I was descending into the Utah basin at 55 miles-per-hour when I saw him in my periphery. He was sitting in the sand, his hands at work on a baby stroller… nothing surprises me in the desert, I thought. But the neon green vest on his back did surprise me – in large jailhouse font, it read Walking Across America.
No way! I knew more people were attempting to walk America each year – I had just heard two podcasts about two men’s journeys. But still, only a handful of people attempt it, and few finish.
This walker was almost to Nevada. He had surely endured a lot, and I wanted to hear about it. He also looked like he could use some help, or maybe tools. I was at least going to ask him. I flipped a hard U, and came back to meet the man I would know as Kenyon.
Kenyon was taking a test walk with his newly-fixed stroller (fixed with duct tape, of course). I parked in the middle of the road, and he walked up to the driver’s side. “You need any help?” I asked. “I think I got it fixed, thanks though… hey, my name’s Kenyon. I’m walking across America, and I have no cause.” He stuck out his hand, and I took it in mine.
Kenyon opened a match box that was his “business” card holder and handed me a tiny strip of paper. It read, facebook.com/kenyonscoasttocoastwalk. I asked him a few questions, then pulled the van onto the sand to ask the rest. We both seemed to be craving company more than our destinations.
Kenyon looked to be in his mid-30s. His skin was the color of the land, and it was creased into the wave patterns of the wind. He was thin but muscular and wore an outdoorsman’s beard (a functional one, not a groomed one). He smelled better than a man who had been walking for 6 months, and his eyes spoke a million words.
As each generation becomes more neutered by the pursuit of safety, seeing men like Kenyon gives me hope. Looking at Kenyon was to look at our ancestors – how we were when hunting the land carved our bodies and relying on fire lit our spirits. Kenyon reminded me it’s still possible for humans to live with the eternity of the land and the sky.
It was immediately clear that we would talk for awhile – I said Wow! about his journey, and he said Wow! about mine. I wasn’t expecting any respect from a guy walking across the country – a journey I thought much harder than my own – but Kenyon gave respect anyway.
He told me he didn’t know why he was walking across America… it had been a recurring idea that haunted his brain, so this past spring, he bought a one-way ticket to the east coast and started pushing a baby stroller west.
“Telling strangers I don’t know why I’m walking oddly strikes a chord with them,” he said. I smiled, “Well, everyone is sort of lost walking through this world, you and I are just admitting to it,” I said. His face revealed that this was a decent hypothesis.
“Also, I didn’t want to have a cause,” Kenyon said, “because I didn’t want the first words out of my mouth to be ‘Hi I’m Kenyon, I’m walking across America for so-and-so.’ People immediately go into defense mode… you’re not just a person anymore, you’re bringing something else along.”
I interrupted, “Yeah, without a cause you’re not a salesman, you’re just a human with a story… people get to assess you at that basic human level. They get to decide whether they relate to your story or not,” I said. “I bet because you’re not asking for anything, people want to help you all the time, huh?” I asked.
“Yes!” Kenyon said. “I started with $14 in my pocket on the east coast. Everything over the last 6 months, I’ve either worked for or has been given to me. It’s important to me that this is an unsupported trip, that I get what I need by completely relying on strangers,” he said. “Woooow,” I said, a bit shocked. If that isn’t proof that the media’s reporting just the bad stuff.
Kenyon continued, “Being unsupported has really tested how I will accept help. Take Facebook, I have 5,300 people following my walk… I could make a post that I needed help, and immediately people would be trying to mail me money and food. I don’t know how I feel about that, that makes it feel a lot like a supported trip.”
I smiled, knowing exactly where his thoughts came from. “I hear you dude, guys like us have a real tendency to make things harder than they need to be,” I said. “Accept the help from Facebook. You built that. Getting a follower is similar to meeting a stranger on this pavement,” I said. “We’re all strangers alike, and we all want to help you."
"That’s true,” he said, “and you wouldn’t believe, in some parts of the country, I couldn’t stop people from helping me. Like in Indiana, I almost made a sign that read Don’t stop, I have what I need.” His sentence made me laugh, “No way dude… I grew up in Indiana!” I said, enthused. “No kidding?!” Kenyon responded, just as enthused.
I suddenly felt myself on the other side of my road journey, understanding why countless strangers have taken me in and helped me. In this moment we were sharing, I felt a little sorry for Kenyon. I knew what he was doing was harder than what I was doing, and that made me want to help.
“What do you need?” I asked, and started listing what I had… “chocolate, pasta, veggies, fruit, bacon?” “How 'bout some fruit,” Kenyon replied. “Okay, I don’t have much, but here,” I said, and handed him my remaining fruit supply – one orange, some raspberries, and a gusher of a tomato. He bit straight into the tomato. Juice ran through his beard, but didn’t run off.
