Dear Readers,

I am placing the full text from my novel FOREVER GOODBYE, below, on this page. I wrote the novel mainly in a first-person journal style.  If you enjoy the book, please submit a review on Amazon, and please tell other people they can come here to read the book. Also, please send me comments to: admin@kephapress.com. I hope you enjoy the book.

Thank you for visiting,

Tom Johnson

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Copyright © 2021 Tom Johnson – (United States)

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in retrieval systems, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is coincidental. The author uses real-world situations in a strictly fictional manner.

Great news: Amazon has the softcover version on their site for $4.43. That is a 66% discount. GO HERE. 

FOREVER GOODBYE (A NOVEL):

Journal Entry 1 (JE 1)

JUNE 22ND is the worst day of the year.

It’s unavoidable. Every year the day comes and goes. There’s no stopping it, no controlling it, no way to halt the pain from rolling over me like a tidal wave. I hate the day.

To make matters worse, the day before, June 21st, I was filled with joy when I married the love of my life. At that time, I had no idea that the best day of my life would wash away in a wave of excruciating pain in less than twenty-four hours.  

It was a spectacular wedding. My memory is imprinted with the images of Kailyn standing with her father at the rear of the church. She took my heart away with her stunning beauty. Her gorgeous white bridal dress with delicate lace pouring over her shoulders, her long dark brown hair pulled back into a bun, a slight wisp of curled hair flowing down her right cheek, the beauty of her bouquet, her amazing eyes piercing the space between us. She held me spellbound as she walked down the aisle. I was the luckiest and most blessed man on earth.

Until my life was shattered to pieces.

The accident was not caused by snow or ice or another act of nature. It was not the product of poor driving decisions. It was not the consequence of someone driving under the influence. It didn’t occur because of distractions, such as cell phone use. No, none of those. The cause of the accident was simple; it has made a peaceful life for me impossible. It was the worst day of my life. There’s nothing I can do about the ache and loneliness filling my heart.

We were young and in love. We didn’t care about a fancy honeymoon—we planned for two weeks of being alone. We remained at our wedding reception until ten o’clock, at which time we changed into comfortable clothes and left quietly for our trip. Kailyn had made plans with her best friend to keep our wedding gifts until we returned.

We planned to enjoy a cross-country driving honeymoon that would take us from Illinois to the west coast, then north to Washington, followed by a leisurely drive home. We had mapped out the towns and cities we’d stay along our route. We had many miles to reach our first stop, a mountain resort west of Denver, Colorado, where we booked a honeymoon suite.

While enjoying our post-wedding giddiness, the miles passed by with incredible swiftness, though we were tiring from the long trip. I stopped for donuts and two large cups of coffee, hoping the caffeine would keep us sharp in our final push through the mountains and to the resort.

About an hour later, we were in the mountains when the coffee began speaking to me, causing me to need a restroom stop in a hurry. It didn’t take long before I saw a beautiful rest area amid the peaks. The lot was filled to the brim, with no spaces left. I waited and waited. No one left the lot. Later I learned there was an overlook behind the visitor station where more than a hundred people were viewing the Rocky Mountains from a large platform.

 I parked our car in an open spot of grass next to the lot. Kailyn was sleeping soundly. Noticing the ring on her finger and recalling that we had not yet been married for a full day, my heart melted with love as I paused to gaze at her—even while sleeping, she radiated incredible beauty.

I didn’t have the heart to wake her fully; instead, I nudged her to tell her I was going to the restroom. She mumbled something unintelligible. I shut off the engine, placed the manual transmission into gear, and made a dash to the men’s room. A simple and natural act—so, I thought.

After the bathroom, our car wasn’t visible anywhere. With growing concern, I ran to the end of the lot searching for the vehicle. It wasn’t there. Many possibilities of where it might be entered my mind. The simplest explanation was Kailyn had woken and decided to move the car to an open parking spot.

After running back and forth across the lot, it became evident our car was nowhere in sight. All kinds of thoughts entered my mind.

Sweating profusely, with rising fear, I returned to the location where I had left the car.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, on June 22nd, after peering at the ground where my wife should still sit sleeping inside our car, a nauseous wave overtook me while viewing light tire marks leading to a frightening vertical drop about fifty feet away. Following the trail and approaching the drop-off, I collapsed to the ground and vomited.

Peering over the edge and glancing across at least 1,000 feet of vertical space, I saw our car below, holding Kailyn. It was split into two pieces and utterly flattened from gravity’s harsh action upon the automobile. I’ve never been so close to passing out. No Hollywood-like explosions were coming from the ravine; instead, there was the knowledge that no human could survive the wreckage filling my eyes.

Kailyn was gone, it was my fault, I’ll live with that forever.

JE 2

The investigations lasted four long days, after which, I moved robot-like through the burial of Kailyn.

The investigators didn’t directly blame me; however, their report revealed the cause of the crash was my fault. In my rush to relieve myself, I hadn’t engaged the manual transmission fully causing it to slip out of gear. My wife gently, perhaps still sleeping inside the car, rolled over the cliff. The site investigators told me there was no way for me to know the gear wasn’t engaged fully, but I knew it was my fault.

     Dreams haunt me every night. I can’t stop wondering, did Kailyn wake before the car plummeted? Did she try to press the brake? Did she know what was about to happen to her? I’ll never possess the answers to those and a hundred other questions. I’ll never know why my new wife of fewer than twenty-four hours, the absolute love of my life, was taken from me that day. And, like those on the Titanic who after hearing their fate, realized there was nothing they could do about their situation, I too can’t do a thing about what happened to my beloved. She’s gone. It’s my fault. There’s nothing that will ever change those facts.

     My name is Aaron Wright. I hate June 22nd.

JE 3

A little background about us. Before our wedding, we purchased a house together in a quiet suburb west of Chicago in a small town called Oak Valley, Illinois.

We wanted kids. As Catholics, we were ready to start a family soon, which was why we purchased the house. Kailyn lived with her parents until the wedding, while I worked on the house getting it ready for her to move in after we returned from our honeymoon.

I don’t think I’ve said often enough how beautiful Kailyn was and that we were best friends when we were kids. We were next-door neighbors. You’ve heard the tale before, a boy and girl grow up around each other as kids, were best friends throughout, fall into a mature love while attending the same college. We knew we’d marry one day; we even did the corniest acts of all by carving our married name into the bark of a local tree. We caught a lot of grief from our friends for that one; we didn’t care what they thought.

How does one adjust to a life without the person you shared it with for all the years your memory holds? Think of toddlers when they finally get out of diapers and when their memories start taking on permanence; apply that to Kailyn and me. She’s always been there, from my earliest recollections until the moment we tied the knot before our parish Priest. Losing her didn’t just leave a hole in my life; in a significant way, it changed my identity. We were so close since early childhood that it remains surreal for me to think of life without her. It’s not a concept I can easily accept.

I can’t see roses without thinking of Kailyn. She loved them in any color, especially peach. Each time I bought her flowers, it was always of the same hue—peach.

Since that day, no one in my life has told me I must move on. It was easy to see it in their eyes, hear it in their tones, and discern it in the careful selection of words they used. They were probably right. But I couldn’t move on. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to breathe without the sense a massive weight is crushing me. We breathed the same air for so long that I’m not certain how to move forward.

JE 4

 Work became almost impossible. Life meant little to me in general, though money was not an issue. Kailyn’s death was ruled an accident which caused the life insurance company to release a substantial survivor benefit to me. Our young age allowed us to secure inexpensive life insurance in high amounts that allowed us not to have to work in the event anything happened to either of us. I had taken out policies for both of us at the place I worked. We never dreamed we would have to use survivor benefits. I suppose all young people feel the same.

The funny thing about a safety net such as life insurance; people purchase the coverage as protection. They want their loved ones to go on without financial problems, but it’s something no one ever wants to use because it signifies a loss, a profound and painful loss. Still, for me, it’s better to have it, than to have something else to pull me down.

 I work as a technology manager. I secured the job immediately after college. Once the company hired me, I loved it so much that I worked many extra hours above what my salary paid; it didn’t bother me a bit. But after the accident, the job became much more burdensome than enjoyable. I hated everything about my daily routines—waking, eating, showering, dressing for the job which required managers at my level to wear professional clothes, suits, and such. It all was cumbersome.

 I used to love wearing suits and ties to work; it was as if the clothes marked my place. But it began to feel as if the formal attire was mocking me because the real problem was that I no longer enjoyed my work, and my bosses were starting to notice. They were more than fair for months after Kailyn’s death, but, patience, even among the most reasonable executives, has its limits in the workplace. The job must get done, and I was not getting it done anywhere near the level required.

I was often late to work, though I tried to make up for that by staying longer each day. My extended hours were a consequence of having nothing to go home to. Also, two years before Kailyn and I were married, both my parents had passed away. They left this earth at a too young 72 years old. Mom and Dad knew each other long before they married. As professors at a local college, they worked together for years before they tied the knot

I was an only child, and their passing, along with the loss of my wife in that shattering accident, means I get to wander through life without any close family. My mom and dad were awesome; they loved each other through 35 years of marriage. My father died first; two months later, my mother passed—they didn’t want to be apart.

I have strong Catholic faith, yet my life has challenged me.

JE 5

 It was a surprise when the Vice President of the company entered my office. I had expected the firm to correct me for my lack of production, but her visit knocked me off guard.

“Hello, Ms. Anderson.”

“Aaron, we have to talk.” She sat in one of the chairs positioned in front of my desk.

I watched as a second person wearing an expensive suit entered.

“Aaron, this is Johnathan Williams. He is one of our corporate attorneys,” Ms. Anderson said. “He will join us for this meeting.”

Mr. Williams closed the door and took a seat next to Ms. Anderson. I knew at that moment what the general gist of the meeting was. In the past, I had scheduled and conducted similar sessions to address non-performing employees. Such events always required a witness; the lawyer filled that role.

I confess it was an amazing thing to hear the following words directed to me since in the past I had always directed them to others.

“I’m sorry, Aaron, but we’re going to make a change,” Ms. Anderson said. It was delivered with a smooth as silk tone, calm and completely unemotional.

I heard the words, knew what they meant. I laughed slightly.

“Is something amusing, Aaron?” she asked, a bit surprised. “Do you understand my statement?”

“Nothing about this is amusing. I was wondering who invented the phrase, ‘we are going to make a change.’ I’m guilty of never hearing how those seven little words sound to those receiving them.”

“I’m not sure how that matters,” she said.

I smiled. For an unknown reason, I felt completely calm and at peace. “Of course, you don’t, you’re not on the receiving end of those words. It struck me as amusing that we do everything we can to sanitize the messiness of firing people.”

“What would you have us do?” she asked.

“Before this moment, nothing different. Now that I’ve had the phrase spoken to me, it strikes me we may want to inject humane speech into the ways we let people go.”

“Mr. Wright, there are legal restrictions to what can and should be said in these situations; you know that from your training. While it appears, we are firing you, that is not the case unless you desire it,” Johnathan said.

“Explain.”

Ms. Anderson said, “Aaron, we will allow you to resign if you do so now and if you sign this separation agreement. We know the pain you have experienced. You will receive severance pay equal to six months’ salary if you agree.”

 I didn’t hesitate. “Where do I sign,” I said, suddenly feeling in a hurry to leave the company. They were offering me a fair deal; I leaped at the chance before it disappeared. And then, with the simple stroke of a pen, my employment came to a swift end.

It’s a strange feeling having my work there cast aside as if it never existed. It leaves an empty, vacant cloud over a person’s life and thoughts. Friends, tasks, offices, influences, various positions, and all the other things that happen during the time of employment at a company—gone in seconds.

It doesn’t matter. I knew it was time for me to move on. My work routines were closely tied to my life with Kailyn; it wouldn’t hurt me to change my life picture.

JE 6

 I had entered a cycle of feeling sorry for myself. As I packed my belongings in my soon-to-be-former office, my mind swept back to my parent’s death, and then to Kailyn and her plunge, and now to my separation from my job. I had loved my parents deeply and cherished my wife beyond mere words and, until recent times, I had held affection for my job. It was easy for me to wallow in self-pity; after all, I had lost everything that mattered to me in 24 months. The problem was I’m not inclined to self-pity; it sickened me to fall into misery.

While walking from the building, with two security guards accompanying me, it struck me it was time for a real change. I had no idea what to do because working somewhere else had never entered my mind. It wasn’t clear to me if technology work was the right place to look. The field had grown cold to me since Kailyn’s death. I wasn’t sure how to regain my desire. The thought of doing something different consumed me. I had more than enough money from life insurance and from six months of salary in the form of a final check, which provided me time to choose my next path.

I didn’t have to work at all if I so chose, yet I needed to do something. But what to do? How was I going to move forward from there? What would Kailyn want me to do? Should it matter what she’d want me to do? Despite my new freedom, it seemed as if I was more lost than ever. That truth shined a light on how much of my life vanished in that ravine, for not only did I lose my best friend and the love of my life, but my guiding light also left me in the accident. She was the one person who noticed when I was taking the wrong path; she never failed to set me on the correct course.

To say I miss her does damage to my real feelings. I’m floating in a world that looks familiar to me, but at the same time, it seems as if someone grabbed me from the earth and plopped me down on the surface of a strange alternate earth. Everything appears the same, but nothing feels, tastes, or even smells as it did before that horrible day.

When I was younger, ignoring friends when they spoke of their heartbreak over a breakup, or another pain they felt, was my usual response. I’m learning the hard way that life lessons sometimes do not come easy.

JE 7

I worked five different jobs in three months. Sitting around the house every day was not for me; there’d be little hope for me walled off from the world. I ventured out to start working at something, anything.

