On May 5th, 2012 I was at my friend Nate’s place in Tulsa, Oklahoma (near 41st and Harvard). We drank and smoked a bit the night before so I didn’t get up until 10:30 or 11. I had planned on doing this a full year and there were training walks since February and I brought sparse supplies – plus $300 in my account from selling back University textbooks (to last me a month and a half of high-calorie days, right?).
With my 40-pound backpack containing a pup tent, clothes, toiletries, two notebooks, and a fanny pack that held four liter-sized BPA water canteens, I walked past the Promenade Mall until I hit I-44; then walked interstate off ramps until reaching the Hard Rock Casino in the late afternoon. I had a meal there and proceeded to get back to walking.
Maybe fifty feet onto the on-ramp, a driver pulls up to me with a disassembled rifle in the shotgun seat and offers to give me a ride. He said that while walking along the interstate as well as hitchhiking are illegal, he’d drive me into Claremore and I could re-group from there.
He dropped me off in Claremore’s outskirts and I then hoofed it by the aftermath of a potentially fatal car crash, of all things. When I came into town there was an unspecified late Spring festival with many locals out in the streets. I went into a bookstore and ran into cyclists who recommended I walk (or even pedal) along Route 66. One of them, Doyle, walked me to his house and offered to let me sleep in a tent bedroom on his back porch.
I got a call from my sister begging me not to do this. But I couldn’t be dissuaded; I wasn’t mentally well and thought I’d be dead (or better off dead) by year’s end, so I had to get in some intense life experiences while I still had the chance, I reasoned. I spent the night in that tent and didn’t sleep a wink if I recall.
I think I left around 5am, after he made me breakfast, and set out on Route 66 heading northeast.
On May 6th, I went by foot from Claremore through Sequoyah and Chelsea up until the outskirts of the latter town. I came to the Hilltop Bar and conversed with the gentlemen there. One of them knew how to say “I love you” in 28 languages, one was registered Republican but passionately Democrat in rural Oklahoma, and one had kids my age and was fostering a 14yo Brazilian exchange student. The more they got to talking, the more worried they were about me. I finally convinced them to let me resume my travels by agreeing I wouldn’t do any hitchhiking and travel strictly by foot. One of their friends, Tim, was barbecuing in the back patio of the bar and offered to let me sleep in his camper down the road.
I sat out on that patio cradling a kinda-sorta Tom Collins (my repetitive, arbitrary buy as a 21.16-year-old) to gaze out at not much of anything. Tim’s friend Rick the Trucker from Locust Grove ripped out four or so pages of state maps from his legal-paper sized American Atlas and I quarter-folded them into my back pocket, hardly noticing or acknowledging his gesture.
On May 7th Tim’s relative (I think) and his girlfriend picked me up and took me to a Wal-Mart Supercenter to buy snacks and supplies. Since this didn’t happen until mid-afternoon, they agreed to drop me off in Vinita so I could cover more distance. On the drive there he talked about his struggles with an addiction generally associated with white working-class youth, and I kept glancing up at his girlfriend in her Daisy Dukes (for shame!). She said what I was doing was exciting and that they wished they could join me.
In Vinita I set out in earnest along Route 66 to the next town. The wheat fields in the sunset toward Afton were spellbinding. A green SUV driving the opposite direction slowed up, honked, and waved. The driver was a pretty raven-haired young woman wearing sunglasses, and within my “infinite capacity for delusion” I convinced myself it was the individual with whom I was so besotted and with whom I hoped to meet up in a major city along the way.
I didn’t get into Afton until past sunset. I went into a restaurant, a man named Bill said he saw me walking and bought my meal (a burger), then gave me 40 dollars for the motel on the outskirts of town. The generosity of Oklahomans had me in a fantastic mood and I slept quite well.
On May 8th I had set out ambling from Afton, OK in a northeasterly direction. I covered quite a lot of distance that day - went through Miami and visited the Northeastern Oklahoma A&M college campus: where my parents first met in adolescence (a slow burn story I don’t know much about until an engagement a decade later) - and on North until I was painfully exhausted with no nearby town. A Quapaw Nation Marshall saw me and picked me up to drop me off at a campsite outside the town of Quapaw. In our brief exchange he told me about backpacking Europe in his youth-- not able to recall as much as he wished he could (a trek half a recovery/relapse/recovery-riddled life ago), and able to relay even less in that span. I flashed him my red and white graph paper binders littered with tight scrawling and told him I was writing Urban-American-Midwest-grounded Science Fiction. He told me he wished he’d written or started the Great American Travel Novel that score and some odd years back; so told me to chase after that specter instead. I smiled, perhaps more dazed and on edge by the individual and the idiosyncratic than I was some flighty future toward hobbling deep, universal truth–a swath of future I was neurotically certain I lacked anyway.
