by JEFFREY SAWYER
A 3,500-Mile Hike Through Southern Appalachia and Beyond
I left Brevard, N.C. in April, and two and a half years later, I stopped for awhile in Cumberland, Md. Initially, I slipped out of town walking only telling a few people what I was doing and where I was going. I didn’t want it to be anything special. In fact, I wanted something of the opposite.
In my pack, I carried a mosquito net, a pair of linen pants, a bathing suit (which I would walk in), a blanket, two ponchos for rain and sleeping, a long sleeve shirt, two tee shirts, a pair of socks, and a pair of sandals. I also carried a fleece jacket and a hat. With these items I could enter into any situation and fit in quite adequately. I could eat at a relatively fancy restaurant or amidst the poorest. I could be out in the heat of the summer or in the cool of the night and be comfortable. I carried no ATM card, no credit card, and no tent. Most of the time I had no sleeping bag and no money. When I did have money from day to day it was usually a few dollars.
Folks compared me to an outdoor explorer, the Peace Pilgrim, Forrest Gump, and a homeless bum, but I was living what made the most sense to me. The roads and communities along the way were a playground or a monastery of sorts, and the people I encountered were no different than myself, I being no more special or adventurous than they. They were also walking their own way though maybe shorter distances at a time.
Out on the trails and roads, I would give anyone a hand if asked or if it seemed to be the thing to do. I would give away money whenever asked or it seemed needed. In doing so, I have never been in want of anything and have never been exhausted in the living. This way of living seems only common sense in the natural progression of humanity and myself.
I didn’t identify myself with a cause or purpose. Never had a motive to write publicly of the events. I was simply walking. Therefore, I had not an activist or spiritual identification to converse through when speaking with a fundamentalist Christian, a Buddhist monk, a homeless person, an atheist, a prostitute, a housewife, a crack addict, a businessman, a Jewish family, or a person of Muslim faith. If folks ask what cause I am walking for: hunger? AIDS? I often replied, “’Cause I like it.” But, more accurately, walking is a deliberate way of life and a vehicle of expression complete unto itself.
At one point, after turning down many drivers who asked to take me up the road a bit, I adopted the notion of accepting rides offered though not asking for them. It is a fine way to meet people, and it seems to make sense if people are to risk pulling over for some strange man that I decline them not. Resting a spell in the seat is a nice treat as well.
I walked until my body and mind said, “Okay, it is time to rest.” At first, I would look for a place to sleep before the sun went down, one that was comfortable and suitable for quiet time. This became work, and thus I ceased to concern myself with finding a secluded little hide away. Rather I just walked until I was tired. Inevitably a place showed up that suited my needs. Some of the sleeping places included a field, a school bus, the back of a Ryder truck, the inside of a church, a gazebo behind a town hall, under a tarp in someone’s back yard, behind a VFW lodge, cemeteries, an emergency room, the woods, a truck stop, people’s homes that I was invited into, and behind the bushes of a college campus. Every night was a new place, new people, and a new environment.
I usually woke before the sun peeked its head up — just enough to know that it is the sun and not just the bright moonlight. Mostly I walked with no timepiece, so I did not want to get up only to find out that it was an hour or so past when I had gone to sleep.
Certainly, my body needed some rest from walking. Yet at times I walked for days and nights, sleeping an hour or two every twenty-four hours, and still I remained quite alert and awake. Sleep is not as necessary to an alert body and mind as it is when I am half living and resisting a good bit of it. I found that where a heart and mind has very little resistance or conflict at any level, long hours of sleep are not as necessary.
Step after step, it was the simplicity, the pennilessness that paid for an abundance of spirit. Yet the greatest exhaustion was dealing with continual uncertainty. The mind tends to grasp for security at every chance. It reaches to grip onto an image of a town, a place to sleep, a warm person, a friend, though I do not know if it is even up ahead. I found myself trying to hold onto images so that I would have hope for the future. The facts of the present moment could be overwhelming in an unfamiliar environment.
There was a great longing and loneliness inside of me. As I delved into this loneliness, I asked, “Is there an ultimate freedom?” Along this walk I had nothing to do but become intimate with this very loneliness and see what, if anything, is at its end. Yet I enjoyed the silence, the quiet of nature, and the inquiry of living. Talking with folks along the way deepened my love of all humanity. Kindness was shared quite openly. People almost always were excited to give and share a meal or a lively dialogue.
