THE NEXT STEP
It’s a big world out there.
Wait — forget big. Big doesn’t even begin to touch the staggering reality: 57,510,000 square miles of land, largely unexplored, not to mention 139,440,000 square miles of ocean. With cities taking up only 2% of the surface, there are endless acres with few or no inhabitants.
Yup, if you’re looking for a place to get lost, Planet Earth seems to be the ideal spot.
That was my reasoning the day I stuffed my over sized backpack with the barest of necessities, including among them a first aid kit, a hand axe, warm clothes, and a cache of granola bars. I fancied myself a modern day pioneer, and began my journey with fearless excitement.
I had a basic knowledge of survival skills and no money, but felt no concern over my destitute state. My plan was uncomplicated – find land (the more remote, the better), and live on it.
I left the city on foot, a strange figure in hiking boots and a rain slicker as I walked among the better dressed denizens of the metropolis. Later, I trudged along the side of the highway, suffering repeated dousing from muddy rain water as the wheels of SUVs and pickup trucks rolled past me at 70 mph. Stressed out office workers and multi-tasking parents crisscrossed the lanes of morning traffic beside me, all safely ensconced in their climate controlled steel cages. I turned my face to the sky and smiled at the lighting that cracked the dark clouds above me.
It took days to leave the last of the suburbs behind me. I walked for miles along the side of the highway, politely refusing all offers for rides offered by kind-hearted travelers. At the first opportunity, I left the paved road to traverse a dirt one, and when the dirt road ended in brush and nothingness, I stepped into the thicket of wilderness.
It was hard traveling. By day the sun burned my face crimson, and at night I slept with my legs tucked up into my chest, a shivering ball on the ground. When it rained I got wet, and when the wind blew my face and hands became chapped and cracked. I spent hours each day foraging for food, digging roots and picking edible shoots and berries as nature and fortune afforded me. I learned through trial and horrible error what plants were best to eat, and which were better left alone. I learned how to start a fire without matches, and how to preserve a hot cinder to carry with me to speed the process at my next stop. Unfiltered water from streams and rivers slaked my thirst. At night, I set rudimentary snares which nearly always turned up empty, but on rare occasion provided me with a small rabbit or two which I cooked over my campfire and ate with grateful hands. Most often I went to bed hungry.
For the first time in years, I felt contentment.
I had intended, in the beginning, to find a corner to call my own and build a home there. I pictured myself sitting alone and happy on the porch of a snug cabin hidden deep in the untouched world of an empty America. When I closed my eyes, I pictured the rising sun before me and gentle creak of a porch swing as I sat secure in the knowledge that my old worries — my ex, my bills, that dreaded court date, and the betrayal of loved ones – were nothing more than faded memories of a life left behind. A self sufficient life was all I craved.
I didn’t realize,then,that there isn’t anywhere far enough away to hide from your own thoughts. There is only the beckoning wasteland of your own sad heart, and the persistent misguided hope that something better — something more, something truer — can be found around the next bend. As my wilderness skills grew I ate better and learned more from the wellspring of life that surrounded me. The urge to stop, to build a permanent life slowly drifted away, and the encouragement the wind whispered in my ears (keep going, keep exploring, just a little farther now…) lightened every step I took.
And so I kept walking, year after blessedly lonely year, and now I can’t stop. Seasons come and go, each new cycle spinning away from me, unrelenting in its plodding predictability. All the while advancing age makes my legs weaker and causes my eyes to strain against the constant stress of sun and wind, but still I can’t bring myself to halt my steps longer than a night or two.
When I started my journey I thought I was going to lose my troubles and find myself. I planned to build a life out of the raw material of my own dreams and desires. I thought I was going to stake out a corner of the world and make it mine.
I was a fool.
There’s no home for me here. There’s only the next step.