There are infinite ways to go about experiencing this whole human being thing, as many ways as there are human beings. For a while, walking was my way. I loved it for its simplicity. The solutions to the problems were simple: I am thirsty, so I must drink water. I am tired, so I must rest. The questions were simple, too, and so were their answers: Where am I going to sleep tonight? Ah yes, right here under this bridge. But how will I get to the next town? Put one foot in front of the other. This simplicity had a cleansing effect on the mind, constantly flushing out distraction and delusion before they could take root. I didn’t think too far ahead. I didn’t think too far behind. Mostly, I was just there, wherever I happened to be, feet hurting, back aching, feeling and alive.
Walking across America was the easy way. It was so literal. My path was literally a path. The forks in the road were exactly that, forks in the road. There was no need for metaphor. Life was not like a journey. Life was a journey, epic and wondrous, heartbreaking and fearsome, and I could not forget it. The walking didn’t allow forgetting.
Now, almost three years later, nothing about the nature of life has changed. Only the way I experience it has changed. And I see how much harder it is this way, the non-walking way. My path is not literally a path that I can see ahead of me. The forks in the road are not literally forks that I can trace on a map. The signs are not written in reflective white colors telling me how many more miles to the next town, the place where I can rest and drink and make home for just a little while. It’s much more confusing this way. Much easier to get lost.
This is why I always felt a little uncomfortable when people praised me while I was walking. They didn’t realize that their walk was far more challenging than mine. They were raising children, and paying mortgages, and taking care of their dying parents, and fighting fires, and running motels, and growing cotton to clothe the world. I was walking. That’s it. Just walking. And yet they celebrated me like a damn hero. Were they ever celebrated in this way, by complete strangers?
That was perhaps the most astonishing part of the walk – the experience of being really seen by a stranger, and then supported by that stranger, and even loved. I’m so proud of you. Keep going, man. I love you. I’ll be praying for you. Strangers gave me these lines like gifts, over and over and over again. After a year of walking, I was a very rich man.
Now, I’m not walking anymore. I blend in, anonymous. Strangers don’t approach me on the street to cheer me on in the new phase of this human experience. But it’s all right, because I’ve already received the gift. After the walk, I know I am loved and supported. But so many of us haven’t received this gift. We’ve never had a stranger look us in the eyes and tell us, “Dude, you just paid your rent, and I am so damn proud of you.” There are those of us who have never been celebrated, never been trusted, never been deeply believed in by another. And yet, they walk on. These are the heroes, and they deserve a parade, or a feast like the one I was given when I reached the Pacific Ocean.
Today, I want to be the stranger who cheers you on, whether you’ve been cheered on by a stranger before or not. I don’t know you, and I don’t know your walk, but listen to this, and speak it aloud to yourself so you can actually hear it: I’m so proud of you. Thank you for doing this. I love you. And keep walking, because I know you’re gonna get there.