LIVING OFF THE LAND
The mountains rose like pregnant bellies through the clouds. The mist never lifted from the valley. A crow cawed.
At first, as I was walking up some mountain trails and along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I thought it wise to familiarize myself with the edible plants and flowers along the trails and roads, as I had no money and only some flour, oats, and some chocolate bars a couple had given to me. I had an edible plant book, and I had learned to identify chickweed, dandelion leaves, and flowers that are abundant.
I brought with me a pot and spoon, and I spent my initial days with my eyes turned down upon the ground finding things to throw into an evening stew with some salt. Violet leaves, wild onions, flowers, shoots, acorns—I would soup them up over a fire and eat them in the evening. With a bit of flour, I would roll them into dumplings and take them with me the next day on the road. Fruits would also appear quite often along the trail, and what a delight they were.
Food gathering can be a time-consuming venture, but also an intimate one. For instance, the acorn has a tough outer husk to be torn off, followed by an average shell that needs to be cracked open, and lastly a thin layer of skin to be peeled before arriving at the core. The meat is far better than one would expect of such a common nut. Similarly, the walnut has a ferocious thick green outer layer that blackens the fingers and nails when attempting to crack it. Once one has managed to do so, one is faced with the monumental task of shattering a stone-like skull that covers the nut. One may then pick out the sweetest nut to be found.
Through closely learning what lie available in my surroundings, I felt I could at least survive in the woods if left to my own devices. In fact, I was amazed at how the body becomes so attuned to its natural environment. It seemed that as hunger arose and fear subsided, I would be drawn instinctually to edible mushrooms and plants. The more quiet and attune a mind becomes, the more effortless it is to live. What a fine evolutionary etching we have within us.
Through this walk, I wanted to find out if it is truly possible to live only for today—live only for this moment without making a move to attend to basic survival needs. I asked myself, “What occurs if I don’t make things happen? If I don’t create any more projects to work on or relationships to be engaged in? If I do nothing but be aware of exactly what is occurring inside my mind and body and in the world?” Is it possible to act with no motive, not to achieve some great depth, or for some physical or spiritual accomplishment, but act out of the love of inquiry itself, or just for no reason at all?
I may have been able to live the same inquiry amidst economic and domestic responsibilities, but I don’t have either of these. And there doesn’t seem to be bonus points for either.
The rain had been coming down for three days straight. I hadn’t slept for two. I jumped off the narrow road into the ditch when the coal trucks sped by. I had come off the mountain trails and was traveling a few back roads along the Blue Ridge foothills.
A large black cloud front was coming in and the temperature dropped ten degrees in a matter of minutes. Night was approaching but I still had so much energy. I was preparing myself for another night of no sleeping, talking or even much of getting off my feet. A man pulled over in a jeep. He had coal on his face and hands, a shirt that said “Jim” on one breast, and the name of a coal company on the other. “I’ll take you up the road a bit,” he said.
A few miles later he stuffed his hand in his ashtray and grabbed a fist full of quarters. He put them in my hand without taking no for an answer. “Take it,” he said. “I know what you are doing. Get yourself a meal.” He pulled over at a little road side restaurant. My legs melted into the plastic chair at a booth while I ate some French fries. Then I headed out again into the cold evening.
MOSQUITOES AT NIGHT
One night I had no mosquito net and no sleeping cloth. The park where I was sleeping had closed, but I sat and lay in the bushes quietly all night. A policeman made an announcement over his car loud speaker that anyone caught in the park after dark would be fined. But in this residential neighborhood, I figured this place to be the least obtrusive to the residents. I sat tight. And so did the policeman.
All night a police car remained in the lot and all night I remained in the bushes. And all night, what seemed like a hundred mosquitoes from puddles of the last week of rain buzzed around and bit me. I quietly swatted them away. After some time I was going mad. The pain and agitation was enormous. I couldn’t get away from it.
I began to make a deal with them. I said, “Okay, mosquitoes, you let me lie down and sleep and I will not swat you away. Be kind to me. You may take what blood you want, but I ask you to be gentle.” I lay down again behind the bushes on top of the pine needles and fell asleep. I never woke from them once during the night. In fact, I slept soundly. In the morning I woke with only a few faint red marks from the little critters.
