He was eating some peanut butter when I saw him, which was not, in itself, all that strange.
In this case, however, the person in question was eating the peanut butter straight out of an economy-size jar, while sitting outside a local service station next to a very large pack that seemed to be crammed with enough supplies for a trek through the Alaskan wilderness. He looked hungry but happy, and perhaps a little bit overheated, as if it had taken a bit of effort to make it to this particular spot.
If I have learned one basic tenet of journalism over the years—other than “Don’t make stuff up”—it is that a good reporter will not walk past a peanut-butter-eating, backpack-toting man outside of a remote service station without asking him what the heck he’s doing and how he got there.
So, naturally, I did.
As it turns out, the young man was more than happy to share his story, and by the time he finished I was certainly glad I asked. He had started out in North Carolina, he explained, and was headed to New York. And every mile of that journey he intended to cover on foot.
He showed me the printed directions he carried, each well-creased page listing the next leg of his route and how many miles it was. He explained the peanut butter (high in much-needed calories, easy to tote) and how he convinced his parents to let him go (after years of asking them for permission to undertake such a challenge, they finally relented when he turned 18).
By the time I came across him he had already covered nearly 300 miles, answered countless questions, and made dozens of new friends. He also was, it was clear to see, having the time of his life.
As we talked, I remembered a long ago cross-country trip my younger sister and I took in an old five-speed Volvo with a temperamental transmission and a tape deck that worked about half the time. We weren’t hoofing it, of course, but I can still recall the thrilling sense of freedom and the youthful certainty that whatever was around the next bend was sure to be something amazing.
I had hoped that kids still took those kinds of trips — journeys undertaken “just because”, with only a map and an eventual destination in mind — and I’m so glad to see that they do.
I eventually bid the young traveler farewell and wished him luck, urging him to be careful and enjoy every minute of the journey. The next day I heard that he’d strung his hammock on the property of the Adams International School up on 250 that night, and that the staff had made him breakfast in the morning.
I’m not sure where he is now, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for him.
With any luck, this journey will yield memories he’ll keep for a lifetime.