Ever hear of ramps? I once spent a few weeks thinking about ramps, from the lily family I think, a sort of wild scallion, an obsession of folks in the rural south.
I nearly bought a domain name, back when that was a big deal: rampsuppers.com, ramparoundtheclock.org, ramproute.us…
It’s an American, mostly Appalachian tradition.
There are ramp festivals, fundraisers, dinners; ramp socials which they say are not too social considering that ramps – once consumed – will stay with you (and those in close proximity) for days.
Looking back now I guess it wasn’t ramps that I was so excited about: it was the excuses people find for celebrating, the endless excuses.
I wanted to specialize in poor excuses for overeating.
No, that’s not exactly it.
I wanted to be the authority on food festivals, voluntary fire department fundraisers, and unusual and not altogether appetizing appetizers.
I think I was always looking for an excuse to go the road, to stay on the road.
Memories of my ramp period came back to me when I came across Famous Texas Hot Lunch in Kane, Pennsylvania on day three, or was it four: first came across an old sign off 417, partially obscured by a misshapen tree, a billboard meant for travelers from a different, slower era.
Hold on to that Famous Texas Hot Lunch for a few minutes though: I feel another leap through time bubbling to the surface.
Walking east from Albuquerque a month or so later I was scooped off the highway by a big guy from Moriarty, New Mexico who hated, he made a point of saying as soon as I climbed in, Phoenix, had moved to Albuquerque after that and then – after he broke down in Moriarty – while he waited for a tire to be fixed, wandered around the little town and found a house for sale that he bought on the spot.
I was about ten miles east of Moriarty when he picked me up off the highway, and he was headed to Lubbock, Texas, if I remember correctly, to either sell the truck he was driving or the truck he was hauling, or was it that he was going to buy a 57’ something or other because his father had one when he was a kid?
A 57’ Ford Station Wagon, that was it.
The connection with Kane is that, let’s call him Luke, Luke might have been the foremost authority on food festivals, at least those in New Mexico.
New Mexico, don’t forget this, has its own cuisine, its own food dialect.
Moriarty, I think Luke said, was the Pinto Bean Capital of the World, and then he went on to describe a half dozen other otherwise nondescript New Mexican towns as the chile capital of this, the sopapilla capital of that…
I should have taken notes, but my rucksack with my tape recorder was in my lap – so I couldn’t subtly fish it out and start to record Luke – and my notepad and pen were in a side pocket of my backpack which was still strapped to my three-wheeler which was tipped on its side in the bed of the truck.
I never hitchhiked on the walk. Well, almost never. Just twice, that I remember. One time after a policeman gave me bad directions outside of Filmore, California and I had to backtrack off a mountain and it was getting late so I tried for about five minutes to hitchhike into the nearest town and, when unsuccessful, had just started walking when someone pulled over…
Another time, caught without a good place to camp on a cold day headed into a very cold night on Interstate 40 in the middle of nowhere New Mexico I tried, unsuccessfully again, to thumb a ride to – hopefully – Santa Rosa, then after 20 minutes of semi trucks blowing by me rolled my cart back to the rest stop and set up my tent behind a little brick wall.
Several times, five if you want me to be specific, people seeing this odd long-hair with the backpack and the three-wheeler ambling along the highway, just stopped and asked if I wanted a ride.
I never said no to an unsolicited free offer, though to be honest I never had a ride that I wasn’t, at least at first, suspicious of the reasons why someone would just pull over and pick me up.
If you have ever hitchhiked you know that however excited you are to get a ride you are at least as suspicious why anyone would pick you up. It’s the Woody Allen thing: I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member and oftentimes that suspicion is well-founded.
The first of those unsolicited rides was into Filmore. This young man who had a little two-seat Toyota Supra that had been buffed to the metal and never repainted pulled over and announced he was “only” going as far east as the Mojave – which was a few hundred miles away. Said, when I explained my mission, that he’d been homeless himself for a time. There was a power drill on my seat when I got in. That would have been a great ride but I wasn’t looking to accumulate miles. He barely had time to tell me his life story which like most of the others that picked me up included homelessness, drug addiction, rehab, jail time, a runaway wife and a love of… There was always something they were passionate about and had to share.