We enjoyed a few minutes of desert silence. To us, the sound of nothing was something. We stood quiet, two vagabonds on the fringe of society, currently on the side of US-50 in Utah, a road you could safely take a nap on. It was a rare desert day, crisp and cool. It had rained all night, and a layer of overhanging clouds remained. Kenyon could walk the rest of the day and sweat just the right amount.
“Damn, it sure is a good day to walk,” I said. I heard Kenyon laugh immediately. “What did you just say?” he asked. “I said it’s a good day to walk.” “That’s so funny,” he said, “all of the videos I post end with that exact same sentence."
"I’ll make sure to check them out once I get through the desert,” I said, “but what I really want to know is, how has your mind evolved during your walk?” “Oh man!” Kenyon said. He began pacing tight circles, winding up to an important eruption. He put both of his hands skyward and spoke with great volume.
“When I started walking, it was nothing but FEAR, FEAR, FEAR!! I always walked in Fear of what would happen next. When I walked through cities, I walked with my bear spray out… safety off. I was the only white guy, and I was scared. But I got through so many 'bad’ areas without a problem… no one even looked at me. And so I put my bear spray away. I felt silly,” he said. “Throughout this trip, I’ve been shredded my fears. Fear of people, fear of hunger, fear of the unknown… everything works out. I’ve learned, there is absolutely no place for fear in our lives,” he said.
Kenyon stopped his circles and put his hands down. Chills shot through my body, chills from hearing the deep truth… truth that had been discovered in the deepest pits of mental hardship.
“I completely lost it in the Plains,” Kenyon continued, this time in a softer voice. “I hit the Missouri River, the mental halfway point, and I was cruising… really feeling good. It was like Disneyland, I was so happy and light,” he said. “I tricked myself into believing once I was halfway, it was all downhill. Man, it is not!”
“I got into the heart of the Great Plains and all color went away. Gone. I walked through colorless color for days and days… nothing changed… days and days… nothing changed. People passed. They would give a one-finger or two-finger wave or, if I was lucky, a full hand wave. But nobody stopped for me anymore. I don’t know why that happened in the Plains, but people just didn’t stop, and that’s when the tears started.”
Kenyon reached into his stroller and pulled out a wide-brim hat, the kind that blocks your whole head from the sun. Kenyon’s hat was so weathered that he had to unfold it. His hat dug at deep emotions within me; I have a pair of pants like that hat. I’ve patched them 11 times, and they have to be unfolded too. I wore the pants for the last year and a half, and the wear in them is the wear of my journey from boy to man. Today, they sit rolled up in my tiny wardrobe, resting as a reminder.
“Man,” I said, looking at Kenyon’s hat, “you’ve put some serious work into that thing.” He nodded, “You see this hat… when I walked through the Plains, I’d put it over my face. I’d completely cover my face, and I would cry into this hat all day. I cried and cried and cried, and then I cried some more. I couldn’t figure out where all that water came from,” he said. “I had two choices then… stop or walk… and I didn’t like either of them. I was stuck in the middle,” Kenyon said.
“But somehow, I kept my feet moving, and I kept crying. I cried for 31 days straight, the whole way across the Plains. There were days I wasn’t even sure I was the one walking,” he said. “Then one day, somehow, the tears just stopped. They dried up. And that’s when I realized I had made it! I was done! I was going to make it to California!” His voice buzzed with this statement, so certain of itself.
“You see this?” Kenyon asked and tugged on his Walking Across America vest. “This vest means I’m a pretty big deal! I mean, I’m Walking Across America!!!” He said this sarcastically, as if speaking thoughts he used to think. “No, man. No. I’m not a big deal. I don’t deserve to make it easily across America. I’m not entitled to anything… I’m just a guy on a walk,” Kenyon said.
“All of those tears out on the Plains helped me understand… they helped me understand we’re not entitled to anything, we all have to make our own futures,” he said. “And so when the tears dried up, I knew my future was putting one foot in front of the other, to keep on pushing this silly baby stroller to San Francisco."
I kind of wanted to end our philosophy class with that, the only sentence necessary for The Book Of Life, but Kenyon had one more thing, "You didn’t ask me why I was walking. Everybody asks me why.” I smiled and looked down at the desert. “I know why you’re walking… I wanted to hear the story that came after that,” I said.
Kenyon looked up at me and slowly nodded. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I hoped it had something to do with brotherhood. Then he packed up his 4 liters of water, tent, backpack and orange… he had already eaten all the raspberries. Kenyon and I hugged a long hug, as two travelers, two men who probably wouldn’t see each other again, but who wished it otherwise.
Then Kenyon put on his gloves and gripped the stroller’s handle. And he walked away, up the US-50 to the range and basin country of Nevada, the Loneliest Highway In America. I stood on the yellow line in the road, watching this epic story walk away from me… just one foot in front of the other. “It’s a good day to walk,” I yelled.