I run to the rock, please hide me Lord,
All on that day.
But the rock cried out, I can’t hide you,
The rock cried out, I can’t hide you,
The rock cried out, I ain’t gonna hide you guy,
All on that day.
-Nina Simone, “Sinnerman”
From Yucca Valley, I drove on 62 toward the Parker Dam, through the rusty crossroad of Vidal Junction, and charged forth in my pursuit. If there was a part of me that struggled with giving up on California, that part was swiftly replaced by this newest mission. The weekend was already driving me forward with this newest lesson, I mused as I drank water out of my 7-Up bottle. There was something bigger than being solitary, and it was people. I had miscalculated everything, and needed to get to Evelyn and see her.
Once I had a direction and wasn’t sipping, expedition became prudent. I slid diagonally down the southwestern corner of Arizona and finally met up with my old friend I-10. The roads were long and time passed quickly into night. I remember pumping gas at one point in Eloy. The stars were bright that night, in the blackest strip between the two light-polluted horizons of Phoenix and Tucson— the desert was so black, but it seemed softer than it had the night before. I drove until I was too tired, and then parked Astro at a truck stop and napped for 4 hours.
The next morning I woke set on buying a plane ticket. By now my funds had dwindled to $2,200 or so, but I didn’t think twice about the cost. This was a purchase worth making. Coincidentally, New Mexico rest stops had free internet; I pulled into one and booked an Orbitz ticket from New Orleans to London for that Wednesday for $800. I arbitrarily chose to come back the next Tuesday; I figured that would be enough time to do whatever I needed to do in England.
I called Evelyn with the calling card from the road and she picked up.
“How are you doing?”
Good. Listen. I’m flying to England to see you. I’ll be there Thursday morning.
Yeah. I’m done with the West, and I want to see you. I just bought my plane ticket.
“Guillermo, I’m flying to Jordan on Friday.”
…Jordan the country?
“Jordan the country. Why didn’t you call?”
I wanted to surprise you.
“Well, I’m surprised.”
Listen, it’ll be ok. We’ll have one day. It’ll be a good day. Can you clear your schedule and hang out with me on Thursday?
“…sure. I can do that. You’re really coming?”
“This is crazy. Where are you?”
New Mexico, headed east. And yes, crazy. But good.
“O.K. I’ll talk to you later?”
I called up Clint in Biloxi and let him know my plans, to see if he would watch Helicopter. He got really excited about the whole me flying to England to get Evelyn back. Lots of awesome, dude that’s awesome’s. I continued driving and passed the time by calling up friends.
That night outside Ozona, twenty miles from any town, I got pulled over doing 68 in a 65. The trooper acknowledged that I was only slightly speeding, but that he just wanted to check and make sure everything was ok. He made me get out of the van, shined a flashlight in my face, and asked me if I was carrying any of a number of illicit substances. As in, he literally ran through a laundry list: do you have any cocaine, do you have any marijuana, do you have any mescaline, do you have any PCP. When Helicopter barked, he said if I didn’t shut her up he’d be forced to shoot her in self-defense.
There was a lot about that whole situation that was fucked up, but I kept thinking in the back of my head— I’m in the middle of nowhere. There’s barely even traffic on the highway. If this guy wanted to kill my dog and then make up a story about what happened, he could totally, totally do it. Also, he could probably kill me too and make up a story. So I apologized profusely and stood my ground. He made me open the back hatch, which was filled to the brim with all of my stuff, and interrogated me on what I was doing in Texas. I told him I was on vacation and was just trying to get home to Mississippi. Finally, he let me go.
I drove on and on, and grabbed another 6 hour power nap in a rest stop. No real sleep. I remember the San Antonio highway system, which was one of the most complicated combinations of ramps and interchanges I’d encountered in all of my travels. I remember getting gas in Beaumont and thinking about Dally. Thinking I should call her, but that didn’t make sense, I was going to see Evelyn. Finally after all of the driving and thinking, I pulled back into the dusty parking lot mid-afternoon on Tuesday.
