JOURNEY WITHOUT RESERVATIONS
By Pat Crawford
Seven! One angry, unfettered pit bull would have been enough to unnerve me, but the sight of seven closing in on me with no chance of escape seemed to assure a grim outcome. I could hardly be more vulnerable. This was day four of my great adventure—a personal quest to rediscover America by walking one thousand miles, following the back roads along the Atlantic Coast from Florida to the nation’s capital. On this day I was on a particularly remote stretch of Highway 17 in southern Georgia. Several hours had passed since I had seen anything other than miles of pine forest and an occasional motorist. I was beginning to wonder when I might come upon any sign of civilization when the farmhouse appeared to my right, set back from the road in a small clearing. There was nothing remarkable about it. Built of board and batten, weathered to that familiar gray color and with the obligatory rusting tin roof, it was a perfect complement to its rustic surroundings. The generous front porch with its mismatched assortment of seating appeared inviting enough. My appreciation of its peaceful simplicity quickly melted away as first one and then several other canine heads popped up above the porch railing. As they scrambled to their feet and bounded off the porch, I realized that this farmhouse was lacking an element common to rural homes that bordered the highway: a fence.
The dogs bounded down the driveway, framed by a dusty cloud of Georgia red clay that gave the whole scene a surreal, apocalyptic feel. The words of one of my colleagues echoed in my mind: “Aren’t you worried about roving bands of pit bulls?” Months earlier, when I announced my planned adventure, most folks were skeptical. After they warmed to the idea, I began to get all sorts of advice. Ever the optimist, I was caught up in the excitement of the challenge and my enthusiasm was not tempered in the least by my well-meaning friends who were more preoccupied with potential dangers. I scoffed at the suggestion that I would be accosted by free-ranging canines with attitude. Now I was not so sure.
As a concession to their concern, I added to my equipment list a small canister of “puppy pepper spray.” Although it held but ten squirts and was only effective at very close range, it did offer a bit of reassurance that my journey would not be derailed by any unfortunate encounters, canine or human. Glancing down now at the tiny canister affixed to the shoulder strap of my backpack, I weighed the consequences of opening fire on the approaching dogs. With seven of them, I had only a three-squirt margin of error. If they would somehow cooperate by approaching me politely in single file, thereby allowing me to mace them individually, I might have a chance. It was too late for that. They were already beginning to fan out, as packs of dogs instinctively do, circling their prey. Images of mauled pit bull victims that I had seen in countless news stories filled my head. Forget the spray, I thought; it would only antagonize them.
As the pack moved ever closer, surprisingly enough my life did not flash before me. What did emerge from the deep recesses of my mind was a checklist of things to do when confronted by threatening dogs. These nuggets of wisdom were part of that collective knowledge one gains from parents and other mentors as one finds his way in the world. Never make eye contact. No problem. My shades with their impenetrable UVB lenses were firmly in place. Be the alpha dog. That was a tall order, given the odds. I might be able to bluff one dog, but seven? Remain calm. Actually, I was relatively calm. Perhaps it was because I had made the transition from initial alarm to acceptance of my fate almost immediately, completely bypassing denial along the way. There wasn’t enough time for that.
I didn’t have much choice. There I was, a middle-aged pilgrim, walking alone with everything I thought I would need on my back. Survival is all about resourcefulness, but I was a little short on resources. A quick scan of the horizon in both directions offered no hope of any traffic coming my way. If there was anyone in the farmhouse, they were making no effort to call off the dogs. I was alone in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. It was time for the showdown. I planted my two hiking poles firmly on the asphalt, faced my adversaries and stood my ground. My last hope was that when they reached the highway, they would stop and not cross over to my side. Maybe their yard had one of those invisible boundaries that would give them a little jolt if they attempted to cross it. No such luck. Three of the dogs crossed the road without hesitation and began their circling routine, now within an arm’s length of me.
Just as the other four began to make their way across the road, a small white pickup truck with darkly tinted windows appeared from behind me. The driver stopped in the middle of the road, effectively blocking the dogs’ approach, and laid on the horn. The noise seemed to disorient them and they almost immediately retreated back toward the farmhouse. Since the three pit bulls at my feet seemed a bit confused, I seized the opportunity, mustered up my most authoritative voice, and commanded them to “Go home!” Miraculously, it worked. Maybe it was the shades, or perhaps they thought the hiking poles were weapons of some sort. They paused for a moment to size me up, then turned and followed the others back to the house. Be the alpha dog.