     The first job I took was part-time with a local big-box retailer. I figured I’d give it a go helping customers. Wrong! Stocking shelves and cleaning floors were my primary assignments, which was understandable being the new guy. The work was mundane, with too much time to remember everything, especially since there was more than enough time for undirected thought every night during my many sleepless hours. I quit the job after a week.

     Next came a position in a health clinic. I worked there long enough to become certified in CPR and First Aid with AED. The clinic taught the classes over several weeks and didn’t charge for new employees. My boss was flaming mad at me when it became apparent the suffering people reminded me too much of what happened to Kailyn. Not sure what I was thinking of taking the position; I quit one week after certification.

     After that fiasco, I worked part-time in a computer support role for one of the large electronics stores. I figured I’d put my experience in technology to beneficial use. The funny thing was there’s a massive difference between the day-to-day tech needs of retail customers versus corporate tech needs. I was no good at it, and worse, it reminded me too much of my full-time technology job. I quit after four days.

     Becoming a food server at a local restaurant was next. I found my blunted personality since the accident caused me to be unfriendly toward the needs of the restaurant’s patrons. That’s the second sacking I received after making it two weeks on the job.

     As I write this, I’m on my lunch break working in a large retail bookstore. We all know the name; it’s the only surviving national chain left after eBooks decimated the print book landscape, which is a shame because what’s more natural and sustainable than trees? For those scoring at home, the paper for print books is made from trees. Paper tossed into landfills does not harm the environment, and trees are easy to plant. But I’m straying from my main points.

     I liked the job, always had a special love for books, especially the printed kind. It turns out I have tons of patience with people coming to me with their questions about books. In this job, my boss loves me.

     I say this a lot, so I’ll forgive myself for becoming repetitive: The funny thing is, recently, I’ve noticed boxes of travel books coming into the store; that makes me wonder if I might want to take a trip somewhere. Not sure; it’s an idea still brewing in my mind.

JE 8

I’m still working at the bookstore. It’s been a full month now. I was declared “Employee of the week.” My boss rewarded me with one free book as a celebratory gift. That was a pleasant surprise. I chose a book about the top 50 places to visit in the United States. There was another edition of the book focussing on the 100 best places to visit in the world; I thought that was a bit too ambitious.

     The book listed most of the usual locations, such as Yellowstone National Park, Devils Tower, the Grand Canyon, and 47 others. I read the book the night after my boss gave it to me. I had fallen asleep at eleven. I woke at two in the morning and could not get back to sleep. I’ve become a speed reader. I wondered if I should buy the other version. It was longer, a bit more interesting, I’ll try anything to fill the lonely dark hours.

     Did I tell you I started going to daily Mass at St. Peter’s Catholic Church? I figured it gave me something to do. I still held onto my faith and, in truth, help in almost all forms was welcome. The funny thing is (there it is again), I think it has helped, if for no other reason than it’s given me a disciplined and productive routine.

     I say this a lot, too, so please have patience: The problem with the daily Mass attendance, if one is to find a dark cloud in this, is that the daily communicants (yes, that’s what they’re called), have gotten to know me and they’ve learned my story. So, once again, I’m starting to be reminded of the losses I’ve suffered. As I’m writing this, in what I am considering my ‘Life after Kailyn’ journal, I see Father Thomas approaching my table inside the bookstore café.

     “Hello, Father. What brings you here?”

     As he pulls up a chair and sits at the table, he said, “Aaron, I’ve come to talk to you.”

     “Okay,” I start, as I close my journal. “You’ve found me. What can I do for you?”

     He smiled. “I’m not here for me. Aaron, you’ve been attending daily Mass, and that is a beautiful thing to do, but I’ve noticed your discomfort when the others speak to you after Mass. Is there something I can help you with?”

    Honestly, I was shocked. Here I was sitting before a Priest who possessed a fantastic ability to read people. “It’s nothing, Father.”

     “Aaron, I said the funeral Mass for Kailyn. I was the celebrant at your wedding. We’ve known each other for years. How can I help?”  Father said.

     I figured I had nothing to lose. “Well, it’s not been easy for me. That’s just the truth. Going to Mass gives me something to do; it takes my mind off my loss. Lately, the others at Mass have been going out of their way to offer their help. The truth is, Father, I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve enough time on my own to think of what happened and, in many ways, it continues to sicken me. I just want to go to Mass and be treated like everyone else. I don’t want to be the parish guy with the sad story. I’m Aaron, nothing more and nothing less.”

     “Would it be okay with you if I spoke with the others?”

     “I don’t want to come across as a whiner, and I have no desire to offend anyone,” I said.

     “Trust me; I will be discreet.” Father smiled. “Thank you for speaking with me. I’ll let you get back to work now.”

     And with that short talk in the bookstore café, my problems during daily Mass disappeared. It may not seem like much, but it was the first time I didn’t have to leave a situation to get away from too much emphasis on the accident. It was an immense help.

JE 9

Last night was the worst. I had one hour of sleep. This is getting out of hand. I might have to break my stubbornness about seeing doctors.

     I’m still at the bookstore and have settled into a quiet routine, still far from happy, but at least it’s bearable.

     My boss began to teach me how to place book orders, though strangely, it was only with regards to travel titles. I’m surrounded by books enticing me to take a trip. I don’t have a desire to go anywhere though, nothing ties me to Oak Valley, Illinois. It’s a beautiful place—filled with trees, streams, churches, ballparks, playgrounds, and family homes that cover the landscape. I recall thinking, in the days when Kailyn was still with me, that the town would make for an excellent place to raise a family. Today I couldn’t care less, and I’m not at all sure why anyone would want to have kids; for you see, I’m still not loving life.

     I talked to my boss about my work schedule. He approved me working full time during the evening shift (from 2:00 pm to 10:00 pm), Wednesday through Sunday. He wondered why I’d be willing to volunteer for such a socially restrictive schedule which made me laugh. I informed him that I have no life of consequence and the schedule allows me to wear myself out before trying to sleep, and it offered me the ability to continue going to daily Mass. Strangely, Mass is the only thing I look forward to these days. I figure one day I’ll be relieved of this mess, and it will be God doing the relieving, so I’d like to keep in touch with Him.

     This journal has proved therapeutic for me, though it’s likely boring for anyone who happens upon my written diatribes found here. When I find myself at low points, which for me is saying something, I turn to my journal and write until I feel better. I’m finding and using tools to help me struggle forward to a better day, and shockingly, despite my sadness, I believe there’ll be a better day for me. How do you like that, Aaron’s found a glint of hope somewhere in the deep recesses of his brain?

     I’ve named my journal, Sam. I’m not sure why; I like the name. Maybe after that famous movie character, the gardener with hairy feet (see what I did there Mr. Tolkien?). 😊

     I’m often reminded of the many saints I’ve learned about during daily Mass, many of them persevered through many trials because they knew justice, virtue, and the faith was worth fighting for. And while my trials don’t compare to what many real-life saints endured; the various accounts of the saints offer me a peaceful mind as my head hits the pillow each night. And with that, it’s time to close Sam and get to sleep, if I can.

JE 10

Two hours of sleep last night. An idea struck me while I was watching television in bed. I was viewing a popular Kung Fu movie; I realized practicing Martial Arts seemed exhausting; it occurred to me that’s what I needed. I want to feel exhausted in a healthy way and not from the sheer lack of sleep.

     There is something I must admit: stubbornness has not left me despite all my pain. I utterly refuse to become bound to medications; instead, seeking a natural way to better health is the path I’ve chosen, which is why I signed up for a Martial Arts class. I figured it might be possible to pound my sadness away or at least maybe someone else will hit me enough to equal the same.

     I chose to walk to the Oak Valley class site which was close to Doug’s Dog Fortress, the town’s popular and famous hotdog stand.

     It didn’t take long to register for the class; the instructor, Sensei Jim, listened to my story. He had already read about it back when it happened. I was grateful he didn’t care about Kailyn being gone. I was sick of people feeling sorry for me; it was refreshing that he ignored my pain. In short order, he had me stretching and running to assess my ability to handle the workouts.

     He started me on simple punching moves, teaching me how to hold my hands and how to twist the wrist when striking correctly. After several hundred of those he let me try the heavy bag. I do believe that’s the first time I have smiled, and I mean a real smile, since the accident. Pounding the bag, even with Sensei Jim shouting I was doing it wrong, felt so good!

     I took his class four times a week. He was amazed at my dedication since it was evident I was devoted to the lessons and into practicing at home. I went a nuts, purchasing all manners of equipment, which I placed in my basement. At night when I couldn’t sleep, which was every day, I would head downstairs, do my stretching and pound the bag. Over and over, I’d pummel it until exhaustion filled me and sleep came over me.

     Sensei Jim understood what I was doing; he was all for it and helped me learn front, side, roundhouse, back, and spin kicks. I went through two heavy bags during daily training. I dropped a ton of weight, more than 40 pounds, and had become razor thin. An incredible transformation was beginning to take place; I was getting a regular four hours of sleep each night.

     I continued going to daily Mass. The bookstore job kept my evenings full. Of course, heartache remained a close companion, but, perhaps, not as much as it had months ago. I suppose that’s progress.

     My activities didn’t hurt my relationship with Sam. I’ve continued journaling; I’ve taken to thinking of it as a real person. Now and then when I lose track of it, panic consumes me. It was evident an inanimate object shouldn’t cause me so much anxiety. I convinced myself Sam was necessary because my journals have been with me since the accident, and I wasn’t ready to stop.

     I wondered if one day my mind would cease needing Sam. If that happens, will I want to read the record of my misery, or will the journals find the bottom of a trash can?

     Have you ever seen the movie in which the main character is stranded on an island (yes, I’ve seen too many films, my nights often fill with them)? In the film, a man endures a horrific airplane accident during which the craft crashes into the ocean; he finds himself alone on a small island. He comes to understand being on his own is a dreadful and painful situation. Crushing loneliness comes upon him. After finding a sports ball, the man gives it a name and soon develops a relationship with the inanimate object. To him, over several years, the item becomes a quasi-real person. I fear Sam is becoming the same to me; I must be careful not to humanize a simple thing in which I write my thoughts. After all, that would be truly nuts, correct?

———————————————————-

JE  11

Sensei Jim was upset when I quit his class. Six months of intense daily workouts were enough for me. I had spent more than 100 days taking the lessons, with 6-8 hours practicing each day, which equates to about 1,400 hours of my life. It doesn’t qualify me as an expert, not by any measure, yet it helped me get into fantastic physical shape. Sensei wanted me to continue because he thought I’d quickly reach well beyond Black Belt, but that was never my intention going in, so I quit.

     I continued needing to fill my life with activities. I joined a running club. I went from pounding a heavy bag in my basement to pounding the streets with my feet.

     Intense Martial Arts left me fit which helped me take to the road without much effort. I ran with no real struggle and began running miles under six minutes. Soon I was approaching five minutes per mile in local 5K races. I reached first place in my age group in several nearby competitions. As I improved, overall, first place wins came to me. But the running, as successful as it was, did not attract me as did the Martial Arts. I was finding my mind was feeling unsettled; something was bothering me, but I couldn’t figure it out. As I usually did with my problems, I brought them to prayer during daily Mass. Father suggested I meet with the staff at the local seminary; he thought the Lord might be placing a vocational call on my heart.

     I was open to anything at this point. I went to the seminary and, soon, discovered I didn’t have a calling to the Priesthood. It turns out that despite the loss of Kailyn I still desired women. They ran me through all sorts of psyche tests which easily uncovered the truth. I was left with the usual question: What next?

     The answer came to me in a simple, almost silly way. The day after leaving the discernment program at the seminary, I was working at the bookstore unloading large boxes of books from a delivery truck. The accident didn’t hurt me, at least not much.

     A pallet filled with boxes was pulled from the delivery truck; the containers were stacked too high. As the man moved the shipment close to me, the entire stack gave way. Fifty large book containers crashed down on me as I was checking off items on the shipping list.

     Of course, the momentum and sheer weight of the cartons knocked me from my feet, sending me to the floor with boxes raining down on me. About ten of the containers split open under the stress of the fall; books slid across the pile, battering my body, and slamming into my face and head. I suffered a broken nose, along with several other bruises and cuts, but as I was lifted from the massive pile, I saw the books slamming into me were travel titles, every item striking me were travel books.

     That was all it took for me. How many times must travel books whack me before I take notice? I quit my job at that moment, walked out the door, and drove to the hospital.

     I knew I was going to take a trip, but where?

JE  12

My boss from the bookstore called me every day for a week. He was apologizing profusely for the shipping accident and wanted me to come back to work. After his seventh attempt, he gave up, and I’ve not heard from him since. I hope he didn’t think I was going to sue; it wasn’t the store’s fault. I wanted nothing other than to move on.

     I was without a job. I had quit Martial Arts, and I stopped running, which left me floating around with not enough to do. You might be glad to know I was brewing an idea of where to go and what I’d do next. Have patience with this one. I was sitting in Mass contemplating my next move, especially since I had already concluded I was going to take a trip. You’ll never guess what the Old Testament reading was—it was a lengthy passage from the Book of Jonah.

 Assuming there’s a chance you might not know about Jonah, he was a man called by God to preach to the ancient city of Nineveh. He was to proclaim the Lord’s warning that the citizens must repent. Jonah wanted nothing to do with the call which caused him to flee from God. This is the point at which Jonah was swallowed by the great fish (many like to claim the fish was a whale). The account holds a ton of relevant theological points, yet for the sake of brevity while writing in Sam, Jonah eventually came around to listen to God. He went to Nineveh and preached to the city as the Lord intended. As a result, those in that vast population were saved.