That was my first night to ghost camp on the trip, and the weather cooled into the 50s overnight. Since I didn’t have a jacket and only a thin blue sheet, it was a very challenging night to stay warm. I don’t think I slept much that night either.
On May 9th I walked through Peoria, Oklahoma, went to a convenience store called Barney’s Last Stop, and, after some odd winding roads, wound up in Missouri. A lady saw me heading on foot into Joplin’s outskirts and drove me into that area. Not sure where to stay, she suggested All Soul’s Harbor which was - get this - a homeless shelter.
So I did. First time. Took a shower, someone stole the money out of my wallet when I wasn’t looking.
I tried to look for post tornado clean-up work in Joplin, but it was all slim pickings. Joplin was one of the five towns I was writing about in those novels of adolescence, so I decided to stay an extra day. One of the shelter ladies was a Portuguese speaker, which was my earliest interest in the language.
As I was leaving on the 11th, the shelter gave me one of the mountain bikes they lend to shelter residents to go to jobs. Honestly I doubt I deserved their kindness, but they found my story compelling. This started my first cycling outside of childhood, and I certainly had my work cut out for me.
On May 11th I departed Joplin, MO on a white and black Genesis Shimano mountain bike given to me by acquaintances there. I went through Carthage, MO but got a bit lost on the roads of the Ozarks, as this was a time when I only owned a flip phone so I did not have Google Maps, instead eyeballing where to go based on a few maps I noticed butt-sweaty in my pocket (that I’d forgotten the trucker gave me in Chelsea, OK). I pedaled all over looking for signs of a town between Carthage and Springfield. I eventually came across Stotts City, MO whose only open establishment was a tavern with two regular drunks. The barkeep gave me a ham and cheese sandwich and a septuagenarian named Kenneth allowed me to stay the night and urged me not to bike through Springfield because of gang trouble.
We sipped well water out on his front porch, that smiling self-confessed “Ozarkian bumpkin,” where he turned the chat to briefly adumbrating his agony: his son was murdered In Springfield. I didn’t know what to say, so I told him I was St. Louis-bound (and beyond), which he concluded wasn’t any better. His way in the world struck an elegiac chord in me, as well as his concern; yet for the life of me it couldn’t translate into concern for my own well-being or my own life.
So…I wouldn’t heed his advice, citing how winded these short rides made me in the first few days, but compromised I would stay in a motel no matter the cost.
As I set out on the 12th back toward the main secondary highway, that Stotts City duumvirate of drunkards pulled alongside and offered to drive me to Springfield so I could cover more ground. The driver was drinking gin and the guy in shotgun was drinking whiskey, I think. Obviously, this bothered me, but they were very insistent, so I acquiesced to just until we reached the highway. They put my bike and backpack in the trunk and bungee-corded it closed, driving slowly. They wound down mile stretches of tight two-lane right-angle roads and all too quickly their yattering turned disturbing: talking about how sexy a horse we drove by was, telling me I had beautiful lips, and name-dropping the movie Deliverance to a complete stranger. I was intensely uncomfortable, but all I could tell them was I didn’t care because I knew I’d be dead by the end of the year, anyway. I gave them an exact date. Befuddled, they got into disarmament and let me out of the car about a mile before the highway. I was so disoriented that I rode that highway in the wrong direction quite a few miles before course correcting. In Springfield I paid for a cheap motel on the northeast outskirts of town, quick to be in a room with a lock. I believe I called my friend Nate that day with some recapping.
On May 13th I departed and headed toward Lebanon, MO. I biked to Buffalo, ate lunch at a combo Taco Bell/KFC and on the ride shortly therafter had my first flat. With no equipment to fix it, frustrated I tossed the bike in a ditch and kept walking. Probably a mile down the road a man in a van named Archie saw me and picked me up, circled back for my bike, and we headed to a Walmart so I could buy a spare tire, tube, and Fix-a-Flat. Since I didn’t want to lose any miles he agreed to drop me off at roughly the same spot he picked me up.
On I pedaled until the sun began to set. I was in a place called Long Lane, MO where the only establishment was a church which was closed despite what its small painted hours of operation sign said. Having no place to eat or drink (though still plenty of tap water in my canteens), my flip phone dead, and with night falling, I decided to ghost camp once more, in an open field behind the church.
I got up late at night to micturate and tried ignoring my hunger. The sky was clearer than I’d yet seen it and I don’t think I’ll ever see so many stars in my life again living in smog-heavy cities. In this modest hexagram’s worth of years later, there’s a thought I wish I had had (but didn’t, as ignorant as I was on poetics at the time) on the ol’ Astrophel and Stella trope, or the Yeats as translator lines: “And pity, how love fled… and hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”
On the nature of the dynamic between Star and Stargazer: to think of the sheer number of stars and a nonetheless impressive number of gazers (some hundred billion humans who have ever lived), and all those vectors of gaze criss-crossed in a dizzying web, a mess of yarn plopped down on a rock wailing its way through space.
