I was comfortable in the guest room, but slept badly from the pains in my legs and a brand-new headache, which I hoped wasn’t a symptom of the same cold Ray has had. I had been sweating all night despite the pleasantly cool room, with dreams of achey feet, so sure while I slept that I would go no further today. I give up.
I had set the alarm by the bed but hadn’t checked to see that it worked – it didn’t. Nevertheless, I am awake right at 7 and something in me decides that I might as well give another day a go, pain or no pain. Only Ray was up that early on a Sunday, so I make coffee quietly, do some stretches, and lace on my boots. I feel quite happy despite the doubts of the night.
It’s still before 8 when I say goodbye and head down the driveway and over toward Route 59 heading west. I pass through suburban streets, by Sunday-sleepers locked inside, wondering if anyone would look out and stare at the sight of a suited man with a red backpack sauntering down the street. (O yes, I sauntered!) A couple of dogs bark.
It’s another cold morning – 27º when I left the house – but perfect for the heat of walking all day. Today will be ugly, I’m afraid, since the first half of the day is on busy roads – first 59W for 10 miles, then another 10 on Route 17. That’s what I’m most worried about.
59 is mostly a hideous stretch of malls and chain stores, but at least there are some sidewalks for bits of it. This, sadly, is the Civilization I expected to find out here, barely accommodating walkers and generally unfriendly to individuals of any kind. I see very few other people on foot – maybe a dozen day-laborers looking for work that morning, then a couple of Hasidim, and two other bearded stragglers, all on 59. These turn out to be almost the only people I see on foot for the rest of the trip. It’s Sunday morning, so I can be thankful that there are fewer cars on the road, too.
My feet do hurt some, of course, but I’m trying to be positive. However the culture out here doesn’t exactly offer a nice view for walking, and the Sadness of the Strip Mall is killing my soul. I mean, at least I can get something to eat, since the banana and tangerine I had a couple of hours ago just aren’t enough. I step out of the safety of my path and into the Abyss (ok, a Bagel Shop…) I wolf down an egg-and-cheese sandwich and try to write in my notebook a little. Someone’s toddler is hiding under the table across from me while Spongebob bleats and blares above him. It’s ok, though. I’m hungry.
Most of the day is just as ugly as I feared. I’m either traipsing alongside hideous developments or squeezing down the often-narrow shoulder of the busy road. After a few hours I turn onto Route 17 for another long stretch of Nothingness. There are fewer developments, but some parts of very narrow shoulders. I keep thinking, I just gotta make it through this part, and the rest will be good.
17 feels like just another brand of Emptiness, and I find myself consumed by post-apocalyptic thoughts. (At least I don’t have to worry about cannibals, as far as I know…) Thinking about the time I’ve walked or the miles left to go only makes the journey more difficult, and I do my best to put my mind somewhere else – thinking about Art or my heart – and let my feet do the counting.
I have to work hard not to get too depressed sometimes; I mean real Despair. It’s awful. What is the point of all this? As I get further and further from home, not a part of these towns I pass, indeed walking directly against the traffic, I find myself feeling more and more disconnected from everything. What’s the point of Art? Love? Work? Money? I’m looking at my life and all I come up with is What a mess. I’ve done it all wrong.
Thinking about teaching helps bring me back a bit. I love teaching, and I believe I’m good at it. There I can actually be of use. But if I’m pre-disposed to the kind of Solitude and Melancholy I find myself in so often, I worry that any student who spends real time with me would learn that Despair, too.
As I get close to 20 miles today, I try to distract myself more, but I keep thinking, 31 miles is an ordeal… I try writing in my head a piece I need to finish for a show in the Fall, about my last body of work, but I keep coming back to the mileage. I try music for a little while, turning on my tiny broken Dumbphone™ (which cleverly plays MP3s) but the sound soon starts to annoy me, and time is not moving any faster. I prefer the Silence.
Eventually I turn off onto Orange Turnpike and Bramertown Road, and it’s a relief to be on smaller roads. However, this all seems to be uphill. I had checked out the terrain as best I could before I started this trip, but now the upcoming couple of miles on Sugarloaf Mountain Road are scaring me. I have three hours left, I think – the home stretch – and I need it to be not so difficult. At least as I climb, the light becomes more and more beautiful. The air coming off the snowy woods makes me button up my suit.
The cold, in fact, helps me keep it together. It’s all Willpower now, one foot in front of the other, counting my way to the end. Every now and then I can tap into some reserve of energy, raise my head up to the trees, push my heart forward and find again what I now know to be a solid 3mph pace. The rest of the time, though, my thoughts are clouded by pain and necessity. It’s one thing to stomp the aches in my boots all day, but when my hips and legs start screaming at me I’m done for.
Eventually I find myself hobbling through the little town of Sugar Loaf, making a beeline for the B&B, taking every shortcut I can through church lawns and backyards just to save 40 precious steps. I had reserved this room last week knowing I’d want something luxurious and comfortable after all this walking, but having no idea then just how badly I’d need it now.
Maxie, the proprietor, is very nice, and the place is perfectly cute and just what you’d expect – every surface decorated, lots of apples and sticks and things. (Oddly, it seems bigger inside than out, like Doctor Who’s country house… ) Maxie brings me lemon-ginger tea and introduces me to her friend Kath, and while I sit and tell them my story, my body starts to die into the sofa. I’m afraid I won’t be able to get up off the chintz.
I do have to get up and settle in, though, and go find dinner before it gets too late. There’s really only one place to go – a restaurant I passed called the Barnsider. So I drop my stuff and limp back across the churchyard and into the bar, hoping no one notices my broken walk. I sit at the bar, all lit up with ribbon lights and surrounded by laughing locals, and the bartender actually asks me, “What’s your poison?” I order a scotch and a steak for dinner, and as she leans in to grab me a knife and fork, she says, “Lemme get you some chopsticks.” I’m in a 1961 cliché… Her name, of course, is Suki.
Suki is sweet and the locals are all friendly. Toward the end of the evening one of the waiters asks me what I’m writing in my notebook, and I tell them about my walk, which gets everyone interested – Suki, the other waitress Jen, and the two local couples at the end of the bar. I’m sure they all think I’m crazy. Suki keeps telling me I need to get “juiced” as she pours me another scotch.
Suitably juiced, I make it back to my room and soak away my day in a big bath with juniper oil. I have my hand-washed clothes drying by the fire, and a movie I’m ignoring on the DVD player. I stretch and crawl into bed, passing out with the TV still on, for another fitful night’s sleep haunted by aches, and the ghosts I’ve dragged along for 63 miles.