Day 1, the last dry stone in the riverbed

You want to know the plan? The plan was to get to the west coast, dip my toes in the water, then head east.

That’s it.

Oh yes, and I wanted to talk to community leaders about what they did, or did not do, to allow community to grow, to thrive.

This homeless thing? That came later.

So close to noon on day 1, November 4, 2018, I climbed into my now graffiti-covered black Prius and drove down the hill and out of Plymouth Town square on to Main street, going left, north.

For the first night at least I was covered, had a place to stay, in tiny Savoy, Massachusetts, tucked into the northwest corner of the state in the Hoosac Mountains, with Salvy.

Salvy’s little house was like the last dry stone in the river bed before I’d have to jump for the shore, only the shore was – where? Surfer’s Point in Ventura, California where the walk would officially begin? Simi Valley where my sister lived, where I planned to drop off the Prius?

No matter where I hoped to land this was a leap of faith and Salvy’s home was the last dry ground, where I could plant my foot before the unknown.

You have to be brave enough to take that last step, to put yourself in a place where the only way to go is forward. After that though, after you make that big leap forward, you have to be lucky.

After Salvy there was only a thick line on a map of the US: a diagonal, the northeast to the southwest: ocean to ocean, and a million and one different ways to get lost or lose my way – not necessarily the same thing.

My plan was to drive the side roads, the byroads, the alternate routes: the logic there, if there was any, was that I couldn’t’ walk along the highways on the walk back so I needed to see where the lesser roads went.

I knew the way to Salvy’s and didn’t need to explore that route but I still opted for the slow way to Savoy, mainly route 2 through Concord then west, all the way, through Leominster – Johnny Appleseed’s town, north of the reservoir, a beautiful drive even in the late fall until I reached the Hoosacs and then, at a sharp bend in the road, the recently restored short cut to Savoy, up a steep hill, through a small farm, past a 350-year old tree and, after a smattering of abandoned trailers, tumble-down shacks and renovated cottages “if you see the beaver dam on your right you just missed me.”

In Savoy at Salvy’s

During the years leading up to this day when I contemplated this adventure I found myself exhilarated at what I expected would be one of the most appealing aspects of this journey: its slowness. “Imagine,” I asked others to imagine, “how slow I will be going. Cars go a mile in a minute. Bicyclist travel that same mile in less than five. For me a mile, over 3,000 miles all told, will take 30 minutes!”

For this first half of the trip – the drive out to California – I would be driving, but still I soon found myself seeing things differently, slowing things down, noticing things I would otherwise have passed blindly: even on this first step toward Salvy’s just the willingness to step toward the unknown and the scales fell from my eyes.

What new things was I seeing? Little perhaps that was truly new but seeing with new eyes.

My heart too.

Not a new heart, but a heart exposed to the elements for the first time in years.

That had not happened overnight. That was a gradual unveiling, the removal of a scab.

Over the last few months I had come to realize that the commitment that I had made to this walk – a largely intellectual commitment – was in conflict with the direction of my heart.

For nearly a decade I had been falling in love.

Bon Voyage!

Is that possible? When people speak of falling in love they generally refer to a short, terrifying plunge: a leap off a rooftop, a slip on the ice, a foot caught on the root of a tree and an involuntary somersault on to your chest knocking the wind from you, leaving you gasping for air.

I had been on a spacewalk: I had left the comfort and safety of my cabin in the sky and with her help had learned the name of the stars, then the constellations, then for the first time had spied the blue-green earth beneath me.

For ten years I had been falling.

As I drove west, I was still falling.

As I drove west, I was leaving her behind.

As I drove west to Salvy’s I realized that the little stone in the stream that I hoped would provide the firm footing for my final leap was small and wet and resting in wet sand.

First morning

The morning of Day 1, November 4, 2018, which is to say, in a real sense, day 1,764. 

I had been talking about this walk for nearly five years and now I was actually leaving.

I was in Town Square watching as people took turns with a special white marker writing on my black car.

I wanted them to write the names of their favorite places in town, but most were variations on ‘bon voyage.’

Carlos Fragata, like me a board member of a local environmental group, got it right: he drew a picture of Flag Rock on White Horse Beach. Earlier I had drawn a picture of a wave, and the name “Center Hill Beach,” a place in Plymouth that I loved, where I had fallen in love.

‘What drove you to do this?’

Though I had been talking about this walk for years even close friends weren’t sure what was motivating me. People that I told about my idea at some point in the last five years would often come up to me on the street and ask if I had gone already, and returned.

“Weren’t you doing that walking thing,” they’d often say, to which I would smile, let the question dangle in the air for a moment, and then explain.

