“OK, let’s go see the tin man.” Not your typical segue, but I’ll roll with it. I’d just had dinner with Dick and Joan Smith, new friends who welcomed me into their home with open arms. Out in the yard, that was certainly a tin man — 13 feet and 700 pounds worth! The retired professors had seen the roadside landmark in Oklahoma countless times, but when the property was for sale, they showed heart and had it shipped to their home in Pueblo, Colorado. Today, he stands guard over the basil plants, chicken coop and errant nighttime flywheel casts by visitors like myself. All with a friendly smile and occasional electrical arm salute. Meanwhile, Joan was inside plotting my course through Kansas and Missouri. Leaving them behind Tuesday was tough, but eastward I must go. A day made all the tougher when my cart started its blistering phase — “Coogs” had two flats by lunchtime. At least the front tire was hanging tough. I was trying to see the glass as 1/3 full, until a 23-mile walk to Fowler in sweltering heat (and no shade in sight) left me exhausted, cranky and not-quite-seeing-the-glass-as-1/3-full anymore. But then, everything changed once I crossed the city limit. On the first block, I met Paul and Ed closing up shop at their garage. They put a cold beer in my hand, talked local history and said they’d soothe Coogs’ wounds in the morning. Feeling better about things already. I was about to head for the RV park a mile down the road when Mark Brown entered the garage, having spotted my disabled cart out front. “I’ve been looking for you,” he said. “Have you eaten?” Flash forward an hour, Mark, his wife Janice, daughter Kendra and I were finishing up brownie sundaes, appreciating an incredible rainbow just outside and planning to head over to the motel across the street, where they put me up for the night. “Were you guys heading out to eat when you spotted me?” I asked Mark. “We were out looking for you.” An amazing display of heartfelt generosity from friends I didn’t yet know. A beautiful end to a trying day. Some days you pick the grapes. Some days you drink the wine. On this day, I did a little of both.
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A few things have become clear since I went solo last week: 1)When it rains, there’s no support car on the shoulder; 2) it rains every afternoon in the Rockies; 3) my super cool, red Cougar Chariot 1 (don’t call it a baby cart) has a mind of its own. Twice today, I turned to find “Coogs” had split without me. At the bathroom in Sonic, I emerged to find it gone. Just gone. Did someone steal the whole 75-pound cart in 10 seconds (and did they want a baby, but got a tent and beef jerky instead?) “Hey, buddy! There’s a baby cart cruising through the parking lot.” And so it was, backwards, as drive-thru customers quick-steered clear. In Pueblo, I stopped to take a picture of a house adorned completely in Denver Broncos colors, signs and logos. As I turned to share the shot with “Coogs,” I saw him doing 30 in a 25 mph zone, barreling down High Street. At least he was in the right lane as I gave chase down the street, to the horror of irate motorists who thought my baby was opening it up. All right, Coogs. All right. I’ll pay more attention. It’s you and me out here, buddy.
Off the grid. I typically enjoy the days of disconnection, no cell and no Internet, making my way through the forest or mountains. But then, when the next town emerges, there is anxiety. Maybe everybody’s moved on. Maybe I’m really alone out here. There will be no messages. So it was Friday as I climbed 8-mile hill and began the descent towards Canon City after three nights of camping (and disconnection). In the afternoon, the sky turned dark. Lightning and rain soon followed. I had no idea where I’d be staying this night, probably popping a tent in the rain somewhere. I was feeling sorry for myself when the SUV stopped in front of me. “Hey, Mikey. We have a cabin for you if you want it.” Nick’s wife, Diane, had seen me walk past the RV park they manage and told him to go get me. We backtracked a few miles to the top of 8-mile, where my cabin porch provided a good long last look at the mountains I was leaving behind. Seems they weren’t done with me yet. Neither were Nick and Diane. The Dallas, TX, natives gathered friends from the campground and we all had a nice cookout — turkey burgers, Colorado corn, baked fries and cantaloupe. Sue, from San Antonio, TX, loaded me with care packages of fresh fruit and snacks to carry me into the Colorado plains. I joked with Nick they he’d been sent from above when he plucked me off the 50. “I was sent by my wife.”