     As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a candidate for the Priesthood. I’m not a modern-day Jonah, nor am I any sort of prophet. Instead, the Jonah account has focused my mind on what I will do next.

     Are you ready for this?

     I will walk across the United States from coast to coast.      

     You might ask, why. There’s a simple answer. I know I’ll take a trip somewhere and my mind remains unsettled. I sensed I needed to do something. I’ve always loved the Jonah account. After Mass, this morning I saw five references to that book: on television, on two separate buses, on a billboard for a play centered on the Biblical passages, and when I came home my Bible was resting on the kitchen table and a breeze had blown it open to the Book of Jonah.

     Details of this trip will come to me as I strategize the best course of action and after plotting the clearest route.

JE 13

This is not going to be as easy as I assumed. There are many things to consider. Right out of the gate the biggest problem is the sheer length of the trip I plan. There are more than 2,900 miles between the mid-east coast and the mid-west coast, and that’s if I walked in a direct line. It will be impossible to walk between those points in a straight path, so I know there’ll be no less than 3,500 miles to hike, perhaps as many as 4,000 depending on road conditions. Ouch!

     It was time for me to do the math. I figured since the equipment will slow me down, and exhaustion will be my friend every day (I’m used to that one), it might be possible for me to cover a mile with 2,100 steps, on average. Mountains will be far more challenging; I’ll worry about that later. Adding it up, and assuming I’ll walk 4,000 miles, to reach the west coast, I’ll have taken more than 8,400,000 steps. I’ll repeat what I wrote earlier, Ouch!

     I’m not sure this is a sane thing to do.

     Next up, how do I plot a course which will avoid the interstate system since it is illegal to walk on those? I’ll need to consider side roads, paths through national parks, small-town restrictions, and the constant problem and danger of vehicle traffic. I decided to walk against traffic to keep oncoming cars in view.

     Next up, I’ll plan for food, water, sleep (though I’m used to little rest), shoes, clothes, hats, gloves, winter coats, and equipment.

     I will need to consider bodily functions.

     What if I get hurt?

    What do I do about animals? Running into a bear or a mountain lion wouldn’t be pleasant. Do I carry a weapon? Can I carry a gun across state lines? I suppose I should research that.

     This trip could take eight months or longer. What do I do with my home, all my possessions, my bank accounts, my various utility, and credit bills?

     The one constant since the accident has been my faith and for most of that time, I have attended daily Mass. Can I still attend at least frequently? How can I plot my path while including Catholic churches as part of the route? That’s critical.

     I’ve no problem with heights, but I do wonder how I’ll handle the higher mountain elevations and bridge crossings.

     Weather is a real issue. What time of the year is the best for me to leave? I must know when I’ll cross through the mountains, especially the Rockies because traveling on foot through those regions in the winter isn’t going to happen. If I arrive in the Rockies too late, my trip will end—that won’t make me happy.

     What about my ability to call for help? Is my cell phone enough? How will I keep it charged and what do I do in places where there are few or no cell towers?

     Heat! That could be a huge problem, perhaps not as troublesome as winter in the Rockies, but crossing through areas with temperatures in the 100s presents a massive challenge. I’ll find it difficult to avoid all hot areas of the country. I will say again, Ouch!

     The more I’ve considered this journey, the more I wonder why I conceived this stupid plan. Maybe I’ll just close Sam, toss it in the garbage and go back to working a real job. It sure would be a lot saner than this idea.

     Sam, I’m going to bed! I laugh at myself while climbing the stairs, realizing I’ve once again treated the journal as a living person. In my mind, I wonder how I’ll carry enough extra “Sam’s” to continue my journaling throughout my trek across the country.

     As I got into bed, the scope of the trip hit me; it causes me to wonder why I’ve never contemplated the sheer size of the United States. Now that the journey is taking firm root in my mind, the vastness of the land sinks well into my thoughts, and I can’t say those musings brought me a sense of calm. What was I thinking?

JE 14

In late March of next year. That’s when I’ll start my walk from the east coast. I figure if it takes four months to reach the Rockies, I’ll arrive there sometime in July, which, considering weather conditions, will leave me two months to safely trek through the mountains and move well beyond the Continental Divide. This plan offers me months to prepare for the trip. I’ll need all the time I can get to complete my projects.

     I have roofers at my house today. They’re tearing off the shingles and will install a new high-grade layer. Tomorrow, I’ll start work on the inside of my house, painting, repairing, and generally setting it in order.

     Oh, by the way, I plan to sell my house.

     Kailyn and I chose the home together so this step of my plan won’t be easy, but I’ve grown weary returning to the place in which we planned to start our lives together. Father Thomas says that’s a healthy development; not so sure about that, but I want to put the house on the market in time for families looking for a home before school starts.

      I haven’t spoken much about finances; I’m not worried about the sales price of the home. The life insurance company sent me a check for three million dollars after Kailyn’s death. I’ve barely touched it (yes, three million is the correct sum). The proceeds from the sale will be added to that account, so money isn’t an issue. The funny thing is, many people lament their financial situations, but I’d do anything to have Kailyn back. The money creates one area of peace in my life, yet it’s nothing like being able to have her with me. One never knows what trials rest behind the doors of even the super-rich people in the world.

     If I can sell the house by the end of August, I figure the new owner will take possession no later than October first. I’ll move into a single-bedroom condo rental before that date. I have several locations in mind. I’ll strive to secure a short lease; I won’t create a fuss if they demand a full year. I’ll pay the rent before leaving and inform them of when I plan to vacate.

     I’m giving away all my furniture. What people don’t want will be offered to charities; the rest will end up in the trash. As for my car, I’ve already sold it. Now, get this: I took out a lease on a new two-seat sports car. I’ve always loved those cars and driving to the east coast in style will be the final way to spoil myself before my trip begins.

     I will ship all my hiking equipment to a hotel at my start location. I’ll drop the sports car at a nearby dealer with all fees paid in full upon its turn-in date.

     I’m making steady progress. I no longer have any thoughts of backing out. I’m all in and refuse to stop now. Recall, the one trait I have in full measure is stubbornness.

     Did I tell you the car is black with a manual transmission and has a monster engine with 650 horsepower? A sweet machine, no doubting that. My first test drive provided me with the second smile I can recall since Kailyn’s death.

     For the first time since before the accident, I feel excited. I don’t know what lies ahead and somehow that brings me peace. I have come to embrace and enjoy not knowing. Weird, huh?

     Father Thomas tells me often that he will miss me. We’ve developed a close friendship; he’s spent no small number of nights eating dinner at my house, talking with me, and encouraging my healing. I do not doubt that he is Heaven sent.

     I haven’t finished plotting my course yet because it’s difficult to create since I want to attend Mass as often as possible. Most small towns have churches, many of those are not Catholic, and of those that are, many do not have regular daily Mass times. I’m working on it.

     Sadly, Sam #1 is almost full, with a single page left. I figure I’ll start Sam #2 tomorrow. I have three new empty journals, the same type as Sam #1, waiting for the trip.

     Oh, I forgot about this. My old bookstore boss called today. He heard about my trip plans and wished me luck. His call reminds me always to remember kind people do exist in the world.

JE  15

Well, I was making steady progress toward executing my plans heading into the events of last night.

     In the months since Kailyn’s death, I’ve never seen the accident in my sleep, until last night. I had been sleeping for several hours when the dream hugely struck me.

     I saw Kailyn sleeping in the car when I put it in gear, or when it seemed to me that the gear engaged. She was resting soundly. In my dream, she looked angelic, beautiful, her hair remained pulled back as it was during our wedding. I saw her dainty nose, her cheeks, her smooth glowing skin. How much I miss that face.

     Somehow my mind managed to fabricate a slow-motion film for me to view in my sleep. I watched myself leave the car to go to the restroom; I left in a hurry, needing to relieve myself in a bad way. The funny thing was (sorry, there it is again), as I watched the real me walk away, I also remained inside the car observing her sleeping (amazing).

     I saw the car lurch slightly, at first almost unnoticeably, and then gravity began to pull the vehicle down the incline leading to the vertical drop into the ravine. I was sitting in the backseat like a spirit viewing everything that transpired.

     As the car approached the drop, Kailyn woke, and, in a rush, she sat straight. Her scream pierced my heart beyond description. I felt it should have been me plunging over that edge. I saw her look at me in the backseat.

     She shrieked at me, “I love you so much, why must we be separated this way? I hope you enjoy your long and difficult walk. I love you with all my heart. You’ll do so much good!”

     Before I could respond, she turned from me, scrambled to the driver’s seat, started pumping the brakes. The car slowed slightly, but it was too close to the edge and gravity had created too much forward inertia for the vehicle to stop in time. Had she had ten more feet of braking space she might have survived or had she leaped from the car she might have survived.  

I watched as the car plunged over the edge, viewed it plummeting to the bottom. My dear Kailyn screamed frantically as the ground seemed to rise to meet her. The last 100 feet or so the interior of the vehicle became eerily silent as she stopped screaming and appeared to have dropped into an intense prayer, her eyes closed—her body was calm and at peace.

     Everything became strange as the dream sequence took on a frame-by-frame presentation. As I viewed the car’s front end make the first impact with the solid ground, a blinding light filled the cabin, instantly the bright light rushed away from the vehicle as the fullness of the crushing drop brought ruin upon the car.

     That’s when I woke. My clothes and bed were soaked with sweat; my face was filled with tears. I hate this next part. I hate it. I leaped from the bed and ran into a corner of the room and collapsed in a heartbroken heap. I have no idea how I withstood the emotional assault my mind endured during those moments. I have no idea why God allowed me to see such an agonizing perspective of the accident. I was mad, deeply angry.

     After I had calmed a bit, I ran to the basement and pummeled the heavy bag for hours. I knew it was hours because it was daylight when I resurfaced; my body felt as if it had gone through a battle.

     But this is not how things ended. As I forced myself to recall the event; I began to see value in the dream. It was a benefit unseen by me until I had pounded away the pain. I now believe the experience provided me with a view of what happened to my treasured Kailyn. I also think the bright light rushing from the car was her Guardian Angel taking her soul away from the violence her body was about to suffer. Finally, I believe she saw me; she had no time to process why. Her spoken words are a profound message to me.

      My precious wife told me one last time she loved me. My adorable, loving, beautiful, brilliant, and compassionate Kailyn told me to enjoy my long and difficult walk, and mysteriously, she said I’d do much good, whatever that means.

I believe God allowed me to see the cabin fill with light, and then, less than a second later, a bright light left the vehicle. Through all my pain, and with all the faith I had developed going to Mass and leaning on God to help me through, I believe the Lord was telling me my cherished Kailyn was safely in His hands. I also think the Lord was telling me that He wanted me to take a trek across the country. After that, I fell asleep on the couch.

     I slept for 14 restful hours!

JE 16

My plans are coming together nicely. The house is ready for a realtor to list. Thankfully, I haven’t had a repeat performance of the dream, but I’ve had plenty of time to consider the many layers in the single dream I did have.

     I’ve concluded, after thinking about the dream for weeks, that I’ve taught myself how to live alone which comes to me as a massive surprise. The pre-accident Aaron was a people person. I relished being in large groups and loved people. I had a ton of friends in high school and college, all of whom are now out of my life. I live an utterly solitary life and, as I consider the time since the accident, it is evident I’ve spent many months doing nothing but being alone.

     But my mind is shifting. While I don’t enjoy the idea that I’ve become a loner, I now believe my self-imposed loneliness is preparing me for this trip. It all makes me wonder if it was my idea to remain alone or was something else at work in everything that has transpired. It’s also interesting to ponder the many different skills I’ve learned during these months: Martial Arts, running, pounding the bag, it all makes me wonder if somehow the Lord has been training me for my journey. No matter, I figure if anyone is ready to walk alone across 4,000 miles of terrain, I suppose I’m that person.

     Have you ever noticed we humans have little patience? We tend to charge forward from one activity to another, when we are forced to wait, we become frustrated. Yet, I’ve come to believe God works with and guides us even when we can’t see His hands in our lives. Living a loner’s life, martial arts, running, pounding the bag, the many different jobs, daily Mass, are all developments that have entered my life since I lost Kailyn to the ravine. Do they mean anything or are they just the result of my mind searching for ways to jettison my pain? Perhaps, one day, I’ll know which is more accurate. The thing is, I find all those points comforting and I’ll take a good feeling any way I can. Notice: self-proclaimed philosopher, will now close Sam, step down from his lofty soapbox and go to bed.

JE 17

Six hours of sleep. That’s what I’ve averaged each day since the dream. It has given me so much energy; amazing what proper rest can do.

     The house was listed yesterday. The agent thinks it should draw interest. I hope so; otherwise, I’ll have to sell it via a legal proxy when I leave for the trip. I will not delay my plans.

     I’ve been preparing everything over these many weeks, and part of what I’ve wrestled with is the need for communication during emergencies. I continue to attend daily Mass; one of the parishioners has created (more like invented I suppose), a device that uses a small solar panel to charge cell phones and other gadgets. She says I can extend a thin pole from the rear of my backpack (I bought a massive weather-proof pack). At the top would sit her charging device with a thin wire running to a USB port; from there I can run a regular charging cable to my cell. Nice!

     I can walk for hours, listen to music, or use the phone’s GPS app and my device will never lose its charge. On cloudy days I’ll have to be careful. Of course, if I do any walking at night, the charging won’t work, but it’s another issue checked off my list.