I spent the rest of the day relaying parts of my adventures to whoever would listen, Clint, Suzanne, Cora. I told Erin about it, and she marveled. “You’re like some sort of love hero. Go get the girl. Go get her.” I called Ryan and told him I was flying to London. He said that was stupid, but I should have a fun time while I was there. I called Evelyn again, and she wanted to meet me at the airport, so I told her when I was getting in.
The next morning Clint dropped me off at the New Orleans airport. I traveled only with a backpack I borrowed from Brannon, with a couple changes of clothes, some books, my journal, my iPod. Not a lot at all.
On the flight over I wrote in my journal. I wrote down the names of songs, I mused. I listened to the mix playlist I had whipped up for Evelyn. I listened to the playlist of the CD she gave me, songs in other languages like Arabic and French mixed in with Wish You Were Here and that When In Rome song from the 80s. I slept some too, and soon enough I was in London.
Customs asked me where I was going, and I honestly didn’t know anything besides Peckham. Apparently, it’s a big deal when you are traveling to not have an address. The agent got really angry with me, and then asked why I only had one small bag. I told her I was visiting my girlfriend for a few days and hadn’t brought a lot of things. She threatened to put me right back on a plane to the States. All of this happened even before she looked at my passport, and she was not too thrilled that a highlighter had exploded in my bag and that the document was in pretty poor condition. So I had to call Evelyn, who was on the Tube above ground, almost to Heathrow, got her address, stood in line again, and gave it to the customs agent. Even after all of this, she acted like it was this huge favor that she was letting me into the country. But she did let me through, so I finally emerged from the immigration area and there was Evelyn.
It’s not just that airport moments make people more beautiful— Evelyn is literally beautiful. I have and always will believe that. I thought back to Niko’s famous words to me when I’d seen her Americorps team away back in June. She was very beautiful, and never tried to be. She was wearing something floaty and artsy and electric. She smiled shyly when I came through the gate, and shook her head, the brown wisps moving back and forth accordingly.
We hugged and I kissed her on the cheek. Then we took the tube back into London and spent the day together. It was rainy, and she had to stop at the University of London to pick up some papers, so I used the bathroom, brushed my teeth, and put my contacts in. We went back to her apartment in Peckham to take naps. I met her flatmates. We woke up and went off to explore the city. We went to a church because I really wanted to see a Christmas concert, but we were too late. We took a bus. We walked up and down the Thames. She wouldn’t hold my hand, and she was very wary of exactly what had brought me to England. She was happy to see me, but wasn’t sure where I was at. I told her I was changing, I was sure. It wasn’t worth it. This was worth it. I bought a winter coat at Primark for 20 pounds. I tried to kiss her at least three times, but we didn’t kiss until early evening when we ended up in front of the Eye of London, and she stopped me, put her hands on my face, and kissed me on the lips. Then she smiled and took my hand and swung it up like a child as she walked ahead of me, leading me like she was happy with herself. David Blaine was doing a starving magician trick in a box while I was there, so there was a crowd we walked through. We tried to find a place to play billiards, but it was a little much. She was very frugal, so I don’t think we ate out but it’s difficult to remember. We went back to Peckham, she packed for Jordan, and then we made out and spooned, my legs entangled in hers, bent at all the right joints. The next morning we took the Tube back to Heathrow. We bought coffee at a café in the very corner of the windowed terminal, pre-security of course. She was excited to go to the Middle East but was suddenly nostalgic. This was too short, too short. No, I said. It was 28 hours and it was good. This was the start of something. She looked at me with her sharp, beautiful eyes and said, really? Really? This is what you want? I said yes, with all my heart. Oceans are only as big as you make them in your mind. This is what I want. She looked up at me and nodded. There might have been happy tears in her eyes. O.K. I’ll come see you in Cincinnati over Christmas. O.K. Then I walked her over to security and we kissed long, and then we kissed short a bunch of times and hugged each other hard, and then kissed short a few more times, and then she got in line. She turned to wave to me, and then went through.