I was clearly (in my maleness and hopeless romanticism and obsessiveness) a gazer, but was I someone’s star as well? And what did it matter on this derring-do odyssey, that day by day forged its purpose to be coming up with something to say worth her time, worth winching her out from under her depression (a condition I surmised I’d never truly understand because of how mine always cow-hitched itself to heartbreak rather than bursting to the fore of its own accord); and forged its purpose to be…of course…to finally see her again.
Contemplating time’s passage from one May 19th’s night then dawn to another again, that contemptible clockwork, tends to kick me in the face. The onset, of course, was in 2009: my high school graduation ceremony followed by an all-night class-wide celebration at an Incredible Pizza, which would be the last time I’d see a lot of friends and acquaintances in the real world. Including one in particular for whom I tried to confess seemingly ephemeral feelings-- though couldn’t muster it. And so she walked off from that seat adjacent to mine and out of my life.
But that’s kid stuff, yeah? So let’s leap forward exactly three years.
With absence it hadn’t gone away - if anything blistering deeper. And with the give-and-go of a couple of years of social media trepidation I finally reached out to her again, mentioning I was going to walk from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She was intrigued, and when I told her I would pass through the same city of her college said she’d like to meet up with me. She opened up about collegiate struggles with depression, a recent parental divorce, and a breakup. Floored, I thought maybe telling her how I felt could do something to cheer her up.
And of course it didn’t. Of course someone not in her life doting on her was creepy and concerning; she suggested cutting ties. And I did. But god, the obsession was unbearable. I wouldn’t sleep for days at a time, and this went on for almost two months. Until I finally decided to go through with that pipe dream walkabout…
…which I started May 5th of 2012. Much of this has already been mentioned a bit ago: walking for 5 days and 85 miles to Joplin, Missouri; being given a bicycle in a homeless shelter; riding across the state, passing through the towns of Lebanon, Camdenton, and Eldon on the 15th; getting onto the Katy Trail on the 16th-- where in Mokane on my first night of camping had sotted SUV drivers doing donuts on the coarse gravel screaming the n-word at me, who I managed to scare off in a stint of adaptive unconsciousness or sheer dumb luck; camping in Hermann on the 17th; and on the 18th getting returning to the trail and camping in Marthasville where a man named Jerry doing his own bikeabout from San Antonio to New York caught up with me.
On the 19th Jerry and I did about 50 miles worth of cycling, from Marthasville on through Dutzow (where we did wine tasting at lunch), Defiance, and finally St. Louis’s outskirts. I had come to see I’d very much slapped this all together yet chose to reach out to the woman of my troubling for suggestions on where I could spend the night in the city-- since I had no way of affording a hotel room. Nothing. My friend Nate (in Tulsa running travel logistics and my social media at the time) had exhausted all his contacts, so I just kinda had to figure it out myself.
In West St. Louis Jerry and I split ways because he’d heard bad things about East St. Louis (which is in fact a separate city on the other side of the river in Illinois, not a geographic feature of downtown). I pedaled WSTL streets until it got dark, and around 9:30 p.m. finally decided to spring for a cab to downtown to see what might be there for me. The driver suggested I look for The Huckleberry Hostel in the Soulard District. Freshly 21 but looking 15, I came to a bar to ask for some direction(s). I hid my bike in an alley and stayed about an hour. I’m sure my b.o., disheveledness, and phenotypic pubescence was quite off-putting to any women there, regardless of how bizarrely compelling my story was.
Around midnight I left that scene, grabbed the Shimano bike, and ambled all over downtown trying to find that hostel. There was even one point around 2 a.m. where I swore I was right next to it (and in fact was), but the people I asked assistance from insisted it wasn’t it and that it wasn’t open (though the hostel’s director was waiting on me). So I kept ambling. Had a cup of coffee; it was too cool out for not having a jacket. With my bicycle wedged behind me at 4 a.m., I huddled on a bench next to a catholic church across the street from a St. Louis Bread Co. waiting for the sun to come up. I finally saw a response in my messenger from the gal saying she didn’t know a place I could stay.
At 5 a man walking down the street saw me wearing my OSU cap and handed me 10 or so dollars, assuming I was homeless (at this point, was I? It’s hard to say).
