey and then the whole crew capped the night off with a viewing of Where The Wild Things Are at the local Grandin Theater.

I can't say it was my favorite movie ever but I enjoyed how its themes challenged me. Max and I don't have the same anger management problem, but we are both caught up in adventures of our own makings - sojourns that exist in part to teach us valuable lessons about the importance of home, of friends and family. If you don't count the bed bugs drunk on my blood in Opal, I haven't encountered any external Wild Things on my trip. The wild things for me, when they exist, are in my mind. They are my fears - loneliness, worry, fatigue, failure, having nowhere to stay - and they come out and rumpus from time to time. To silence them I need not sail through night and day, and in an out of weeks and almost over a year. I simply have to stop living in an imagined future and enjoy what is happening to me right now ... like I did when I was hurtling down an unknown mountain with only a zip line to support me. That's being forced to live in the Present. And it is a lesson well taken. Thanks Laura, Mitchell and Brendan.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Perfect Road to Walk (Blue Ridge, VA)



Top: The Blue Ridge Parkway, Saturday morning
Middle: Caleb, me, Tessa, Angela and Bradley on Saturday morning
Bottom: Caleb and Tessa welcome me with chalk art on Friday evening

Angela and Bradley Yarborough had already logged a busy week of hosting couchsurfers when I sauntered up to their house on Friday evening. They had a Belgian couple stay with them for three nights while they hiked local trails and had also welcomed a bicyclist. It is a testament to their true couchsurfing spirit that they still had enough energy to put out the welcome mat yet again - as a matter of fact literally draw it out - for me on Friday evening.

The Yarborough's live in a beautiful part of Virginia, nestled just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. It had been a long, cold week and I had only gotten by with a lot of help from my friends, both old and new. Angela, Bradley, Caleb and Tessa fall into the new category. They were my second couchsurfing family and I was only their third surfer, but it couldn't have gone any smoother.

We had some things in common right from the outset. Both Bradley and I spent good chunks of the 1980s overseas with parents who were involved in Presbyterian missions. Bradley lived over six years in the Amazon region of Brazil, while I lived a cushy metropolitan life in Harare for three. I guess it is a good reflection on Presbyterian missionaries that we both grew up to be such fine, upstanding citizens. Parents, if you are looking for a moral to this story, it is to pick up from wherever you are living right now and move your family overseas. Your kids might hate you at first, or in my case lock themselves in the car and threaten to never come out, but in the long run they will thank you for exposing them to the world at such a young age.

If that isn't a possibility, sign up to be a couch surfing family. It will immediately make you 50% cooler. Trust me. As for the Yarboroughs, what could be cooler then suggesting I watch Thursday's episode of The Office with them after dinner? I'll answer it for you. Nothing. Needless to say I was nodding yes faster than a Dwight Shrute bobble head doll. We watched the show, shared some laughs and by the time it was over I was about to start doing some nodding of a different sort. I was wiped out from a long, cold day of climbing mountains. Time to hit the hay. And if I was Michael Scott I would add, "That's what she said." Let's be thankful I'm not.

In the morning Angela made some mean French Toast and we talked about the best way for me to walk into Roanoke. Google Maps simply gives me the quickest route. Leave it to Bradley to give me the coolest route. He suggested I take the Blue Ridge Parkway down far past where Google Maps suggested I take a left onto Route 460. He bikes the Parkway everyday to work and told me that at a certain lookout point I can cut a hard right into a field and follow the worn down grass from his bike , landing me out onto Mountain View Road and shaving two miles off my trip.

I made it out on to the Parkway at 10am on Saturday. It was still cool and gray, but dry. Even without the blue sky it was a gorgeous walk. Bradley knew what I was finding out - the Blue Ridge Parkway is the perfect road to walk. There is no shoulder but there is flat mowed grass on either side of the road. Beautiful trees give ways to spectacular views and then back to thick wooded areas. The leaves were dive bombing me from the branches above, giving the ground a splash of autumn color. On the ground they were slightly wet from the week's rain and gave off that pleasant earthen scent. Those are among my favorite smells from my childhood in West Hebron. In my mind they mingle with the sound of my dad's rake making big piles around the yard. It conjures up memories of Aaron and I being thrown into piles of leaves sitting on old thick blankets where the smell would surround us like a cocoon, or being tackled in a pick up football game on the hill and sliding headfirst through the damp leaves scattered across the field.

