Every day, caterpillars cross my path, heading for the highway. Each time, I do my best to step over them or turn my wheel so they live to play another day. But as they cross the road amid traffic, to see what lies on the other side, I think: “Don’t do it, man. No matter how tough it seems now, things are going to change. You’re going to change. You’re going to be beautiful!” … Hallowe’en abounds in Kansas. Not yet October, the scarecrows and pumpkins, the headstone- and cob-webbed houses are cropping up as the miles tick off. An Indian summer now, but fall is fast approaching. And shorter walking days … More than three weeks inside Kansas, the damage done from natural disasters is ever-present, from the roof being re-done at my B&B in Topeka (from a May hail storm) to the jars on cafe counter-tops seeking assistance for Reading (tornado) to the bare trees of Greensburg (decimated by the nation’s largest twister in 2007). To those “disaster porn” voyeurs, the types who pay exorbitant amounts of money to be shown a live tornado or tour a flood-ravaged city: Stuff some cash in the jars, get out of your cars and travel with purpose! … A belated thank you to Suzan and the staff at Grand Central Station Hotel & Grill (CLICK HERE) for hosting me in Cottonwood Falls. The historic inn from 1884 has welcomed Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill Cody and Mikey Walks … As western Kansas gives way to the east, I never know what to expect in the next town — turn-of-the-century buildings long since abandoned or restored mansions, old west spirit or modern sensibility, dusty winding trails or paved basketball courts. Each day a journey of discovery unto itself.
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The difference in a day! One night you’re excited the park pavilion where you’re squatting has an electrical outlet to charge your phone, the next you’re sipping peach iced tea in an English chateau B&B. The unpaved road to Topeka was dotted with good intentions and generosity. Thanks to WIBW (CBS, Channel 13) for journeying into the hills Wednesday to find me on Wanamaker Road, and assuring me the paved portion was just over the next hill … or maybe the next. You can find Suzie Gilbert’s report (BY CLICKING HERE). Straight outta the heart of America.
There’s no reward in doing the Easy. On the road, I’ve long since given up on “easy days.” The road is life. Up and down, repeat and repeat. Following a long, hot, dusty trail through western Kansas, the reprieve of green and water came with a caveat — the rolling Flint Hills. Each time I reach a crest, three more rise on the horizon. I think of a heart transplant patient’s road to recovery. You can get frustrated at the site, overwhelmed by the totality of the task ahead, or you can embrace each challenge as it comes. When I walked into the Santa Fe Cafe this morning (following a night of sketchy camping in Sumner Park), a sign on my back, the woman at the counter announced, “There’s another one of those crazies.” But to know Jeanne Riggs is to know her sense of humor, and her aversion to the Easy. Born an Army brat in Burlingame, KS, she’d been gone 30 years before returning to save the cafe. Then she bought the space next door to expand. Then she bought the space next to that. “This isn’t the same town that I left,” she lamented. The town’s newspaper closed when a son didn’t want the business. The town’s market too. “Everybody’s kid grows up and leaves today. I came back. I want to make the town a destination again.” As darkness descended and the day’s 25-mile walk had stretched into northeast Topeka, I got a call. “Hey, Mikey T. This is your house mother. Where are you?” In 1994, the stretch of Fillmore Street where the Woodward Inn sits was a crack neighborhood. After speaking with my “house mother,” I learned much of the expanse I’d just walked remains so. “People said ‘What are you doing?’ They thought I was crazy to buy this place,” said Elizabeth Taylor, proprietress, cook and guardian of the historic, 90-year-old English chateau. “Then they began to see what I’ve done with it.” Today, she owns seven buildings — a B&B, inns, luxury apartments, corporate suites — all on the “notorious” 1200 block of Fillmore. “I’m restoring this one block, building by building. I’m staying put and changing my little piece of the world.” Sometimes going nowhere is the least Easy thing in the world.
Before leaving California (and letting go the dock of the Bay) there were a few cities I mentally circled on the map. “If I can just make it to Grand Junction”, “After Pueblo, it looks like there’s more towns”, “Once I reach Dodge City, my days should be easier.” Each proved a motivator along the way, but didn’t really bear the promised fruits. Wichita was my true buoy in the deep end. Here in the Flint Hills, the country has gotten greener, the towns a bit closer, the dream a bit clearer. If nothing else, it feels more like the eastern half of the country. I’ve even drifted at times and forgotten where I’m walking. I could be among the woods and rivers of Pennsylvania … But, not yet. Sports jerseys hang on the walls where John Wayne did. It’s more baseball cap than cowboy lid; more Steve Miller than George Strait. The Kansas farmer finger wave has been exchanged for a more recognizable full hand flutter. And with the green, and the hills, a sort of running conversation has begun with those that enter my days. It’s less we’re all on our own out here and more we’re all in this together. The days of uncertain conversations has given way to abrupt questioning. Enough of the polite, uncertain “Excuse me’s” and “Pardon Me’s.” Bring on the “Hey, man. What’s your deal?” Stop me, grill me, heckle me, America. That’s why there’s a sign on my back.