As soon as Evelyn was gone, I headed back to the Tube and started back in to London. I had e-mailed an old friend from high school that I knew was in London on a Marshall scholarship, and he’d written back to say he worked north of the city in Petersborough. So from the internet café, I went down to King’s Cross, bought myself a ticket, and headed out into the suburbs.
I stared listlessly out the train window and listened to my iPod. It had been a good 28 hours. I felt like I’d won, and that the green, wet world outside was my own. I had travelled, as the crow flew, somewhere around 5,400 miles, and these sorts of things couldn’t possibly work out for everyone. That was simply not the way the world worked, but it would work out for her and me. I felt lucky and proud. I nodded my head to Dire Straits and flew down the tracks.
At the train station I found a pay phone and called Gabe. He was already in London for the weekend, but it was ok that I’d taken the train out— I needed a way to pass the time anyways. I shrugged this off and headed into the station pub with my backpack to get a Widener. I think I had maintained a loose commitment to being thankful that I had a chance to get Evelyn back, and that I needed to take a break. But Evelyn was also on a plane to the Middle East, and at this point I really was operating on my own. And on an adventure like mine, why wouldn’t I stop in the tavern like a weary traveler? This was a perfectly reasonable thing, so I sipped my beer thoughtfully, wrote, and waited for the train to take me back to London.
I eventually met up with Gabe later that afternoon, and I was able to drop my backpack off in his flat. We met up with some other Marshall scholars and international students in a Mediterranean-themed tapas bar. Then we took some time for ourselves and strolled the night streets of the West End. It was a pleasant conversation, to be honest. He and I had been close since we were fourteen, and amidst the paths of our other high school friends, had been two of the ones that forged out into more social-sector oriented work after college. He’d gone to Penn to study business and urban planning, and his work in London was around the 2012 Olympic bid, the potential displacement affect that may have on those lower-income families frequenting the Village site. But beyond that work, we talked about other things, I talked about stasis in the South, he talked about an idea he had for a night-rental kitchen/restaurant space that might rotate on a nightly basis for potential culinary entrepreneurs that couldn’t afford initial capital costs. I remembered D’Vine’s in Biloxi and thought it was a great idea.
He asked about this girl, but laughed a bit at me as well. “You know, Will, there’s always a girl for you. Of all people to end up wandering aimlessly around London over a girl, on a whim, without a plan….you know, why do I even question it anymore? How can I after ten years of this? Whatever happened to Greta? (I shrugged.) Sarena? (D.C., I think.) You know, I saw Liz at a library here. She’s pretty hot these days. (I shrugged again.) Well, it’s always good to see you, Will. You disappeared a bit over the last couple years.” I nodded. It was good to see him too. We were alike in more ways than both being half-Peruvian.
The next day Gabe invited me to come up to Cambridge. He split his time among those three cities, depending on his work schedule; Peterborough, London, Cambridge. It was a nice, quiet university city. We walked along the campus quads, past aged stone walls and through rusty gates and gray archways. It was a fine enough place. Gabe was close friends with one of the university deans, and rented a room in his house. So we went there and I met him, he was very friendly and was happy to give me a guest room. The three of us, along with an Anglican priest that was friends with the Dean, had a pleasant English dinner over red wine.
Gabe and I went out for jazz music and drinks afterwards and chatted more. My plan for the next day was to take a train out to Edinburgh and try and find Laurence Wood. However, I did not know where he was and was afraid that Wood was a bit of a common name. Plus the train was 100 quid. Then I had a thought.
Gabe, what if I walked back to London from here?
Sure. I could do it. I have time to kill, my flight isn’t until Tuesday.
“Will, that’s crazy.”
No, it would be great. I could see the English countryside.
“That’s at least 60 miles.”
Aren’t there hiking trails? I always imagined England to have a trail between every town.
“There are walking paths. But they go through people’s properties, it’s a little dicey.”
It sounds fun.
Gabe sighed and drank his beer as the trumpet player blared on in the dark corner of the pub.
