Once when I was in my early twenties I decided I was going to walk from Daytona Beach to the Keys of Florida.
The idea was born while I was laying on my back in the grass at Central Park, having suffered a major break up and contemplating a move from Queens back to Michigan, depressed and lonely. I’d been reading a book called Conversations with God, which is about a man in an emotional transition in his life, who has a chat with God that goes on for like, five books. The book was laying in the grass next to me, both of us watching the clouds roll by.
I got to thinking. Why did this fellow get to have such a great chin wag with the old guy upstairs? (I still thought of God as a man back then, due to all of the world saying it all the time). I’ve never even had a hello, how’s your day, much less enough chit chat to fill a thousand pages.. Come to think of it…I frowned. I don’t think I even know God very well at all. Maybe that’s why I’m so lonely. I mulled that over for a while. Suddenly some words popped into my head clear as day.
“You could have a connection with me. But you’ve never really tried.”
There it was. Words from on high. It was true. I’d never really tried. How do you cultivate a relationship with God? I prayed a little here and there, but it always felt like I was trying to get brownie points, so I’d stopped. What I needed here was a gesture. Something big. Something wild. Something unexpected.
And so I decided to buy a motorcycle and drive it across the country. I saw myself, flying free, hair blowing in the wind, saddlebags filled with the bare necessities for a life on the road: tent, can opener, sleeping bag, jack knife, and of course, beans. And somewhere on that ribbon of highway, I was sure I would find my connection to God.
So I moved back to Michigan with a plan of action. My first problem was that I didn’t have a motorcycle. My second was that I’d never ridden a motorcycle. I had $2,000 in my bank account, ready to spend and my little brother’s friend Travis had a crotch rocket he said I could take for a spin round the block if I wanted to. I thought I really should start to get the hang of this thing before I go spend $2,000. I got on that speedy red bike and headed out onto the pavement.
Everything was going great at first. I was flying free and my hair was blowing in the wind just the way I thought it would. I was getting the shifting down without too much trouble. But then an old man turned in front of me. I grip locked the brakes and the back tire left the ground. For split second, there I was, in the middle of Dixie Highway, balanced perfectly on the front tire of a red crotch rocket like Harry Houdini. I locked eyes with that old man as he passed in front of me and he looked very impressed, as if I was doing it on purpose. Just as fast, the back tire came down and I stepped my foot back on the ground like nothing doing, heart beating from my knees to my eyeballs.
Against all odds the motorcycle dream survived this harrowing event. I blamed it on the crotch rocket. A heavier bike will handle better, I told myself. I found a bike I liked the looks of in the classifieds. I decided to give it a test drive. It was shiny and black and big. I got on, drove down the driveway, and into the road, clicking the gears like a champ. This time my hair never actually even got to blowing. I got to a stop sign and I was slowing down, or maybe I was speeding up, it all happened so fast, and the bike started to wobble. It was just a little at first, then it grew and grew until I felt like I was on a like a mechanical bull that bucks sideways instead of up and down. I bucked along with it turning this way and that, over correcting, under correcting, over correcting again until finally by some miracle, I got it stopped. But the bike had stopped mid wobble and was now at a 45 degree angle with the ground. Motorcycles are HEAVY. I could just see me coming back after a test drive having scratched the hell out of this bike. I somehow got myself off the bike without dropping it and crouched down to put my shoulder into it. It took everything I had to get us back to 90 degrees. I took that bike right back.
I rode up the driveway with dirt on my pants and a grease stain on my shoulder. My muscles were jelly, both because of my near death experience and because of the heavy motorcycle. My hair was sticking out every which way. I was sweaty and red faced. My mom was there, bless her heart for coming with me, and she asked what I thought.
“I think I’ll change my motorcycle trip to a walking trip,” I said, handing the keys back over.
And so I hatched my plan: In the summer I’d go down to Flagler Beach, Florida, twenty miles north of Daytona, where my sister lived. I’d buy a rucksack and a tent, and set off on foot, wind in my hair, foot loose and fancy free. Once I got to the Keys, maybe I’d take a job tending bar on the beach where they played Jimmy Buffet and Journey and the Eagles all day. Surely somewhere along the way, I’d find God.
I started out early one summer morning, all packed up with my essentials (of which the list had grown considerably-sun block, bug spray, shampoo, money pouch, rain gear, etc.) and a freshly shaved head. I thought the head made me look tough and also would be cooler in the summer heat. My boots were cinched tight, my pack was well organized, and off I went, happy as a jaybird.
I set my schedule to walk about ten miles per day for the first few days. I could walk on the beach where there were no bugs and beautiful waves, but it’s way harder to walk in sand with a heavy pack.There’s a road (A1A, beach run avenue!) that runs nearly the length of a Florida, but stops here and there for inlets and cities. I could walk this road and see the ocean and avoid bugs, but I’d have to cut inland as well, when A1A ran out. I decided to walk the first bit on the beach to enjoy the waves and the sun, but I forgot that there’s a long stretch of beach that’s undeveloped and there’s no access to the street for a mile or so. Once I started walking down there I had to keep going until I reached another set of stairs.
About a half mile in I saw a man lying butt naked on the beach, all baby oiled up and the same color brown as Secretariat. His arms and legs were spread wide like he’d just fallen from the sky and landed there, never to move again. I knew he wasn’t dead though, because there was a tiny radio stuck into the sand by his head with some tinny AC/DC playing and he opened one eye as I schlepped past. I guess he thought nobody else would be dumb enough to walk that far into the no access area.