With all those pleasant memories and beautiful vistas I felt like I could walk the Parkway right on down to the Carolinas. But before too long there was the bike path short cut Bradley had told me about. I ducked through the small underbrush, across the field and over toward Vinton. It was back to city life. A weekend in Roanoke awaited.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

I Wish You Rainy Days (Fairfield & Lexington, VA)

Sam, Kenmar, Martha, Kennan and me in Fairfield on Wednesday night

I wish you rainy days, so you can know the beauty of a clear blue sky
I wish you falling leaves so you understand that seasons change
- Heather Headley, I Wish

I woke up Wednesday morning in Waynesboro and immediately knew autumn had arrived in full force. I had fallen asleep with the window open and I shivered in the brisk morning air. When I looked at the weather forecast it was worse than I thought. Winter had pushed autumn aside and bullied itself straight to the front of the line. It was in the low 40s outside and threatening rain. I gave a Charlie Brown sigh. I had four days of walking ahead of me until I reached Roanoke and it was clear the weather was not going to cooperate.

To add insult to bone-chillingly cold temperatures, I had done a bad of planning my walking distances this week. I fancy myself an adept planner but at times I am prone to mistakes. Just ask my boss Simon. Over five years my gaffes were few, but notable. Booking him at an aging and slightly dilapidated hotel in India. Leaving him stranded at the Philadelphia airport without a ride home. Sleeping through my alarm and missing the beginning of a board meeting I was in charge of catering. For this week, I had greatly underestimated how far I needed to get by the weekend. My feet wouldn't take me that far. I needed some automotive assistance.

On Wednesday morning it was Hannie to the rescue. After Cole and Keiko got off to school she drove me a few miles down Route 340 so I could be within walking distance of Fairfield. Two days later my hosts in Fairfield, Martha and Kennan Campbell, lent their wheels to the same cause and drove me from Lexington to Buchanan. Thus my miscalculations were erased by the kindness of my hosts.

If I hadn't of gotten help I would have been in trouble. The weather was frigid. After Hannie dropped me off on Wednesday morning I practically powered walked to Fairfield. I was trying to stay a step ahead of the rain that was predicted for later in the afternoon. The rain came shortly after I ducked into a pizza shop in Fairfield for a late lunch. After lunch Martha and Kennan picked me up and took me the last half mile to their house and I was able to stay dry.

On Thursday I had no such luck. It greeted me with temperatures still hovering in the low 40s and steady rain. I was bundled up as best I could with rain jacket, hood and layers covering my legs. Martha Campbell felt bad and offered to drive me into Lexington. I was tempted but declined. I knew when I started this journey of four months there would be plenty of days when the weather would be miserable. I needed to push through. Out into the cold, wet and wind I went.

I am trying to think about how to best describe the next three hours. I could start by looking up the word fun in the dictionary and then searching for antonyms. I kept my head down and walked, relying on podcasts to distract me from the wet chill creeping into my skin. Luckily I didn't have a normal six hours of walking. By 12:30 I reached my destination and ducked into a local diner to get some lunch. I had just ordered my chicken quesadilla and pumpkin pie and was warming up with my hands around a cup of coffee when Martha and Kennan walked in. I guess it is a small world round these parts. They had coincidentally come to the same restaurant to meet some friends. Maybe I should have just relaxed with them at home and then hitched a ride after all.

There is a big part of me that wants everything to be easy and painless. As an Executive Assistant I spent 8 hours a day (okay, sue me, maybe it was closer to 5) trying to make sure that everything in my boss' business life went as planned. So the desire for things to go perfectly is deep in my blood. But to use walking as a metaphor, can I truly appreciate those perfectly mild sunny days if I don't have some wet and rainy ones to put them in relief?