Popping my tent by the darkened picnic pavilion in Newton, Kansas’ town park the other night, I turned to make sure no creepy, nighttime park people were sneaking up on me (as if waiting for a cross-country walker with a baby jogger to enter their lair of terror and tree-shaking). Then it dawned on me — I’m the Creeper in the Park After Dark. I’m the guy the people who live across the street shake their heads at when my yellow REI rainsheet rises. I’m the guy eating tuna fish out of a bag with a spoon at 10 p.m. I’m the guy taking a sink shower in the Fishlake National Forest rest stop bathroom at 2 in the morning. The guy banging his cart through the double doors of a cafe because I won’t leave all my worldly possessions unattended. The guy taking extra apples from the continental breakfast bowls. The guy laying on the side of a freeway on a towel. The guy looking for electrical outlets on the outsides of buildings to charge my phone. The guy with his shoes off and feet up at your neighborhood Sonic. The guy sleeping on your park picnic table at 2:45 on a Monday afternoon. The guy wrapping his clothes in plastic bags to safeguard them from the weather. The guy pulling one banana from the bunch.
During three months of walking, I’ve become “that guy.” While a hotel with a whirlpool and waffle iron is nice now and again, I wouldn’t change a thing. So next time, go easy on the Creeper in the Park After Dark. He may just be trying to do some good.
Gotta love my brethren newspaper reporters for looking to take the creative means of telling a story. Loved the lede by Patrick Clement in his story this week for the Kiowa County Signal in Greensburg, KS, nodding to the continual effort to distance myself from your run-of-the-mill transient (I even shaved two days before the interview):
Greensburg, KS — If you were driving along U.S. 54 last week you might have noticed a man in a blue windbreaker pushing a three-wheeled cart. This was not one of the typical wayward wanderers that sometimes frequent our small stretch of rural Kansas highway. He didn’t stick his thumb out. He didn’t wave a “Wichita or Bust” sign at each passing semi-truck and if you saw him at Dillons on Thursday morning you may have heard a polite “good morning” instead of an abrupt “spare some change?”
(To read the entire story, CLICK HERE.)
Good interview with a great guy. Thanks, Patrick, for the tour, the chicken and the conversation.
For a moving take on what kind of role social media has played in the Walk Across America, check out this blog post (CLICK HERE) by my friend Teri Goggin-Roberts. Each morning we make a connection, though we have never met. Her heartfelt article inspired me today to walk with confidence and know that I am not alone out there on the roads of Kansas.
A big Wichita woo-hoo to Chris Frank of KAKE (“The Kake!”) for meeting me roadside in Goddard and doing an interview about the Mikey Walks cause for the local ABC affiliate. (CLICK HERE FOR STORY). Good guy — Oklahoma native, counter-culture hitchhiking teen years, a Born Again conversion at 19. “There’s only one way to fill the void in life,” he says. Thanks to everyone at KAKE for a thoughtful piece.
If you’re stopping in Wichita (chances are you will, with four airports!), dial up Vickie at the Wichita Inn North (CLICK HERE) near the Bel Aire section of town. Clean and comfortable rooms, walking distance to the mall (to buy winter clothes for the walk East) and close to the charming College Hill neighborhood. A special thanks to the WIN for supporting the walk across America.
I didn’t set out to walk 33 miles (I really, really didn’t), but sometimes the road has other ideas. Lesson learned: Like any performance vehicle, walking through a city takes longer (and is much harder on the motor) than cruising backcountry, curbcut-free roads. Also, when you spot a sofa as lawn furniture, go back to the main road.
6:36 a.m. — Woke up before sunrise to get an early start from Garden Plain (and avoid being the creepy guy in the tent camped next to the elementary school).
7:43 a.m. — Turned onto a Google maps-advised road. Loose dirt. Didn’t mention that part. Hard slogging with the baby cart. Uh oh, heavy clouds on horizon.