SLEEPING IN THE CITY BUSHES
The people walked just a few feet from me sitting there in the bushes. Then I heard the sound of big paws tapping on the pavement and a man talking loudly in my direction: “Riley, come here, boy.” The dog wasn’t on a leash. I brought in any fear I had and let it go. I dissolved all thought and shrunk into myself. It was as though I was not there.
It was a large dog, I could see, as his nose was right up on me. It kept sniffing me. The owner said one more time, “Riley come on. Get out of there.” Finally Riley took off out of the bushes.
It seems that the scent of fear is one that animals pick up on and humans as well. Without fear, there is nothing to worry about. This lesson came to serve me many times—whether I would be wanting to quiet my presence near animals, or to slide through a busy restaurant unnoticed in order to get a drink of water.
I had it all—cars and trucks flying by, dead groundhogs, the smell of exhaust, cigarette butts, downed butterflies, and yells coming from a sports car. I stumbled upon a black bear in the thick of the forest up near Mount Mitchell. Its rear haunches came up to my chest. Its face was buried in a bush chewing on something. The bear turned and looked at me, and then it lumbered up the side of a steep mountain and disappeared. I felt so out of place and as big as a chipmunk.
One day, while hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I ran out of food, and the nearest town was some ten miles away. Fortunately, I spotted a great batch of the wild orange mushroom called chicken of the woods. My spirits soared, and I no longer had to ponder my predicament.
At first, I just grabbed enough for a meal, thinking tomorrow would take care of itself. Then I decided to take a bit more. So I cut away three footballs of heavy brain-like chunks of mushroom. It didn’t feel quite right taking more than I needed, but it made sense since I was so far away from people and I didn’t want to be hungry again.
I found a little nook and cooked up one big handful of mushrooms with some wild onions, which would have been sufficient. But then I thought it best to cook up some for dinner as well. I knew I should stop eating, but the taste was just too grand. So I ate some more while heating the others up for later. Then I told myself, “Heck, it is going to be a tough walk up these hills. I don’t want to run short of energy.” So I ate a bit more.
While I was bagging up the remaining cooked mushrooms, I became sick to my stomach. I was stuffed, my belly aching. I lay on the leaves by the fire under the hemlock trees collecting myself. I had feared for later, and it seemed I was paying the natural price.
While I had never had to worry from meal to meal, day to day, this time I had become a bit greedy. Out here, where subtleties are everything and there is nothing to distract one from an obvious lesson, it was painful. But it passed, and walking down the hill, a thought hit me that brought a smile, “I was the chicken of the woods.”
After that, I worried not about food so much. I just walked and ate what became available. I would leave walking from a location of a few days usually with a dollar or less. Food would show up either from a person asking, “Hey, where are you going? You want something to eat?” or I would find a loaf of bread that had fallen off a truck. One time I found a frozen TV dinner that had fallen out of a car. Sometimes enough money was on the side of the road to buy some fruit from a local fruit stand or some soup. But mostly food came from places that one could never predict or even think to look: from a library pizza day, a homeless man, a sandbar picnic on the river, one of the leaders of the Teamsters Union, venison from a man’s freezer, a bag of food from a woman near Eddyville, Kentucky. It became clear that to try and get my own food was futile and sparse in comparison to the abundance that arrives when I cease making any effort at all.
One day I was sitting on a curb by a convenience store near the Carolina coast. The Lays Potato Chips delivery man came by and said:
“You waiting to go to work?”
“What you doing?”
“Walking up the road.”
“You want a bag of chips?”
“How is the walking?”
“Probably like driving a chip truck. Some days it’s tough, and some days it is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
If boredom set in or I wished to eat something right away, I dabbled into a bakery dumpster or other dumpsters that separate their freshly discarded food from trash. If one wanted to live just on what one could find from the food that is thrown away, a person would do quite fine. In fact, one could live on a vegetarian diet just with food packaged in dumpsters. But this still had me making my own effort to acquire food, and it didn’t resolve my true question. So I kept looking within myself for what would source me.
It may seem that I ate a good bit of junk food. But I actually ate a varied and fairly healthy diet much of the time. Gratitude developed for the slight handful of flour or an egg, a bunch of cauliflower. Everything was used, and always there was enough to go around.
Ultimately, I came to
the conclusion that it is understanding that energized and left me more grateful than food. For, when I have more understanding, I may not have a piece of chicken, but I have a peace of mind. This attends to my hunger for days, whereas when I have more food without understanding, it is not long before I again fear that I will not have enough. I become agitated and more fearful and hungry.