I lived in LA for eight years and experienced long stretches without rain. Just 75 degrees and sunny for weeks on end. Changes in season were so subtle I didn't even recognize them. One year blended into another, detached from the clear natural cycle of birth, blossom, decay and regeneration. On a practical level it meant that all the things I love to do - rollerblade on the beach, play tennis, take day trips - where available to me whenever I wanted without the threat of bad weather. Sounds kind of ideal. On another level, I'm not so sure. I have realized through experience that there is value in not always having access to my greatest pleasures in life.

This I know: I never enjoyed a beautiful, 75 degree Los Angeles day 1/2 as much as I enjoy the first 75 degree New York City afternoon at the dawn of spring. I walk through Central Park and I feel positively exalted. Flowers are blooming. People are smiling. The newness of that experience after a long winter gives it an emotional and physical impact that is absent without the contrast of the bitter cold days which preceded it.

That is probably why we enjoy the special occasions in life so much. We enjoy them so acutely because they are not experienced everyday. Kennan and Martha Campbell recently celebrated their 50th anniversary and their entire family flew down to the Dominican Republic to celebrate with them. They showed me the pictures on Wednesday night. There they were with their son and daughter and both of their families, enjoying the rare chance to all be together.

There are many things I enjoy so much that the thought of doing them everyday is alluring. Imagine if I could watch a new episode of The Wire 365 days a year? Give me a second to allow my heartbeat to slow down. I could easily enjoy a different Broadway musical each week. I salivate at the thought of eating at nice Manhattan restaurants every single night. But would that add to my enjoyment of the things, or eventually detract from it?

My experience is that it would ultimately drain some of pleasure for those experiences as they started to feel routine. I've had to find a healthy rhythm in my life that allows me to do things I love without going overboard. I've experienced the flip side of that - unhealthy dependency on behaviors that started out being fun and gradually became less so because of overuse.

I write all that to come back to my point about the misery of walking in the cold rain. It is undeniably miserable. But it provides perspective which allows me to enjoy the small counter-pleasures I might have otherwise taken for granted. That cup of hot coffee my hands are wrapped around. The warm shower I took Thursday night when I got to my hotel room. The warm car ride Martha and Kennan gave me the next morning to drop me off further down the road on another cold day. They feel like bigger blessings for having suffered through the cold and rain.

I'm sure other rainy days will be in my future. I wouldn't mind if those days come along with slightly higher temperatures, but even if they don't, I'll keep counting my blessings.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Mountains Lose Again (Crozet to Waynesboro)


Top: My hosts in Waynesboro on Tuesday: Johanna, Keiko (on lap), Cole, Steven and baby Kai Churchill.
Below: Me and my brother, circa 1985

Some of my happiest memories are the times my brother and I would hit the open road together. The longest of those trips was when he moved out to Los Angeles. I rode shotgun with him from Pennsylvania to the Pacific, all his earthly belongings piled into the back of his green Ford Ranger.

That was my first of what would become multiple cross country trips. It was also my introduction to the vast open spaces of the American West. I saw all of it because there wasn't much sleeping going on in the Ford Ranger. The seats didn't recline at all. Because of the pickup bed the front seats were at a 90 degree angle and unmovable, forcing Aaron and me to be ambassadors for the Good Posture Lobby.

One of the nice things about driving across the west is that the grandiosity of the landscape makes you feel small and humble. With all that time, and all that majesty, it leads to some good conversations. It was on trips like this that Aaron and I were most likely to have heart-to-hearts. Later, after I also moved out to Los Angeles and we were roommates, Aaron and I would rekindle our love affair with the open road three of four times a year by gassing up the Ranger and heading to Las Vegas.

Anyone who has driven from LA to Vegas knows it is a journey in three distinct acts. Act one, getting out of LA. Act Two, the high desert. Act three, rounding the final outcropping and seeing the lights of Las Vegas in the distance. By far the longest stretch is the high desert, stretching from the Cajon Pass until you spot the stream of light shooting into the air from the Luxor Casino. We spent many hours together in that high desert, staring out in distance, talking and laughing and prognosticating and, well ... being best friends. Landmarks highlighted our way: Victorville, the big thermometer in Baker, the fast food joints in Barstow, the exit for Xxyyzz Road, the State Line, Laughlin and then ultimately, Vegas in the distance. We had nothing to do but drive and talk and listen.