The next morning I bid my thanks to the Dean, and farewell to my good friend, who made me borrow a map of Central England. And with that I started forth on foot through the sunny outskirts of Cambridge. I figured by walking path I could make it to London in two days, and camp outside a farm around Barrington for the night. I’d just make sure I skirted the A10 the whole way down, and there were enough country roads along the way that I wouldn’t have to hear the highway too often. Retrospectively, I probably should have checked my math; more than that, I probably should have done more than eyeballed
I walked happily through the light rain, cognizant that my backpack was getting wet but not minding. The only electronics I had was my iPod, and I hadn’t even brought a charger for it. My journals were wrapped in a plastic grocery bag. One thing I began to lament, however, was my Primark coat. It was the opposite of waterproof. But it was warmer than nothing, at least for now. I continued along over the M11, over tractor-trailers and more comfortable travelers, and continued southeast. Eventually I caught a farm road and trudged along the meager shoulder, head down. At times there was nowhere to walk but the road, so I timed these asphalt dashes between spots of cars and tried my best to get far enough before the next car came. I had some chips (crisps, as it were) and a bottle of water.
Eventually I passed through the town center of Haslingfield— there weren’t many people out and about at all, but it seemed very pleasant and bucolic. I marched on and soon found myself walking at a constant pitch up a long road called Chapel Hill. It was here that I saw my big English countryside, with sweeping green hills to my left, trees to the right, and not too many cars. I had a good 20 minutes or so with just my thoughts. I picked some flowers I committed to sneaking into the U.S. I continued on and eventually the hill turned down in elevation, past a rock yard, and cut east into Barrington. A little way into the town, I stumbled upon the sign I’d been waiting for: Walking Path.
I cut from the street route for the adventure of the path, which led me down a muddy trail toward a horizon of farm fields. The sprinkling rain continued. Eventually I made a wrong turn of some sort in the ambiguous trail that was hard to follow and found myself following a harvest line that ended suddenly at a creek about ten feet wide. I didn’t want to backtrack, so I followed the water until I found a ford of rocks that looked navigable. I carefully stepped across the stones, holding my backpack above my head; it was almost Oregon Trail perfect right up until I slipped two feet from the other bank and got my entire right leg wet.
I shook it off and continued slogging through a new field. There wasn’t a road or house in sight, but I knew I was on some sort of plot of land from the way the trees squared off. I walked along and ran into some train tracks eventually. I climbed up an embankment and turned right, walking along the ties and content that I’d eventually run back into a town. While I was walking across a bridge section of the trestle over a gully, I suddenly heard a train behind me. But hurrying across took five seconds, and then I scampered down the embankment and waited for the train to pass; not nearly as dramatic as Stand By Me.
From that point on, the train track was fenced off from the fields (in the best interest of trains and cows) so I walked on, past the Shepryth African Jungle Zoo (“with a LIVE tiger!” I felt sad for whatever tiger lived here) and finally reached a train platform, where I climbed up. There was only one person on the platform to stare, but just as soon I was down a staircase and back out to the road toward town.
I had to use the bathroom, so I stopped in a slightly fancy bar/restaurant in town to do that, buy a beer, write in my journal, and consult the map. I was a bit cognizant of my dampness and condition, but ignored it. I finally did the math and figured out that the distance from Cambridge to London wasn’t 60 miles, it was 87 miles. I decided at that point to maintain an escape plan and stick to the railway. If need be, I could hop the train and just cheat into the city, figure something else out to do. It was 1:00 P.M., and I’d been walking for five hours.
I walked on, and on. I found another pub after a few hours and wrote this:
I’ve made it to a town on the outskirts of Royston called Melbourne. My feet are starting to ache, but a woman I met says it’s only 45 minutes to the city. At this point I’ve become a bit disillusioned— it doesn’t seem feasible to do this, even to where the Tube comes farthest out, without buckling and taking the Rail. I’ll reassess in Royston I suppose, but another problem lay with the lack of towns past Royston. Night falls soon. Should I trek on? We’ll see.