Earlier this week, I spent my first day walking alone (sans family and a support car), but I was never really alone. Not for long anyhow. There were Jill and Scott at Cototaxi Store, who sat me down, cooked me breakfast and got out the checkbook for a donation. At Sugarbush, there was Liesa, working her first day at the campground store. She warned me about the bears, the 8-mile hill ahead and the evils of the artist Christo, who wants to wrap fabric all over the s-curves of the Arkansas River. Camping in Bighorn Canyon, Jan and Greg from Frasier, CO, hung out and watched the sun set. In the morning, a care package of energy bars lay next to my tent. I don’t think the bears left it.
It’s with mixed emotions that I head toward Canon City — exit to the Rockies. A thousand-mile horizon of plains lies ahead. As the mountains rise higher behind me, it’s inconceivable I’ll see such magnificent landscape the rest of the way. I am absorbed. Walking along the gentle whitewater of the snaking Arkansas River for three days, it’s zen qualities transfixed me. I am one with the fly fisherman; I cannot approach his craft, but commune with his draw to these waters. The eastern religions contend there are no coincidences in life. Every moment past has prepared you for the one present. I think of my wanderlust, my time of grieving, attempts at reinvention and my rebirth with Brooke. My experiences writing and reporting, all in some way prepare me for tomorrow… Wherever it takes me. Never before have I felt such a sense of now, where I’m to be and what I’m to be doing. The river below smooths the bed’s layered stones one day at a time. Be where you are. Be when you are.
(Bighorn Sheep Canyon, CO 8/25/11)
Thank you, Salida, for a wonderful day off after our push through Monarch Pass in the Rockies. Today happened to be the start of the US Pro Cycling Challenge, which set off from F Street in downtown Salida, a cool little mountain town with parks every three blocks and kind people before every storefront. The riders did 2 laps in downtown on a sun-soaked Tuesday afternoon before turning west toward Monarch (better them). It was there I met Brandon, who’d walked from Virginia to San Francisco and “now drifts and hops freight trains.” At the Gateway Inn, I met Lisa Pello, the kind-hearted manager who treated me to a Mexican dinner next door. On Wednesday, I set off in my newest support vehicle — a red Chariot Cougar 1 (OK, it’s a baby jogger) — but I will not feel alone. Stay sexy, Salida.
A special thanks to Cailey McDermott of the Mountain Mail newspaper for her profile of the Mikey Walks journey across America (CLICK HERE TO READ); and also to Lisa and the whole staff at Gateway Inn & Suites (CLICK HERE TO VISIT) for not only the room, but also the sincere warmth shown from check-in to check-out. We will be back, Salida, and we will be crashing at Gateway. Now I’m gonna go jump in that Gazebo hot tub.
Things didn’t look good a week ago. We restated our goal to eclipse the Continental Divide before my aunt Mary and nephew Chris headed home. The math wasn’t adding up. But we made the push, averaging about 23 miles a day up the Rockies, reaching Monarch Pass (elev. 11,312) on Sunday. It was our last full day together. A muted celebration that night, all of us knowing we would soon part, but there was a sense of mission accomplished. On Wednesday, I will head east from Salida solo, my red Cougar Chariot baby jogger serving as support car No. 5. If the road ahead isn’t all downhill literally, it is figuratively. Mary and Chris propelled me through the Utah desert (Green River) and its triple-digit temps, into Colorado (where trees again grew, water again flowed), into the Rockies and over the Divide. I will reach no higher highs than we three did together.
Lost somewhere in Fishlake National Forest two weeks ago, I had no idea Mary and Chris were en route to join me. When I heard, pure joy. My mother’s youngest sister, Mary clocked close to 1,000 miles in the support car/lunch truck/nap room, laughing as we poked fun at her terms like “crummy” and “ditty bags.” She may have even liked the Bones, Thug & Harmony CD we found and bumped at night heading back to the hotels (doubtful she’ll cop to it). Chris, my sister’s youngest, heads into his senior year of high school full of Super 8 waffles, “planking” photos and a fully formed rap video idea we wrote together about an object on the side of the road (more on the “Flattener” later). It’ll be odd not to see him there walking beside me.