It was – is – not an easy thing to explain. It would be simple, I thought, in its realization but difficult to explain.

To give my “elevator speech” I needed to be going up to the 50th floor.

The idea for leaving and ‘walking home’ first began to materialize on the morning of December 31, 2013.

Were you there?

I had taken a picture at or around sunrise, somewhere in Plymouth, every morning in 2013 and on the last day – the last sunrise I called it – 500 of my nearest and dearest friends showed up at Plimoth Plantation for the final picture of the year.

December 31, 2013

I was stunned, elated, confused?

That first ‘last sunrise’ event wasn’t even over before people began to come up to me and ask, ‘what’s next?’

What will you do for an encore?

The Ponds, many suggested. The myth had always been that there were 365 ponds in Plymouth, one for every day of the year. I could take a picture of one a day..

But there weren’t 365 ponds in Plymouth: there were 430.

I wanted to move on to the next thing as well, to sleep until the sun was in the sky, but first I had to understand what had happened, first I had to figure out why 500 people risked frostbite to pose for a picture at 6:15 in the morning, the morning of the last day of the year?

And they didn’t just show up: they came with oysters, oatmeal stout, fresh muffins, coffee, placards proclaiming their particular cause or charity. 

The final picture happened around 6:30 that morning: the tailgating in the Plimoth Plantation parking lot went on for hours.

That afternoon I began to look at some of the pictures from that final sunrise. 

I examined the list of those that had said they would attend.

Cheryle and June, the founders of the Friends of Burial Hill were there early, helping me put out signs directing people to the site where we would take that final picture of the year.                                                                                                                                                                            The lady in the faux fur coat in the front row? From the Fragment Society – the oldest continually operating charity in America.

Halfway back in the crowd were members of the Plymouth Lodge of Masons, all formally attired.

Lurking near the front, bright eyed and energetic despite being desperately ill, super-Townie Wedge Bramhall with a sign protesting the local nuclear power plant.

Both the police and fire chief were there.

The Plymouth Masonic Lodge

Congressional aid Mike Jackman and then, at the last minute, his boss, then freshman Congressman Keating.

Vinnie deMacedo, still a state representative I believe.

A group of woman who baked cupcakes for families in stress.

The Friends of Myles Stasndish State Forest.

As I looked over the pictures from that day I began to realize what they all had in common: these were people already engaged in their community, already serving on one on more boards, town meeting representatives, members of historic societies, artists and photographers and musicians.

Five years later as I walked into Albuquerque, New Mexico, about two months into the walk, Tobias Esquibel – the brother in law of Plymouth School Superintendant Gary Maestas, asked me what “drove” me to  it.

I laughed.

I wasn’t driven to it I protested. I was compelled. I was inspired. I was seized by the idea of it.

It intoxicated me.

In trying to understand why others had shown up on that cold morning in 2013 I had an epiphany: Plymouth was my hometown.

I had never felt the need for a hometown but now it was suddenly there beating in my chest like a second heart.

WalkingHome – it came to me in one crystalline moment like the first drop of rain after a long drought landing on the bridge of your nose as you gazed heavenward hoping – would be a journey to a greater understanding of what made me feel that Plymouth was my hometown: what combination of natural human empathy, effective government, civic engagement, history and environment creates a soil fertile enough to grow a sense of community.

What can we all do to create and maintain that feeling that you belong someplace?

Or what do we do – intentionally or unwittingly – to obstruct or deny that sense of belonging?

It seemed to me the perfect idea. 

It came out of the box fully assembled. 

I knew immediately that I would call it “walking home,” because it was about  finding the way home to a sense of belonging, home to a community of caring, home to a community with a legacy of civic engagement.

Perfect.

Or so I thought on that winter morning almost five years ago. But today, as I prepared to drive away?

Belief

An old friend of mine, Joe Rose, was confident that gases venting out of the earth, from volcanoes roughly distributed along the equator, were responsible for night and day, the spinning of the earth.

I remember smiling when he confessed that belief – or rather his disbelief in science to me.

I remember listening excitedly – before the invention of the Internet – as a Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, metaphor-driven radio host on a station that during the day played non-stop polka music for its largely Polish-American audience – assured me that I could improve my social life by recognizing that I was living at the center of the universe.

I took him seriously enough to go out on my own that night – to The Rusty Nail in Amherst – to see what kind of creature might be dancing (like the unusual glow-in-the-dark worms that inhabit the deepest depths of the ocean) at the center of everything.

Just about a week ago I walked from a hostel on San Francisco Street in Flagstaff to the Willow Bend Environmental Center and met with its Executive Director, Moran Henn.

