That morning I sat against the wall, sleeping bag over my legs and staring at nothing in particular. My mind was turning gray. I could feel it losing creativity like pigments being burnt white from the sun. Hope was draining too. Hope as a general sunniness near the horizon has followed me through life, but now it was hazy far away, the horizon was indefinite and I couldn’t see the sun at all.
I tapped the back of my head against the wall, maybe to spark some sleeping neurons awake, maybe to feel the dull pain. A coffee would substitute genuine enthusiasm for a little while, but I left my stove in Bogotá so had to settle for water and a peanut butter and jelly.
At seven I was packed. As I pressed further south and the southern hemisphere neared summer the days were growing longer so I didn’t need to wake as early. The stretch of desert ahead of me was four hundred kilometers. At the end of those four hundred kilometers was the sprawling mass of Perú’s capital city, Lima. And in the capital city was fraternity brother and native Peruvian, Arturo. I needed a good friend as much as anytime in my life. The monotony of walking was wearing on me.
Entrails of the Andes reached the ocean; sandy mountains which stabbed at the slate blue sky and trapped a little life in their valleys. Between the valleys, where dusty cars and dusty men drew lines in the sand, was the ascending then descending pavement of the Pan-American and the faint taste of salt left in the air from the nearby ocean.
There were towns, places passed over, like leftovers deposited in a gutter. Silicon Valley had a generation wired on amphetamines, China was merging cities into mega-cities, and religious fanatics were decapitating heretics in the Middle East, all the while the townspeople in the mountain’s gutter stubbornly tilled the dry land to eek out their seventy years. They were the distillation of mankind spinning on his blue orb. The universe was exploding with activity while mankind whittled in obscurity, his time short and his impact imaginary.
Children with dust on their cheeks stood by their doorways to watch me pass. I saw the children at every age, not so much people, but as scratches against space-time. They were dust and babies and teenagers and grandparents and dust again. They were dust forever and men for only a minute. The sand soon overtook them.
The poorest children bided their time behind bamboo walls the same color as the land. The bamboo was matted down then woven. The walls were a few millimeters thick at most. They provided no insulation, though they didn’t need any, and reminded me of my placemats at home. I thought of the millions of people in nice suburbs who considered themselves unlucky.
At noon I sat scooping peanut butter from the jar with a spoon and thought maybe the landscape was dulling me. Maybe my thoughts were being dyed by the sand. I wasn’t sure though, I couldn’t follow the train of thought.
Savannah dug a hole by the rock I was sitting on and laid herself in it. I put on my down jacket. The winter desert was cool when not moving.
Across the street narrow concrete polls carried a single electrical wire through the desert. The wire was sometimes split to reach a house, but never to the bamboo houses, in those homes there was no hot water, no electricity, only propane for cooking and the ceaseless wind.
I capped my jar of peanut butter then got moving. The miles didn’t come easy. My mind wandered, I grew anxious. Two miles felt like six.
The week before, back in Chimbote, I spent my time writing and studying photography. It was a productive, if not sluggish, week. But now that I was on the road again I felt pathetic. My photography wasn’t that good and my writing wasn’t worth more than the kindle it was printed on.
In Colombia I finished writing a book about my first year of walking but when I sent queries to literary agents I received radio silence in return. It was my fourth attempt to get a book published over five years. I was growing fed up with the literary gatekeepers; faceless bodyguards smacking me aside without a word. They were putting me in crisis. Maybe my writing wasn’t any good. Maybe I couldn’t pull a plot in a straight line. Maybe my grammar is off.
Other than general schooling and stacks of writing books I read after college, I never had any training. Perhaps I should have worked as a journalist somewhere so I had an editor. I didn’t know. I was a man in the dark, holding out his manuscript and waiting for someone to take it. There was no method but to put something on paper.
I just wanted some illumination, some sign that I was at least holding out my work in the right direction.
“I’m losing my mind out here.”
From beside the cart Savannah glanced back at me. Her tongue lolled as she walked. The tips of some teeth showed, as though she was perpetually interested and pleased by everything that was going on.
The hours waned. If I were in a more populated area I would have started searching for a place to sleep at four thirty, but in the desert I’d walk until finding an empty building. And if I kept on until sunset and found no structure for the night then I’d just walk into the windy desert and prop my tent there.
Just before five I came to a dirt road which led to a fishing town. At the entrance of the road was a restaurant. I parked my cart outside the restaurant then found myself a seat inside with Savannah.
A family smiled at Savannah, then to me. The restaurant was spacious, there was loads of green ceramic floor, maybe I could convince the owner to give me a plot for the night. The prospect of reentering the desert was about as welcome as a mouthful of sand.
After some time a giant of a man, skull like an oversized sledgehammer, brought a menu to me. I ordered fish, since we were beside the ocean.
“Where are you coming from?” asked the giant gently.
The giant pointed his giant arm to the far wall. “We’ve had another walker. Go see.”
