Armed with Sunscreen

It had been a rough few days of hiking in steady traffic. This morning, the stretch along Route 1 into Vero Beach was a freeway. A lot of hard effort in close proximity to the 18-wheelers.

In downtown Vero Beach a shopping plaza appeared on the left of the four-lane main drag. A highway sign announced the good news: 11 miles to Fort Pierce. Feeling exultant over my progress, I sat down in an empty lot in the shadow of a phone pole to prepare for a hot day. I systematically put sunscreen on head, arms, and legs, along with antiseptic on my feet. At 9:50 a.m., with 69-degree temperatures, and sun shining through hazy skies, the weather had already begun to cook. Apparently the rest stop of exactly twenty minutes lasted too long, because a door slammed in the adjacent flower shop across a driveway, and a pair of young men jeered at me from a car pulling away.

Ten minutes later, about a half-mile further up the street, a police cruiser driven by a woman officer pulled in front of me at a gas station. She jumped out of the cruiser and screamed, “Freeze!” In shock, I stood motionless like a scarecrow, with arms held out from my sides in plain sight, as she patted me down. She asked if I had a knife, so I told her where to find my tiny Swiss Army knife, buried in the pack. As another cruiser drove up, she glanced over the contents of my pack and said that I matched the description of “a bearded man in a baseball cap flashing a knife.” Trying to be helpful, I said the only things I could have been flashing were tubes of ointment.

The tension decreased as she learned more about me. “So you said you’re staying in motels?” she asked, probably thinking ahead to filing a report. I showed the newspaper article about me to the other officer, who relaxed and suppressed a smirk. For an awkward moment, the woman officer appeared uncomfortable. With business concluded, they both left. People at the gas station ignored my pleasantries.

I meandered out of town in a bewildered frame of mind, having lost the advantage of my early progress. As the days passed, I gradually connected the dots. The flower shop had used the police to roust the riff-raff.

The incident taught me to move briskly in future situations where my presence could be considered provocative. Cutting back on rest stops inevitably compounded my foot problems. So when four hurricanes hit the area later that year, I imagined that nature fully repaid the kindness of my benefactors.



South - Day 16

At 4:15 a.m. I departed for the Florida border. Safety grooves all the way, and no breakdown lanes afterwards. Second breakfast in the pleasant urban town of Hilliard. Further on, US-1 took a long, wide arc to the right through vast, open, flat farmland, where I had a close call involving a tire blow-out (see page 6w25). After an early lunch in Callahan, I went through a long, hot, tedious stretch into the outlying districts of Jacksonville. The backfire of a passing wrecker truck, making me jump in the air, renewed the warning to be careful. An hour later, a car with boat trailer in tow barreled down the highway at me, overlapping the breakdown lane. The volume of traffic forced me to adopt the policy of walking facing the traffic unless there was a curbed sidewalk. The landscape reflected changing commercial patterns. Old 1950s motels had disintegrated, leaving only their signs. New motels had been built on nearby highways. Fortunately the Shakir Motel, inside the 295 beltway, had a super-clean room for me.

With itchy, sweaty, hot feet, a tightening right calf, and sunburned face, I gratefully showered.
Hammock Hanger (AT day 33) visited me with chicken and pizza. Departing, she said, "Oh, I brought a quart of ice cream, but it's probably too soupy now." I decided to have a taste. Twenty minutes later, it was all gone. Welcome to Florida!



South - Day 4

At 10:25 a.m. I finally got out the door and immediately saw a restaurant around the corner. A message painted on the windows read, “We support our troops.” The decor had dimly-lit dark colors, clean tables, and a buffet of various freshly cooked foods laid out next to the kitchen. A short black man wearing a knit scull cap welcomed me as a tall, young black woman walked into the kitchen. Then an older black woman, who evidently just finished preparing the lunch buffet, put on her coat and exited the front door with purse in hand. “Could I just buy a piece of chicken?” I asked, thinking of the miles ahead. “Sure,” the man said, “That’ll be $1.50. Make sure to take some bread.” Pleasantly surprised, I helped myself to some freshly baked cornbread. “Do you have some water? There’s some spring water over there,” the man said. I gratefully filled my water bottle, thanked him, and made my way to the door. The young lady called out from the kitchen, “Have a good trip!” or words to that effect. Chicken never tasted better. What a blessing to stop at the House of the Lord!

Waking without a headache for the first time in ten days, but still coughing, I studied maps and got a late morning start. Amazing hospitality at a local cafeteria. Picking up food along the classic Athens center, I negotiated Route 78 southeast up a big long hill with strip malls. The urban sprawl led to massive supermarkets and parking lots on the left. A brand new retro car-hop on the right. The road abruptly condensed into two country lanes. I sent gifts home from a country store at the next junction. At darkness, I inquired at a video store in the small town of Crawford and eventually found a bed a couple miles away.

The owners of the local B&B had gone out of town, so Melanie at the video rental store was calling laundromats and such places to find me a place to stay. Her little son played hide-and-seek with a dachsund while another lady cross-examined me about my wedding band. Unaware of television reports about fugitives, I joked, "My wife said to come home soon, but not too soon!" Then they sent me across the street to eat, where I had salmon and met 70-year-old Rose, who had seen "everything but Mount Rushmore." Sure enough, she described my little New England town to me. Back at the video store, Shirley came in during a shift change, and offered to put me up. No, I didn’t need a ride. When I arrived in the dark, her daughter Kim let me in. While I lay on the cozy shag carpet watching the New England Patriots qualify for the Super Bowl on TV, Shirley's pregnant grand-daughter and her husband visited with Kim. A clean stars-and-stripes flag, neatly folded in a triangle, resided in a corner display case of my bedroom.



5. The Long Way Home

Any sane person knew it was “over.” The logistics of a self-supported hike demand a lot of time and money. Three years of going away supplanted the duties of keeping house and home together. On balance, there was no way to consider another foray.

When external events pointed to my setting out “one more time,” the process of breaking away from home became far more difficult than words can describe. However, once the southern road walk began, all kinds of unexpected encouragement appeared. Perhaps the upstroke of the cycle had begun.

New kinds of challenges occurred while traversing the urban landscape, yet in some way the drama involved the same characters wearing different costumes. The stimulation of the great outdoors invigorated me, but I thought more about home.

Walking the Appalachian Trail had been like going away. The extra legs in the North and South during the next two years became the return trip. The “idea” of heading out one last time came from outside, just as the original inspiration had. I now began to face the challenge of applying my lessons to daily life at home.

Everything has a starting point. How can you return, if you don’t know where you began?