 

We spoke for no more than 15 minutes, but found much in common, as I was a member – in absentia – of a similar organization back home in Plymouth. 

The next day was spent with Apache Don Decker, the Public Information Officer of the Yapavai-Apache Nation, meeting with Tribal elders and elected officials: a day that was supposed to culminate with a tribal community Christmas dinner but, as the dinner concluded Don told me we were going to a Winter Solstice party at a friends who lived just east of Flagstaff.

As we entered that house I recognized Moran Henn, the woman I had just met the day before in Flagstaff.

I met her husband Avi as well, and their bilingual children (Israeli and English).

What a nice coincidence, I thought.

A week later I was at a local coffee shop in Flagstaff to meet with Jamie Whelan, a member of the Flagstaff City Council, when I noticed Avi Moran sitting by himself. I re-introduced myself and just then the councillor came in and came right over: the two were old friends.

 

The next day I left Flagstaff early in the morning to start walking again and in the early afternoon was happy to learn that a family that lived along my route wanted to take me in for the night.

It was, it turned out, the same family that had held the Winter Solstice party.

The patriarch of that family is Jones Benally, a respected Navajo medicine man and it was in his ceremonial hooghan that I slept that night, first spending several hours listening to Jones explain Navajo beliefs and dissecting the challenges that modern tribe members face.

I spent the next night as the guest of the Navajo casino Twin Arrows and received an amazing lecture on Navajo arts and beliefs, social structure and government from Geri Hongeva, who knew the Benally family, told me that in fact she was a member of Jones’ clan (in Navajo culture Jones was her grandfather) and also an old friend and colleague of Don Decker though she had not seen him in more than a dozen years. 

The night I spent with the Benallys Jones held up dinner so that he might offer a Navajo prayer for me.

Though the prayer was incomprehensible to me during the song – so much of their prayers and ceremonies are delivered in musical chants – I could clearly make out the occasional “Francis.”

I can’t do justice to those three days with words. 

I can’t believe all that happened in just three days.

The magical beings, adventurous cicada, dramatic artwork, architecture and perhaps above all the pride of these people was stirring.

There are 300,000 Navajo people, I learned, and unlike many other tribes they have never come close to losing their language or traditions.

Most Navajo don’t live on tribal lands but 60 percent speak fluent Navajo. It is, Geri told me with a fierce look in her eyes, “my first language.”

Easterners often laugh sarcastically at the notion of a tribal casino, and are against their establishment in their own communities but the Twin Arrows Casino outside of Flagstaff is closer to a church than our idea of a casino: everywhere you look there are representations of their beliefs, their ceremonies, their traditions and their industry.

We are about to celebrate 400 years since the arrival of the Mayflower in Plymouth and I have to admit that I used to think that was an impressive number especially for westerners who are barely more than a century removed from the granting of statehood.

But most if not all of the tribes of the Colorado Plateau believe that they originated thousands of years ago, emerging from caves and caverns and canyons where today there is still evidence of ancient civilizations.

I think that it is not so much what you believe, it is what beliefs you share.

The mythical creatures, holy beings and rituals of the Navajo and other tribes would, without shared belief, be fit only for cheap pots and Chinese-made faux ‘Indian’ jewelry.

With faith and pride they are the powerful beliefs of a powerful people.

Keeping up with… myself!

I can’t keep up with myself.

The past few days, maybe the last week, have been remarkable for the things I have seen, the places I have passed through, the people who have come to my aid or added color and depth to my vision…

Wait, that last idea. – ‘the depth of my vision’ – should really be the starting point of, at least this commentary.

The idea for the walk began with the end of another journey:  a year long sunrise series of photographs.

The seminal moment was December 31, 2013 – when friends and neighbors joined me in the cold and dark of 1627 ‘Plimoth.’

It had been a wonderful year and that last morning at Plimoth Plantation for the ‘last sunrise of the year’ I was amazed to look out of the fort and see 500 people lining ‘Leyden Street,’ in chronological order, clutching the sunrise pictures I had taken 364 times before.

What had been a mostly solitary quest produced a seed of inspiration.

I was filled with the joy and confidence that comes from feeling part of something greater than yourself, in this case the joy of feeling part of a community.

But so strange was that feeling for me, so alien to my experience, that it took me a few months to recognize it and a few months more to find a fitting way to commemorate its discovery: by “Walking Home!”

I was excited, you might even say intoxicated by the idea of this walk, but I really had no idea of what I was getting myself into, or what I would find, or indeed what I was looking for.

There was no real depth to my vision, just an intuitive sense of its potential importance.

I was also, I can admit now, somewhat callously indifferent to this walk’s potential effect on those closest to me.

