It was a lathargic day and I was moving slow. It was a funky morning and the weather couldn’t make up its mind. There was a snow, sleet mixture that down-poured as soon as I walked out of town but then it switched to sunny and blue skies before returning to gloominess. As I approached the next town, Arden, I got word to send a message to a family in town. A hiker that started about four months ahead of me, Devon, asked me to tell the family, who let him stay with them, “Hello.” You can learn more about Devon here. I now had a mission to complete and although it was a bit of a joke starting out I did manage to deliver the message! I was looking for a house with a star on it and as I walked through town two dogs, a black lab and golden retriever, began racing around me playing with each other. A woman walked out of the house to retrieve her retriever and that’s when I asked if she’d hosted a hiker a few months back. She had! I delivered the message and felt accomplished as I continued through town, now being escorted by the black lab. The route ahead of me started out flat and began to remind me of the tow path in Maryland. The Tygart River ran on my left and the water was almost a turquoise blue. The gray sky made the color of the river pop and grab your attention. It had rapids that sparked my curiosity. I’ve only been white water rafting once but I could see the thrill and adrenaline rush someone navigating the river would have felt. As the flat stretch ended and the mountainous hills began, the liner in my boots began tearing at my heels, rubbing them raw. I stopped to put bandaids on and snowflakes began to drop from the sky. I kept walking because that is all I really had to do until dark and then began the search for a lawn for my little nylon home. No one answered at the first home but the second was successful. After answering the man’s questions to his satisfactory, he agreed to let me stay on the lawn. “Are you a criminal?” “Where are you from?” “What’s this trail like you’re on?” His lawn was rocky and a bit muddy but a grassy patch caught my eye and that would be home for the night.
Some time around 10pm the man, Ralph, came out and knocked on my tent. He invited me to come stay on the couch inside where it was warm. It had started to snow and was in the twenties but inside my tent and sleeping bag I was toasty warm and content so I thanked him but declined. In the morning, I battled the cold while putting up my tent. My fingers weren’t functioning so I took intervals of packing things up and then retreating my hands back into my armpits. I knocked on Ralph’s door to ask if I could fill up my water and he invited me inside. I ended up talking with him and his wife for over an hour. They’d offered to make me breakfast but I declined, I felt like I needed to get my day started. With anything Ralph offered to me, he’d always tag on “We don’t have much but you’re welcome to it, ” and that sparked more questions for me to ponder. Why do the people who have less tend to share more than those who are better off? The route once again took me on a scenic tour of a state park verse the straight shot to town. It was disheartening to know I would walk extra miles but I choose the journey verse the destination mentality as I always do. The day was gloomy and never varied far from freezing. The infrequent cars that drove by ignored me and refused to wave back at me. I wanted to yell at them, “I am human, acknowledge me!” The dreary weather was dampening my spirits and I wanted human interaction but I felt like I was being treated like a social outcast. When it came time to find a lawn to camp on I felt desperate. I was fatigued by hunger and cold but I couldn’t fulfill those needs until I found shelter. The first door was answered by a woman in a fire department shirt. It is amazing the emotions you can feel over the course of just a few seconds. I went from feeling desperation, to hopefulness and then to discouraged. The woman had turned me away. The church nearby had its phone disconnected. My third attempt brought me to a yard with folk art in it. The woman opened the door and listened to my plea. “In a tent?!” she inquired with disbelief. The words, “It is all I have,” surprised me as they exited my mouth. She told me that her yard was soggy but I couldn’t tell if she was telling me because she wanted an excuse to say no or if she was concerned for the conditions of my tent/sleep. Either way, I got the okay and rushed to set up my tent. I hope to be able to find a happy medium where I don’t create an expectation of someone based off my observations. I’ve realized that the people that I figured would help me, don’t, and the people that I thought won’t, do. This, of course, isn’t a rule but an observation.