I made it my first thirteen miles to Ormond Beach and found a little area where there was some construction happening. I set up my tent tucked in behind a bush where nobody would spot it from the road and then I called my sister. She wanted to know where I was each night. I told her and then settled in for the night. Fifteen minutes later I heard her and her (then) husband tramping around calling my name. They’d driven the short way to my camp spot to check it out and make sure I was safe.
That morning I woke up early, broke down my tent, and went down to the beach to watch the sun rise. I met a woman and we got to talking and I told her my adventure. She asked me if I wanted to come back to her house and take a shower. She seemed nice enough. I didn’t really need a shower yet, but I decided to take her up on it because it was fun. The shower went fine, but I realized a mile up the road that I’d left my shampoo there.
The second night I stayed at a $20 hotel in Daytona Beach. After that I had to get off the beach and go inland because the Ponce DeLeon inlet cut across A1A making a dead end. As soon as I left the beach, things started to get weird. First it was the mosquitos. As I was walking a wall of them would form just at the edge of where my deet cloud ended. These things were vicious. As soon as the deet sweated off enough and started to fade, they would dive bomb me all at once. I kept the deet in my hand for easy access so I could throw off my bag and spray the crap out of myself every thirty minutes. I checked my map and I saw that I was walking along the aptly named Mosquito Lagoon Aquatic Reserve.
I wandered into a town and found an abandoned field with lots of trees and tall grass that I could hide in. I passed it by a couple times, trying to find the right way in. On the third pass I decided to just go for it and stepped off the sidewalk, just as a police cruiser rolled by. I jumped back on the sidewalk and immediately knew I looked ridiculously suspicious with my big pack and my tent. He paid me no mind and so I went in and tunneled out a sweet spot.
That night I lay in the eerie blue light of my tent, surrounded by green under the purple pink setting sun, feeling lonely. I called my little brother and chatted with him for a few minutes and felt a little better. I drew some pictures in my journal and ate a can of beans. It was quiet and I eventually fell asleep. I woke up several times, thinking the police were swarming in silently, setting up to eject me from my camp. They never came. I guess they knew I needed to be alone.
The next few days passed in a blur. One morning I brushed my teeth at a spigot I found in a city park. I heard some odd splashing in the water of the Halifax River and looked down to see three manatees swimming in circles. A man came down with a hose and hooked it up to the spigot and gently sprayed them. “They love it,” he said. “The fresh water.”
At one point I was walking on a barren strip of land between towns. I’d walked many miles already and I couldn’t make it to the next town before dark. I didn’t want to set up my tent out in the open and I didn’t want to hike too far off the road. I decided I’d try to hitch a ride into civilization. I stuck out my thumb for a while. The first car to stop rolled up next to me and the man inside took a look at me and drove off in a puff of smoke. I decided he’d thought I was a boy from the back and took off when he saw the front and realized I wasn’t. I was glad he left. The next guy that stopped was driving a giant pick up truck. He seemed ok so I got in. Nearly into town he looked over at me.
“You’ve got really nice…boobs.” I looked out the window. “How much would I have to give you for you to show them to me?” he asked.
“Um. I don’t want to do that.” I said. “You can drop me off over there.” To my great relief, he did. As he drove away, I realized I’d left my mosquito spray in his truck.
I hiked on, keeping to my ten to twenty miles a day. My feet were sore and my pinky toenails started to turn black. I made it to Titusville and decided I’d take a bus to Cocoa Beach because I’d made plans to meet up with an old friend there and I was running late. As I sat on the bench, waiting for the bus, a sweet old couple drove up and asked where I was heading. I told them and they asked me if I wanted a ride. I was totally surprised. The man saw my face and smiled.
“We saw you waiting while we were getting gas and we thought you looked nice.”
So much for looking tough. I jumped in the back seat of their minivan and off we went. On the way there they told me all about their kids and their grandkids and their beach house and about the time they’d lived in Michigan. The man’s name was Harold, same as my grandad and the woman’s name was Wilma, same as my mom. I told them a little about my trip, but left off the boob guy. We pulled up to Cocoa Beach thirty minutes later (me painfully aware that that would have taken me two days to walk). I thanked them and shut the sliding door. As they started to pull away, I realized I’d left my water bottle in the seat. I jumped forward and knocked on the window frantically. I saw the fear in their eyes as they stopped, wondering if I was going to kill them after all.
“I forgot my water bottle!” I said. They laughed with relief and handed it back to me and I packed it up.
The night after I met with my friend I decided to stay in a dingy hotel instead of setting up my tent. After I dropped my bag off in my room I walked across the parking lot and got a Whopper value meal and brought it back. There was no table or chairs in the room, so I squatted down and leaned my sore back against the wall and unwrapped the food. My romantic notions of eating beans like a hobo under the stars were completely gone. Hot french fries were the way to go. I squatted there in the dimly lit room eating my whopper, cars whipping by on the street outside, red gold glow filtering through the curtains from the hotel sign, and I thought about God.
Suddenly, I realized that I felt a presence. Not like there was someone else in the room, but that I wasn’t alone. I felt a deep and sudden connection to a higher being. It wasn’t a man and it wasn’t a woman. It just was. Well how about that, I thought to myself, smiling. My grand gesture worked. For the next few hours I didn’t feel even a tiny bit lonely, not while I was eating. Not while I took a shower. Not while I watched tv and not while I lay in bed falling asleep.
The next day I called my sister and asked her to come pick me up at Cocoa Beach. I’d realized the goal of the trip. I was tired and my toes were fucked up. I wanted to get back home and get back to school and have a life not on the beach in the Keys with Jimmy Buffet.
For the next few days, I’d check in every few hours to see if the presence was still there. It always was. I don’t check it anymore, I’ve just come to know that it will always be there as long as I keep trying.