In the last few months before I left I worried increasingly about how I would support myself as I went. Though drifting into towns and picking up knock-around jobs is not just the stuff of novels and movies, it still would not work reliably for my purpose. It was not that I was above doing menial work. In fact, I was eager for it. But even the classic drifter type stays in a town for a month or more once he finds work before moving on. Though I was going slowly, I did have a destination and I had to keep moving with only brief interludes.
The rules I had set for the pilgrimage were unique and self-contained. Part of the purpose was to throw myself in a radical way on dependence on God, trusting Him to open up ways for me to make it through. My plan required that I leave with nearly nothing, which I did. The day I left I had $50 in my pocket. Whatever I got along the way during the year and a half was fine. If God somehow saw to it that I got $20,000 on day two, that would have been fine and would have made my journey a luxury. But my experience has been that God is pretty good at seeing you get what you need, but not big on handing out material windfalls.
About a month and a half before I left, I found the answer. I heard of an online site called Demand Studios. They are a content provider. You write little articles, almost all pretty mundane, but carefully structured, and they paid $15 a piece. They paid online, twice a week, for accepted articles from the list of assignments. I tried it. It could be a bit of a slog, and writing such things as, “How to Change the Headlight in an ’87 Acura” was not the most intellectually engaging thing I had ever done. But I had enough on my plate as it was and didn’t need much intellectual challenge. They were perfectly reliable on payment and were exactly what they advertised themselves to be, not some internet scam. So, I brought my laptop with me and in libraries across the country, would spend several days a week writing my little content articles under the pen name, Joe McElRoy. If you go to eHow or synonym.com or Livestrong and stumble across an article by good old Joe, that’s actually me. I used the pen name to keep my content writing separate from things I have written for newspapers and other journals and magazines. If you can write well with solid grammar and want a little extra money, you should look Demand up. It is not a get-rich quick scheme (or a get-rich slow scheme, for that matter) but it is what it purports to be. It was the major component in keeping me afloat as I traversed the country.
My Dad is a preacher at a little country church in rural Alabama. Over the decade prior to my departure, membership was steadily declining as old parishioners died off. It was down to about 10 families. It suffered from two pressures for decline. First, it was an old southern fundamentalist denomination, one that has not been successful in attracting young people. Second, it was a particularly rigorous denomination, Pentecostal Holiness, and Dad was not the archetype of their type of preacher. The denomination claims to follow the Bible rigorously, while adding on a whole lot of rules not contained in the Bible and sometimes contrary to Scripture. Dad is an intellectually and spiritually honest man. Though he has not studied much theology or serious hermeneutics, he studies Scripture rigorously. He may err, but he will not preach what he knows to be false. He stays true to what the Bible says, as he understands it, and studies it daily. So he would not preach such things as that drinking alcohol is a sin – because the Bible says otherwise. Drinking to excess can be, but not just drinking. If you are from the south, you know this is a big no-no, no matter what the Bible actually says. (It always amuses me when someone who describes himself as a strict literalist is confronted with the literal texts that clearly contradict his favorite taboos. He invariably gives an interpretation that is both figurative and absurd). But Dad won’t abide that. So traditional Holiness were not flocking to him, either. He and a good friend, a Methodist preacher, would sometimes visit and preach in each others churches. But Dad’s congregation was in precipitous decline.
The Sunday before I left, I went to church with Dad – and spoke briefly to his congregation. I told them that the next time I was at that church, it would be filled to the rafters, so be steadfast and hopeful. It was a prophesy that was exactly true but not at all as I had expected. The next time I was there, Dad and I were riding together in my Mother’s funeral cortege. When we approached the church I was startled at how very many people were already there and exclaimed, “Wow, the church is jam-packed.” As soon as I said it, Dad and I both looked at each other in sudden wide-eyed surprise.
My Mother was very fond of the religious ritual of washing people’s feet as a type of anointing. I rarely like people touching me for any religious reason. When I was very little, many of my nut-job religious relatives loved to get me alone and try to cast out the devil they knew must be in me because I was so precociously smart. This involved a lot of hollering and screaming and weeping and “anointing” my head constantly. It left me with an aversion so strong that I really don’t like anyone touching my head at all. When I was coming into the Catholic Church there was a ritual called the Rite of Acceptance. After it was over, the woman I was dating said when she saw the priests were anointing each person with oil on the forehead and placing their hands on the head in blessing, she feared I might faint when they reached me. She well knew that you are NOT to touch my head. But it was a moment of real grace – for her saying it was the first time it even occurred to me that day that it was usually a problem for me. I had simply been overjoyed at the anointing and blessing.
But, alas, I never allowed Mom to wash my feet in anointing as an adult. She very much wanted to do so on the day I left. Over the last year, the strain that had marked my adult relationship with my Mother had largely melted away. We really enjoyed each other again. I knew it would give her much comfort. I did not kid myself that I would be comfortable: you can’t talk yourself out of an emotional aversion, but you don’t have to let it control you. So I figured I loved my Mom. Besides, I was about to walk across the country and my poor feet could probably use all the help they could get. So my Mom blessed me in the way that she cherished before I left. It was the last time I would ever see her healthy.
I visited my youngest brother, Ron, before I got ready to leave. He and his wife Fran had showered me with gifts of gear before I left. He looked at the hard western boots I was wearing and asked skeptically if that was what I was going to wear. I told him I needed something that would hold up under extreme use. He walked into another room and came back with a pair of Keen Hiking Shoes that he said he had only worn once, when they had visited Yosemite. He told me they were very comfortable and sturdy and so gave me one last gift hours before my departure. Boy, was he ever right! I wore those same shoes for the entire 3,200 miles. Once I got to 2,000 miles with them I decided I would do everything I could to make them last the whole way. And they did. For about the last 1,200 miles I had to make repairs several times a week, but they made it with me. Late in the pilgrimage people would often ask how many pairs of shoes I had gone through and would be surprised when I said I was still on the originals. But when I lifted each foot to show the wear and repairs on the obviously worn boots, they believed me. Most wanted to know what brand they were – and one woman from Oregon was absurdly pleased to discover they were Keens, because that is what she used for outdoor activity. She loved the confirmation that they were top quality. As ragged as they became by the end, they were always comfortable. If ever I feel a pilgrimage coming on again, the first thing I will get is a sturdy pair of Keen Hiking Shoes.
Finally, at 2 p.m. on Friday, February 11, 2011, as the Muslim Brotherhood was overthrowing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I left my family’s home and took the first steps up the driveway of a journey of 3,200 miles.