I can’t thank them enough for being a part of this — the time and sacrifice and absolute cheer they brought to this walk; this celebratory journey. I hope the memories, awareness we raised and road scars we forged together can suffice. They are missed already.
Today, we take the hill. Chris and I will set out Sunday morning from Sargents, CO, for Monarch Pass (elev. 11,312 feet), where we’ll cross the Continental Divide (but not before some silly photo ops). I may pour out my Camelbak to see which way the water flows. It’s all downhill from here! Not really, but it’s a positive thought as I prepare to go the road alone after this weekend. On Saturday, we logged 15 miles before lunch, only stopping to get up in some llamas’ grills near Pitkin, through the Gunnison National Forest and along the Tamichi River. Beautiful rolling green hills, fresh mountain valley fields, the winding waters, a 12-point buck. Heavy rain clouds threatened all afternoon, but never touched me during the afternoon walk. With thunder rumbling to the south and west, I kept heading east toward the only patch of sun, knowing things would be OK. I didn’t dare look back, for each time I did, with doubt, the storm clouds seemed to gain on me. Finally, I turned the corner and landed in Sargents, the end of a 22-mile day. Just ahead is the climb; the Divide, maybe the most concrete of benchmarks on this journey. Certainly the highest. Today, we take the hill.
The Garnet Valley Vipers are giving new meaning to “Team Mikey Walks.” This week, my cousin Steve Buckley reached out after hearing about our little fundraising walk to say hello. We probably hadn’t spoken in a decade … just time and distance. Life. It was great to hear from Steve, and I thanked him. The following day, he wrote me and said “he couldn’t just stand on the sidelines.” Turns out, he manages his daughter Taylor’s soccer team — the Vipers (this year’s WC Summer Classic finalists) — and they want to be involved. Steve and his squad have organized a fundraiser based on the number of goals the Vipers score, and points pledged by parents, with the proceeds going to the Onny and Oboe Scholarship Fund. I joked that they might want to try a new attack and pull their goalie for an extra attacker. But the Vipers don’t need my advice. They’re 6-1-1 on the season and well on their way to a playoff berth. We’ll be cheering our new favorite team on from Colorado … and Kansas … Missouri … A show of unrivaled sportsmanship. Whatever the score, the Vipers (and Onny and Oboe) can’t lose.
Thinking back to when this journey truly started, it was with Suzi — my 1994 white Isuzu Rodeo — the last tangible possession dating back to my time in Pennsylvania with my late wife Deanna. Two summers ago, Brooke and I bit on the cash-for-clunkers deal, and Suzi’s lights were dimmed for the final time. On Wednesday, as I began to climb the Rockies’ first summit, a 30 mph facewind had me downtrodden, forcing me to look at the ground. The Colorado landscape taken from me, my mind began to drift towards money (How can we afford this walk? How will I make my living after? How? How? How?) Lost in worry, I walked over a metal circle embedded in the street, just as countless cars had already done.
After 20 feet, something stopped me. I went back and drawed from the asphalt a golden wedding ring. Continuing my climb, I wondered if this was a test. Do I halt the walk to try and locate its owner? For how long? Was it brought to me by a universe aligned? It was chilling. As the scenarios played out in my mind, the road grew still. I was alone with my dilemma. Then, from behind, a car horn. As I lifted my head, a mid-90s white Isuzu Rodeo rolled by, the driver’s face in shadow. All I could glimpse was a woman’s arm, which extended from the window and waved as she cleared the summit.
Colorado. As quintessentially American a state we have. Rugged, adventurous spirit. Independent thinking. Healthy lifestyle. Ranches, horses, mountains; the untamed terrain. They live in the shadow of America’s highest points, and loftiest ideals. This is where textbook images are framed. I’ve felt at home ever since crossing that state line, where the topography alters from desert to bloom, burnt to green, uninhabited to harmony with the land. Walk hard in kick-soles, but leave no footprint. Live quietly in the mountains, but never alone. For another chimney fire burns in the distance, a firework testimony to the choice you’ve made. Land of the free. This is America. This is Colorado.
(East of Montrose, CO, the Black Canyon, 8/16/11)