     Another piece of the plan is physical preparation. I remain fit. The Martial Arts training and practice helped. The short stint at running didn’t hurt either, along with the hundreds of hours striking the bag, all of which combined to bring me down to a much leaner weight. I think my body can handle daily walking. But I’m obsessed with preparation. My years as a technology manager taught me changes required thorough testing before they went live. I can’t risk downtime due to insufficient testing. This leads me to seek ways to better prepare for this journey, so, I’ve started doing walks every day while wearing my backpack and the same type of shoes I’ll use once this starts.

     Did I tell you I might go through 10-15 pairs of shoes? Each will last about 400-500 miles, so part of my planning is to find stores in various towns to purchase items to replace worn-out things, like footwear. I must keep my feet in good shape, so it’s one area I won’t skimp on.

     At first, I walked 5-10 miles just to get a feel for carrying the loaded pack. I learned a lot doing those test jaunts, like waterproofing my clothes, shoes, and gear to make it through the rain. I was caught in several downpours and ended up soaked. Rain caused me to have several miserable days with my clothes becoming saturated, adding weight, and creating blisters where wet clothing rubbed my skin raw. Painful, but good lessons learned.

     I decided to purchase several different backpacks for testing purposes. I settled on a model that was highly water-resistant (I’ve discovered there’s no such thing as completely waterproof). I’ve learned to pack my clothes in sealed plastic bags, and I’ve made use of plastic zip-bags to store all manners of items. I also purchased a rain poncho, a wide brim hat, slim rain pants, and a super-light raincoat. I will not let regular rains stop me from doing a day’s allotted walk, besides, I suspect I’ll enjoy a steady rain if prepared, though severe thunderstorms and flood-producing rains might sideline me for days. I’m glad the charger works because I plan to maintain a close watch on the weather while moving across the land. Lighting storms and systems that might bring tornadoes will also cause me to take safety precautions. This trip is nuts, but I’m not, and getting hurt or killed is not on my wish list.

     I have a one-man tent, various lightweight camping supplies. The bulkier items are my winter clothes, coats, boots, gloves, scarves; it’s possible, despite the timing of this trip, that a cold snap could sweep across the land I cross at any time, I can’t be caught unprepared.

     I will bring medications, anti-inflammatories, aspirin, bandages, antiseptics, sun protection, antibiotic anointments, and insect spray. If I suffer a serious illness or infection, I will seek a hospital. Again, my trip is nuts, but I’m not.

     A major decision was I will not carry a weapon. I will bring a flare gun and two professional-grade pepper and bear sprays. I’m hoping not to use these items.

     I will carry small tools, including a foldable hatchet and two knives. I plan to create fires in locations where I camp. While I used to hate tent camping, I think I’ve changed enough to enjoy many of the nights I’ll spend in the open air.

     It might surprise you to learn that I don’t plan to avoid cities and towns, nor will I completely ignore hotels. I’m sure there will be times, especially when the weather becomes especially rough, that I’ll get a room for a night or two.

     Back to my test walks. I’ve reached 20 miles in a day on my longest jaunt with a fully loaded pack and all related gear. This included my charging pole; the device works great. That is my goal for each day, 20-30 miles. I plotted a test course that took me through hills and valleys (nothing like mountains). I’m covering a mile in 25 minutes fully loaded. My longest walk took about ten hours. I was exhausted at the end of that hike, so I think that’ll be my outer marker, at least at the start.

     It’s time to revisit the trip math. If I average 20 miles of walking every day, and if my route takes me through 4,000 miles of roads and paths, it will take me about six and a half months to cross the country. But I’m preparing for the worst, not the best scenario. Once I create my final route, I’ll be able to adjust my walking goals. No matter what, I’ll continue walking every day to get myself ready.   

     After I drop the sports car at a dealership at my journey’s start city, I’ll begin my trek.    

     I experienced a surreal feeling during my last 20-miler. As the miles accumulated, a sense of becoming smaller, increasingly meaningless, struck me full on. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying I was depressed or sad, for I wasn’t. Instead, it occurred to me that while I strode past all those homes and businesses, there were people by the thousands inside those structures, and they had no idea I was there, and they certainly had no clue what I was doing. It will be like that, only raised many levels, when hundreds of miles lay behind me during my real journey.

     Aaron Wright sojourns across the land while everyone else goes about their lives. I’ve gotten used to the weird and surreal.

JE 18

My start and end locations are set—they came to me in dreams. What a surprise, right?

     I am flooded by dreams every night. Yes, every night! I see the same thing while sleeping. Kailyn is standing before me—she’s as gorgeous in my dreams as she was in real life. She’s wearing her wedding dress, holding her bridal bouquet, her hair, makeup, veil, and all the rest are the same as the day of our wedding. She’s positioned at the east entrance to the Walkway over the Hudson (Poughkeepsie, New York). I searched for information about that bridge. It’s part of the Hudson State Historic Park. The span is 212 feet high and stretches for 1.28 miles. It turns out it’s the longest elevated pedestrian walkway in the world (way to go New York).

      There are several dealerships in the town, so I’ll have no problem dropping the sports car there, which will serve as my starting point. After crossing the Hudson and depending on the time of day, I might pitch a tent nearby, perhaps in a park that lies to the west. This means I won’t be starting from the literal east coast, but it’s close enough for me, and the dream left me convinced, so now I have my starting point.

      Did I tell you Father Thomas, the great friend he’s become, has volunteered to be my point of contact during my trek? He also gave me 100 letters stamped and signed by his bishop to help me find friendly assistance when I require a patch of land to pitch my tent, or if none is available, to help me with local Catholic churches who might be willing to let me sleep on their property for a night. A small patch of ground is all that I’ll require for most end-of-day stops.

      I went to a local florist and asked them to dry and press 400 peach-colored rose petals. I’ll drop them in various towns throughout my journey as a tribute to Kailyn. Yes, it’s corny, but I’ll do it anyway.

      I still have no idea what I’ll learn or do on this trip. If people were to ask me why I’m walking across the country, it’d be hard for me to provide an answer, other than to say it came to me in a dream. Wouldn’t that go over great? It doesn’t matter what others think; maybe I wouldn’t bother answering.

      The nightly dreams didn’t end with me uncovering my trip start point. My beautiful Kailyn seems to have grown a love for interesting bridges, she consistently comes to me appearing as she did at our wedding. My route will avoid all interstates and toll roads and will make use of only state and local roads all the way to the Royal Gorge Bridge, Colorado (I have no idea why the Royal Gorge Bridge is a stopping point). From there, I’ll journey through the rest of the mountains to California and to my trip’s end, which is the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi in San Francisco.

      In my dreams, after showing me the NY pedestrian walkway, and the Royal Gorge Bridge, Kailyn presented me with a flyover view of myself crossing the land stretching to the shrine. Cool, huh?

      You might think my mind is messing with me, but after previous dreams with Kailyn in the car, and after the current dreams had come to me for ten days straight, I decided to finalize my route.

      After committing to the new plans, Kailyn returned to me in a dream. She was not wearing wedding attire as with the other dreams; instead, she was wearing jeans, and a peach-colored t-shirt and her hair rested on her shoulders. She smiled lovingly, said, ‘I love you,’ and then she disappeared. I’m not sure what that means, but after that, unbroken sleep returned. I’ve grown to cherish uninterrupted sleep and the ease with which I now drop into slumber. Is there anything more refreshing than a proper night’s sleep without any troubling dreams?

      Father requested a favor. He asked me to release drops of blessed Holy Water while asking for God’s blessings on the land of every new state I enter starting with New York and ending in California. Seems a little too Jonah-like to me but he’s such a great friend I promised I’d do it for him. The vile of the Holy Water is another item for me to pack. It’s small, so I might have to replenish it in Catholic churches along my journey’s route.

      There you have it. My path takes me from New York to Colorado and on to San Francisco. My house has had ten interested buyers; I expect an offer soon. I’m hoping there are no adjustments to my plans.

      I’m writing this in Sam #2. I still wonder what I’ll do with these journals. I suspect that will come to me later. As for now, I’m off to bed.

JE 19

I accepted an offer on the house today. I will vacate within the next 30 days. More than half of my furniture is gone. I will give the rest to local charities. When I move into the leased condo, I’ll bring the clothes I need for the next few months along with all my trip supplies. The temporary place will be furnished with leased items which the leasing company will pick up when I leave for New York.

     The work of packing my belongings struck me hard today. This stage represents my final days in the house Kailyn, and I bought together. I can tell Sam anything, so I’ll say these developments were expected, but it still hurts a lot. For the first time in weeks, I pounded the heavyweight bag. I didn’t stop for four hours.  

JE  20

The buyer’s financing failed. The closing on the sale of my house was canceled. I still plan to move out as scheduled. I wish this process was easier for me, it’s been more challenging than I had anticipated.

     She never lived in the home, yet Kailyn had moved many of her things here. There was enough of her belongings to make it hard on me—her clothes, shoes, jewelry, makeup, all the usual items in the extensive list of things women need for everyday life. I tossed it all, everything. It was a thorough purging of everything related to Kailyn (with the lone exception being the many pictures we had).

     I suppose her clothes could have gone to charity; however, part of this process is my need to reconcile myself with the past; I don’t want to see Kailyn’s clothes and accessories years after her death. I can still see her in the jeans she wore, and, on occasion, the smell of her perfume fills my senses; however, as much as I still miss her, I know it is time to move forward. It hasn’t gone well or easily for me, but I now know I can inch my way into the future.

     I confess leaving the house is sending sharp daggers through my heart. As I check every room, I’m reminded of Kailyn each time I pass the bedrooms she was planning for our future children, and it’s equally painful when I pass through the kitchen where she longed to hold many family gatherings and parties. The place haunts me now.

As I make a pile of suitcases and bags packed with the things I will bring to the condo, including all my trip supplies, it hits me hard that this is the last night in our home and, suddenly, I don’t feel ready to let go. It occurs to me the failure of the buyer’s financing might be a message of sorts, but I forced that out of my mind. I know I’ll utterly disappear as a person if I remain tied to the past and Kailyn. Letting her go is not an option – it is an absolute requirement for my future survival.

     The thing that’s awesome about Sam is that it doesn’t talk back. I can write anything I want. Sam doesn’t tell me I’m nuts, wrong, or any other such nonsense. I’m going to bed.

JE  21

 I’m dreaming again. This one seems different. I’m standing in the street and staring at the outside of our house—it’s dark, an annoying beeping sound fills my ears.

     Kailyn consumes my thoughts, but I can’t see her anywhere. I have the sense she should be here with me as I leave our home for the last time. And suddenly, strangely, I see her standing on our front lawn wearing the same clothes she was wearing when she plummeted into the ravine, which strikes me as odd. She’s screaming, but I can’t hear her words. Her lips seem to be saying, “Wake up! Wake up!” The piercing beeping sound frustrates me. I wish it would stop so I can determine what she’s trying to say. My mind begins to focus on the source of the sound—I recognize its high pitch.

     Smoke Alarm!

     In an instant, I wake up and leap from the bed. I snatch my clothes, grab my things, and run from the bedroom. I flip on the lights and sprint down the stairs. In shock, I halt when I get halfway to the main floor. I see the ceiling is filled with rolling smoke. Fire! From the rear of the home.

     As I reach the main floor, I look and see the reflection of flames dancing on the rear wall. It occurs to me the fire is beyond my intervention. I run to the front door and frantically begin hauling my suitcases, bags, several boxes filled with pictures and keepsakes, and my shoes, to the front lawn. I snatch my wallet, cell, keys, and money from a front table.

     Sprinting through the door, I dial the emergency number and plea for help. I start dragging my cases, bags, and boxes to the street,  away from the blaze. A sudden sense of gratitude comes over me, causing me to feel thankful I was prepared to leave and had stacked my critical items close to the door the night before.

     I dash to the garage, open the door, and in an instant, pull the leased sports car away from danger by parking it on the street several houses from my home.

     As I run back to the house, my bare feet suffer cuts from rocks resting on the side of the road. I hear sirens. I got into my regular clothes knowing the first responders will be here soon, and I put on my shoes. I move to the street where my retrieved items lay. The vehicles come surging to my home.

     I watch as the flames, which had started somewhere in the back of the house near the kitchen, start shooting fingers through the roof above the location of my bedroom, where just moments earlier I was experiencing a dream.

     It stuns me to realize I would have perished if I hadn’t woken. It was Kailyn calling out to me in a dream that drew my attention just in time. She was with me during the final seconds I spent in the home. The thoughts wash over me like a soothing spring breeze.

     The firemen prepared their hoses; they moved with incredible swiftness. The house went up in flames with extraordinary speed. Soon the blaze swept across the width of the main floor. And, as the hoses sent jets of water into the inferno, I heard hissing, snapping, and cracking as the studs in the load-bearing walls gave way under the fire’s heat. I watched as sections of the second floor and roof collapsed and crashed through the main floor.

     Ten minutes after I woke up, the house was gone. Our home, the one we had chosen to raise a family, the same place causing me such deep melancholy last night, had disappeared.

     The firemen told me they had never seen a home go up so fast, with such widespread damage. Little remained other than the poured foundation comprising the basement, now filled with material from the burned structure. As I peered into the darkness of what was my basement, I saw the heavy bag resting on the concrete floor; it was covered in soot and ash. The sight convinced me my days of pummeling the bag were behind me.

     I started carrying my bags to the sports car, but I realized the auto was not built for luggage. I concluded I’d have to make several trips to and from the condo.

     Gazing upon the destroyed building, I marveled at the reality that there’d be no coming back to the house now after its destruction. While trying to force my mind away from the pain of seeing our home disappear before my eyes, it strikes me the fire will require me to make insurance claims and choose contractors to rebuild the house. I wondered if my plans to walk across the country were just sidelined indefinitely.

