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Walking, a biography

The wind in advance of the storm didn’t start until I’d walked about a mile from the golf course. The weather had been threatening rain all day, but it never came. The storms tracked east to west just south of us, trailing rain like gray curtains. I tried to call home to see if I could get a ride, but the phone was busy, and besides rides were tough in my house. After all, my dad used to say, you can walk a long way in the time it takes to get your shoes, coat, and keys.

This was summer and the days were long. I had just done two loops for five dollars a shot, after walking the four miles to the golf course at 6 a.m. I arrived around 7:15 and, since I wasn’t an in-demand caddy, I had to wait. My first customer, a dewy man who looked like a rotund English schoolteacher, started out around 8:30 a.m. That guy shot 113 and took five and half hours to walk the course. I waited another hour and was just set to go home when a middle-aged businessman who was buff and hearty for his age pulled my card. We practically ran the course, finishing the round in just under three hours.

By 6:30 p.m., I was well on my way home, only another three miles to go, when the sky closed above me and the early evening turned into dim twilight. I leaned into the wind, which had shifted to the north. State Line Road had no sidewalks, just miles of uneven yards and fields. Oaks and what was left of the American elms lined the road between long fence lines that opened into rows of corn on the Kansas side.

Just before the rain began, a cop pulled over and asked if I wanted a ride. She looked at me and said, “There’s hail coming with this one.” I climbed inside the cruiser just as blinding rain fell. Hail started to fall just a minute later. She drove about three hundred yards when she got a call on her radio.

“Sorry, kid,” she said. “Duty calls.”

She pulled over to the side and jerked her thumb up, indicating my time had come. I watched her lights disappear down the hill. It was raining so hard that it took only a second to cover my glasses, which then fogged up. I tried to take them off to see if I could get a better look at things but should have known that my eyesight wasn’t going to carry me through. I looked down and started walking blindly along the curb. It was nearly dark as night.

Lightning cracked the sky, blitzing down and freezing for a second before fading into points. The thunder hit immediately. I quickened my pace. Lightning struck several more times, so close that the thunder came with the flash. I wasn’t so much frightened as I was despairing over my plight. Sure, I was thirteen and had ten bucks in my pocket. But that money represented 12 miles of walking and over thirteen hours from the time I left the front door to the time I would return.

I remember getting in the front door, having walked those last three miles in a heavy thunderstorm, and finding that no one thought about me. “Oh, you’re home,” my mom said matter-of-factly as she looked up from the television. “You’re dinner’s cold.”

I would have been stunned at the heartlessness of it all had this behavior not been the norm.

Walking was my life until I got a car, and even then, walking played a big part in who I was to become. To walk is to find myself, listen to my innermost thoughts. Through walking I create myself, work things through, get some perspective on what’s happening in my life. I didn’t come to walking willfully or with much glee. Getting to the point I am now, where I walk two to four miles a day—40-80 minutes, depending on my mood and irrespective of weather—took time, force, and, ultimately, raw will.

My dad made me walk to my Cub Scout baseball practice at Sunnyside Park. This is the first I remember of being alone with the rhythm and bounce of my gait. I put my glove on a baseball bat and took off from 9915 State Line Road for the hour or so walk. We’d have practice for an hour and a half, and I walked in the dark, arriving home about 7:30. Then, there was homework, bath, and bed.

In winter, I walked to the school gym to play basketball. I wasn’t very good at sports, baseball and basketball eluded me. But I wanted to be part of something. My dad wouldn’t drive me to practices. I had to either bum a ride with Joe Bushman, who lived south of us, or walk. Joe’s dad didn’t like much having to take care of someone else’s kid. More often than not, I walked, rain or shine, to my school events.

Then came teenage summers. Most the kids in my neighborhood cut grass for a living during the summer. They mowed and raked and trimmed. The made out like bandits. Their dads bought new mowers and kept them in good shape. My dad had used mowers that usually wouldn’t start. They had to be coaxed and talked to. They sometimes worked and most often did not. I tried mowing the neighbor’s grass for a while. But I was a poor worker with shoddy tools and they gave me up.

The recourse was caddying. My dad had caddied when he was a kid, and he had to walk from 42nd and Locust out to Mission Hills Country Club, a distance of about three and a half miles. He made caddying sound like the gold fields of California. The money was there for the taking. You just had to show up and carry a golf bag.

It turns out that there was a little more to the caddying thing than just carrying a bag. There were caddyshack politics. You had to be a popular guy to get a good place in line. Some members had regular caddies they worked with. If you were a guy like me, however, you sat on the bench and took scraps. A lot of guys made more than the minimum $5 a round. I think, in the two years I caddied—every Tuesday through Saturday—I only had two people give me more than the minimum.

Frankly, I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to get a real job. Then, I wouldn’t have to walk as far and I would at least make minimum wage.

But it was the walking that really hooked me. I hated caddying but came to love, grudgingly, the walking. It was time to myself outside the frenzy and panic of home life. There were no siblings to fight with, no dad to beat up on me, and no mom to make me do chores. I bobbled along, slapping my hands on my legs in time. I made up songs and lived a whole life outside my own during those long walks out to the golf course.

When I was 16, I bought my first car, a 1976 Pinto Station Wagon. Say what you want about the Ford Motor Company, but that car was half good. It ran most times and got me back and forth to my first job at Gates and Sons Barbeque, and then, later to Hickory Farms at the mall.

I gave up walking for the most part until I moved out of my house and had a Chevette. It worked only part of the time. Fortunately, I lived in Midtown. There was a corner grocery (J&G Market, “Where shopping is not a chore”). The liquor store was two blocks away. When I was in school, I walked. Westport, where I drank sometimes with friends, was less than a half mile away. I may not have had a decent car, I had shoe leather.

Little did I realize in those days that I would find myself at home walking the 1,450 miles to Helena, Montana, from my house at Gillham Park. Those first days were scary, but after I got used to the fact that I was on my own, I began to live in that world in my head that walking created.

Now, years later, I still walk. Weather doesn’t matter, it never really did. I’ve walked in every season, kind of weather, and conditions you can imagine. Cold, snow, and wind; sun and heat; rain, lightning, and hail. I like especially walking in the dark.

Sometimes I walk just for the hell of it, but often these days to exercise the dogs. They have to get out every day. I generally walk at night. I could walk them the minimum, which is about two miles, but I often take them further. The world is always new when I take off on the road. No matter how many times I’ve walked the streets and alleys of my neighborhood and downtown, they always reveal new secrets.

I estimate I walk 1,000 to 1,200 miles a year on average. And I think of how I used to hate to walk. I think of it when I make my son walk the dogs. He hates it. But maybe someday he’ll get it.

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