As the sun came up around 6 a.m. I could safely say I was at my young life’s rock bottom. I had walked 85 miles, and, with no prior training pedaled 362 miles for what fundamental reason? To spend a little time with someone who I still couldn’t properly see wanted nothing to do with me? But I was there. And I was alone. And that was all there’d be to it. So I walked into that St. Louis Bread on May 20th, more hollowed out and unsure of myself than I’d ever been before. And when I walked into that restaurant I encountered two endurance cyclists, of all people. And they had some interesting things to say to me.
And maybe they’d’ve if they could’ve said those twenty-one days within my twenty-first year toward one footstep into a country and a province and a Windsor with knotting in the stomach would have for its summation days in St. Louis with a bisexual paraplegic social worker making passes and a vinegar jug labelled “piss” froth onto my dingy black jeans and dingier TARDIS tee and one of many unstunned ashkenazic bonnie blues pegging me a travel virgin or days of on-the-fly couchsurfing after six cycling hours with Greenville IL regional weed dealers and Lil Wayne’s hop up on this dick and do a full split again and again beyond 5AM whereon one’d inquire where they put the good huffing ether or siphoning me for by pot-pusher standards parental pocket-change those I and they othered yet self-same strands of white hoosier utter trash blasting do it for the realest nias in the game right now** who saw in my squirming a tangle of inward demand and yearning to survive or to die with her alongside or antipodally far-flung for safekeeping and loathing what I could’ve or will’ve raked her through in the name of her or rather the name of my goddamned bloated spiritual vanity and a deep exhaustion of all this Jerry-Rigged Nietzschean Eternal Return Shit closer to a night’s end of a sleep-stolen moment that couldn’t ever come before and she will
and cycling penniless but for handouts pedaling from one Indianan city’s homeless shelter to another like the hard-and-long-earned and sought-out Naptown crashing on linoleum and ghost camping in Anderson’s Mounds State Park and getting comped drinks and meals in Pennville IN’s Briar Patch Bar by Richard and the aforementioned Teutonic belles of the balls steady-stream and days of jacketless June-1st freeze and police voucher motel stays in Fort Wayne and a different Defiance and the bed-bug-riddled Toledo shelter bunkmate a neurotic Ojibwe male model whose four dogs really his children were sent to another strand of shelter and ultimately put down and camping behind a bush in Monroe MI with frigid rain and come morning the ragged bicycle finally stolen and angry waltzing toward Detroit til a Turkish Muslim kid’s Flat Rock gas station shift lunch break picked me up for shawarmas and Sunni pamphlets and a bit about Ankara in the spring his personal Troy the bahar zaferi or whatever and a hostel and a superintendent who’d let me and these two Danes smoke sub-floorboard grown weed til I finally popped my weed cherry watching Netflix HIMYM Season 2 and cleaning up my prior night’s bathroom vomit those forevers within forever and Hedelberg and Greektown and 10th-rate flip-phone Facebook Felo-De-Se Philosophizing that June 10th with Customs officers jesting about journalist q-and-a’s because people deep entera-deep down truly only want your story if it can be spun for a buck or a canhuck looney or two but that dyad of cyclists in St. Louis Bread who must’ve needed to spell out something important or something both so much more and so much less to be said or worth saying well, they
didn’t really. Walked through Windsor and Tecumseh. Black squirrels. Anne and Cory M let me sleep in the garage by the Dodge Charger. Gave me a 100 and a butter and ham sandwich. Walked to Merlin and talked about the quasi Trans-Canada hiking trail. Walked to Ridgetown. Camped in Clifford’s backyard. Spread peanut butter onto saltines with a mechanical pencil and drank stale bpa water. Walked to Dutton and John Kenneth took my high-res picture by his store. Kept walking to Wallacetown. Shopped for food a bit. Walked to St Thomas and camped in a graveyard. Paul gave me maps and a new backpack. Walked through Aylmer and bought a bread loaf and two apples from Jordan the Mennonite. Walked to Cultus and crashed at Ryan’s place and brushed his horse and watched the Niagara tightrope walker live. Walked to Simcoe and wrote my sister a birthday card. Hiked the Waterford heritage trail into Brantford. Camped under a train track bridge. Train boomed me awake at 4. Walked to Burlington. Camped on the outskirts of the royal garden. Met a tourist agent interested in getting my story on the news. I didn’t care and she was cute. Walked to Oakville. Sent the high school gal some crap message about having to find her own happiness like I might just have. Met a Missisaugan gangster. He showed me his gun wound. Took the subway into Scarborough Toronto. Met my couchsurfer Gavin. We went out to eat with his Ultimate Frisbee team. I slept on an air mattress in his basement for a week.
And more shit. That I, even these seven mangled-about years later, still can’t seem to sort out whether it all needs to be shoveled up or buried, or celebrated or shamed, or verified or disproven with deference to my schizoaffectiveness, or after failing whatever its aim was, whether any of it mattered or can matter or really needs to.
But at least it’s out.