Lessons From a Walk Across The Country

In 2005, at the age of 23, the writer Guy Choate set out with a childhood friend to walk every step across the country and write a book about the experience. The trip did not go as planned, but a dozen years later, he says, he does have a manuscript about the experience.

A BRAND-NEW Cadillac slid into the gravel a few feet from where Guy sat with his thumb still out. A pretty girl in her early 20s frantically waved him toward the car. Guy put Kaia—his 60-pound husky/shepherd mix—and his pack in the back seat.

“Les gitchu the hell outta here,” the girl said.

“Let’s do it,” Guy said before warning the girl that Kaia might shed in her immaculate car.

“Jes git in—quick,” she said. “How long you been sittin’ there?”

“I’m not sure, probably about an hour and a half or so.”

“Not no cops come to see you?”

“Nope.”

“Boy, you got lucky. Cops came t’see my uncle right ’round there, and not nobody seen ’im since. They’s all corrupt. Killed him and my grandmamma both.”

Guy studied the girl for drugs, but she gave no indication of being high.

“I know s’ard to believe, but they’ll jack you up,” she said, trying to gain some poise. “What’s yer name?”

“Guy.”

“Hi, Guy.” She turned and looked at him, sizing up the man she had picked up. “I’m Michelle. I live down that road there,” nodding her head toward a small paved outlet as they sped by in her Cadillac. “We’re not out far enough yet, though. I’m gonna take ya a little further ’fore I go home.”

She dropped him at a filling station in Mansfield, a few miles down the road, where Arkansas Highway 5 met 60 East. Michelle said the cops weren’t as bad there and that they’d be able to get a ride quickly.

Guy was still watching Michelle pull out of the parking lot when a woman who reminded Guy of his third-grade teacher pulled up next to him in a minivan. She was middle-aged, had a practical haircut and looked like she knew where every loop in the cursive lexicon belonged.

“Where ya going?” she asked through the window.

He didn’t know what the next town was, or what a good checkpoint east was—he hadn’t had time to orient himself on the map—so he told the woman he was headed to the Atlantic.

“I’m going in that direction, but I can only get you to Mountain Grove.”

“Every little bit helps.”

The woman didn’t seem nervous or put out. She had no sales pitch on Jesus or anything like that. She didn’t talk much at all, just drove Guy to the McDonald’s in Mountain Grove.

A weathered man sat fiddling with the greasy gears on an upside-down bicycle at one of the three picnic tables across the parking lot from the fast-food restaurant. Guy offloaded his heavy pack onto another of the tables and nodded respectfully at the man, who nodded back. He looked to be in his late 40s, too skinny, dirty. He had a wrench in his hand.

“Where you and that pretty dog headed?” he asked, pointing to Kaia with his wrench.

“East. You?”

“Just …” he looked around. “… Around, I guess.”

Without prompt, the man told Guy about a place to sleep not far away. He said there was a motel a couple of miles away that would let Guy use one of the rooms to shower and clean himself up. When Guy didn’t ask for directions to either location, the man paused. He eyed Guy’s hiking boots, his name-brand backpack. And Guy saw himself as the man saw him. He felt like a fraud in front of a man who had clearly made a life out of what Guy had only been given a taste of.

“What’s east for you?” the man asked.

“Nothing,” Guy said as a way to belong. As a way to experience some kind of camaraderie between men who tramp the country. But the answer didn’t make sense. “The end of a journey, I guess,” Guy followed up, vaguely, before coming clean and telling the man, whose name was Steve, that he had originally been trying to walk across the country, but that the trip had become something else.

“What do you think about it all? You learned anything? You getting what you wanted to get out of it?”

“And more,” Guy said, pointing to his dog.

“Good.”

“I think I could do this forever,” Guy said. And he meant it.

Steve smiled, knowingly.

“What? You don’t think I could do it forever?”

“I’m sure you could do it forever. You look like you might have already started doing it forever,” he said.

“But …?”

“But time’s going to pass over you. It’s going to pass over your bones. And your face. You’re young right now, and you can walk all day. People see your face, and they want to help you with food or money. Girls can still look at your face and see something big going on inside of you. But if you do this forever, you won’t be what you think you’ll be.”

“Oh yeah?” Guy was an arrogant 23-year-old because he couldn’t help it. Because life had given him too much not to be. But still, he listened to Steve. “What will I be then?” he asked.

“You’ll be me.”

Guy looked at the dirt under Steve’s fingernails. The plastic sacks full of aluminum cans on the ground beside the upturned bicycle.

“Girls don’t look at my face anymore,” Steve said. “People don’t want to help me. They all think I’ve had my chance, and I didn’t do anything with it. You’ve still got the look of potential. People look at you, and they see their son. They’ll forgive you for sittin’ out here with your dog. You make people curious. I make people scared.”

There was no sorrow in his voice, only sincerity. He didn’t seem to mourn his own potential as much as he would mourn Guy’s if he didn’t make something more of his life than tramping around the country. The people in the drive-thru line stared at them.

“Your bones will get tired. You won’t be able to walk every day because your body won’t let you. And so you’ll get a bike or something. And then you’ve got sh*t. The whole point of being out here is to not have sh*t. When you got sh*t, you gotta worry about it. You don’t want to be out here worried about sh*t.”

Steve put his wrench to the nut holding his wheel on the bicycle and pretended to turn it. He spun the wheel, which rotated perfectly. He put his wrench back to the nut and again pretended to turn it.

“You mind keeping an eye on my stuff?” Guy asked him.

“I can do that,” he said.

Guy walked in and bought two chicken sandwiches and two double cheeseburgers from the dollar menu. He put one of each sandwich on the table next to Steve.

“What’s wrong with your bike?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you souping it up or something?”

“No,” he said. He looked down at the bike, sheepishly. “I was sitting out here this morning, and the lady working the drive-thru brought me a cup of coffee. I thought I might stick around awhile, see if I might get a refill, so I’ve been pretending to work on my bike all day.”

Steve ate only half the chicken sandwich and stowed the rest for later in some make-shift saddle bags on his bicycle. Guy finished his sandwiches and lifted his pack onto his back.

“If you don’t get a ride, come back, and I’ll show you a safe place to sleep,” Steve said.

They shook hands, and Guy and Kaia walked around a commuter lot to an on-ramp. He sat down on his pack, Kaia beside him, waved back to Steve at the picnic tables, then stuck out his thumb.

He lowered it as the police car approached, lights flashing. Guy and Kaia stood, but when the officer didn’t emerge, Guy retook his seat. He looked toward Steve, who turned his bicycle right-side up, and loaded up his things.

Guy Choate earned an MFA in creative nonfiction writing at the University of New Orleans. His recent essays have appeared in Cream City Review, Tupelo Quarterly and Cobalt Review, among others. He’s the founder and director of the Argenta Reading Series in North Little Rock, where he lives with his wife, Liz, and their son, Gus, to whom Guy addresses his photo-a-day blog, getoutofthisplace.tumblr.com.