One guy that plucked me off the road announced that he loved off-roading and proved it. Another offered what he called “esoteric knowledge,” and had newspaper clippings that, he said, proved that Jesus was just as capable of eye-for-eyeing as any Old Testament god.
I felt I had stumbled into the invisible realm that exists between the rings of Saturn, a zone inhabited not by fallen angels but by angel wannabees, applicants who had failed the entrance examination. Life had not been kind to them and they were hoping – not always succeeding – at finding strangers they could be nice to or, if that proved impossible, leave hastily buried along the side of a dirt road just a short distance from the highway.
What was a short ride for them was a big deal for me. I was with him – the Supra owner – no more than five minutes – or about 5 miles. That would have taken me over 2 hours to walk. He reluctantly dropped me off at McDonalds in downtown Filmore.
I am taking a very long time getting started with this day’s walk, this day’s drive, day three’s reminisce but you have to understand that’s how every day of the walk was: every day I had to create a new day from the dust of the day before.
Where was I going, how would I get there, where would I stay when I got wherever that was, with whom, and what would I say to them, how would I plead my case, how could I make them believe – and re-believe myself – that what I was doing was worthy of their interest?
Does love have to be re-initialized, re-ignited, re-established every day as well? Maybe it does. Maybe we should.
I woke in the dark, confused, then realized I was on dark street across from the College of Human Ecology in Ithaca, hadn’t really slept that well – maybe a few hours of actual sleep –and after wriggling out of my sleeping bag – wet moth out of a crusty cocoon – headed out toward Corning and then, I hoped, south towards Pennsylvania.
There was a long climb out of Ithaca: perfect spot for an escalator.
Just southwest of Corning – not even an hour from Ithaca – my oil light went on and I stopped immediately on the side of the road and asked Siri for the nearest quick oil change business: Look to your left, Siri suggested.
Just to my left, across the road, obscured by a few trees, was “Oil Xpress.”
In less than 15 minutes my oil was changed, my story told, and the entire crew of Oil Xpress posed for a picture: I left them with a few of my posters as well.
Then it was a long day of beautiful if remote scenery. In the Southwest you can see for a hundred miles in all directions. In the northeast you can only catch glimpses of the natural world through the windows of your car. Through the trees that lined most of the roads I could see green hillsides dotted with cattle. From a ridge top I could see mist-filled valleys. As the day went by the undulations were becoming more extreme, the sinus waves tighter, the edges more prominent, the stone bones beneath beginning to break through the flesh, the dark watery arteries deeper, slower.
I don’t think you can tell these states apart, not here: I don’t believe you can tell this corner of Ohio, that piece of New York or that part of Pennsylvania from each other, save for the names of politicians that still bloomed on yard signs from the recently concluded election.
The history too is intermingled here.
The beginning of the oil boom of the late 19thcentury which I had always heard began in Pennsylvania (giving birth to Quaker State Oil) is celebrated in Bolivar – named oddly enough for the South American hero Simon Bolivar – which while near the Pennsylvania state line is actually in the state of New York.
The Pioneer Oil Museum says so.
I stopped at the Bolivar Free Library as well and offered a bemused librarian one of my posters.
Was Jasper in New York, or Pennsylvania?
I’m not sure but I know I slowed for a photograph of an odd ‘wigwam’ historical museum and gift shop in Jasper and it seems just moments later I was in Eldred, which is definitely Pennsylvania, where though the library next door was closed the World War Two Museum was hopping.
I was just beginning to understand what it would take to have the conversations – the interactions that I desired, that I needed to give substance to my walk so I engaged the two men managing the museum.
I’ve lost their card, but the museum –which features a 3D trompe l’oeil of a tank exploding out of the exterior wall of the museum – is worth a visit, if just to figure out where you are.
You are in Eldred, one of the men told me without irony: a mural near the entrance shows the important role that women played in helping with the war effort.
The road rose and fell, and rose and fell.
Just over the Pennsylvania State Line, just as my cell connection began to waver, I received a phone call from my bank, a pre-recorded message listing four suspect charges – one in Munich, one in Singapore, one in Toronto and the other near Corning, New York. Suspicious charges on my bankcard.