The sun welcomed me as I left my tent and began packing up my things. The family whose lawn I was in had already left to school and work and it felt weird not being able to learn about the people who were so gracious to me. It was an absolutely beautiful day and the temperature was perfect. People were stopping to talk to me and one of them was a friend of the guy who’s lawn I slept in. The guy had called him and told him a hiker was camping in his yard and coincidentally he was now driving right past me. It was a nice connecting point to the family. In order to get into the town of Bridgeport I had to walk on about two miles of heavily trafficked road that had no shoulder. Urban walking doesn’t bother me a whole bunch but I’ve discovered that a coping mechanism of mine is to sing my observations or narrate my actions. So, as I walked on this road I would slip down into the ditch to give cars room to drive and then sing “Oooh my, Oooh my… I just stepped in something dead didn’t I??” as I smelled a rotten carcass before I could find it. This specific event didn’t happen frequently but once or twice is definitely more than enough. Luckily, the dead deer was ahead of me and I hadn’t stepped in it. As I got into town I wanted to treat myself to some food. After the last couple of days, I wanted to try to lift my spirits and good, wholesome food never fails to do the trick. At first I saw Domino’s Pizza but I decided maybe I’d have something different (pizza is always my go-to), next I walked by a hot dog and grill place but it looked too complicated to get inside so I kept going, and finally I came across Della’s Deli. There was a giant “OPEN” flag outside the door and the idea of a nice sandwich while sitting in the sun sounded lovely. I awkwardly squeezed through the doors and was met by Julie and Jeff. They were immediately excited to see me and to learn about what I was doing and I was equally excited to find good food and good people. They asked me what I wanted and between me telling them about my journey and being indecisive, I never answered that question. I just wanted food! I set my pack down and sat on the single stool while other customers were helped. There was an incredible amount of positive energy flowing around and I became content just sitting on the stool and talking to Jeff, Julie, and the other customers that walked in. I tried to think about what type of sandwich I wanted but it was turning into a stimulus overload situation (in a good way). Jeff eventually just hands me warm soup and begins making me a sandwich with simple either/or questions for what I wanted on it. Let me tell you, as soon as I took a bite of that sandwich I was literally savoring each bite. I tried to distinguish each individual flavor and figure out what part of the sandwich it came from. There was sweetness from the honey mustard but within the wheat bread there was another delicious flavor. I couldn’t put a name on it though! I took another bite and tried to hone in on the flavors. Next thing, it was gone. After I hung out for awhile at the deli and talked to the regular customers, Jeff and Julie offered me a place to stay. I couldn’t believe it. The night before I’d been thinking about getting a hotel room in one of the next towns but instead I stumbled upon a wonderful family who were wanting to house me. That night they took me to their weekly dinner spot, Twin Oaks, where I also got to meet one of their daughters and witness the small town camaraderie that came after a victorious swim meet at the local high school. Julie let me borrow a pair of her slip on, comfort fit shoes so I wouldn’t have to lug around my winter boots. Let me tell you, I felt light as a feather. After putting them on, I was moving my legs every which way, kicking and jumping. It was great. So, after I got that out of my system we headed to the restaurant where I ordered a twelve inch pizza to eat (like I said, it is my go-to). I was willing to share but everyone mainly wanted to see if I could eat the whole thing. I managed five of the eight pieces and decided that if I wanted to be able to get out of the booth and walk out of the restaurant, I’d better stop. My two main thoughts for the day were “how the weather affects the way people treat one another” and “how walking is the very thing that attracts people to me but if I quit then I’m taking away the one thing that allowed me to become part of their life.” The first thought arose because of the variance in gloomy, cold days and sunny, warm days. I’m sure there are other factors as well but this day compared to the previous one were completely opposite just as the weather was. The second thought occurred because I’m sometimes offered the invitation of staying as long as I want/need at a home. These are the families where, from the beginning, I feel like I belong there. It dawned on me that if I ever felt compelled to stop walking (no worries, it hasn’t) then I’d be stopping the reason I was allowed in their life and everything would seemingly become negligible. I know in reality that isn’t how it would work but conceptually it makes sense?