     Amazingly, I’m no longer melancholy about leaving the house considering it no longer exists. For the first time since the accident, I’m authentically happy to be alive. And, interestingly, facing this new set of challenges, I feel ready to go, no matter what else might come my way.

 JE  22

 Several weeks have passed. Father Thomas met me at the house, or better put he met me at the location of my former home, now a burned-out shell. I’ve made major decisions that involved him and his parish.    As I stop at the site, I see Father waiting. He walked to my sports car.

     “Thanks for meeting me here,” I said.

     “You’re welcome. I know I’ve already expressed my sympathy for the loss of your home but seeing it in person is a shock. There’s nothing left,” Father said.

     “No kidding. I’ve never seen anything like that fire.”

     “Why did you ask me to meet you here? It couldn’t have been just to see the burned home,” Father said.

     “No, I’m giving it to you and the parish.”

     “What?” Father said, with surprise. “What can we possibly do with a useless burned-out house?”

     “Father, you and the parish have been incredible to me through everything I’ve experienced. I want to give something back to you and the church. The wreckage you’re viewing will be replaced by a newly built home. That new home can be sold for an excellent price. My attorney has drafted the legal transfer of the insurance money and the legal rights to this property. It will take months to rebuild, but once it’s complete and sold, you’ll have a hefty sum to place in the parish accounts. I know the church building requires a ton of work; it needs a new roof, repair of the cracked foundation, repair of your homeless shelter and soup kitchen, and new pews to replace the old ones falling apart. That doesn’t touch on what needs to be done for the school. The proceeds from the sale of this home will help you do much of that work. I’m including a two-hundred-thousand-dollar check to help with the school.”

     “That’s incredibly generous. But I’m not a contractor. There’s no time in my schedule for doing such work,” Father said.

     “You’ll pay someone to do it for you with the understanding they will receive payment after the rebuilt house sells. I know several people in the parish that can handle this, and they’ll do it inexpensively.”

     “But why? The check? The Home? Why are you doing this?” Father asked.

     “Because, as I said, I want to help the church, parish, and school. It’s been a long journey for me; you and the church have helped at every turn. I now have a chance to thank you. Also, there is no doubt in my mind I must take this walking trip across the country. I plan to start as originally scheduled which means I will not be around to supervise the rebuild.”

     “But your money is in this house,” Father said.

     “Yes, and now it will transfer to the parish. The life insurance left me with a substantial bank account. Of all the things most people worry about, I have no financial worries and giving away this property and the check will not harm my funds at all. And, if you find you need additional money above the insurance amount, contact me on my cell; I’ll transfer the funds to the parish account.”

     “It seems you have thought this through,” Father said.

     “Yes, I’ve thought of nothing else since the fire. In truth, I have no idea what I will experience on my trip. It could be that I just take an insanely long walk, learn nothing, and do nothing but waste time. However, there’s no doubt in my mind that the trip must happen. Time will reveal why.” I smile and extend my hand to him. “Father Thomas, you are a remarkable priest and friend. Will you come with me to meet with my attorney to accept the paperwork you’ll need? I realize you will also need help from the Diocese and their lawyers. The sooner, the better.”

     “Yes, I’ll join you and accept this incredible gift,” Father said.

     “Fantastic. Come on, jump in the car and we can get the first leg of the transfer done today.”

     Father Thomas smiled. “Do you mind if I drive?”

     “In your car?”

     “No. I’d love to take your car for a drive,” Father said. “I haven’t driven a sports car since I was quite young.”   

     Laughing, I tossed the keys to him.

JE 23

 I have given away everything I no longer need. All that remains of my life in Oak Valley are items in a single public storage unit that I’ll want once this walking journey is complete in six to eight months. The transfer of my home to the church, along with the funds from the home insurance, and the extra check for the school, was completed and is no longer my concern.

I’ve shipped my hiking gear and equipment to the hotel in Poughkeepsie. I will stay there a single night to do final preparations—from there I’ll return the sports car. My trek’s start point is the Poughkeepsie auto dealership. They’ve agreed to let me store my rather large backpack in their maintenance garage after I retrieve it from the hotel and have completed a final inventory.

     I’m anxious to get going; it’s been a long time coming. I’ve said goodbye to Father Thomas, to my friends at the parish, and my former boss at the bookstore. I’ve nothing whatsoever holding me in Oak Valley. The furniture inside the condo was leased. The owner will pick up everything this afternoon. My condo lease is paid in full; I’ve signed the separation forms.

     I have everything I need for my drive to New York, including my “Sam” journals. Don’t expect me to write much on my way to the east coast. I want to get walking west as soon as possible. Sam doesn’t need to contain a record of everything I do. I’d insert a LOL here, but that seems a bit silly and mundane. (LOL, there, I did it again anyway).

As I entered the sports car, I glance at the town, and said, “Goodbye Oak Valley, Illinois. I’ve no idea if I’ll ever come back but thank you for all you provided my dear Kailyn and me.”

     With that, I start the engine, place the transmission in first gear and head north to the interstate. I’m on my way.

JE  24

 Taking the sports car through the mountains was an experience to remember. The car’s ability to sweep through the sharper corners as if they weren’t there, left me in awe. Despite the walking trip that lay ahead, I found myself smiling through a good portion of Pennsylvania as I sped to Poughkeepsie, New York.

     I spent my last day before the start of my trip in Poughkeepsie’s best hotel. After eating a fantastic dinner in the hotel’s upscale restaurant, the bed beckoned me—sleep came quickly.

     I woke at five in the morning; there was little for me to do but wait for the dealership to open later in the morning. I hate having empty time, as I tend to fill those moments with unproductive thoughts, and that morning was no exception.

     Later, after a small breakfast in the hotel lobby, I returned to my room, where I changed into my trekking clothes, tossing my old pants and shirt into the trash. Feeling excited to get my trip going, I rushed from the room and soon was driving the car to the dealership.

     The drop-off of the car and the final document signing went uneventfully. For the first time since, well since forever, I had nowhere to rest my head for the night as I faced the street, hoisted the heavy pack onto my back, and began hiking north toward the walkway over the Hudson River. I slowed, reached into a side pocket in my backpack, and took out a couple of rose petals. I released them, they fell gently to the ground. “Kailyn, I’m on my way,” I whispered. I then took out the holy water vile, released a few drops while asking the Lord to bless New York.

     After having walked less than a block from the dealership, it started raining. I laughed and pulled my hood over my head and strode with determination to the north. In all the time since the ravine, I’ve learned many lessons. At that moment I recalled one key point, to take one single step at a time and do not even dare to think of the distance I must yet travel because 8,400,000 steps seem impossible, but a single day’s walk is a simple task. Therefore, I marched forward not allowing myself any thoughts on what might lay ahead. It feels awesome to have finally started.

JE 25

 The cold early spring rains increased as I approached the bridge spanning the Hudson River. The low clouds in the near distance weren’t making me happy as I started to stride across the walkway with the rain pelting me in a sideway torrent. I remained stubbornly attached to my plan to walk at least 20 miles per day; I wasn’t going to allow myself to fail to reach that goal on the first day.

     There were few people on the bridge, likely the consequence of the intense rains drenching the region, and the early month of the year did not attract many walkers. I could not let non-threatening weather stop me; from my point of view, driving rains only posed a problem if floods or overwhelming rushing water stood in my path, which was not the case.

I wanted to see the views from the walkway, but the intense rain darkened the sight. It was a surreal setting with the side winds buffeting the structure and the clouds seeming to hang low enough to touch.

     Pushing on, I had crossed to the halfway point and was looking at the river below when I crashed into a woman walking in the opposite direction. I knocked her off her feet and watched as her head hit the hard walkway surface—her umbrella flew away, lifted by a stiff wind gust.

     “Are you okay?”

     She smiled. “Yes, help me up.”

     “Are you sure? You hit your head pretty hard.”

     “Please, help me up,” she said. “I’m alright.”

     As I pulled her to her feet (and this will sound insanely corny), I gazed at her and was stunned by her beauty. Yeah, yeah, I know, a clichéd and corny way to describe it, right?

     “I’m sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going. The weight of my backpack added to my momentum. My name’s, Aaron.”

     “Mary, I’m Mary Clarke. Don’t worry about it. I’m not hurt.”

     She was the most beautiful woman I’d seen since Kailyn, and that’s saying a lot for a first glance. “I’m glad my clumsiness didn’t get you hurt.”

     “You know, that doesn’t look like a backpack one uses for a casual walk. What’s it for?” she asked.

     Her amazing face and smile shined through the rain; her beautiful blond hair was beginning to absorb the water rushing down on us. She wore a tan-colored coat, a similar colored shirt, and jeans—none of her clothes appeared appropriate attire for rainy weather. She had a large bag draped over her right shoulder, and then it wrapped around the front of her body. I guessed her to be about my age. Despite the watery conditions, she was stunning. I smiled and said, “It’s the largest pack I could find.”

     She laughed softly. “But why?”

     I must admit, she is the first woman that has stirred any response in me since Kailyn. “Why?”

     “I’m just wondering why you’re carrying the largest backpack you could find?”

     I smiled. “I’m walking across the United States, from Poughkeepsie to San Francisco.”

     “What? Really? That’s amazing. But why?” Mary said.

     “That’s a long story.”

     “Well, maybe it wasn’t bad you knocked me over. I’m a reporter for one of the TV stations in Poughkeepsie. I was here to take pictures for a segment we plan to run—this is my camera bag.” She patted the bag around her shoulder. “I’m supposed to highlight the walkway and the activities that take place every summer around it, but with all this rain, maybe your story will be more interesting?”

     “I’m just a guy who’s decided to take a long walk.” I smiled, a rare action for me.

     “But there’s a reason for that, right?” she said.

     “Yes, but it’s not interesting to anyone else.”

     “Are you hungry?” she asked, with excitement.

     “Absolutely. Why?”

     “Are you willing to join me for a sandwich?”

     “I do have plans to continue my trek to the west once I’m off this walkway,” I said and instantly felt like a fool. Here was this smart and gorgeous (yeah, I wrote that word) woman offering to buy me a sandwich, and I hesitated. I came to my senses and said, “Is there a place on the west side of the Hudson?” I grabbed my backpack and hoisted it into place.

     “You bet there is, an excellent location. I’ll get your story; if I don’t hear anything interesting in what you say, I’ll destroy the notes and return to the walkway for the story I was sent to do, and maybe the rain will stop by then. Is that fair?”

     “Yes, that’s fair. You lead. I’ll follow.”

     I enjoyed walking with Mary—it felt good to find myself attracted to a woman again. Such feelings haven’t entered my mind since Kailyn’s death; this is a fresh experience for me. I suppose this is a change worth experiencing and my trip has barely begun.

JE 26

I followed Mary toward the walkway’s west end. We hadn’t made it twenty feet when something incredible happened. A powerful wind gust blew across the walkway. I watched with shock as the force of the gale began shoving Mary across the wet bridge surface with her flat shoes appearing almost as ice skates. I dropped my backpack and ran after her.

     Mary screamed as she slammed into the rails and shrieked with terror when the gust began to force her over the side. She was thin, didn’t have much weight to keep her grounded. 

     I reached the railing, grabbed her around her waist. I pulled her away from the fence, spun her toward me, and hugged her close. My heart was pounding as I released my grip on her.

     Mary took in deep breaths, relaxed.

     I started to loosen up, and wow, it stuck me full on. Here I was on the first day of my journey, and while I was relieved to have managed to get to her in time, images of Kailyn at the ravine filled my thoughts. I forced them away, which for me was a major triumph. Looking at Mary, I said, “Are you okay?”

     “I think so; it hurt when I slammed into the railing. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t swim, and that’s not a short drop. I could’ve died if I fell over.”

     “You’ve no idea how relieved I was to reach you in time,” I said, as an image of Kailyn plummeting to her death entered my mind. In a way, this event was far different because I had the opportunity to do something. One of the maddening aspects of the ravine incident was it happened without me knowing, and it offered me no chance to help Kailyn. In this case, I stopped Mary from going over the railing.

     “How did you get to me so fast?” she said.

     “Let’s just say I was motivated?”

     “Well, you saved my life, which makes you a hero. How many people would’ve run after me as you did? I don’t think many.”

     “I reacted from sheer instinct, nothing else.”

     “But that makes you a hero. Your instinct was to help me, and you never hesitated. You’re one quick runner. The wind had me moving fast to the railing,” she said.

     I shrugged and said, “I was motivated.”

     Mary smiled. “Come on, let’s get to the sandwich shop; I want to hear your story and learn more about your motivation.” 

     Her smile melted my heart. I know how corny that must seem, but I don’t care. Sam knows all my secrets, and it knows I’m turning into a cliché. Aaron Wright, the pathetic cliché (lol, there I did it again). Did you detect a hint of giddiness, perhaps even happiness, in my writing about stopping Mary from going over the side? I’m not ashamed—I did help her, and it sure felt awesome!

 

JE – 27

The rains slowed as we approached the sandwich shop. I smiled when I saw the name of the place, Wheat & Meat. “I guess gluten intolerant people are out of luck here.”

     “Yeah, but the owner makes the most incredible fresh bread on-site, and the place is always packed from eleven in the morning until nine at night,” Mary said. She pushed through the front door.

     As I entered, I noticed the smell of freshly baked bread permeating the interior, making me hungry. “Is this like other sandwich shops? Do we go to the counter?”

     Mary smiled. I love her smile; it surprises me to find myself responding so positively to her. I followed her to a host, who guided us to an empty booth.