8:55 a.m. — Back on the 54/400 Freeway with the soothing sounds of speeding semis. Heading for Goddard and a hot breakfast stop. Dirt road detour cost me two miles.
10:40 a.m. — Interview with Chris Frank from KAKE (“the Cake”), the local ABC station for Wichita. “Just remember me as the Jesus freak who interviewed you.”
12:38 p.m. — My first QT (Quick Stop convenience store), awed by the bank of 30-plus fountain drinks and cup sizes as big as 64 oz. A new friend, seeing my sign, pays for my Mountain Dew and donut.
2 – 4 p.m. — Walking through Downtown and Old Town Wichita. Nice little city, though the Arkansas River is dry due to construction work on nearby dams. Five Guys Burger.
5:38 p.m. — The neighborhood has taken a turn. Couldn’t Google maps add a feature that avoids streets with spray-painted address signs, sofas on the lawn and plastic bag windows? “Hey, Mikey. Do you know you’re walking through the worst neighborhood in Wichita?”
6: 53 p.m. – Josh and Jessica of the Urban League provide a course correction (a much longer, albeit safer course) through the tony College Hill area. Detour cost me more than an hour, 4-plus miles and a lot less stress.
8:41 p.m. — Arrive at hotel (Wichita Inn North) on the northwest outskirts of the city. Walked into, through and out of Wichita in 64,000 easy steps.
10:30 p.m. — Wife calls me whilst I have my swollen legs resting up a wall and gets too philosophical for my tired brain to handle.
11: 12 p.m. — Zzzzz.
A funny thing happened walking through heavy clouds and mist for four days — Kansas turned green. It probably has something to do with all those heavy clouds and mist. There’s life out here east of Pratt: purple flowers, state parks, turtles crossing the highway (they were inside their shells by the rumble strips). Be careful for what you wish for. When I was in Pueblo, friends assured that Kansas gets greener once you get going east. In Garden City, some locals said “just get past Dodge City. Trees even grow there.” I won’t be getting nostalgic for 100 degrees, no shade and the “flat and brown”, but predicting the unpredictable is the new normal. The weather from here to New Jersey can be fickle, and can change without notice, as it did this week (49 and raining, yikes). Gone are the days of cloudless skies and camping where I will. The walk’s midpoint passed in Dodge and sleeping closer to the finish than the start sure feels good, but the rain and wind of the high plains ushered in this reality: Now begins the cold half!
On Saturday, in Pratt, I hedged inside Wal-Mart. It was raining and I just didn’t feel like walking into the rural unknowns. Maybe I should get a hotel room, sit this one out. Maybe “I’m fighting something.” Maybe I needed to suck it up. Then I met John, shopping in an electric wheelchair. “How far you walking today?” he asked, smiling. “Cunningham. 18 miles.” His eyes lit up. “Gonna be a wet one,” he laughed. When I went to shake his hand, he offered his left instead, the right one of little strength. On to Cunningham. The worst day walking is still a good day.
“Hey, Mike!” the girl yelled as I first stepped onto the campus of Barclay College. It was 5 o’clock. I was cold and wet and hoping to avoid camping behind the coffee shop. I smiled as she ran up … then to a waiting car. Oh. She noticed my disappointment, then the signs on my cart. “Is your name Mike too? Are you staying here tonight?” Her smile said everything was going to work out. Hoping the school might have an extra bed or couch this night (it was 49 degrees and raining), I never made it to the office. Amanda called over a friend. Five minutes later, I was settling into a dorm room, courtesy of Ken and Jessie, a pair of theology students at the Quaker-run college. I hadn’t come to Haviland with any preconceptions. This town of about 400 residents was just a stop on the may between Greensburg and Pratt, but this day was a special one thanks to the immediate interest, acceptance and love shown by the students at Barclay. With the Christian band Gungor playing from stereos in the dorms and the coffee shop, I had stepped into this little world for a day; a world for which I hadn’t planned and one that pulled me in. My bunkmate, Ken, is a man of few possessions, but generous with what he maintains. Pulling the bed out of his closet for me, he said he prefers to sleep on the floor. He leaves his dorm room unlocked and told me not to worry about leaving Coogs (my cart) out of sight in the TV room. He was also generous in spirit, staying up for hours to tell me his story, from his wild days to his recent conversion to Christianity. He wants to write a book about it someday and I can’t wait to read it. Maybe there will be a mention of reaching out to a lonesome traveler and giving him shelter from the storm.