2004-01-30

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.

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