     “We place our order, like in a real restaurant, not a fast-food place. You won’t find fresher food anywhere,” Mary said.

     “You sound like you’re the owner.” I noticed Mary blushing. “Are you the owner?”

     “No,” she said. She glanced toward the rear where I saw an older man taking orders from the servers. “My dad owns this place. I live in Poughkeepsie. I come here all the time. Everything I said about this place is true.”

     I said, “Are you sure there’s no family influence in your opinion?”

     “What a lousy thing for my hero to say,” she snapped, laughing.

     Before Mary smiles, her eyes widen as if she’s about to open her soul to the listener. “I’m so sorry for having let you down, my lady. I must polish my armor for you.” I laughed; she joined me. I confess it’s the most enjoyable laugh I’ve experienced in a long time and as I think about it, one of the rare laughs I’ve enjoyed since Kailyn’s death. 

     “Do you trust me to choose for us?”

     “Yes, absolutely,” I said.

     “I’ll order a sample tray. It sounds strange in a place that offers sandwiches as its specialty, but Dad makes various bread samples in a much smaller size for the tray; it offers a broad spectrum of tastes for those who’ve never eaten here.”

     I see the pride and glint of fun in her expression. “It seems you might be withholding something about this sampler.”

     “You have a quick, intuitive mind. The sampler was my idea. Dad fought me about it for a year, but now it’s the most popular item on the menu.”

     “Well, then let’s have the sampler.” I was having such a good time that it only now struck me that this was the first day of my journey to walk across the country. I still had to travel more than ten more miles and find a location to sleep for the night. I put those thoughts away when the server approached carrying a large tray. I looked at Mary and smiled.

 JE  28

Mary was correct. The sampler tray provided the tastiest sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, though I’m confident having Mary with me added to my enjoyment.

     “Well, hero man, will you now tell me about your trek and why you’re hauling such a massive backpack across the country?” Mary said.

     “There’s not much to say. Today I started my walk across the United States. It was an unexpected pleasure to run into you. By now I had planned to be five to ten miles farther to the west.”

     “I need more. You seem like a good man—and you’re instinctively heroic. You alluded to a longer story, please tell me more,” she said.

     I know my expression revealed more than I wanted, but I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to plunge into the Kailyn story to a person who, to me, remained a relative stranger. I settled on a brief version. “I’m no different than millions of others. I’ve experienced pain. I’m using this long walk to force myself to move beyond it all. Many others find different ways to handle the grief that comes into their lives. Walking across the country is my way to release my heartache by offering it to the past.”

     “Aaron, it’s obvious you’ve suffered a lot. What happened?”

     While smiling, I stood and looked at her. “Thank you, Mary, for an enjoyable lunch. I can’t describe how nice it was spending time with you.” I reached for my backpack.

     “Hey! If it was so nice, why are you in such a rush?” she said, appearing hurt as if I had done her a major wrong.

     “I’ve barely begun my journey. I need to find a place to camp for the night. I’ll walk for hours longer. I have to leave.” I smiled while hoisting the backpack onto my shoulders and walking through the entrance doors. I confess, deep inside self-loathing had risen since I was intentionally walking away from a friendly, smart, and beautiful woman. Those thoughts did not make me feel better.

     I heard Mary following me in a sprint.

     “Stop, hero man,” she called.

     I unhappily halted. “Please, stop calling me a hero. I reacted to the situation, nothing more.”

     “Listen,” she said, as a stubborn sarcasm filled her voice. “You saved my life—I’ve every right to call you a hero. Besides, I like you and feel comfortable with you.” 

     “I like you too, but as I said, my story is not interesting. I’ve turned into a cliché, a most uninteresting person.” I meant that. I had become a cliché, and it disgusted me. Sure, my pain was real, yet enough of the self-pity. I had a life to live.

     “I doubt that. Do you mind if I walk with you for a mile or two, so I can make up my mind about you?” she said.

     “I don’t own the sidewalk,” I snapped, regretting it immediately.

     “Hey, I haven’t treated you poorly. I’ve been grateful since you pulled me from the railing. Don’t be harsh to me.”

     I winced at her description of me. I saw a sidewalk bench,  walked to it, dropped my pack, sat. I motioned for Mary to join me. “I apologize, you didn’t deserve me snapping at you. Throughout all the hours I spent planning this trip, I never envisioned meeting a young, beautiful woman who would challenge me as you have.” I watched her blush. “Your quick mind has taken me off my guard. I’ve survived the last couple of years by maintaining tight control over myself. Forgive me, I’ve worked hard to rid myself of the past; I’m overly sensitive.” 

     “Wow, Aaron, that was sweet of you. Thank you for the compliments. You can trust me. I know that we just met, but strangely, it feels as if I’ve known you for a long time. I’ll understand if you don’t want to talk, but you can trust me.”

     “You’re a reporter. How can I trust what I tell you won’t turn into one of your field segments?”

     “Well, to answer that, let me ask a question. Would you mind if I wrote a general report of your plan to walk across the country, without including any of your painful personal stories?”

     I couldn’t help softening toward her. “I suppose that would be okay if you promise.”

     “I do promise.”

     I was about to take a leap that surprised me. “I agree with that.” I smiled. “I do have one other request that has nothing to do with your report about me. This might seem a bit too much since we just met earlier on the walking bridge. I’ll understand if you say no.”

     “Tell me, Aaron,” she said.

     “May I kiss you?”

     “We just met. Why would you want to kiss me?”

     I released an uncontrolled groan as I looked at her not knowing what I should say that wouldn’t sound ridiculous. I chose to open a little to her. “It’s been a long time. I miss the closeness of a kiss. I know we just met and I’m a total stranger to you. I’ll understand if you think it’s an inappropriate request.”

     She didn’t answer. Instead, I watched her draw near. I instinctively closed the gap. It might sound weird coming from a man who was once married and had had many kisses in his life; however, I was shaking as our lips met and I felt genuinely nervous. It’s amazing how fast our brains operate during such moments. As our lips came together in earnest, I hoped I wouldn’t mess it up.   

     Since the loss of Kailyn, it was easy to remain loyal to her memory by creating a near hermit’s life. Yet, despite my attempts at being a loner, I missed being close to a woman. Deep down, I longed to feel the intimacy of a caring kiss.

     Not only was kissing Mary awesome; it changed my life. Yes, I know that’s a bit dramatic, but the softness of her face, the touch of her lips, the smell of her perfume, the gentle caress of her breath as we approached each other, it was hypnotic—I loved every second. It seemed to me our kiss was neither short nor long, I wanted her to enjoy it as much as I did. As we pulled apart, we did not speak; rather, we hugged each other close.

     “Aaron?”

     “Yes?”

     “That was perfect,” she whispered.

     Her response surprised me because it was as if she knew I was feeling unsure and needed affirmation. I leaned in for a second kiss. We moved easily and comfortably together. It seemed we became lost in the gentle kisses, almost as if she needed the intimacy as much as me. They were not kisses born of passion; instead, they were tender acts filled with anticipation and a deep affection impossible to understand.

     As we pulled away from each other, I said, “That was amazing. I do need to keep moving so I can find a place to camp. As I promised, if you walk with me for a while, I’ll answer all your questions.”

     “Let’s go,” she said.

     As I smiled at her, I marveled at the swift change my life experienced on the first day of my trip. Incredible!

JE 29

 Mary began questioning me as we walked toward U.S. Route 44, which I planned to take to Honesta, assuming there’s enough time in the day to reach that town.

     “So, cough up, hero man. Why are you taking this insanely long, dangerous trek?” Mary said.

     “Please, stop calling me a hero.”

     “Okay, but we’ve walked for a while, and I still don’t know much. I can’t follow you across the country,” she said.

     “We were happily married. She was the love of my life. We had already purchased a home and had plans for having children and building a full life together.”

     “Where was that?” she asked.

     “In Oak Valley, Illinois. It’s a quiet small town outside Chicago. It has pretty much everything a young couple could want, and we picked a beautiful house to get our start.” I slowed my walking pace and looked at her. “Speaking about my life with Kailyn with you feels strange after the excellent kissing we enjoyed.”  

     “Why? Don’t be ridiculous. We just met. I don’t think your life began today. Besides, it’s not as if I haven’t kissed men before.”

     I chuckle. “I suppose I was acting a bit like an idiot.”

     “I’ve maybe twenty more minutes before I have to go back. My bosses will be steaming mad that I didn’t focus on the walkway segment. I sure hope your story is worthwhile,” she said.

     “Nothing like applying the pressure.” I smiled. “Anyway, Kailyn and I were truly in love; we had known each other since childhood. We had just enjoyed a wonderful wedding and reception.

     “After leaving the reception, we drove straight through the night to reach a resort in the mountains to begin our honeymoon. The next morning, we were nearing the resort, we stopped for coffee. After a while, the coffee had run through my system, and I needed a bathroom break in a hurry. I came upon a rest area high in the Rocky Mountains. The parking lot was crammed full of cars. There was an overlook behind the main building; it was filled with onlookers, which explained all the cars.

     “I drove in circles looking for a place to park and finally gave up. I parked on the grass at the end of the lot. Kailyn was sleeping. I didn’t have the heart to wake her. I turned off the engine, placed the manual transmission into gear, and ran off to the restroom. It was a routine bathroom stop.

     “After leaving the building, I couldn’t find our car. It wasn’t where I had left it in the grass at the end of the lot. My concern rose; I ran around searching for her hoping she’d woken and parked somewhere else, but I couldn’t find the car anywhere. I returned to the place I had left the vehicle—that’s when everything in my life changed forever.  

     “I saw two tire paths in the grass running in a decline to a massive vertical drop into a ravine. I followed the tire marks. Seconds later, I fell to my knees in agony when I realized what had happened. The car had slowly rolled to the edge of the ravine; Kailyn did not wake in time because of the vehicle’s gentle progress. Before she could do anything to save herself, she and the car plummeted to the rocky bottom.

     “Kailyn, our futures, and my life shattered into pieces at the bottom of that ravine. I instantly realized it was my fault. If I had placed the car in gear correctly, or if I had parked somewhere else, or if I had simply woken Kailyn, she’d be alive—and my life wouldn’t have fallen into complete despair.” Mary’s expression of sorrow made me wince. I felt sad that I had brought unhappiness upon her.

     “Aaron, I’m so sorry, I have no words,” she said as she moved closer to me.

     I stopped walking, we embraced. “I’m sorry my story isn’t good enough for your television spot.”

     “But it is, and you haven’t finished. What happened to Kailyn was terrible, truly horrible. I’m so sorry, yet it doesn’t explain why you’re taking this insanely long and dangerous walk,” she said.

     “I don’t see why anyone would care about my story. People die every day—only their loved one’s care. Her death changed my life. I knew it was my fault and it’s been rough for me to deal with the guilt. I worked for years as a technology manager. My bosses at the firm were incredibly patient after Kailyn’s death, but I couldn’t function and eventually lost my job. My bosses had no choice. I was always late, my performance was terrible, it wasn’t their fault.”

     “Okay, so I can understand you took her death hard, but that still doesn’t explain this trip,” she said.

     “It tossed my life into an uncontrollable tailspin. Her death was so unnecessary that it shocked my system and left me reeling for a long time. Not only did I have to move on without her but I also had to reconcile myself to having caused her death. I had weeks and months of little to no sleep. My dreams were haunted by what happened because my conscience pounded away at me.

     “I know it was an accident, yet it was also my fault. So many simple things would have changed everything that day; if I had consumed less coffee; if I had waited for an open parking space; if I had put the car in gear correctly; if I had remembered to apply the parking brake; if I had woken Kailyn before I left for the restroom. Any of those would have prevented her from dying. I spent months in agony because of the way she died.” I looked at Mary with a pleading expression. “Can’t you understand? It was terrible she died, yet the second layer of pain for me is knowing how avoidable it was; that’s the aspect I can’t accept.”

     “Oh, Aaron, I do understand, but it was still an accident. You’ve grieved long enough,” she said.

     “I’m a Catholic. I started going to daily Mass. I joined all sorts of church activities to keep me busy. I also grew close to Father Thomas at my church, which helped. A definite feeling started filling my thoughts—it was directing me to leave our home and begin something different and new. It struck me to walk the country. At first, it seemed ridiculous and entirely too difficult, but I built plans to do the trek. Slowly those came together and made sense.

     “Several affirmations came my way convincing me of the rightness of my intention to walk across the country. I crafted detailed designs of what I’d do and how I’d do it. I sold our home and almost everything in it, which means I no longer have a place to rest my head, I’m all in. And, the kicker is, the day I was set to leave our house, it burned to the ground.

     “I’ve nothing tying me to Oak Valley. No family left, my parents have already passed. I’ve no reason not to see this journey through to completion. My hope is I’ll experience final closure by taking this insanely long and dangerous trip. Those are the general points of my story. I’m sure there’s nothing of interest.”

     Mary hugged me tightly. She said, “That’s where you’re wrong. I’ll create a segment about you but leave out the personal details as promised. It will be a great piece because what you’re doing is fascinating, even without the personal reasons included.”

     “Mary, I’ve only known you for hours, but I trust you.” I smiled. “But you should go back. It’s starting to get dark, and it would be better for me if I didn’t have to worry about you making it back alone.”

     “You’d worry about me?” she asked.

     “Of course. You’re the first woman I’ve cared about since the ravine; you’ve made the first day of my trip far more enjoyable than I ever thought possible.” I took the opportunity to kiss her again. “How can I not worry about the safety of such a beautiful woman who kisses so well?” I enjoyed it when she blushed.

     “Let me have your cell; I’ll put my number in. Text me with your locations. Maybe, if you’ll let me, I’ll meet you on your journey somewhere,” she said while entering her number in my contacts list.

