In which the pilgrim makes the roadside his chapel, his couch and his pantry, realizes that no one owes him anything, receives a ride, and remembers what it's like to fly.
I left the Huntsville Interpretive Center having met two nice librarian-naturalists, gotten a state map of Iowa, stocked up on cookies and an orange, and taken in a fun exhibit on snakes. Appropriately, shortly thereafter, I encountered a snake by the side of the road--bright blue and green, small and cute--and I walked around him and let him be. Other than roadkill, snakes were the only wildlife I saw: one decent sized rat snake that slithered out of my way, the cute blue-green garter, and the only one that worried me, the very small, dark brown snake that I couldn't identify. That one worried me because I stepped too close, the snake acted threatened, and I have heard that young snakes tend to release more venom when they bite. But we parted ways amicably, if warily, and I had no closer than comfortable wild-life adventures on the road.
The roads through Maquoketa was my first leg of the trip through anything resembling urban or town neighborhoods. I felt self-conscious walking past people's homes, mostly because I didn't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. I didn't ever want other people to feel threatened by this scruffy looking figure walking past their homes. It was one of the reasons I had planned to stick to back roads. But I didn't noticed any glares, scowls or children hurried indoors by worried mothers in Maquoketa.
I stopped behind a business to sit and drink some water and eat the cookies. The cookies were parchin, and I drank through all the water. This brought about my first instance of trespassing for water, as I prowled around the building until I found a spigot. Oddly, spigot water usually tasted worse than the creek water, maybe it was the taste of guilt for taking water without asking. While filling my second water bottle, I glanced over and noticed someone from the business next door giving the questioning eye, so I figured it was time to move on out of kind and quiet Maquoketa, Iowa.
Most of the road from Maquoketa to Clinton was uneventful. As each farm passed revealed itself to be pretty much more of the same, especially since crops had not started to sprout, the romance of walking through the heartland of the United States had rubbed off of bit. I stopped again to eat the orange, drink some water and pray some psalms. It was the first time that I had to pray with scripture. The night before had been to dark to read, that morning had been rainy, but now in the midday, the sun was out, the ground was dry, I had met helpful people and had much to be thankful for and that called for focused prayer of the psalms. I did not pray every hour of the Divine Office, but when I did get to sit and pray with the psalter on the sides of roads, under trees, fed by strangers, drinking "water from the Rock" and "streams by the wayside" it was honestly some of the most meaningful times that I've prayed with the psalms. It didn't and couldn't rival some of the moments praying with the monks, but it was powerful to be doing so at various times on the pilgrimage, and I was always better for it the rest of my day in mind and spirit when I did so.
Having finished my prayers, and still a little road weary, I decided to rest through part of the afternoon by using my duffle bag as a pillow, lying against it watching the country highway traffic drift by in the hot afternoon sun, calm, warm, fed in body and spirit ... and napped. It was brilliant. Napping by the roadside ended up occurring about twice a day after that. It caught me up on sleep, refreshed me even more for the next leg of the trip, and it was nice to just sleep for a bit, especially during the warmest part of the day. The siesta needs to be a fully integrated part of United States culture, and I showed my support for such an integration during the pilgrimage. Naps also kept me from wearing myself out which I came close to doing a couple times. I could have easily pushed my body beyond healthy, but the naps let my body shut down during the day, taking stress off feet, shoulders, back and mind. So thank God that my guardian angel closed my eyes and led me into the land of Nod for a little while.
Walking through the afternoon toward Delmar, IA, I started to think about food. I had eaten my "bowl of grits" in the morning, cookies and an orange in the afternoon. Should I be concerned about supper? Even if I didn't have dinner, should I be concerned about finding food today to ration for the future?
When the road reached Delmar, it only touched on the border of the town before turning due east, but I deliberately turned into town to venture at least part way in to see if there might be a grocer, or a gas station where I could scrounge some bread. It was the latter that I encountered, and I put down my pack in an unobtrusive spot, sauntered over to the station's dumpster and took a glance inside. Nothing, at least without crawling in and doing work with the pocketknife. The dumpster was pretty exposed, and this was mid-afternoon, so I didn't particularly relish the idea of attention. So back onto the road I went. But thinking about food made me hungry. Probably if I hadn't thought about it, it wouldn't have been an issue, but now I was even getting a little grumpy and worried about it. The road did not look as though there were going to be any more towns or businesses for some time, and it was going to take me the rest of the day to reach the next town ... of Charlotte. By this point, I had given up thoughts of reaching Clinton.
However, this stretch of highway was at little more interesting, curves and hills and trees, and an unopened package of pre-baked Easter sugar cookies. ...
Do precooked cookies spoil easily? I wondered. They couldn't have been out that long; they're Easter cookies after all. I am hungry. I wonder if this is the barest taste of what it's like to worry about where one's next meal will come from. God is this you providing? Are you going to feed me with junk food this trip? Well, try a bite, do the taste test. Hrm. Might as well eat the whole thing. So not knowing if I'd eat again that day, or even early the next day, I ate the uncooked cookie dough from the side of the road.
A little oddly, I started to get a little antsy about where I might sleep that night. Just the night before I had slept by a bridge with the wildlife and by the side of a busy highway. But this was along a quiet country road with plenty of farmland, but not a lot of cover. I suppose I worried about being notice and causing worry in others again. Or maybe I was starting to feel as though I'd be more comfortable nearer to civilization, at least when I slept. Or maybe it was still the lingering worry over food, and I wanted to be close to a potential food source in the morning. I started to get frustrated at the cars that would drive by without offering a ride until I realized that I was getting a little emotionally worked up and made a conscious decision to just keep walking until I couldn't or it got dark and be consciously aware that no one owed me anything much less offering me a ride anywhere. They were on their own pilgrimages, long or short, journeys physical or spiritual, and our ways not need intersect. So I settled into a steady pace of just one foot in front of the other.
And then my ride pulled up. It was a couple in a utility-type truck hauling a trailer. He asked where I was headed and when I said as far down the highway as he was willing to take me, he said, "well, we're headed to Clinton." Awesome. "I did some hitch-hiking in my younger days, climb on the trailer and we'll take you into town." So on board I climbed and this ride was brilliant! Google puts the distance between Charlotte (which I had not yet reached) and Clinton as 19 miles and a six hour walk. We got there in twenty minutes! I felt very blessed and well provided for watching those miles whirl underneath the tires of the truck. The wind felt especially nice on my face and there was rekindled that sense of open-air speed that had me on a motorcycle through high-school and college. I might do another long walk such as Asheville to Boone along the Blue Ridge Parkway one day, but if I ever get the desire to travel across a large stretch of the county, it'll be on a motorcycle on country highways so I can feel that speed and wind and sense of flying.
Coming into Clinton I was just excited. The truck pulled over at the edge of town and I leaped off to thank him profusely.
"Where you sleeping tonight?"
"Oh any quiet spot where I hope not to bother anyone."
"Hop on again, I'll take you to the mission. They'll put you in a bed for the night."
And so I found myself at the Victory Center Ministries' shelter, tired, sunburned, but happy and confused as to why God was taking such good care of me with the promise of a meal and a bed.
Next chapter: Confessional Broom Closets, The Horn of Plenty and a Prophecy