WALKING ACROSS AMERICA

CATEGORY: MORE PORT TOWNSEND
PHOTO: JEAN ANDERSON WALKING

WALKING ACROSS NORTH DAKOTA

During my years with Bob we did a lot of hiking.  When I moved to Port Townsend, I did a lot of dancing but not much hiking.  Sometime in the ’80’s I started reading about rail trails.  There was a successful effort to turn the old railroad between Port Townsend and Port Angeles into a trail.  I wanted to walk it but it was almost fifty miles, and I couldn’t do it in a day.  I would either need to carry a back pack and sleep out, walk between places where I could stay for the night or do it in sections and come home at night.  In that case I would need transportation–someone to deliver me and take me home.

With my busy schedule, it seemed too much to arrange at the time, but my thinking about it was how my dream of walking across the United States came into being.  All over the country, rail trails were being formed.  I fantasized about using them to walk across the country, or at least across the Great Plains.  However rail trails were close to highways.  I wouldn’t want to walk alone carrying a pack with my food and bed on my back and sleep out at night near a highway where any weirdo might find me.  My fantasy was to walk up to a farm house at night, be fed and housed and sent on my way in the morning with lunch and water.

The next step in my imaginings was that I might find someone with a camper or motor home, who was also a writer, or an artist, or of some other sedentary profession, who might like to drive across the United States ver-r-r-ry slo-o-oly—that is, not going any further in a day than I could walk.  Their profession could keep them busy while I was walking.  I would pay for their gas.  It would be the ideal solution.  I started talking about this idea, hoping that the message would float through the ether to the right person.

It did reach a willing person: a person with mobile eating and sleeping quarters.  Sam was a widower in his seventies.  He had been a Captain in the Coast Guard and he was spending his retirement years driving around the country in his thirty two foot motor home. He circumscribed the country once a year.  But when he offered to provide transportation for me, I was reluctant; he was not the person I was envisioning.  First, he was a man, and I had imagined a woman.  Secondly, although he was someone for whom I had done a landscape design and was always friendly, I thought him somewhat overbearing.  He thought toilet jokes were funny.  He didn’t like the “subversive” young people in Port Townsend, with whom I identified despite my age.

His itinerary for his next trip, which he was to start the first week in September, was first to attend a Coast Guard reunion in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and then visit old Coast Guard buddies in Terre Haute, Indiana, up-state New York and New York City.  From there he would visit family in Maryland, and make stops in Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Los Angeles before returning to Port Townsend.  He said that I wouldn’t need to pay for gas or campgrounds since he was going to be making the trip anyway, but that we could split the cost of food.

He told me he thought he could drive slowly enough to accommodate me, but that first we should make a trial run.  We did this, but instead of driving ahead and then busying himself with some task while he waited for me to catch up, he insisted on driving down a country road ahead of me at the same speed I could walk.  After only an hour of this, we both agreed it wouldn’t work.  Then he suggested that I come along on his trip simply as a companion and walk whenever I could fit it in.  I thought this over for a few days and finally decided why not?  

The two of us left Port Townsend early in September as he had planned.  What I didn’t know about Sam was that he was a serious alcoholic.  At first he tried to entice me to drink with him.  When I told him I seldom drank alcoholic beverages, he tried to restrain himself for my benefit.  

That didn’t last long.  Soon he was up to what proved to be his standard allotment: four glasses of Bacardi rum a day.  Yes!  Four!  Bacardi was a clear kind of rum that looked like water, my favorite drink!.  But it didn’t taste like water!  As soon as we got settled into a campground for the night, he would fill a ten oz. drinking glass full of ice and then fill the space that was left with straight rum.  He drank one while I was getting dinner, another one with dinner, and after dinner he would sit at the table and drink two more.  Inevitably, he would go to sleep in his chair.  Actually, “Passing Out” would be a better description.  At first I would try to arouse him to get him to go into his room and go to bed; I slept on a sofa about four feet away from where he was sitting, and I hesitated to get in bed while he was in the same room.  It was a hopeless endeavor.  He could not be awakened.  So I ignored him and went to bed anyway.  Sometime in the night, he would get up and go to his own room.  I thought it was a terribly sad situation to be in at his age.

THE ROMANCE OF THE GREAT PLAINS

However his drinking proved to be to my advantage for the walking I wanted to do.  We soon established a routine.  I would get up as soon as it was daylight, eat a hasty breakfast and start out walking along our route.  Due to his hung-over condition, he would sleep late, then fix his own breakfast, get the motor home ready and pick me up around ten or eleven.  We kept this up for the entire circumnavigation of the United States except when we were passing through heavily populated areas or over curvy mountain roads, such as south of Glacier Park where there were almost no shoulders.  Where it was possible, he kindly took country roads so walking would be more pleasant for me.  I was able to walk for at least three hours a day; most often more.  I loved it.  

In the beginning, Sam never seemed to be affected the next day by his drinking except during his time in Oshgosh and when he was visiting his friends and relations, most of whom were heavy drinkers.  On these occasions, I would spend the day walking around the countryside.  When we got to Brattleboro, Vermont, I called Henry, an old University of Oregon school mate who offered to drive all the way to Brattleboro from Bass Harbor, Maine and take me back to his home for the several days that Sam was visiting in The Big Apple.  Sam reluctantly agreed.  His reluctance was because “he felt responsible for me.”  From Maine, I took a bus and met with Sam again in New Jersey, where we resumed the daily routine.  We went all the way down the east coast to Homestead, Florida, up the west Florida coast, clear across the southern states to Los Angeles, up the Pacific coast, and back to Port Townsend.  

Walking every morning in all those states was the thrill of a lifetime.  There were beautiful fall colors.  I saw birds and animals I had never seen before: sage thrashers, road runners, alligators, armadillos, to name a few.  I saw wonderful farms, New England connected farm houses, the barns of Pennsylvania, the antebellum houses of the old south, the old French buildings of New Orleans, the endlessly open sky of Texas, the River Walk in San Antonio, the Rio Grande at El Paso (where I walked across a bridge into Mexico), and Big Bend (where I waded across the river just to say I’d done it), the California coast at big Sur, the Hearst mansion!  

I was always nice to Sam, and in the afternoons when we were on the road and he was sober, he could be really interesting.  He regaled me with tales of his Coast Guard days and of the early history of the country, of which he had an extensive knowledge .  However, we began having a few close calls on some days when he was badly hung over.  Once he almost hit a car in the right lane because of “a blind spot between his mirrors.”  That was his excuse as if he were not responsible for making sure his mirrors were positioned so he could see all other traffic.  The worst incident was that he failed to see a red light and had to pull onto the sidewalk to avoid hitting a stopped car in front of him.  Fortunately there was no one on the sidewalk.  When these things occurred, he always blamed the other driver, or made excuse.  It was never his fault.  Officers in the Coast Guard don’t make mistakes after all; their subordinates are the ones who take the blame. After the red light incident, he was silent.  When he dropped me at my front door in early December, I was very relieved to be home alive.

After that, he called me a few times and asked me to come to his house for dinner.  I made up excuses.  After his treating me to such a wonderful trip, I could not bring myself to be honest and tell him I never wanted to see him again.  He stopped calling.  Even though I find drunken people obnoxious, I will say that Sam was always kind and good to me, and I take the time here to address him post mortem.  Thank you, Sam, for one of my life’s great experiences.