     “Let you? Are you kidding? That gives me something to look forward to. Now, please, go before it gets dark. Please go now.”

     “I’m all grown up, Aaron, I’ll be alright.”  

     “I know, but please go and don’t forget to keep your promise.” After kissing her again, I walked away, not allowing a response from her. It was a shockingly fantastic day thanks to Mary. My protective instincts told me to walk her back to her parked car in the lot at Wheat and Meat, but I had miles to go, and I knew she’d reject my offer to accompany her on the return trip.

     I increased my pace, traversing a mile every twenty minutes, which considering the heavy backpack, was a good speed. After a time, I guessed I had a little less than two hours to reach Honesta. That didn’t include searching for a safe place to sleep. Sam learned of different events this day.

JE  30

 My pace was high enough to allow me to reach Honesta. I made a single stop in that town to refill my water pouch at a local gas station. The attendant on duty was helpful. As I moved through the town, I released two peach-colored rose petals.

     Once I was outside the village, I saw no buildings. It was approaching ten o’clock; the rain and darkness hid most of the area from my view.

     The downpour continued. At times, it had come down in a torrent—when combined with the lower spring temperatures, I fell into an intense shiver which caused me to move all the faster.

     The terrible weather increased my desire to find a secure refuge for the night. I was concerned for my safety walking on the side of the road in the dark. Before the trip I covered the backpack and my outer clothing with wide reflective tape; it was my hope drivers in the cars passing by would see me trekking along.

     I had moved beyond Honesta when I saw the silhouette of a large farm barn about 100 feet from the road. Even from the street, the building’s decayed state was evident, with most clapboards crumbling, and those that remained held no remaining paint. The entrance drive leading to the structure was filled with brush, grass, and rocks; it was plain to me the entrance road, along with the barn, had not seen use in years.

     I had no desire to camp inside the crumbling building. It seemed to me that caution with every decision was the wisest course. The barn didn’t look safe; it struck me it was likely a haven for all sorts of field animals, the building might collapse at any moment.

     I intended to find the main house or home to seek permission to pitch my tent on their property for the night, but it was impossible to see anything beyond the barn through the vicious downpour. I found myself in a tricky situation knowing that without rest the next day’s journey would be almost impossible. Yet there was no one around to ask permission. Caution was critical, but taking chances, when required, was also important.

     After lowering my backpack, I packed the extended solar device used to charge my devices; it proved worthless through most of the day with the clouds preventing the sunlight from reaching the unit. Hopefully, the weather forecasts were correct, and the sun would shine in the morning.

I gave a thought, again, to taking refuge inside the barn. Instead, I pitched my tent on the field grass hugging the barn’s access road, with the hope the owners wouldn’t mind. My frustration rose as the rain and wind intensified while pitching the tent, even though my training walks had prepared me for most weather conditions.

As I finished the tent set up and spread out my sleeping bag, a noise made me jump; it was my cell phone. I smiled (yes, it was a happy smile) when I noticed it was from Mary.

Aaron, I had no trouble making it back to the restaurant. I had enough time to put together a segment about your walk across the country.

That’s great! I replied, wanting to say it to her face, but knowing the text would have to suffice.

Her response came almost immediately. Yeah, I was glad to get back in time. Thanks, hero man, for saving me and for all the fun I had with you today.

It shocked me to read her speaking of the fun she had. The day was filled with many chapters; it was hard for me to fathom I had just met her earlier. Me too! I can’t remember the last day that was as enjoyable, I replied.

Another text from her. My segment about your walk will air tomorrow morning. I’ll send you a link after it airs.

I wiggled my inept fingers over the small keyboard, thinking about what to say when another text came through from her.

How far did you make it today?

     She sure could type fast. I sent, I’m just outside Honesta. Not bad for my first day.

After a short pause. Are you camped for the night?

Yes, all set for a good night’s sleep. It’s been a long day, but meeting you was the highlight for me. I couldn’t stop the smile creasing my face while thinking of her.

I enjoyed knowing Mary was typing a message each time she sent me a text. It made me feel closer to her, almost as if we were having a face-to-face chat. Those little ellipses signified a lot to me, and I knew it meant we were using the same type of devices.

The ellipses popped up. I waited for her message.

I feel the same. It was awesome meeting you too. I’m off now, going to let you sleep. I’ll text you again tomorrow. Goodnight.

My fingers fumbled over the keyboard in a rush. Thanks, Mary, we’ll talk then.

Despite the swirling winds and the downpours buffeting my tent, and after everything I’ve come through, little bothered me, though I could not get the smell of rain out of my senses, which was strange because it had been raining for some time. I put it out of my mind, fell into a deep sleep.

JE 31

 It was not a dream that woke me. It was the incredible roar coming from an unknown distance that had me leaping from my sleep.

     At first, it seemed my chosen campsite might be near train tracks that were not visible to me while setting up for the night, yet there was something about the horrific noise that told me it was not a train coming my way.

     After putting on my raincoat, grabbing my flashlight, and stepping outside, I made sure my tent was secured and zipped.

     While gazing toward Honesta, even in the darkness the low swirling clouds were noticeable. The roar was intense and frightening. At that moment, I saw the rope-like shape of the tornado heading toward the town.

     Feeling mesmerized and terrified, I searched my mind for the many things learned during my preparation stage. It struck me a stable structure was the best place to be at that moment, but a tent and a dilapidated barn were not good places to take refuge. The town was too far away. No other buildings were in sight.

     Spinning in a frenzied circle, I saw a deep ditch. It didn’t make me feel safe seeing the fast-running water passing through it; drowning was no better than dying from the violence of a tornado. 

     I sprinted to the barn with the hope it had a basement. After pushing my way through the rubble and into the building’s interior, I saw the telltale decrepit railing leading to a stairway. I screamed, “Yes!”

     Shining the light on the stairs revealed gaps in the treads, but there were enough steps to allow me to descend into the basement. Working my way around rusted farm equipment and tools reminded me of a famous tornado movie, but I never imagined I’d be in a barn seeking protection from a tornado. A surreal movie was unfolding in real life with me serving as the main character in the scene. Realizing how stupid that last thought was, I laughed at myself.

     Scurrying to the nearest corner of the basement, I pulled a large cabinet with me and got into a crouch behind it, placing myself in the concrete nook with the cabinet acting as protection against debris that might fly across the cellar.

The roar filled the air, it was impossible to know where the tornado was. The funny thing was, at that moment, while I was crouched low in the barn’s basement waiting for the storm to pass, my mind filled with worry for Sam#1 and #2. They (as I had taken to think of them) were tucked inside my backpack which was in my tent outside. I’m ridiculous, I know—no excuse for my absurdities.

     The ground shook. The sounds of the winds increased. I sensed no destruction close to me. I remained glued to that corner nook when, suddenly, the roar subsided substantially. It seemed like a train (people compare tornadoes to train sounds a lot) in that the sound became deafening as the storm approached, but it became much quieter once the tornado moved beyond my general area.

     I remained in my refuge as debris pelted the barn and the structure. Minutes later the only sounds I heard were the lesser rains that continued to fall.

     Climbing through the basement and from the barn, I ran to my tent and was amazed to find it remained untouched by the storm. Looking at Honesta, I realized the town had taken the brunt of the tornado. Sirens blared across its streets.

Without giving any further thought to the storm, I grabbed my pack and flashlight, ran to the village to see if there was anyone in need of help. While increasing my pace to a sprint, I prayed the tornado had not struck Poughkeepsie, where Mary lived.

JE 32

I was shocked when I saw the town. The tornado had hit Honesta hard. The road cutting through the center of the village was filled with debris. I heard explosions and cries of pain and shock coming from all around me.

     I had no idea what to do while inching into the fray. I don’t use this phrase often, yet horror struck me when I saw the Honesta firehouse was completely blocked with what appeared a building that had dropped in its driveway, blocking the street-side portion of the structure. I saw, through the tall garage door windows, the town’s ambulance and fire trucks were trapped inside.

     Sirens from nearby towns swept across the region.

     Knowing there was nothing I could do to unblock the firehouse entrance, I kept walking, sounds of pain filled my ears.

     As I shined the flashlight in that direction, the light fell upon a small grocery store with five cars parked in front; its parking lot entrance was 100 feet from the firehouse campus.

     Following the pain-filled screams, I ran to the store and realized the sounds were coming from inside with the sounds making it to me through the front of the store’s building that used to be a wide window.

     Using no real caution, I plunged into the building and let the sound of groans direct my steps. Strangely, it was as if robotic movements came over me while working through food items strewn across the floor, having fallen from shelves previously filled with cans and boxes.

     The groans were louder, causing me to strive harder to find the source.

     Turning a corner, I saw a young woman on the floor with a thick steel shelf resting on her lower body. She was trapped under its weight.

     Hurrying to her side, I knelt close and said, “Hi, my name’s Aaron. Can you speak?”

     “I’m Bailey.”

     “Bailey, do you work here?”

     “Yes, I’m not sure where everyone else is, but I’m trapped. Five other people were helping restock the store when the tornado hit,” she said.

I watched tears rushing down her face.

“I don’t know if they’re hurt, or dead or anything about them. They’re my friends. I’m worried.”

I couldn’t help but smile. Maybe that’s a strange reaction in such a tense moment, yet while kneeling next to this injured person and listening to her express concern for her friends, I don’t know, she touched me, which caused me to smile. Heavy shelving units had pinned her to the floor, and yet, she was concerned about her friends. Talk about a person who can renew one’s love for humanity, she sure filled the bill.

Taking her hand in mine, I said, “Bailey, let’s get you free first and make sure you’re okay before we worry about your co-workers. I’ll go find help to get this shelf off your body.”

“No, please, Aaron. You can’t leave.”

She was pleading with me.

“Why? The shelf has to be removed?”

“I know, I know, but look.” She pointed.

I followed her pointing finger and I stared at the heap of metal and tried to figure out why she was concerned. That’s when I saw the shelving— she was trapped under was wedged against a steel support post. While watching, the post moved slightly, maybe less than one-quarter of an inch, but it did move. The section of the roof above us was going to crash down if the post fully shifted under the crushing weight. The post slid again. I didn’t know what to do.

JE 33

The post barely held the roof back. I had to do something, but candidly, an answer was not coming to me.

     “Please, Aaron, I don’t want to die.”

     I held deep concern and compassion for Bailey and couldn’t bear the thought of further harm coming to her. “You’re not going to die. I’ll get you out.”

     Trying to recall some of my first responder training, I looked at her lower body and said, “Bailey, I think I know what I’m going to do. Can you feel your legs and feet?”

     From my peripheral vision, I saw the post slide. Once again, about a quarter of an inch. I couldn’t help wondering how many slides the post would make before the weight of the roof caused it to slide away completely.

     “Yes, they hurt a lot, but I can move them and wiggle my toes. I don’t think anything’s broken. The boxes and cans stopped it from really crushing me. There’s too much weight for me to break free. Help, Aaron, help.”

     It was as if she knew the information I was seeking. I sprang into action, grabbed the flashlight, and ran across the area looking for something to use as a pry bar. As I reached the back of the store, a thought filled my mind from my teenage years working in a grocery store. I ran into the stock room and moved back and forth across the area for several minutes. I found what I needed, a pallet jack with two lift forks.

     I yanked the machine recklessly through the double doors, spun it around, and pushed it along the aisle leading to Bailey. “I have the perfect thing for this,” I shouted to her.

     Upon reaching her and the wreckage, I noticed the post had slipped further. Wasting no time, I dropped the forks of the pallet jack low to nearly the floor and slid them under the shelving unit close to the boxes it was crushing; there was just enough space to wedge the forks under the metal.

     “Bailey,” I yelled. “I’m going to lift the wreckage one inch at a time, slowly and carefully. “Yell if something goes wrong.”

     I started pumping the long arm of the jack and watched as the forks rose toward the shelving. After looking at the post, it was evident it had moved again. The sounds of strained metal reached my ears as the forks began working against the weight of the shelving unit. I knew the jack had a limited weight it could lift—I was hopeful it was enough.

     “Aaron, careful, it might shift and crush my legs,” she cried.

     I stopped and knelt to the wreckage, attempting to gauge the safety of the pallet jack lifting the shelving. “It’s about an inch higher. Can you move easier?” I watched her wiggle.

     “No, I’m still stuck,” she said.

     I shoved several large cans under the shelf, hoping they would prevent the unit’s weight from dropping any further.

     I returned to the jack and began pumping the lift arm again, slowly, with such caution it caused my anxiety to rise. The jack rose another inch, perhaps two. My worrying mind reminded me to look at the post, though I’m not sure what I would have done if it all collapsed.

     “I can move my left leg; keep going,” she yelled.

     As much as a sense of needing to hurry had overwhelmed me, I refused to throw caution to the proverbial winds. As I worked the lift arm, the wreckage rose three inches. My peripheral vision caught sight of the post sliding, this time it moved an inch or more and was standing at an increased angle. Knowing there wasn’t much time before the roof would rain down upon us, I chose to toss some of my cautions aside while working the lift arm enough to raise the pile another three inches.

     “My legs can move; they can move a lot now,” she yelled.

     Running to her and reaching down to her upper body, I started inching her from under the wreckage.

     She screamed from the pain.

     “Is there any resistance?”

     “No, I don’t feel anything, but it hurts like, well it hurts like you know what,” she cried.

     It was time. I lifted her upper body and wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled hard; my adrenalin must have been high because she popped out of the mess as if shot from a canon. I didn’t talk; instead, I carefully pulled her onto my back and carried her to the front of the store, and then through the door to the outside and well away from the building.

