Wednesday, December 31, 2008

reflections on 2008



2008 proved to be one of the most exciting years of my life, comparable in many ways to my college junior year abroad from 1989 to 1990. This year involved many things I don't normally do. Generally sedentary and often given to just talking about my aspirations as opposed to actually pursuing them, I found myself, this past year, outside my comfort zone and loving it. This is the year I began my walk across America, and though I'm temporarily stalled as the knee heals, as the coffers refill, and as the snow out west waxes and wanes, I've had a blast with the three months' walking I've done.

The year began with me still in Korea, at my English and French teaching post at Sookmyung Women's University in downtown Seoul. 2008 marked my third year at the university, doing something I loved. The job was demanding in some ways and frustrating in others, but I came away always looking forward to the next semester, a feeling I've never had while working anywhere else. I left Sookmyung on very amicable terms and hope to go back there when I'm finished with the walk. If I don't end up there, I'll be able to find decent university work elsewhere on the peninsula, I'm sure.

I came home in late April and spent a month conditioning myself with long walks, eventually adding a backpack to the walk to get a feel for that sort of hike. It wasn't long before my walks, usually every other day, were measuring over 20 miles in length. On May 26, I flew out to Vancouver, got picked up by my buddy Nathan, and was driven down to White Rock, British Columbia, where I spent the night inside a very, very pink (but well-appointed!) hotel called the Pacific Inn. On May 27, the walk began.

If you've followed this blog, you know I crossed the US/Canadian border and walked southward along the I-5 corridor. I passed through Seattle and eventually hit Portland, Oregon, where I stopped for two weeks as my knee became too painful for sustained walking-- this being the result of an injury a few weeks earlier. From Portland, I turned east and followed the Columbia River into the Columbia River Gorge, first walking the somewhat difficult Historic Highway from Troutdale before ending up on I-84 and stopping in Cascade Locks. From there until almost Umatilla, I followed I-84, which was far less hilly than any other road would have been. The knee pain worsened; I kept it at bay with painkillers prescribed in Arlington and picked up in the next city, Boardman.

I broke away from I-84 around Irrigon and Umatilla, and skipped back into Washington in order to reach Walla Walla. With cash near depletion and the pain in my knee at epic levels, I knew I'd have to stop. I ended up spending a month in Walla Walla, getting my knee diagnosed (medial collateral ligament strain), deliberating on what to do next, and finally deciding not merely to sit out the winter, but to sit it out at home in Virginia-- with family, free rent, and free food. This was possible thanks to my cousin Marie, who works for a major airline and was able to hook me up with a free "buddy pass" out of Portland and nonstop to DC. (Thanks, Chuck, for the drive from Irrigon to Portland.)

I learned a lot about the terrain and weather of several hundred miles of both Washington and Oregon, and came to the conclusion that, of all the conditions to walk in, the worst is cold and rain. Give me wind, give me sun, give me anything but that nasty, nasty combination of wetness and low temperatures. The high desert (which appears as you walk eastward, roughly past The Dalles, Oregon) was a welcome contrast to much of the southward walk from Canada, along Washington's western spine.

And while all of that was an adventure, the biggest treat was meeting so many people along the way. I can't list them all here and won't even try, but I do want to make some general remarks.

The walk's overarching purpose was and remains a personal, non-academic exploration of American religious diversity and, true to that purpose, I've met all sorts of folks from many different walks of life. I started out with Unitarians, Sikhs, Zennies, and Episcopalians, all within the first fifty or so miles of the trek. I stayed with Soka Gakkai Buddhists (in two different cities) and spent a few days at a Benedictine abbey, and even met an ex-Unitarian(!). My walk also brought me within the orbit of some Seventh Day Adventists, as well as other types of Protestants I'd never before had the chance to talk with. I met confirmed atheists and "spiritual, not religious" folks, and ended up befriending a pair of biker Christians, who are nothing like whatever stereotype I may have had of bikers before I made their acquaintance. I talked with random strangers while walking along various suburban streets, and was often offered rides by people who drove by me on highways and freeways. I met and befriended some folks at a few of the state parks where I've camped. And yes: I was even picked up twice by the police (a third "run-in" with the law led to no rides). Those turned out to be friendly encounters, too.