I dropped Savannah’s leash and she went straight for a girl who’d been cooing at her. “Oh, how cute!” cried the girl when Savannah put her front paws on her lap. I smiled to the family as I crossed to the far wall.
My eyes lit up once I saw the familiar picture. Karl Bushby, my idol, hands to his chest, face wrapped against the sand, standing in the Peruvian desert – the very picture which has been burnt in my head since seventeen when I first realized I could walk around the world.
“I know him!” I said to the giant across the room. “Before I left I spoke with him! That’s Karl Bushby.”
The giant came over. “He started in walking in 2000.”
“No, it was earlier, ’97 I think.”
“Oh. That’s right. He was here in 2000.”
I stepped up to the framed articles and pictures of Bushby, my nose a centimeter from the glass. They were pictures I’d seen before but they seemed new, as though for the first time I was seeing a diamond in the ground rather than seeing it polished on someone’s finger.
The Goliath Expedition – printed boldly over the articles.
A world-record walk around the world!
The articles, I’d read them already, ten years before. They were printouts and must have been mailed by Bushby or printed by the owners of the restaurant.
I inspected Bushby in the desert, covered head to toe, only his hands bare, his two-wheel cart behind him and attached to his belt, looking like some kind of desert spawn, a creature adapted to endless days. But he was only human and in the picture he was young. His face wasn’t visible, but the indomitable spirit of youth radiated from him.
“Bring you cart in,” said the giant, breaking my focus.
I turned around. “Huh?”
“Bring your cart in so nothing gets robbed.”
“Oh, yea, okay.”
I went outside to the cart and as I brought it inside the giant guided me to an area behind the register counter. In this other area was an old man with a mask over his mouth going over a collections of books on his table.
“Right there is good. Here. Sit, sit.” The giant pulled a chair out for me at the table with the old man.
I didn’t know quite what was going on, why I was being given special treatment, but I sat with the old man and his books.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Your friend.” The old man passed me an open book.
Scrawled on the blue-lined page was the drawing of a man in hiking boots and patched pants, a two wheel cart attached to his belt and a British flag flying – Karl Bushby. Above and below the drawing was a note.
ON FOOT FOR THE WORLD RECORD!!
Punta Arenas – London. No planes, no ships, no cars, no buses, no train and…
NO BIKE !
36,000 miles / 57,000 kms (-7,300 km)
11 years (-1 year 4 months)
Alone in a bad ass world, chin straight with just enough money in my pocket to rub two pennies together, little food or water. Then, stumble out of the desert into this place and find the kindest man on Earth, Clemente. God bless you dear old chap! Fed me like a king, restores my faith in humanity, pay your respects to this man, people! Met lots of bikers. Love you all, say “hi” as you zoom past and leave me choking in your dust. If you’re a Brit: STOP BEING A GIRL AND GET ON YOUR FEET ! !
I read the note over and over, pausing at each word, trying to discover its second and third meaning, as though I were brushing at a fossil to reveal its totality. The world around me was silent as I went over the note a fifth, sixth, seventh time.
Bushby had drawn a map too, marking points of interest – nice and green, bad arse desert, lots of fun, cute girl – I suddenly realized I needed to take up cartography.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I’d spoken to Bushby once in my life, for fifteen minutes. I’d never met him in person and he likely forgot about me the moment we got off our phone call. Yet other than my parents and a few friends, Bushby was the only person who could have written a note that mattered to me. He was just a man, I understood that, but for me he was also an idea fossilized in my personality for over ten years.
In a manner I was equal to Bushby. I wasn’t walking a single unbroken path from South America to the U.K., I didn’t cross the Darien Gap on foot and I wouldn’t be the first person in the modern era to swim/walk the Bering Strait. However, I was walking around the world.
Despite knowing intellectually Bushby was just as human as I was, reading the note from him was the first time I ever felt viscerally impacted by a historical object. I was stunned that he was in the same restaurant, had written a note after coming in from the desert, and sixteen years later I was holding his note, looking into his thoughts. Only walking around the world could enable such a moment. I’d walked over six thousand miles to stumble upon a restaurant in the middle of the desert. Any other manner of arriving and the note wouldn’t have held the same weight.
“Where is he now?” asked Clemente, across from me.
“It’s been a long time. When was that written? Ten, fifteen years ago?”
“Sixteen. He’s been walking for over sixteen years.”
I was lightened. The haze from the horizon was clearing. I could feel the sparks returning to my brain – to be even comparable to Bushby. I was a very, very fortunate man, living my dream. From seventeen to twenty-seven I dreamt of being in the Peruvian desert. Now I was there, ten years from the beginning, reading a note from my idol.
“There’s more.” Clemente reached across the table and swept aside a paper covering a page I assumed was empty.
Whatever your plans, go for it! Keep on the road. Drive hard. Live it!
Rage on you crazy mothers you!
That was it, exactly what I needed, an outside voice confirming I was nuts, but to keep walking anyway.