We had a soundtrack for these drives. It was the Blues Traveler "Four" album. This is dating ourselves a bit, but we would throw that cassette tape in when we hit the high desert and let it play all the way through. One song in particular always affects me from that album. It's called The Mountains Win Again. When I hear that album now, the memories come rushing back. Music has a way of doing that. It touches an emotional nerve and holds on until the last note. Hearing that song, I miss him. I miss the relationship we once had. And I hope that someday it will be him and me again, in the front of some car, and we can let the mountains draw us out to a place where honesty is possible.

This Tuesday morning I found myself sitting at the foot of Blue Ridge Mountains, halfway between Crozet and Waynesboro. There was no Ford Ranger to take me up. I would have to walk the steep three miles to the top. I looked in my iPod and chose three Blues Traveler songs to get me started. By the time those ended I was in a zone, powering up the hill at maybe twice my normal speed. The adrenaline was flowing and I selected song after song to push me forward with maximum effect. I saved another favorite for last, just as I was about to crest the mountain. In sight of the summit I threw on Whitney Houston's One Moment in Time. Before you laugh, let me say this in my defense. Listen to that song and you will be inspired.

In high school, my best friend Derek and I loved that song. Near the end of our senior year we started to lift weights at our local YMCA. I think there was some convoluted reason for our sudden bout of interest in bodybuilding. If I remember right we had a senior trip to Dorney Park Wildwater Kingdom and we wanted to look good for the girls in our class. I feel like laughing when I think about it, but nonetheless that is all we needed to start pumping weights a few times a week. One night we were the only ones in the weight room near closing time. Our workout was winding down as we listened to the radio, talking more than we were lifting. Then One Moment in Time came on.

Each day I live
I want to be a day to give the best of me

I'm only one, but not alone

My finest day is yet unknown

I broke my heart for every gain

To taste the sweet, I faced the pain

I rise and fall,
Yet through it all this much remains
...

We looked at each other and immediately started running around like mad men. Derek threw a few more plates on the bench press than usual and started pumping out sets. I pick up a couple of huge dumbbells and start doing free presses like I was performing for the US Olympic Committee. For the five minutes of the song we ran around the weight room, lifting like doped up East German body builders.

Give me one moment in time
When I'm more than I thought I could be
When all of my dreams
Are a heart beat away
And the answers are all up to me
Give me one moment in time
When I'm racing with destiny
Then in that one moment of time
I will be, I will be, I will be free

That same chorus was playing in my ears at full volume as I reached the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I felt complete elation. I was six full weeks into my trip, still plugging away, refusing to back down from both the literal and metaphorical mountains in my path. I was back in that weight room with Derek. I was driving in the high desert with my brother. I was by myself on the top of a mountain. Only this time, the mountains hadn't won again. I had.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Groundhog Day (Charlottesville to Crozet, VA)


Top: Brennan, Nicole, Carolyn, Jason (Burke) and me on Sunday
Below: The crafty and elusive groundhog, peeking out from his burrow

I see a lot of dead animals by the side of the road. Squirrels and possums are high on the hit list. Skunks, deer and snakes aren't far behind. I see the occasional squashed turtle. Those look kinda cool actually. I even saw a dead fox recently. That was exceedingly rare. Foxes are fast little critters and can usually avoid oncoming traffic. Who knows, maybe he saw a box with some Green Eggs and Ham across the street and couldn't resist. I hear that is a weakness of theirs.

I haven't seen a single dead groundhog, which is a bit odd. They tend to be fat and a bit slow. I see living ones pretty much everyday in the nearby fields. How do they avoid being roadkill? I'm beginning to think they lead charmed existences. So I decided to choose groundhogs as the official mascots of my journey. I am sure there is great rejoicing in burrows all over the land.