No, take away that modifier “somewhat:” I was insensitive. I have a habit of giving too much importance to ideas.

So the 4 years leading up to my departure this past November 4 were years of internal exploration and debate.

Why was I walking? What did I hope to accomplish? What about those I was leaving behind? 

During those years some, but not all of my questions were answered. My sense of the importance of community deepened. The disruption to my personal life was no longer an abstract discussion.

And during that same time in this country the idea of community seemed to stiffen, shatter and send sharp shards in every direction, making a discussion of its foundation – and my walk – increasingly relevant.

I’ve gone on a bit here, haven’t I, when I simply meant to catch you up on the last week’s ‘activity.’

So maybe I should just offer a condensed version of the last week.

Actuallly it hasn’t been a week, just a few days since I left the Grand Canyon International Hostel on a dark, snowy, bitterly cold morning and walked up Route 66 which turned into Route 89, looking to walk about 12 miles that day and find someplace to stay/camp/stay warm in Winona.

I think it was about 19 degrees when the sun came up and I realized I had gone two miles too far north: I should have taken the Winona-Townsend Road, a right turn off 89, but I misread my diirections.

I asked the clerk at the convenience store where I had stopped what lay ahead of me if I took the short cut my mapping app offered me and as she hemmed and hawed a local resident who happened to be  in the store at that mooment and overhead me offered to give me a ride back to Townsend-Winona Road.

Back on track I paused for a moment and took a picture of the San Francisco Mountains – sacred to Native Americans – posted it and its location on my Facebook page, and trudged down the still snow-covered road.

I keep my phone off to save battery charge so it wasn’t for another hour – about two miles of the ten that remained – that I turned it on to take another picture.

As soon as it came on I saw a message from Don Decker (read an earlier blog post about Don) telling me that a family that he knew that lived just off the road I was on were offering a place to stay that night.

Just moments later I saw a car turn into a driveway ahead of me and then immediately turn around and stop, facing out into the street.

My ride!

It wasn’t just a nice family taking sympathy on me. It was the Benally family: Jones, a former Hollywood stunt man now a Navajo medicine man, his remarkably talented children Clayson and Jeneda, grandchildren, adopted friends, three dogs, two cats, a Native dance group that travels the world, the band Sinhasin… 

I wasn’t just taken in by a family, I was given temporary membership in a psychedelic, social-justice, rock and roll, Native dance, Wild West traveling medicine show.

I was given the ‘hooghan’ to sleep in, with its Pendleton blankets, sheepskin rugs, and wood stove to help stay warm.

I accompanied Clayson on a walk thorough the snowy woods to a neighbor’s horse farm where a wild pony that Clayson had helped save after its mother died giving birth, was being raised.

At dinner that evening Jones offered a long, beautiful prayer – in Navajo – for my safe travels and later came to the hooghan where he talked for over an hour about Navajo beliefs, healing ceremonies, the challenges facing their tribe, the assault on their traditional beliefs by Christian missionaries (when he was a young man) and much more.

I had fed the wood stove when I came in and he added a log when he arrived and as he talked the flue turned cherry red and my bedroom became a sweat lodge and visions of peyote cults, lightning ceremonies and insect creatures from the 3rd World of the Navajo creation story danced in my fevered head.

There is so much more to say about my 12 hours with the Benally family, but this is again simply meant to catch you up.

The next morning I set out for Winona again, which is located right on Interstate 40, with a plan to walk on or parallel to the highway east as far as the exit for the Navajo casino and hotel known as Twin Arrows.

The big question that morning was choice of routes. The highway was the most direct but especially with the recent snow i was concerned about my safety. Angel Road looked, on my map, to be a good alternative but I’d heard it was very rough in spots, and passed over or through or along a deep canyon at some point.

I’ll cut to the chase: I took Angel Road and had a thrilling adventure, something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, ending with having to throw my cart and bags over a barbed wire fence and clamber over a locked gate before a last, exhausting walk to the casino without any assurance that I could camp on their grounds.

Is it too much to add in this one post that I was given a night’s stay at their lovely hotel with a view of the sacred San Francisco mountains, and an hour long cultural tour of their magnificent Native art collection or that…

There’s too much to tell, too litttle time.

I will have to go back and offer a more lengthy account of those days, my good fortune, and my deepening knowledge (or at least awareness) of the Navajo people and what they can teach us about community.

But today I am ‘standin on the corner’ in Winslow, Arizona, wondering, once again, where on this cold, snowy day I will spend the night.  

I can’t keep up with myself. 

I may have to wait until my walk is over to understand what is happening to me.

All I know is that it has been magical. All I ask is that the magic continues.