Over the coming weeks, I’m going to be posting excerpts from my book, Life On Foot: My Walk Across America here on the site. As you can see, I’ve chosen a title after much deliberation and lots of great input from friends.
As for where the book stands at this point, it’s currently being fixed of the numerous errors that I’ve undoubtedly spread throughout its pages by the always wonderful and knowledgeable Elisa Doucette. The fact that she is editing this thing makes me happier than I can even express in words. Anyhow, that shouldn’t be too much longer. From there, I just need to fix whatever I need to fix, get permission from a few folks for a few things and then get the beast formatted for the Kindle and paperback versions. So yeah, I’ll keep you posted, of course.
But for now, here’s a section from my time in the great state of West Virginia to hold you over Keep in mind that it is still a bit rough. Thanks once again for the continued support.
I had my eyes set on Mount Storm, a tiny town with an intimidating name.
With miles of curvy switchbacks between Keyser and my goal, some with 8-9 percent grades, I knew that it would be a tough day physically. With that being said, I felt energized just by finally being able to tread on the famed Highway 50, one of America’s original cross-country driving routes, instead of just crossing it on the way to somewhere else like I had done already a few times. Good ol’ 50 would be my home for much of the remainder of the walk.
As I got onto 50, I thought about the fact that the same road that I was standing on in rural West Virginia ended in Sacramento, California, just a short distance from San Francisco. Although thousands of miles along with dozens of mountain ranges and hundreds of miles of scorching desert sat between myself and there, I could almost feel its presence. It was strangely comforting.
Heading out of Keyser on the trek to Mount Storm, a lady stopped and gave me a $20 bill. I made my way into the Appalachian foothills $20 richer and with all systems running smoothly on mountain air, with the rushing and gurgling of a creek to my left sounding like sweet music.
The walking proved to be as difficult as I had assumed it would be, and then some. Luckily, with awful physical struggles usually come great rewards, especially while moving upward, and this stretch was no exception.
Escaping from the flatlands reminded me of home. The endless vista of mountains covered in bare trees with brown leaves littering the landscape looked strikingly similar to Western Maine. I could have been walking in my own hometown. The road’s narrow shoulders, which were cracked and crumbling, acted as final safe havens for those responsible for making even the slightest of driving errors. Without them, all that would have been left after such a mistake would be a precarious drop into the valley below. The white and yellow road lines were faded and even nonexistent in certain places. To think that the same neglected road that I was standing on was a six lane mega-highway only a couple hundred miles to the east was almost unimaginable.
From above, the view would have looked like a series of “S” shaped paths carved into the side of the mountains. I would walk about 1 mile to make 1/4 of a mile of progress up the unrelenting hills, but thrived in the difficulty of the walking. Sweating and yelling, I challenged for more out of boredom, frustration, or possibly even the twisted desire to punish myself for being idiotic enough to actually do such a thing.
Farms perched on little knolls, or sometimes right on the side of the steepness, provided a glimpse into farm life in the high mountains. Cows mooed and sheep bleated, their sounds echoing through the placid forest. It was cold. My breath hung suspended in the air. Water trickled out of culverts and splashed into the piles of jagged ice sitting below them. Winter was still in effect up there. It was much different from the 70 degree weather that I had experienced just a few days earlier in Maryland.
I passed a garage of some sort, a cinder block building with a new looking green sliding door. Its windows were boarded up and the structure featured several different colors of paint. Essentially, it looked like an average West Virginia multi-purpose building, but attached to the front of it was a large green Interstate highway sign that read, “ORLANDO DISNEY WORLD – LEFT LANE.” Seeing this caused my oxygen deprived brain to freeze up in utter confusion for a second before realizing that I was in fact not anywhere near Disney World. I spent the next few miles laughing about it while silently wishing that the sign had been right.
Exhausted from the day’s chilly 20 mile trudge, I came up over one last hill and found myself in Mount Storm. It wasn’t the kind of place you wanted to be with plummeting temperatures and a snow filled overnight forecast. The mercury was supposed to drop to 15 degrees, and it eventually would.
Walking into the local gas station/hardware store/restaurant/meeting place, I grabbed a can of Mountain Dew to sip on as I tried to warm up and began looking for some tips on a place where I might be able to camp. The young woman behind the counter was not so nice at first, but once we had talked for a few minutes, she changed for the better. This seemed to be the way with people in West Virginia. Cold, mean looks at first, but it was really all a front. Inside, they were warm, enthusiastic, and caring folks, for the most part. A person just needed to break through that initial shell, and I became good at it.
A park just up the road was available for camping and even had a covered picnic area with a wall to keep me out of the wind, which sounded promising enough to check out. On that note, I left the store and began the show that was getting the bloated monstrosity known as Wilson [my backpack] lifted and strapped onto my knotted and sore shoulders and back. As I was doing this, a loud, four-door truck rumbled off Highway 50 and into the store’s parking area, and a typical looking West Virginia man hopped out of it. He was wearing worn out jeans, dirty work boots, and the permanent I’ve worked my ass off all day and just want a beer scowl that most manual laborers tend to have after a long day on the job.
The man asked what I was doing as he watched me struggle to wrangle Wilson into submission. After telling him, he said that about a half mile back down Highway 50 there was a house that he was renovating, and that I was welcome to stay in it. Tony was his name. He was bald and seemed a little rough around the edges, like he had lived through his share of long nights. I immediately liked him. “There’s no water, but there’s a space heater and a few power cords up there. Not fancy, but it will keep you out of the wind,” he said.
I leapt into his warm truck and he drove me to the house. After thanking him several times, he said, “No problem, I used to be homeless once, went to prison too. So I know what it’s like to not have a place to stay. I was in real bad shape, I’ll tell ya. But got out and got my life together. Started my own salvage company, and now I’m rich.”
“Wow, that’s amazing,” I said, not knowing if he was being entirely truthful or not. I told him how things had hit rock bottom for me back home and that the trip was saving me. It was a deep talk for people who had known each other for approximately five minutes total.
Several days later, I met someone and they asked where I had stayed in Mount Storm. I told them about Tony, and they said that he had quite a story. They said that he had once been homeless and in jail, “But now, he’s a millionaire,” they added.
The place was under construction, as Tony had said. Sawhorses, tools, and lumber laid out everywhere. A hearty layer of white, powdery drywall dust covered the floor and got into every nook and cranny of the building. Within minutes, I was covered in it and looked like a powdered sugar doughnut.
I laid my sleeping bag out on the plywood floor and was soon inside it battling the constant shivering that ended up lasting throughout the night. Not much sleep was had despite all of my clothes being on, which included two jackets, gloves, a hat, as well as an extra fleece blanket that Deanna and Johnny [my hosts in the previous town] had given me back in Keyser.
A space heater sat in the corner of the room and taunted me, but I just couldn‘t bring myself to use it. As Tom dropped me off he had said, “The only rule is this, don’t burn the house down.” I didn’t feel like taking any chances, as I typically don’t play very well with any sort of machinery, and that was one rule that I didn’t intend to break.