(This is the 5th Installment in my Journal of the year-and-a-half, 3,200 mile walking pilgrimage I took across America)
When I set out, my intention was to make my way down the mountain where my family lived, going towards Rte. 278 in the small town of Walnut Grove, Alabama. It is about 10 miles and I planned to make camp my first night near a creek at the bottom. I had no idea how far you could reasonably go in a day carrying that sort of weight. Itt was okay, though; my first 10 miles or so was nothing but farmers’ field and woodland. If I pooped out I could easily and quickly find a place to rest with good concealment.
After walking just three miles, a young couple in an old extended cab pick-up truck stopped to check on me. They had a baby in the back. I told them what I was doing and they offered me a ride. (I thought, wow, this is going to be a piece of cake if people just offer me rides every few miles. As I mentioned, that is not how it worked out.) The couple was charmed by my story. When they asked how long I had been out and I said I had just left that day, we all laughed.
They were just getting started. Work, of course, was tough to come by in a lot of places, but the young man had found a good, physical job that he had been working steady. They lived with his mother, but had gotten a trailer home. They told me they were saving up to pay the deposit to get the power started and then they would move in. They were enthusiastically happy together. I sat in the back with the baby who, fortunately, thought I was funny and cool. She gurgled and cooed while playing with my finger. The couple took me to the small town of Snead, Alabama and dropped me off at a gas station. As I was pulling my pack out, the young husband sidled up to me and tried to slip me five dollars. I immediately thought of them saving up to get the power turned on and refused, telling him to use it for the fund to get them moved into their trailer. It was a mistake I would not make again. When I refused his spontaneous generosity, the young man’s face fell. He had been so slyly joyful when he offered; now his face reflected wounded hurt.
When they left I went in, got a sandwich and sat down in a booth. I thought about what had happened – and decided while I would never ask, I also would never again refuse the spontaneous generosity of someone on my way. We had had such a vibrant, lively conversation right until the moment I refused his offer. I thought for some people that might be a way of participating in my journey. In time I would learn it was more and deeper than that. Whatever, I would not refuse small kindnesses again.
After eating, I crossed over and made my way into some dense pine woods at the southwest corner of the intersection of Rtes. 278 and 75. I laid my bag out, set the water bottles beside me in case I got thirsty in the night and went to sleep. That first night, I thought my sleeping bag was not holding warmth as well as advertised. Rated to 20 degrees fahrenheit, I felt the cold in my feet. It wasn’t terrible, but certainly noticeable enough for the discomfort to wake me several times. When I woke the next morning I was very thirsty, so I grabbed a water bottle first thing. Something was wrong, though. My water bottle was hard and nothing would pour out. After a moment of cognitive dissonance, I realized it was frozen solid – and that the reason my feet got chilled in the night was because it was bloody cold out there. I packed up my gear, went back over to the gas station and got a hot cup of coffee and a biscuit sandwich. The sandwich was good but the coffee felt (in the immortal words of Tony the Tiger) grrrreat! While there, I learned the temperature the night before had been 17 degrees. I resolved that, from there on out, if it was cold, one of my two water bottles would sleep in my bag with me.
Basking in the glow of having survived my first night and feeling quite the rugged outdoorsman, I set off west on Rte. 278 towards Cullman. I got five miles when I decided to step into a nice copse of woods and take a little nap. Just as I got in and set my gear down, my cell phone rang. It was my brother, Ronnie, and his wife, Fran. They were going out for an early Valentine’s Day celebration. Meantime, she had made some stew and cornbread that they would like me to have. Did I want it, he asked me. Now my sister-in-law, Fran, is the single best home cook I have ever encountered. If she really messes something up, it is merely delicious instead of breathtakingly sublime. If she told me she had prepared a spam casserole with anchovy sauce topped with a dollop of roquefort cheese, I would put my bib on and belly up. No matter how hard she tries, she is just incapable of cooking anything and having it turn out anything but scrumptious.
So I told them about where I was and that I would watch for their truck. I sat at the edge of the woods peering out, then stepped out when I saw their truck coming. As always, the stew was divine. (Even making the most common things, Fran finds some magical ingredient that gives it a unique taste all its own. I sometimes suspect she graduated from Hogwarts Academy and uses fairy dust to perfect all her dishes.) They offered to take me further up the road. Since the next day was Sunday, I thought it would be perfect if they took me up to St. Bernard’s Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery in Cullman which had extensive grounds and which would allow me to go to Mass the next day. It was a touch out of their way, but on we went. On the way, my brother solemnly told me, “Now you know we can’t do this every day.” I grinned and said, “You mean you won’t keep bringing me food when I’m in Louisiana?” Fran looked at me and smirked while Ronnie’s cheeks reddened.
“You know what I mean,” he said.
“Could you at least cover me until I get through Alabama?” I asked. Fran’s smirk turned into a giggle – and finally Ron laughed. “We got you covered today,” he said drily.
When they dropped me off, I made my way up the grounds and found a creek rushing through a small canyon. It had lots of greenery and cover, so I clambered down and found a hidden spot to drop my gear and make camp for the second night.