Coming home proved to be almost as much of an adventure as walking. With the parents' house looking tornado-ravaged because of the extensive renovations, I found myself camping out in the back yard from late September (which is when I got home after nearly a month in Walla Walla) to mid-December. I've helped the parents cart most of their worldly possessions outside and onto cargo pallets, and just recently helped move all that stuff back inside. I constructed a "tent kitchen" that was supposed to serve as Mom's headquarters, but it ultimately ended up as more storage space. (Mom preferred to remain indoors, so she converted the laundry room into a temporary kitchen.) I also did plenty of other odd jobs, from helping to make meals to helping Dad construct the new deck.

I've walked periodically while home, but my level of physical activity has dropped significantly. Periodic heavy lifting isn't the same as constant cardio, and because my current job-- proofreading/editing for a Korean company-- involves sitting in front of a computer, I'm once again gaining weight. This displeases me, but if I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that I can't blame my circumstances for the increased poundage. That's the easy way out. No: I just need to cut down on the food and increase my activity level.

The only other real negative this year, aside from current (but still reversible!) weight gain, has been the drain on my finances. Walking across the country is expensive if you choose to hang close to civilization. Five to eight dollars for a meal here, twenty dollars for supplies there, sixty to eighty bucks for a motel room, fifteen dollars to camp in a state or national park... it adds up. Quickly. The over $3000 spent on equipment-- even before the walk began-- didn't help matters. I'm now trying to make back some money before I continue the trip; you might say that money-making is one of my New Year's resolutions. Another resolution is to find more economical ways of hiking-- traveling lighter, eating less, camping and Couchsurfing more.

Ah, yes: I should also say something about the online aspect of this walk. This blog has turned out to be a fine forum on which interested parties have civilly expressed encouragement, disagreement, and a variety of fascinating personal insights. I want to thank all the folks who have contributed, frequently or infrequently, to this blog via comments or via emailed reactions to what transpires here. You, Dear Reader, are not just an audience: you're active participants in this adventure, and some of you may have noticed that, whatever my stubbornness, I've ended up taking some of your advice. You're often my cheering section, occasionally my Greek chorus, and many of you are people I'm proud to call friends.

The walk has taught me a lot. I'd actually like to write a full-length post on that topic, but here's a general list, in no particular order, of things learned over the course of 600 miles.

1. Rain is great when you're not walking long distances. Otherwise, it sucks.

2. Kind strangers far outnumber unkind strangers.

3. It's possible to walk long distances while in extreme pain.

4. When people talk about "peace," the talk tends to fall into two categories: "peace" in the sense of "let's leave each other alone," and "peace" in the sense of "let's actively work toward a harmonious existence." As it turns out, these two notions aren't always compatible.

5. Sunscreen is helpful until your sweat flushes it away. In my case, that means it's helpful for about an hour.

6. People look at you differently when you're wearing a huge backpack. Strangers feel they can talk with you, and the police become more interested in you, too. Especially when your backpack looks large enough to carry a body inside it.

7. Japanese Zen rituals are more complicated than the Korean Seon practice I'm familiar with.

8. The style of Sikh worship is a world apart from anything I've ever encountered in terms of Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist practice. I definitely want to learn more about this religion.

9. Freeways are noisy, dusty, and gravelly. It's often better to walk on the right side, with the flow of traffic, so that your backpack shields you from the turbulence of trucks and from the gravel they kick up. Walking on the right might not be legal, and some will argue that's it's not safe, but considering how unsafe it already is to be walking on a freeway, I'd rather trade a few crumbs of safety for greater comfort.

10. If you desperately need to poop, you'll find a way to do it, even if it means pooping right next to a major freeway. (Easily my most humiliating experience.)

11. Many of you dog owners need to teach your dogs to respect boundaries. I've lost count of the number of dogs that have run, leashless, out of the open gates of their respective yards to bark at me up close. Gate your dogs, or leash them. No, they don't deserve to have free run of the neighborhood, and I say that despite my love of dogs (whether we're talking personality or taste).

12. On the positive side, no dogs have bitten me yet, which leads me to believe that even the undisciplined dogs know when they're no longer on their own territory.

13. Tax and tip make all sit-down meals expensive.

14. Washington State can freak out a person from northern Virginia: it's weird to see all those familiar names-- Arlington, Mt. Vernon, Capitol Hill-- repeated clear across the country.

15. Trekking poles are nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they may prove useful when you're limping around town and need a cane for support. They also help speed you up when you feel you're slowing down.

16. Most strangers can give you decent travel advice. Some, however, have no idea what they're talking about.

17. Dubiously filtered water + heat and sunlight = stomachache.

18. When you're hiking almost daily, you learn to forgive yourself for not showering twice a day. Whether other people are capable of such forgiveness... well, that seems to vary from person to person.

