We shared a joint in the parking lot. Then I shook his hand, wished him peace, and he wandered off to the woods with a weathered backpack that looked too big for his lean frame. I knew from my own travels that he will need virtually everything in his pack, and that he’s not carrying one ounce more than he has to. Even his memories are too heavy for him, and they are what he is running from.
I picked up Brian on the last day of August from where he was hitchhiking on Rt. 301 in southern Maryland. I was heading south to Richmond, Virginia, and he was on his way to Florida, hoping to dodge a hurricane that was bearing down on the Carolina’s. We were together for just a few hours.
Rt. 301 is a “blue“ highway that runs north and south parallel to the I-95 interstate. Blue highways are so named for their color on old paper maps. They are the roads people used before the interstates were built. I like them. Blue is where you wander.
Rt. 301 is also a time machine. It’s where you go back to the 1950’s, 40s, or even the 30s, and where you still see vestiges of an era before the interstates were built ~ a time when 301 was one of the only roads that would get you from Maine to Florida. On 301, I pass by vintage places like the Cadillac Motel with its neon signage, the dilapitated Apehanger Restaurant, and the place where Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was hunted down and killed by a Union soldier, after the barn in which he was hiding was set ablaze.
On 301, I pass by towns like Waldorf, La Plata, Port Tobacco, Punkins Corner, Bowling Green and Fort A.P. Hill, some just a blink, others sprawling with gross collections of quick lube shops, chain restaurants, car lots, and mysterious military labs. I pass by long stretches of bucolic, rolling farmland, petite 19th-century churches with stone encrusted graveyards, and towering bridges over the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers, under which local folks splash in brown, tepid water. Crab shacks, barbecue joints, and frozen custard stands mingle with giant power stations belching dense clouds of steam into the summer sky, polished white by the sun. I pass by rustic, roadside farmer’s stands selling late season peaches, melons, and baskets of blackberries. I pass by old America.
Brian was a skilled wind turbine maintenance technician, making good money with job opportunities all over the world. He was engaged to be married to a woman he’d been dating for five years. Then disaster struck.
“I found her in bed with my best friend,” he said. “I didn’t say anything. I just turned around and walked away. That’s when I started hitchhiking.”
A few seconds ticked by. I turned down the radio.
“Wow,” I said. “That must have hurt. How are you doing with the heartache?
“I’m getting there,“ he said, taking a swig from a gallon water jug. “I’m getting there.” He’d travelled 6,000 miles in the last five months, and he had more miles to go.
Brian looked like he was in his mid-30s, with prematurely gray hair peeking out from under his tattered red baseball cap, and a few weeks of unkempt beard. He was tautly built and sunburned from miles of walking, sometimes 30 at a stretch, and he had the slightly disheveled look of someone who sleeps outdoors every night. In fact, he said he’d already worn out several pairs of shoes and clothes.
“You’d think I’d have a camo hammock,” he said with a chuckle. “But I don’t. It’s bright blue and white, but it’s never been a problem for me. Other things have though.”
“Such as what?” I asked him.
“Oh, once I was picked up by a gay guy who turned west when I was heading south. He took me many miles off track before I was able to escape from his truck. Another time I was picked up by some guys selling opioids to Native Americans in North Dakota. I learned they were going to frame me if they got caught. That sucked, but at least I got a good meal from the Indians before I got away.”
I learned he had had only one conversation with his former fiancé, where she blamed her dalliance on him. “She said I wasn’t paying enough attention to her,” he said with a huff. Clearly he was not buying her line of reasoning.
I learned he had been estranged from his biological father all his life, and had adopted his fiancé’s father as a surrogate. “Her father and I were very close,” he said. “But he died last month. I would have liked to see him one more time, but I was already on the road.”
I learned he had plans to keep wandering, down to Florida, then west to Mexico, south through Central America, and then further south to Chile. After that, who knows? Not even him. I guess he’ll wander until the pain goes away.
I learned a man can live on Raman noodles you buy on sale at Walmart for 30 cents a pack, and that you can “cook” them by setting them in the sun in a water filled plastic bag.
“Works pretty good,” he said.
I gave him all the food I had in my car, a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card with $2.32 still left on it, enough for one donut, some protein shakes, and a flask of whiskey. Oh, that plus a hit from my stash. “Thanks man,” he said exhaling the pungent smoke. Then he was gone.
Later that day, as I watched a late summer sun set over the roiling green rapids of the James River, I thought about Brian. I wondered if I could have done more, or even if he would have accepted it. I wondered if he would stay dry that night. I wondered how we were different, and how much we were alike, running from someplace to someplace else.
As the afternoon grew late, the air turned cool, and I got up to go myself, the words of an old song came back to me, one that could be the soundtrack to Brian‘s life, or to any of us who wander but are not lost…a song that calls to the deep within many a man who eases his pain by burning shoe leather and spending nights alone staring at the sky, wondering why. The words, from singer/songwriter James Taylor, go like this:
There is a young cowboy he lives on the range
His horse and his cattle are his only companions
He works in the saddle and he sleeps in the canyons
Waiting for Summer, his pastures to change
And as the moon rises he sits by his fire
Thinking about women and glasses of beer
And closing his eyes as the doggies retire
He sings out a song which is soft but it’s clear
As if maybe someone could hear
To Brian, wherever you are…godspeed. Stay dry, and happy trails.
No job. No wife. No house. A little money...and 12 months of free airfare.
What would you do?
That's the question I asked myself at the beginning of 2019, leading me on the adventure of a lifetime, from the coast of Portugal, to the sands of Morocco, to the islands of Panama, with many places beyond and between.
Blue Skyways tells the astounding stories of the people I met on that journey, how I was affected, and about the perspective of a man who has been around the sun 63 times and across the world a few. As you will learn, death became my travel companion, partly at my invitation.
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