It’s nearly dark in the forest, now, and I like it that way. Interlacing arms of the young redwoods above cast constellations of fading light on the soft floor of fallen needles, my bed. It’s cool, and with memories of the desert in mind, it becomes a salve, so soothing, so appreciated, thank you for not scalding me into a burning sweat. I let the chill caress my skin – no coat. I’m camped out in the crook of a wicked U-bend on 84, the road that switchbacks up the final mountains before the Pacific. The cars circle around me, unknowing; the forest is quiet and still, graciously holding; setting up the tent one last time, dinner from the food bag one last time, alone and on the road one last time. This is just what I wanted for the night before.
Above, I see the contrails in a piney window before the plane, and then I see the plane ahead, pink with sunset, framed for an instant by the branches. The jetstream slowly spreads to nothingness.
Today was a slog through the urban circus of San Jose and the sprawl towns of Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto, oh yeah, and that little 6 mile round trip detour to Cupertino. It didn’t bother me, though, wading through the heaviness and impersonality of chain commercialism, horse-blinded passersby, and general don’t-look-at-me-ness. Nothing could bother me today. This coffee and donut from 7-11? My last. This ache from mile 28? My last. This brief roadside chat with Will, the friendly cyclist? My last, perhaps. Of course I wouldn’t be dying tomorrow on the beach, but I couldn’t help but feel electric and hyperpresent, drawing out the significance of every last detail like it was my last chance to do so, as if death was walking behind me erasing everything forever.
And when the sun sunk to dusk and the light hit that golden quality, oh, how good. The coast live oaks spindling their branches to the ground in gnarled curlicues, six sparrows sitting on a swaybacked barbed wire fence, the ever-rolling hills of velvet gold, all of it cloaked in twilight. Oh, how good, how very good.
Now, dark, the forest, the gentle night, the headlights casting strange shadows on the redwood trunks, strobe-like. I’m thinking of this walk, I’m thinking of faces, I’m thinking of epiphanies and miles and how I was and how I want to be and what’s important. I think maybe I’d think this forest is a scary place if I were in one of those cars, but I’m here, and I know it’s not a scary place. And from that I think, the world is not a scary place. The world is not a scary place. It’s not scary to be alive, no matter the pain that waits, no matter the unknown and the suffering and the confusion. The foundation of it all, the soft piney bed upon which all these things walk and dance and sleep, it’s beauty, the peace of this moment in the redwoods. Come what may, I feel, because I am at peace. I’ve walked myself here and I can rest now, always trusting in this.
Morning. Onward up the mountains, onward over the mountains, and – I don’t believe it – down the mountains, down to the water. There’s a traffic jam and my friends call to say it might be holding some people up, slow down! I pull into a winery and buy myself a glass of red. Nicola, Nina, Henry, and Emma meet me there, nothing like old friends after so long, and then they leave for the beach. The wine tastes good, and I’m warm for my last two miles. A honey seller asks me what I’m doing. I tell him, the brief elevator speech, and it’s strange to be speaking in the past tense, as in: “Everyone has an amazing story to tell, so I walked across the country to listen.”
I’m cruising now, urgewalking, groovewalking, highwalking, I can’t stop smiling and the cars must think I’m a madman, grinning like that and pushing his baby on this treacherous no-shoulder road. Sure enough, a police car pulls up just as the sidewalk begins and the officers get out, stern-faced. “We got a call about a traffic hazard,” she says. Her partner circles around the car to back her up. I introduce myself and my friend Mark who met me minutes back, and explain, “I’ve been walking for almost 11 months…started in Philadelphia…listening to people’s stories… I’m literally 30 minutes away from walking across America.” She smiles, “Are you serious?” “Oh yeah,” I say. “There’s no problem here, keep on going, man!” she says. I invite them both to the party.
Floating. There’s the ocean, a glimpse, big and grey. Down the main strip of Half Moon Bay, Mark and Ivonne and a good group of friends following now. Willy Grey from Alabama sideswipes me. Here’s Dad and Beth. Up ahead, Chris Paisano from Arizona. Bizarre, to spend almost every day for a year passing stranger after stranger after stranger, and then – suddenly – to see familiar faces. Not just familiar, loved.
Chris Paisano and his brother Michael are dressed in Navajo ceremonial garb, Michael drumming and chanting, Chris sprinkling corn pollen. I wasn’t sure what would happen on today’s walk, in this moment. I’ve thought about it for so long, planned, dreamed, fantasized, schemed. Now that I’m here, though, there is nothing I can do but let go. Coming into town, it was euphoria. Walking these last steps, though, turning the bend and seeing so many waiting for me, looking at the surf crashing on the beach, I’m hit with it all, with 11 months of miraculous encounters and devastating goodbyes and a million homecooked meals and mind-altering showers and shining solitude and true company, so many stories, so many lessons, the hills and bayous and mountains and deserts, the diners and bars and gas stations and general stores, the cities and towns and villages, the nothingness, the everythingness, the beauty and the perfection, and I did it and we did it, sobbing and weeping in this circle of welcoming.
I go around, embracing everyone. This is astonishing, to have so much love and support, so many to see you and celebrate you. Mom and Dad and Beth, Kathy all the way from Delaware, the Furmans from Alabama, the Paisanos from Navajo, and so many from near and far in California. A few curious beachgoers join the party. Holy shit. We’re led down to the water where James Paisano greets me, speaks words that only the wind and I can hear, and it’s time. Shirt stripped, sandals kicked, and the water is cold and deep.
Thank you Kate Olen for this beautiful shot!
A few more posts to come, photos, plans, and info for interested readers. Thank you for everything.