19. Memorable food: Lori's hash browns, Chuck's pork chops, the Thai restaurant in downtown Bellingham, that double bacon cheeseburger from the burger stand in Cascade Locks, and lots of good home cooking from the Horns, the Rices, and others.

20. You can practice your Korean in Walla Walla. You can also practice your French there: it's wine country, and some Frenchies have transplanted themselves to the Walla Walla Valley to help out with the viniculture.

21. The miles do get easier. Sure, there are good days and bad days-- days when walking feels more like work than something done for enjoyment and enrichment. But all in all, it becomes easier to cover long distances, and to think in larger terms. After walking 15-20 miles per day, day after day, you'll find yourself wondering about people who balk at walking three miles to get somewhere. When I do an 11-mile walk, in my mind it's "only eleven miles." It's sad to think that, once I get back to Seoul, I'll eventually lose that mindset and sink back into normalcy.

22. No matter what allergies you have, nature is nothing to be sneezed at. The frightening hugeness of Mount Rainier and Mount Hood, the gorgeous greenness and brownness of the Columbia River Valley-- these are sights I'm glad to have seen directly, as opposed to seeing them in some coffee table book.

23. Portland swings way too liberal for my politically centrist tastes, but is otherwise a fantastic city. Even its many homeless people rock. Seattle, alas, was a city encountered only in passing; it deserves a second shot. I spent only two nights in Seattle before moving on to Tacoma, which means I barely saw it at all. By contrast, I spent two weeks in Portland, learning its public transport system, visiting its colleges and universities, and making connections with the people I met while there.

24. If you're fat and on a hike, you might be surprised to discover how easy it is to go nearly three days without food. The effort of hiking often shrinks the stomach and keeps the blood in the limbs as opposed to the digestive system. The hiking does, however, make you powerfully thirsty, and if you sweat like I do, you've got to carry a lot of water. I ended up with both a 3-liter Camelbak and two Nalgene bottles.

25. NEVER leave your tent improperly weighted and anchored when you're in a windy area!

26. If someone offers to be your chase car, or to carry your backpack in their bike's trailer, have enough humility to say "yes."

27. Keep your electronics safe.

28. Any idea that you are a fully independent, autonomous being will be beaten out of you. You depend constantly-- whether you acknowledge it or not-- on the kindness of strangers, the infrastructure of society and civilization, and the elemental gifts of Mother Nature: the weather, the laws that govern your body chemistry, and all the rest. Be humble.

I could go on, but will stop here for now.

I hope your 2008 was fulfilling and not too painful, and to all who read this blog, as well as to the people I've met along the walk who don't read this blog: Happy New Year! May your 2009 prove to be full of joy and enrichment... but let me also wish you a year of work, strife, and stress. Why? Because life, at its best, contains within it a touch of the grave.


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7 comments:

melancholy donut said...

happy new year! its been nice to read along and walk together vicariously this past year. looking forward to reading about you taking your last steps!

one thing i thought i should mention: i REALLY appreciate the photos youve thrown up along the way via the blackberry. i like reading as much as the next guy but its cool to see where youve been. whatever ends up happening, keep up with the great work!!

scott said...

Have you considered a recumbent bike tour instead of walking?

Good Luck in 2009!

Elise / 종은 said...

what is this picture!? it's kind of disturbing. is it real?

Kevin said...

donut,

Thanks for reading and commenting! As long as my equipment continues to function, I'll keep on photographing the places I visit and the people I meet.

Scott,

Several people have suggested biking instead of walking. I'm against it, if for no other reason than the fact that so many people have done it. Walking across the country is still the province of an exclusive few; I'd rather be part of that smaller club.

Aside from my ego's needs, I also think that a bike trip would be over so fast that the entire trip would barely register in my consciousness. There are also the problems of maintaining the bike, using it in inclement conditions (icy roads, mossy paths, slippery leaves, etc.), and dealing with traffic (I'd rather be walking than biking if a car sideswipes me).

Walking is the most basic form of transportation, and while I live in a modern world and can't avoid the trappings of modernity, I do like how primal it is simply to walk to different places. It's just you, your feet, and the road. That's appealing to me.


Kevin

Kevin said...

Elise,

It appears to be real. If you click on the pic, you'll be taken to the news article that describes what happened. The article contains a second, even funnier picture of the poor horse (which did finally escape its predicament with some human help).


Kevin

Nathan B. said...

A belated but Happy New Year to you, Kevin!

Kevin said...

Nathan,

Thanks, and I hope all's well.


Kevin