In a panic, on a hillside in Pennsylvania – this was the only ‘cash’ I had in case of an emergency – I consented to having the account closed, a new card issued and sent, but where? California? It’s hard to explain to a bank that you have no mailing address, no forwarding address, no permanent domicile.
My home was the changing landscape. My friends those I encountered on the road.
As I sat in the parking lot of a Baptist Church trying to talk with the bank’s customer service agent and looked down over the farms and ranches all around me the only discernible structures were church spires.
From there, until Los Angeles, the prominence of churches would grow and grow. McDonalds has sold so many billions of burgers. Jesus has saved, the church marquees might justifiably proclaim, billions and billions of souls.
Why are rural areas more susceptible to Jesus than urban areas? Is it that the Wi-Fi is sketchy? Is it that there are more opportunities for religious start-ups in rural areas: there is almost always a failed church to move in to and start your own church business?
What is the break-even point for an evangelical start-up?
What is more important to the success of an evangelical church: an organ, the monthly beano, a charismatic preacher?
After a long climb I arrived in Mt. Jewett, Pennsylvania – for some reason that name sounded familiar to me – offering visitors what its website says is one of the wonders of the world, the Kinzua Viaduct.
The Taj Mahal sure. Machu Pichu, without a doubt. A railroad bridge?
When the viaduct was built after the Civil War it was the highest and longest railroad span in the world.
About 30 years ago the US Park Service – the Allegheny National Forest lies beneath this span – had plans to turn the bridge into a tourist attraction. Good thing they were slow to move on those plans, because a few years later a tornado knocked a large portion of it down.
The scaled-down attraction is now referred to as a scenic overlook.
I didn’t stop for the overlook either.
I blew through Mt. Jewett, past the road for the viaduct- the skywalk as it is now billed – and into the town of Kane, Pennsylvania where I took a room at the Kane Inn, once owned by the family of General Kane.
“The need to transport coal, oil and lumber across the Kinzua Gorge inspired General Thomas Kane, president of the New York, Lake Erie and Western Coal Company to design a colossal viaduct,” the Kane website informs.
I stopped in Kane because I was tired. I was tired, in part, because I had not yet figured out where I would be staying for the next year, and in part because Sharl was not talking with me, perhaps for forever.
She wasn’t answering my calls, had not been since I left Plymouth. I had the burden of re-inventing myself every day added to the challenge of reinventing, re-establishing, re-imagining – fighting for her love.
She felt abandoned. She said I had made a choice. I had abandoned everything to undertake this walk, except my heart I pleaded redundantly on the voice mails that were piling up on her digital doorstep.
For the last two days the road I traveled, the climbs, the plummets, the sights and the sounds and the words of strangers – no matter how bright, colorful or melodious were to my senses as harsh as the sound and sight of blackbirds in the distant trees: an ache of noise, a tumult of wings, a hale storm of broken shadows.
Was this what I had always wanted?
Outside of Kane, before I turned off the road for the Inn, there was a sign, a fading billboard, almost obscured by the branches of an old oak tree on Route 417 that read, “Famous Texas Hot Lunch.”
I managed a smile.
Why famous, I wondered? What exactly is a hot lunch?
I imagined a small roadside stall, an open grill out back, oversized cars parked at odd angles with men in baggy pants leaning into the car windows.
It was a minor mystery, a piece of hard candy that I could unfold slowly and slip into my mouth.
I wondered if I was in ramp country?
I checked into the Inn. Or rather I arrived and found the entrance locked. I spoke with a man, a guest I thought, someone leaving the Inn’s gravel parking lot and he asked me if I had seen a man in overalls, a few blocks back on the same road as the Inn, raking leaves?
When I nodded he said, “That’s him.”
I drove back a few blocks, spoke briefly with the caretaker through the car window, drove back to the Inn and in a few minutes he came shuffling through the leaf-strewn yard, still clutching his rake, opened the door, gave me my key, showed me my room.
It is a work in progress, he acknowledged: the unnecessarily large rooms were clean if a bit careworn. The off-season price suspiciously reasonable. Breakfast included. A King-sized bed. Sufficient if poor water pressure.
I put my backpack in the corner of the room, flopped on to the bed and tried calling. No answer. No answer. No answer. I left a few more messages.
I found directions to the Famous Texas Hot Lunch and headed out the door.