I went to a package store, bought two bottles of cheap wine, a can of Boddington’s, and some jerky, and got back on the road. The clouds had opened up, and the falling sun was brown-gold over the western fields. The cars and trucks zipped by at a regular pace, and it was part of a different kind of beautiful. The walking path paralleled 10 at this section, and would until the intersection with 505. When I finally did get to the outskirts of Royston, I walked a bit into a wooded area. I found a place that was set off and visually insulated from the road. There was even trash, an empty bag, empty bottles, from where some past wanderer had made camp with the same idea.
I sat down on the ground and content with the progress I’d made, opened up my tall beer. I closed my eyes and leaned back to hear the irregular zoom of traffic, and mostly the chill wind on my cheeks. I heard a sudden rustling, and looked down. 25 meters away I could barely see the shuffling pace of a skinny blonde boy with spectacles walking alone down a path between this wooded area and a walled development. His backpack was way too big for him, and he walked alone.
I watched him for a moment and had a sudden thought: I don’t want him to see me. He couldn’t and didn’t, but the strange thing was that I didn’t want to escape unnoticed lest I get caught for loitering, or public intoxication. I didn’t want him to see me because I didn’t want him to suddenly be afraid on his path, of this path that was part of where he lived and who he was. And then on a deeper level, I realized who I represented in that equation. I represented the unknown. Fear. Strangers. Of course parents warned their children about strangers, why wouldn’t they when homeless, muddy, drunk foreigners frequented the woods next to their homes with no plans and plenty of bottles. I felt self-loathing, and gulped my Boddington’s in the secret dead leaves. Soon the boy passed, with no indication of noticing me, kicking rocks and headed toward traffic lights.
I waited in the woods for another twenty minutes, and then decided to go into Royston. Maybe I could find a cheap hostel, or maybe I’d walk on into the countryside. Maybe I could get some beers in a Pub and make friends. By now it was dusk, but it was past 5 o’clock and I was bored. So I walked through the entirety of this town, found the train station, all the main streets, walked by all the restaurants and pubs and glanced in all the windows, then after a couple hours of this finally slunk into yet another nameless pub. It was there, over a couple more beers and whiskey and silent observance of a number of semi-skilled darts games in the corner, that I wrote this:
Royston. Bars, I suppose. Ipod nostalgia— skimmed down Main Street past where King James the First signed Sir Walter Raleigh’s death warrant, listening to Reverse Cowgirl and Beth Putnam’s shrieks of delight. Only a little time left to kill before the flight, and the triumphant return of Ryan and I to the Christmas party. I worry often about this confessional, this abyss from which no one needs to hear circumstance, but such is the nature of the creator within media. England, twenty miles today at any rate, and yet still I doubt myself. I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight. It may be King’s Cross. A short eleven hours to wait before I’m within my window and can check into Heathrow. I don’t know. Oh Springsteen or Seger, dictate my life and make it good and pure, or help me to do so at any rate. Help me write that book of poems about cities, and daffodils. In a strange way at this point, I wonder if London by night may be in fact safer than trekking on in the dark without a flashlight through the countryside. So London. London it is.
With that, I decided to abandon the long walk, bid farewell to the Hertfordshire adventure, and ride a train into London. It’d be easier to find a place to crash there. I was hardy. If worse came to worse, I could just take the tube to Heathrow and sleep in the departures area. I sauntered back down the Royston main road and down to the train platform. At this point, I didn’t really care who thought what of me and started drinking the first of my bottles of wine out of a brown paper bag. The train arrived eventually, I boarded with the return ticket I still had from Cambridge, grabbed a seat in the back of the train, drank more wine, and fell asleep in my big, wet Primark coat. Later, a train attendant woke me up and I stumbled onto the King’s Cross platform. It might have been 10 or 10:30, and I was drunk. I walked out of the station and looked around London. There was a Burger King around the corner, some shadows wandering here and there, but I suddenly didn’t want to descend into dark London without a plan. So I kept to the same M.O. I had maintained eight days before in the Arizona desert. I kept moving.