That means everyday is a groundhog day. If you've seen the movie with Bill Murray that statement has even more significance. The movie is about a cynical and egotistical weatherman who is trapped having to repeat a day he finds tedious and annoying. It just so happens that day is Groundhog Day and he has traveled to Punxsutawney, PA to file a television report. There is a love interest (of course) and more than a few of Bill Murray's deadpan jokes, but the moral of the story is beautifully simple: the only way we can find fulfillment is looking beyond ourselves, appreciating the people who are in our life everyday and treating them as we would like to be treated.

My walk could be a take on the Groundhog Day plot. Here's the twist. I awake everyday and get to live out one of the best days of my life. I do the things I love - walk, write, share dinners with great people - and then do it all over again the next day. Of course, that wouldn't make a very good film. It's all third act and no set-up or confrontation. I guess that is what my book will have to provide - the context and conflict that led to this attempt at a climactic third act.

My conflict is internal rather than external. Yet like Bill Murray, I am having to re-learn certain basic lessons everyday. My inner challenge is one of honesty and complete self-acceptance. Those are big balls of wax, each with quite a few different layers. I guess it is good that I have plenty of time to devote to reflecting and working through how to live in complete honesty. It reminds me of the church sign that is among my favorite on this trip. "There are no degrees of honesty," it reads. Amen to that.

One of the purest pleasures of my Groundhog Day like existence is getting to spend time with people who also value reflection. On Sunday I was fortunate enough to stay with two of them - Jason and Nicole Burke. Jason and Nicole have two young kids, Carolyn (2) and Brennan (1), so that meant that the beginning of the evening was the beautifully hectic orchestra that is raising two preschoolers. I have to hand it to them. Jason and Nicole did an enviable job at being twin conductors. They orchestrated dinner, then playtime, then baths, then dessert and finally putting the kids to bed all while seeing to my needs as well. It was a symphony with significantly more than four movements.

The crescendo was the chance us three adults had to talk after the kids had been put to sleep. Our shared background is that Nicole and I both worked at Geneva Global for a couple of years. It was not "officially" a Christian organization but, other than a small handful, all those who worked there self identified as believers. When Nicole and I started at the company the staff meetings still began with devotions and ended with everyone counting off and breaking into prayer groups. I conceded that it had made me extremely uncomfortable when it happened on my first day. Jason joked that I could have feigned the need for a bathroom break. I smiled and admitted that is exactly what I had done. I ducked out to the bathroom and stayed there for about 15 minutes. Dishonest, yes, but very effective.

Even though 95% if the employees were Christians, I am sure there were stark differences in beliefs and theology. I've said this a few times now, but it is a theme my mind keeps returning to on this journey: I find myself much less interested in talking about personal beliefs and more curious about examining how we live out their lives among the challenges, joys and tedium of our own personal groundhog days. Who is able to model the traits that caused a dozen, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions of people to look to Jesus as a role model and a messiah? Nicole and I talked about the co-workers who impressed us most with their humility and their servanthood. She and Jason clearly think very deeply about their Christian witness and if the relationships they have in their life model Christ like behavior.

From where I'm standing, they are both wonderful witness to each other, to their kids and certainly to a certain former co-worker who emailed asking for a place to stay and a little fellowship. Like all my other hosts they are living, breathing examples of the Golden Rule, welcoming a weary traveler and friend as they would like to be treated.

And yet all of us can go further when we have the opportunity. Comparative theologians have pointed out that among world prophets there was one challenge Jesus made to his followers that was revolutionary. We all come into contact with people who aren't loving and are often outright malicious toward us. Jesus taught that we are to actively love those people too. Not just reciprocate love for love, but to return love in the face of open enmity.

Because that flies so directly in the face of human nature it is the rare person who can consistently model that kind of radical love. For the rest of us who are trying to learn to love with that kind of purity we have every single day to wake up and try again. Call it our Groundhog Day challenge.