Once I could see more subtly how much food it takes to sustain fear at any level, I could live more easily without food. Fear itself is what consumes energy. Without fear or resistance at any level, hunger dissipates. And mind and body enter a different space. Thus, it seems that to be solely self-reliant is to be free of the belief in the fearful, separate, purely surviving self. This allows for an entirely new relationship with the world. The sparse days are then enjoyed as much as the days of plenty.
On a rock ledge, the ravens flew high at the level of my eye. And below, the mountains slid down to the lake’s edge. No houses were along the bank, only ducks, geese and buzzing birds. I joined them.
In this act of doing nothing but walking, for a time I was confronted with thoughts that I am of no contribution to society; I produce nothing that is good for the economy, I am helping no one, no organization; I am using not one talent but this ability to walk which I learned at the age of a year and a half; I am detached from all family; I have no money to give; I am not building any reputation to rely upon; I am nothing, a no one, and I have no plan to be any different. These thoughts—which coincided with a heightened experience of pain—isolated me from each and every one of my fellow humans and from all of nature itself.
Amidst all this I noticed something strange. I was convincing the world of what I perceived myself to be. This believed badness, not covered by trying to be good, was manifesting itself. As I walked dis-graced for my beliefs of what a societal man ought to be, I found the next thing that would perpetuate this feeling.
For example, when I looked at a woman behind the shop register, she looked back at me strangely, and I felt disgraced, ashamed, exposed. Or I would be sitting on a park bench with my pack and notice others are looking at me suspiciously. I perceived only that they regard me poorly, and I would shrink inside. Parents drew their kids closer to them. I was escorted out of a church by the elders for they viewed me as a vagrant. So convincing it was when I was a bum and all the world agreed with me that I was no good, pitiful, no contribution, no addition, a subtraction.
I suffered in the magnified experience of this pain for weeks, through rain, hunger, sleeplessness, up mountains and through soggy lowlands. Finally, I came to this conclusion: “So be bad. Take all the projections of the world and yourself, and cease believing that badness is bad. Just be who you are.” And poof—the negative thoughts and self-projections disappeared.
In this place, I notice the trees moving, shimmering in the breeze. I see the beauty in people’s faces, and they see it in me. When my heart is full and my mind empty, people see not a homeless bum, but themselves in me. Fear is gone, and I walk again simply for the play of it, for the liberty of it.
As I was walking, people would say to me, “You know, I really have wanted to give away everything I have, just leave it all and take off with no thought of coming back. But now I have just a few more years on my pension, or my kid is almost out of school, or I am in debt so I can’t do it—but here, take $20. I love what you are doing, and I can live vicariously through you for a bit if you take this.”
So this is how I would come about money. I soon realized that I really didn’t need it, but turning it away often seemed offensive. Some days while passing through a small city or town, I would give away all the money that I had and see if the giving was shooting myself in the foot. But it wasn’t. Rather, the giving opened up my mind and heart to an abundance that exists regardless of whether I held onto something or not.
In discovering this, I am never wanting for anything, regardless of whether or not I have money. Food always arrives on time, or just in the nick of time. A place to sleep always makes itself known, and my mind and heart are occupied with enjoying the beauties of nature and a clarity of spirit. Money seems just something to pass onto another as a glass of water.
My mind at times found pleasure in the security of knowing I could duck into a coffee shop during foul weather or for a snack, so adhering to the guideline of keeping no money wasn’t always easy. Most often, I was certainly grateful for the money and some of the opportunities it provided, but at times I ran out of things to use the money on and I would end up buying chips and sodas and such that I didn’t really need. What filled me was the liberty that came with allowing myself the opportunity to find out about each and everything I was most curious about in life, and leaving no stone unturned.
Walking with nothing forced me to examine many ideologies that I didn’t like but was afraid to let go of. I had to wrestle with this sociological framework that includes health insurance and
retirement. To embark on a life-long commitment of paying the monthly dues for insurance and the yearly deposits in a 401k, I had to have sustainable employment. The fear of dropping out of this certainty was great. The fear was adversely affecting my health and my excitement to grow old at all. It kept me from doing what I love.
A year before walking, I canceled my health insurance policy. It became apparent that to continue it, I would have to live a life not in line with what made sense to me. I could think of nothing more unhealthy. It was on that day that I became 100 percent responsible for my own health. I also claimed responsibility for any harm incurred by another, such as being hit by a car. I became responsible for anything that happened to me.