Any person that is walking across the country is obviously searching for something; maybe it is a feeling, a sensation, adventure, or they’re not sure yet. Somewhere along the way, I found a concrete answer to what I’m searching for: a better version of myself. I became further emersed in Jeff and Julie’s life by attending their family breakfast at Jeff’s parent’s house. Bacon, eggs, homemade apple butter and toast, grapes, and pancakes! There was so much wonderful food but even better, the wonderful people. Jeff’s dad immediately grabbed me to start asking questions about my journey and to show me family photos. Everyone made sure I had everything I needed to eat and more. Everything was delicious, even the slightly darkened pancakes. I only bring up the pancakes because, like I said, it was all delicious and Jeff’s sister was apologetic about them. On my second round of pancakes, you read correctly – second, I snagged one of the perfectly imperfect pancakes and was told I should eat the nice, golden ones. Well, the darkened ones just had a little bit more love than the other ones but they were still just as good! As the morning continued, I needed to decide if I’d stay the day or start walking. The decision wasn’t hard but making the decision was giving me anxiety. I normally don’t drink coffee but I figured it’d help awaken me. Nope, all it did was make me even more anxious and indecisive. After about half an hour, unnecessary anxiety, and a patient Jeff, I made the decision I already knew I as going to make. I decided to stay. Some people use their rest days to watch TV or take naps but somehow I ended up filing my taxes. Yes, the wild and adventurous traveler is not excluded from adulting. That night was the rivalry basketball game between neighboring towns, Bridgeport and Clarksburg, and Julie and Jeff’s entire family (four generations) were going to be there to support one of their own, Julie and Jeff’s son. I loved witnessing the way each small community came together to support their youth. The fact that I was watching a basketball game thrilled me too! In middle school and high school basketball was my favorite sport to play and I knew the rules and regulations. It brought back great memories of the passion and dedication I felt while playing the game but being in a high school again also brought strange emotions. The person I was in high school was insecure, lost, and felt out of place. I kept busy with band, athletics, and after school clubs but inwardly I always felt like an outsider. Despite those strange emotions, I was in the bleachers admiring each beautiful shot taken, captivated by the close game, and on the edge of my seat when a turnover would happen. Bridgeport won!
My goodbye to Julie, Jeff, and their family was another one of those goodbyes that definitely wasn’t a goodbye. I walked out of their house, out of their neighborhood, but not out of their life. As I started out of town, people asked what I was training for so I shared my journey. However, it was odd. Not thirty minutes ago, I was pampered and surrounded by loving people. I had been immersed in the Bridgeport community and now I was telling someone I was walking across the country. At that point, it didn’t feel like it. Julie had given me her slide on, comfort fit shoes to wear until I was able to get to a bigger town with adequate footwear. She had worn them on her trip to Europe and now they were going on another adventure with me. We were starting the sisterhood of the traveling shoes! I was also sent off with pepperoni rolls (bread with pepperoni baked into them) which are very common in the area. I’ve had similar things but never a pepperoni roll. Later, I discovered that they were originally made for miners, by their wives, because they’d always stay good. My projected mileage for the day was 20 miles. I needed to get to Wolf Summit because that is where Julie and Jeff were going to try to find me a place to stay for the night. I was running out of sunlight when Julie contacted me and told me that a news station wanted to do an interview with me. The idea sounded great but at that moment I was hustling to get to my destination. Thirty minutes before dark, I get a message from Julie telling me she found a place I could stay. Ironically enough, it was behind me but only by a half mile. I began my trek back in the direction I’d come and waved to the same people I’d just passed. I slowed my pace and let my body relax and breathe. The people I’d be staying with were people Jeff and Julie knew from church. They had a couch waiting for me and potato soup with corn bread. I was grateful for them and the continued love and support from Jeff and Julie. Check out Julie’s article here and the interview here.