The Lighter Side (Weeks 5 & 6)

Week 5 & 6 In Review
The Lighter Side is back ... with vengeance. Well, not really. But if you likely slightly oddball pictures and weak attempts at comedic captions, click on the photo above and take a look at the whole album.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

That's another Cavalier .... FIRST DOWN!

Above: Me & David (far right) and the rest of the tailgating crew in Charlottesville

In the spring of 1991 I got a letter from the good folks at the University of Virginia informing me that I had not been granted admission. I had been wait listed. Coming closely on the heels of outright rejections from UNC Chapel Hill and Duke, I was crushed. That humbling experience led directly to two memorable decisions.

I decided to accept admission to Lehigh University and not wait until the summer for UVA to make up its mind. Slightly more humorously, my college rejections led to me possibly becoming the only human being ever to use a quote from a New Edition song in a high school baccalaureate speech.

Let me set the scene. There I was on the dais during a perfectly clear June evening in Phoenixville, PA. I looked out over my fellow graduates from the class of 1991 assembled on the the football field for this solemn occasion and I said something to the effect of, "It has been said that competition is the world summarized in just one word." I'm not sure if I credited New Edition or not. Thankfully I left out Ralph Tresvant's harmonizing, "and you know what I mean" immediately after. I don't remember a lot of response to my speech. More blank stares than anything else. My point is that being rejected by the three colleges I most wanted to attend really affected me. So much so that I was not able to make sound decisions about what situations are appropriate to quote groups that once employed Bobby Brown.

On Saturday I was back on the UVA campus for the first time since my dad and I visited in 1990. I was the guest of David Pierce, a UVA senior and friend. It was also a game day. UVA was hosting the Indiana Hoosiers in a football game that was less a clash of titans and more a contest between two teams seen as also-rans in powerhouse conferences. At least it was Division I football. I had to suffer through four years of trying to get excited about Lehigh Football when to most of the student body it was important only as another reason to get drunk.

The UVA student body I was standing with on the grass slope behind the North End Zone seemed slightly less inebriated than my Lehigh counterparts from the early 1990s. I emphasize the word slightly. Then again UVA has quite a few football rituals those in attendance are expected to take part it in, so it helps to keep a slighly sober mind.

The first is triggered whenever UVA gets a first down. As a play ended and we saw the chains move we would put one hand up in the air and wait for the PA announcer to loudly proclaim, "That looks like another Cavalier ..." and the whole stadium joins in with "FIRST DOWN" throwing our arms forward and mimicking the referee symbol for a new set of downs. I'm surprised I didn't get carpal tunnel because UVA had 29 first downs over the course of the game.

The second tradition was my favorite. After every UVA score - whether a touchdown or a field goal - you saddle up to your friends, put your arms around each other's shoulders and the whole stadium sways back and forth while singing "The Good Old Song" to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. It goes a little something like this:

That good old song of Wah-hoo-wah,
We 'll sing it o 'er and o 'er.
It cheers our hearts and warms our blood
To hear them shout and roar.
We come from Old Virginia,
Where all is bright and gay.
Let's all join hands and give a yell,
For the dear old UVa.

At the end of the song there are some more words in quick succession that I could never figure out. Suffice it to say everyone has a good time after a touchdown or field goal. In this game UVA scored 8 different times on the way to a 47-7 trouncing of Indiana. I'm gonna go ahead and take partial credit for the win. Having returned to the campus in a spirit of forgiveness, the curse I put on their football program for having rejected me has now been laid to rest. Cavaliers, you are free to go ahead and win out for the rest of the season and claim an ACC title and a major bowl bid. You can thank me later.

Walking with David across campus that evening it was hard for me not to think about what might have been. There are a few big choices in life that fundamentally alter our future path. What college to attend is one of them. How would my life of been different if I had gone to UVA and not Lehigh? It's impossible to know and, in the end, irrelevant. My experience applying to colleges - like all experiences in life - had a lesson in it for me that I needed to learn. It was Humility 101.

I know that when I meet someone and detect a true spirit of humility I find myself drawn to that person and at ease in their company. I've met many very humble people in my life. My choice to attend Lehigh ultimately brought me into contact with a great Journalism professor who was a real model of humility for me. His name is Jack Lule. Any Lehigh journalism student would back me up on that.