The moment I claimed this, I began to see danger or potential problems before they occur. Since I made this declaration and canceled my health insurance policy, I have had only a few ailments, and those were able to be healed by my own resolve.
Many folks told me that with an erratic diet and lack of balance in food, I was not taking care of my body. I had to disagree with them, with my health and wealth of energy and spirit to prove it.
It seems that the less I concern myself with myself or my future, the more the future takes care of itself without my concern. The less I give attention to fears of growing old, the more my mind opens to see things clearly, and the more an earnest joy emerges. Thus, the more I feel of value to others. It seems to me that enjoying oneself completely and entirely to the degree that others also share a true sense of joy, is one’s best retirement plan. This is also one’s best assurance for neither feeling isolated in old age nor feeling one is a burden upon others. To put off this dedication to one’s heart and mind until later is a sure way to need a great deal of retirement benefits and insurances.
It seems that as one attains a peaceful place within oneself, health is assured or cared for, and wealth is a state of being that presents itself regardless of one’s material possessions.
THE CHICKEN COOP
While walking with a monk for a spell, we passed a large chicken coop, chickens clucking and scratching about. The meshed wire structure lay near the open farms and fields, near the woods. Some poked at the wire and fencing. The smell was terrible. The chickens were stuffed into the coop like commuters jammed into a rush hour subway.
A lone chicken was outside of the coop. It had the attention of many of the caged chickens as it ran around the front of the structure. Somehow it had managed to escape through the fencing. It was out. It was free!
But this chicken was far more concerned at how to get back in with its fellow chickens than with its new liberty. Maybe it was just more familiar in there, even though the conditions were miserable. It scrambled around the front of the coop—desperately pecking at the fence and wood trying to get back in. The chickens inside raised the level of clucking as they watched. I pointed it out to the monk. He turned to me and said, “Funny, like us.”
A FEMALE COMPANION
For two months, a female friend joined me on a hike from Pennsylvania to Maine. To walk alone is an entirely different experience than walking with a woman. A lone man had better be prepared to miss a few meals and sleep in the cold and rain.
But the reception of the culture toward a man and woman in tandem is entirely different. It is as though the two receive a key to the country. A wider variety of people were able to open their hearts and homes, for it seemed they felt safer to do so. It seems that a man is automatically less threatening by his association with a woman. And one learns rather quickly that a man suffering in the wind and rain is one thing, but a woman suffering the same cannot go without assistance. Thus, we were invited into homes by many folks that may never have even looked twice at a man alone in the town or along the road. It’s as though people thought, “Well if a woman is okay with this guy, he must be safe.”
My friend and I were never near harm in the least. She was even able to maintain a vegetarian diet. We met beautiful folk along the way. This woman and I were laughing and playing quite a bit, so no doubt we allowed others to feel safe around us. Regardless, it seems that one’s status while walking is elevated enormously simply by the presence of a woman. And now that I think about it, I am not sure that this does not differ when one is not walking at all.
Yet obviously, these benefits do not come without cost. I have found that what I enjoy of walking is the solitude and the communion with silence, with nature. Walking with someone else can be like meditating with someone sitting on your lap.
Opportunities to walk with another woman in the same fashion presented itself on different occasions. All things were uniquely cared for again each time. And for these ventures we each share a place that touches eternity. These tandem walks satisfied any curiosity that remained on the subject of whether a man and a woman, together walking with nothing, could live in bounty. Two can—and equally these walks resolved why a home is sweet.
I did not walk for adventure, to be an outdoor survivalist, or to travel, but more to study and to simultaneously live the study. For me the world is a great place to study oneself and one’s relation to the surroundings—all this with an infinite amount of time at one’s disposal and at the same time without a second to waste. Through this study it seems that I come upon a breath of something infinitely wild and subtle and true.
It is not possible for all individuals to be walking the roads of the country, nor is it necessary in the least. Communication is the walk, silence is the walk, writing is the walk, and reading is the walk. One cannot not walk. A man or woman with no legs can walk. This is the walk. When I stand by a forest’s edge or lie in a cold creek, the walk is right there again. It never ends.
So one walks or drives or dances or does nothing. One accepts, inquires, and does whatever one loves with one’s whole life. What else is there to do?
This excerpt is from An Inquiry Into Living, available at publishersgraphicsbookstore.com. For free materials, or to correspond with the author, write to [email protected]