Almost immediately, the truck sped away. I wanted to thank the driver, but he disappeared as quickly as he had appeared. Fearing that the dogs might return once the truck had left, I picked up my pace and walked with a purpose for about a mile before looking back. When I did stop, I was alone on another desolate stretch of highway. The sky above was a cloudless, brilliant blue. I felt an enormous sense of relief, glad to be alone and safe. Looking heavenward, I gave thanks for the divine intervention. It wasn’t necessary for me to see who was driving that truck. I knew.
As I reached my destination that night and drifted off to sleep, I was overcome with a feeling of peace and assurance that everything about my journey was going to be okay. I had fifty-four more days on the road ahead and I was ready for anything. As I began packing my gear the next morning, I tossed that canister of puppy Mace into the garbage. In only four days, I had already begun to experience the freeing sensation that would define my journey. I was learning to let go, to live for the moment, and most of all to turn the tables on a lifetime of controlled behavior. I was letting the journey take me.
And so it did. What followed in the next seven weeks was a transformational experience for me—changing forever the way I see others and realizing the opportunities that can be so easily missed if we don't take the time to connect with people we encounter every day. Walking through the small towns that time and the interstate highways have passed by allowed me to connect with the people who make up the real America, not the ones who make it on the evening news. Capturing glimpses of American culture that often go unseen, I was able to soak up views of beautiful landscapes that drivers usually miss while traveling on the interstate. Eating at off-the-beaten-path diners offered tastes of local culture through brief but intense encounters with regular folk, willing to openly share stories and secrets. Offers of food and lodging were frequent, not to mention assistance in getting out of some tricky situations. I have always believed that we are surrounded by angels, if only we are open to them. This adventure enabled me to experience this firsthand.
The inspiration for this journey had its genesis in the autumn of 2006 when, while struggling with the inevitable discontent that accompanies middle age, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America. Here was a story about someone in his twenties who walked from New York to Mobile, Alabama in the early 1970s. A disillusioned young man coming of age in the shadow of Richard Nixon and Vietnam, the adventurous Jenkins decided to hit the back roads of our country on foot to find out for himself how the American people were doing. The parallels to my own situation were striking. I came of age in the sixties and could recall my own feelings during that tumultuous time.
In the telling of this story I found my muse. The act of walking across America would certainly provide an antidote to my restlessness. If each day was spent walking from dawn to dusk, filled with new discoveries and unforeseen challenges, how could a person possibly feel anything at day’s end other than exhausted satisfaction? And what about the state of the union? Three decades earlier, Peter Jenkins found that in spite of what was happening in our nation’s capital, the spirit and values of the people in the rural areas he traveled were good. The American people were still the kindest and most compassionate people on earth, welcoming to strangers and proud of their heritage. I wanted to make the journey myself, take the pulse of my fellow citizens and find out if this was still the case. This would be my great adventure!
After several months of training and preparation, I left Jacksonville, Florida on Memorial Day Weekend—alone and on foot, carrying a backpack with what I hoped would be all I needed to survive. Fifty-eight days later, I triumphantly walked across the 14th Street Bridge, past the Washington Monument and into the heart of our nation’s capital. The blisters on my feet that I picked up along the way soon faded, but the memories of the people and places I visited will be with me forever. I also knew that the physical and emotional euphoria I experienced meant that this would be the first of many adventures to come. Months earlier, when my well-meaning friends expressed concern about my lack of planning (i.e., no predetermined destination each day or reserved accommodations) and my accompanying lack of concern about my safety, I replied that this would be a journey without reservations—I had no reservations and I made none.
I set out to take the pulse of the rural South, to experience the spirit of the people and how they react to a wayfaring stranger. The genuine warmth and kindness I encountered confirmed my belief that America is still the best place in the world, filled with good, gracious people who open their hearts freely. It also made me appreciate the words of T.S. Eliot, who said,
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time.”
— V —