When I remember all the people I met at Lehigh and how they have added to my life, I no longer have any regrets that UVA didn't want me. And by the way, I no longer think competition is the world summarized in just one word. I want my world to be summarized by love. You know what I mean?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Say What You Need To Say (Louisa, VA)

Above: Lee, Fritz & Me in Louisa, VA

Thursday was unseasonably warm in Virginia. By mid-day the temperature was past 80 with no clouds to even temporarily silence a clamouring sun. I was walking from Unionville to Louisa along country roads that offered an intrepid walker little respite by way of shade, benches or stores.

The heat aside it was a another beautiful walk, past farms and around lakes, but I was restless of mind and body. My mind was still toying with the idea of abbreviating my adventure and ending it short of New Orleans. My body, meanwhile, was itching. Insect bites from the road and from friendly bed bugs in Opal had me fighting off the urge to constantly scratch at my ankles and back. In a word, I was unsettled.

I knew I had a couple hours of lag time in my schedule but I couldn't find anywhere suitable to stop and write. As mid-day crept into the afternoon my inability to find a suitable work spot only added to my feelings of aggravation. Everywhere I looked there were only deep woods and fields of cows eyeing me suspiciously.

Finally, about an hour's walk from my host's house, I came upon Mount Berea Baptist Church and a wonderful collection of picnic tables in the shade. I unhitched my load, took off my socks and shoes and started to write. I made a wonderful discovery. Writing eased my unsettled mind. Having a creative outlet - saying what I felt I need to say - calmed my restless thoughts and gave me a purpose. The cool breeze didn't hurt either.

I have a complicated relationship with writing. I rarely want to write, but when I push through the initial resistance and do it, I feel wonderful afterward. I think a lot of people can relate to that dichotomy with some activity in their life.

I was in a much better state of mind after my two-hour writing break. An elderly deacon at the church pulled up along side me in his station wagon. He had been a member of that church for 75 years and we talked about its history and he asked questions about my journey. In a hard and lonely day of walking his interest was like a cool drink of water.

It was appropriate that writing was on my mind when I arrived at the Knapps. As I talked with Lee I learned that she had published a book and has a clear idea in her head for a future writing project. We talked about writing as a discipline and an inspiration, but also as a challenge to be completely honest. The more honest a writer can be, the deeper it will resonate with a reader. The author Michael Chabon recently talked about this with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. He said he knows he is being most honest when he starts to feel that inner cringe of embarrassment as words cascade onto the page. That is a deeply uncomfortable feeling. It drums up feelings of shame, fear of judgment and a worry for how those you love might react to previously unknown truths. But at the end of the day the fact that it is truth means that it needs to be said. All my truths are part of who I am and as a writer I shouldn't shy away from that, regardless of how awkward it feels that others will be reading it and making their own judgments.

Lee and her husband Fritz are both school teachers - Lee in High School and Fritz in Middle School. It won't come as a shock that our discussion about writing soon turned to story telling in general and that allowed me to bring the conversation around full circle ... to The Wire. Turns out Lee & Fritz have become recent devotees of The Wire through Netflix. God Bless Em. I am not sure if they saw the light go on in my eyes or not but it wasn't long until we decided to watch the first two episodes of season three together.

The Wire is as close to a novel as you will find in television or film. In five sprawling seasons The Wire represents what writers David Simon and Ed Burns had to say about institutions in American cities and how they impact the lives of everyday people who live there. What will be Lee's next story? What will be mine? In the end, it doesn't matter as much if only 1/1000th as many people read it as saw The Wire. What will matter is that we say what we have to say, pushing aside any fears of what people who read it will think. At the end of a day - whether an unseasonably warm one in Virginia or a cold winter's day in upstate New York - that has to be my measuring stick.

For Lee & Fritz, what I felt like I had to say was light on profundity and heavy on anticipatory glee. This intrepid walker left the two intrepid teachers with these words of wisdom, "You're gonna absolutely love season four of The Wire."