I took the tube to Heathrow. Along the way, I decided now that Gabe and I had parted ways, that I didn’t actually have a reason to stay in England and I might as well catch a standby flight. So I walked off the Tube and entered the airport. I found a payphone and called Ryan, who picked up.
“Dude, how’s England?”
Shitty. I tried to walk from Cambridge to London. Got 20 miles, and then got drunk instead. What are you doing?
“Outside Houston, trying to get to New Orleans around midnight. Kellie’s letting me set up my tool bank. Tahoe was a wash. I still think we could have toughed it out if you hadn’t ditched me.”
Maybe. It was too cold. Can you pick me up from Louis Armstrong tomorrow afternoon if I fly stand-by?
“Yeah, dude, definitely. It’d be fun to hang out in Biloxi for the night.”
Perfect. I’ll buy you a drive-thru daiquiri on the way. And give you gas money.
“Sounds good, buddy. Where are you right now, anyways?”
The airport. I’m gonna sleep in arrivals until the ticket windows open, then try to get out of here early.
“How’d things go with Evelyn?”
Good. She took me back. But I’ve gotta get out of Europe. I feel like I’m running low on luck.
I hung up the phone, ditched the rest of my wine in a trash can in the bathroom, found arrivals, and cozied up across from an African family. I fell asleep in a few minutes, and woke up what seemed like a second later to two police officers standing before me.
“Hey, get up. Do you speak English? Get up.”
I opened my eyes and got to my aching, aching feet.
“You smell awful. You don’t look like you’re catching a flight out of here anytime soon. Does he look like that to you, Kate?”
Kate shook her head. “Certainly doesn’t. Do you have any identification?”
I handed the police my wet passport out of my bag. While I was in there, I fished out my itinerary, which also had water damage but was thankfully legible. One of the officers called in my passport information, while the other stood there next to me. I pointed out my flight information and told them that I was waiting for stand-by.
“So what have you been doing in the U.K.?”
I came to see a girl. Then she left. Then I visited with a friend. Then I went hiking. Then I fell in a creek. Then I decided I’d go back to the States early.
The police officers looked at each other, and then back to me.
“Is that why your passport is soaking wet? (I nodded) So why are you sleeping here and not…Peckham?”
Frankly, ma’am, it’s a long story. The girl I came to visit left the country to go on vacation.
Sort of. That’s why I flew here. And it’s been great, but confusing, and I’m sort of at my wits end, and just want to get back home as soon as possible, on the earliest flight possible. And thought my stand-by chances were better if I were first at the window three hours from now.
Finally, they nodded, handed me my passport, and left to check on other vagrants in the arrivals area. Which was reasonable; as we’d been talking, I looked around and realized I wasn’t the only crafty homeless man who thought to game the system and get a dry place to sleep by pretending to be an early flight passenger.
I was wide awake and it was 2 A.M., so I fished out some books I’d been working on here and there, and finished A Brave New World. Then I started Jitterbug Perfume, which sucked me in quickly as Tom Robbins does, and soon it wasn’t difficult to suck down Diet Cokes from the vending machine and pour through that one. Soon the hours passed, I successfully secured my stand-by spot, and was back off across the pond. I changed into my driest clothes in the airport, and stuffed my coat in Brannon’s backpack, and even then I worried about the poor souls that had to sit next to me. But I couldn’t do anything about it. And then I fell asleep and it didn’t matter.
I got to Dulles and had a long layover before a leg to Atlanta where I befriended a bartender, and then another to New Orleans. I felt above all things, confused. Time had sort of lost meaning, and I did feel a bit like the trip had been a dream. But weeks had seemed like a dream by this point. I eventually flew out, and Ryan eventually picked me up, and we got those drive-thru daiquiris and drank them while we flew across the I-10 Lake Pontchartrain bridge, and I realized that we’d extended lawlessness from the South to the world long, long ago, musing as the quick highway air tore cigarette ashes from my fingers like solar wind, and it was all a big, confusing dream awake, and then I realized the only thing I cared about was the sunset.