     We both heard the horrific sound as the post gave way and the roof crashed down on the floor of the building, where she was lying seconds earlier. My shock was interrupted by Bailey tugging at my arms. Looking at her, I saw her face was filled with tears. I grabbed her and hugged her tight.

     “You saved my life,” she whispered while burying her face against me. “You’re a hero.”

     “No, I’m no hero. I was just in the right place, at the right time. I’m glad I was able to help.”  

     “My mom and dad must be so worried about me.”

     “Do you live nearby?”

     “Yes, but we should find the people I work with,” she said. “They might be trapped like I was.”    

     “How far is it to your house?”

     “One block.” She pointed. “This is a small town; everyone lives within a mile of these businesses.”

     “Can you walk?”

     In answer, she tried to stand, but she screamed from the pain.

     “You don’t weigh much. I’ll carry you to your house and let your mom and dad take it from there. After I get you to them, I’ll come back here to look for the others.”

     “Why are you doing this?” she said with surprise.

     “Because I can.” 

     The town was a mess, littered with debris, and pieces of buildings and cars were shoved around like toys. She was thin and weighed little; I wondered how much effort it would take to carry her the one block to her home.

     My trip isn’t a day old and what a time it’s been.

JE  34

I was growing concerned as I navigated around, and through the wreckage strewn across the street. I knew the effort to circumvent the material was a task filled with danger. As I crept toward the large Victorian home resting on a corner lot, even in the dark, I noticed the home had suffered considerable damage from fallen trees. I saw two people standing on the wrap-around porch, three small children standing by their side. The power was out across the town as far as we could see, so it was not easy to discern who was standing in the darkness, but Bailey knew.

     “Dad, Mom!” she yelled.

     I saw her dad run from the porch. He was noticeably limping.

     “Bailey,” her father screamed.

     I continued carrying her to the house. Her dad met me halfway and immediately reached out his arms to take his daughter from me, as her mother joined us.

     “Dad, what happened? Why’re you limping?”

     “One of the older trees crashed through our bedroom window, and a branch hit me in the leg. I already bandaged it; I’ll be fine. What happened to you?” His voice was thick with worry.

     I stepped closer to them to get their attention. “I need to head back to the store. I promised Bailey I’d search for her co-workers. She was injured when a store shelving unit fell on her. After freeing her, she told me your home was close; I brought her here assuming you could take the matter from here. Bailey will tell you everything. Good luck.” Without giving them time to reply, I ran away.

It was difficult working through the wreckage left after the roof had collapsed, but I was driven to search the store since Bailey was convinced five other people were in the building.

     Recalling, again, my days working in a grocery store, I remembered there was a basement in our building, which sent me running to the rear of the store through the stock area. I saw the stairs next to a massive cardboard box baler machine.

     Using the flashlight, I ran down the stairs, took a left turn, and entered a room with two long rectangular tables, with chairs resting haphazardly across the area. Several vending machines sat in the distance, beyond the tables.

     I experienced a sense of déjà vu while viewing the room. It looked like the lunchroom at my old store. In a hurry, I ran to a side room, opened the door, and looked inside, nothing but supplies.

     A slight banging sound filled the room, which sent me sprinting up the stairs. The store’s layout was identical to the one I worked in; I ran to the frozen food storage cooler at the far end.

     My stomach sank when I saw the roof had collapsed in a massive pile blocking the door leading into the cooler. There was no clear path to the entrance. The banging sounds were much louder and were emanating from behind the steel entrance door. Upon reaching the door, I pounded hard against its surface, the people inside banged loudly in return.

     I knew the people inside the freezer room couldn’t be in good shape, considering the low temperatures in those coolers. It was plain that despite the power outage, it had to be quite cold inside.

     Sprinting across the room, I found a large gas-powered pallet jack; a machine store employees used to unload pallets from large delivery trucks. I leaped into the seat of the machine, which had a steel safety cage protecting the operator. I drove it to the stock room’s exit doors, and then down a clear aisle heading to the front.

     Without slowing, I turned toward the break in the front window, which I had seen earlier, and smashed the machine through a low brick wall to the outside—drove around the side of the building to the right rear corner, where the freezer storage room rested. Moving farther from the building, I turned the machine with the steel forks raised to about three feet high and pressed the pedal fully down, sending me and the machine at a brisk pace toward the store’s outer brick wall.

     It was with deep satisfaction that I watched the forks penetrate the wall while carving a huge hole.

     I worked the forks up and down. As I was about to start my second charge at the building, I saw lights shining through the hole I had created, several people began crawling through the opening.

     Running to them, I saw they were shivering as they came into the night air, which was much warmer than inside the cooler. I ran to them, greeted each person who climbed through the hole. I leaped back when, in an instant, and without any warning, four of them took off running away from me. Their response seemed weird to me after having been extracted from the frigid cooler.

     The fifth person approached me, a woman perhaps 35 years old. She hugged me tightly.

     “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said. “Who are you?”

     “I was outside Honesta when the storm hit. I came back to town to see if I could help. My name’s, Aaron.”

     She released me and stepped back a couple of feet. “I’m, Brooke. I’m so happy to meet you. What you did was amazing.”

Looking toward the front of the store, I said, “Where did the others go? I’d like to have met them.”

     “They are firemen and paramedics. They need to help injured people. They work here part-time for extra money and because it’s so close to the firehouse,” she said.

     “I hope they can get to their equipment; the firehouse didn’t appear in usable condition.” I looked at her. “Are you okay?”

     “I’m fine and need to get to my husband and kids. They have to be worried sick.” She smiled. “Thank you again; you saved us. I’ll never forget you.” She turned but stopped. “What’s your full name?”

     “Why?”

     “You were a hero tonight, and I’d like to know your full name. After all, what if one of my kids asks?”

     “Aaron Wright.”

     She hugged me again and ran off.

     Watching her moving away, I thought about the events that caused me to find Bailey, Brooke, and their co-workers. It struck me that the stocking job I had as a teenager was not thrilling, but this night it sure helped. I was glad those people would recover.

     I ran to the front of the store and re-entered through the open wall. Searching through the first aisle to my left, I found what I was seeking, blankets, I grabbed a large stack, and made my way outside where I began walking further into town.

     I had no clear plan and no idea why blankets seemed important, but I was in full react mode and chose to just go with it to see if additional help was needed.

JE 35

 The street was dark; all power was out across Honesta. Debris created by the tornado was strewn everywhere as I trekked slowly through the rubble.

     A sound of a vehicle approaching filled the air. I wondered if it was an emergency responder from a nearby town. As it drew closer, I saw it was a television news van.

     The van stopped, a side door opened, and out came Mary Clarke! I ran to her. We hugged each other in a tight embrace, which is strange considering we hadn’t known each other for a full day, but it felt right. “Why’re you here?”

     “My station’s covering the tornado that struck here. I jumped in the back of the van because I was worried about you,” she said.

     Her response surprised me. “You were worried about me?

     “Yes, because I knew you’d be out helping people.”

     “What does that mean?” I said, wondering how she could read me so accurately.

     “It might sound contrived, but I do work for a news company, and I read people pretty well. You act like you don’t care about others or life, but I know you do. I knew you had reached the town, so it was obvious you’d help,” she declared.

     “I never said I didn’t care at all.” I realized I sounded sheepish, like a wimp, so I decided to man up a bit. “I care about other people—I just have a tough time caring about myself,” I declared with too much firmness and felt bad for it.          

     “What’s with the blankets?” she said.

     “I figured some people in town might need them. I was going to walk around searching for people trapped or in need. I thought the blankets might come in handy.”

     “See, the hero in you just comes out naturally,” Mary said. Despite the darkness, I saw her smile, and it made my mood soar. Since Kailyn, I’ve never felt that pull, like a piece of steel to a strong magnet.  

     “Stop calling me a hero. Do you want to help?”

     “Of course,” she said.

     I trekked through and around the debris covering the street.

JE 36

We covered several blocks and found no one in need until we heard sounds coming from a house to our right. I’d tell you the direction, but at that point, I had no idea.

     “What’s that?” Mary said.

     “Let’s find out.” I shined the flashlight in the direction of the sounds and saw an enormous mound of material that used to be a Victorian home or at least that was my best guess. “That’s not good.”

     I broke into a sprint, with Mary following close behind. The blankets were hard to handle, so I shuffled half of them to her. She grabbed them while sprinting. She had skills and didn’t hesitate.

     The sounds were louder. A hammering noise was filling our ears as we approached the massive mound of a destroyed home. “It’s coming from the basement.”

     “Do you want me to call it in?” she said.

     “Call it in? What does that mean?”

     “I’ll call my news van. They’ll contact emergency responders, and they’ll locate my phone on their GPS equipment,” she said.

     I hate to admit it, but I was impressed. “Yes, do it right away, please. That’s cool.” I watched her make the call, though I felt stupid as a former technology guy, I should have remembered GPS tracking was everywhere.

     I walked away from her because I couldn’t hear the cries for help with her voice filling my senses. Since I’m writing this in Sam, I’ll state the truth, everything about her distracted me.  

     New sounds, low cries of pain, perhaps from a child. I couldn’t handle that and began moving about the debris until I drew closer to the pounding sounds.

     I stopped and leaned to the ground. “Is anyone in there?” I yelled loud enough to surprise myself.

     The pounding sounds and cries increased.

     “Stop making noises for ten seconds, and then start again so I know you can hear me.” I had no idea what I was doing it. I was making it up as I went along. The noises stopped. I counted to ten. After I reached ten, the noises continued. They could hear me.

     Mary came up behind me. She said, “They’re on their way, but they’re sending only two men. The firehouse entrances are still trapped by debris; they’re working to free the firetrucks and ambulance. There are helicopters available in Poughkeepsie—they’re sending them right away.”

     “I saw the firehouse on my way into town—it’s a mess, but those trapped people need help, now. We should search for a way into the house.” 

     I took a deep breath born of frustration while scanning the debris for a path through.

     I wondered how I got myself into this situation.

JE – 37

We found a narrow opening in what was left of an exterior wall. I slid through with Mary following.

     “This doesn’t seem safe,” she said.

     “No, but what choice do we have?”

     “Maybe we should wait for the emergency crew, and the choppers are on their way.” 

     “Mary, please wait outside so you can tell the crews where I entered. In case some of the house debris shifts, I’d like it if someone knew where I was.”

     “I’m not leaving you.”

     “Mary, please, it isn’t safe—this place was just leveled by a tornado.” As I write this, I can say honestly, I wasn’t trying to be heroic or knightly. I was authentically concerned about her. I hadn’t felt worried for myself in a long time, but I had a surprisingly deep affection for her and wanted her out of harm’s way and in a hurry. Some will think that’s overly chauvinistic, I suppose, but those people can take a walk—I just wanted Mary safe, nothing deeper than that.

     She relented and walked outside, which gave me a massive sense of relief.

     I didn’t like the darkness as I peered inside. The flashlight helped a lot. It’s not easy to recall the last time I took such care, after all, each board, nail, and piece of junk, could easily kill me if I wasn’t watchful. I knew the entire mess of the broken house could shift toward me at any second.

     Here’s the thing: I had no desire to be injured. Even if it never meant anything for my future, I wanted to see Mary again, and that was something new and welcomed.

  JE 38

 Drywall, soaked and in massive chunks, clogged my way. I peered at the mess and began yanking the highest piece away from the pile.

A sound from my right—shifting debris closed in on me. I know people who have claustrophobia, a deep fear of enclosed and tight spaces, I was relieved that fear didn’t plague me.

     I ducked under some joists that I assumed once held part of the second floor. Soon, I walked into an open space with much of the home’s wreckage around me at a distance. Picture a teepee or a pointed tent, with me standing in the middle of its interior and the walls of the teepee/tent stretching to the ground around me—in this case, the teepee walls were mounds of house wreckage.

     I moved the light in circles and viewed a surreal scene extending across the interior space. There was a couch and several comfortable recliners still sitting in what I assumed were their original locations, and then about ten feet away was a flat panel television perched atop a beautiful wood entertainment center. On a coffee table close to the couch were several bottles of beer, each only partially filled and untouched as if their owners would soon return to finish the drinks.

     I shook away my sense of weirdness and moved to what I assumed was the rear of the house, searching for a stairway. I feel so stupid. I didn’t see the wood beam running across the room—it had shifted much lower than its proper height. I slammed into it and down I went!

     Go ahead, say it, sometimes I’m an idiot.

     I have no idea how long I was out.

JE 39

 The blood trickling down my face woke me. I had no idea that’s what roused me, but I realized after a few moments where I was and what had happened, and the slight flow of blood caught my attention.

     There was no way to stem the bleeding, so I stood slowly and did a wellness check. Other than the damage to the side of my scalp, everything seemed fine.

     Ignoring the bleeding, I pressed on and saw the staircase about ten feet away. Viewing the space in a nearly spherical view, I went rapidly to the stairs and began bounding downward in a hurry.

     “Those poor people. How long was I out?” I whispered, berating myself.

     The path was clear to the basement, but that was where my luck ran dry. A massive wall of debris from the outside walls had shifted into the basement—there was no way through.

     While pounding on the lower wood step, I shouted, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”

     “Yes, we’re here.” A female voice.

     “How many?”

     “Twenty!” she screamed.

     “Twenty? Why so many?” I knew my voice betrayed my surprise.

     “We were having a party for our twin boys. It’s their birthday, and we have family over. We ran to the basement when the tornado sirens sounded,” she said.

     “What’s your name?”

     “Jessica.”

     “Okay, Jessica, is anyone hurt?”

     “Yes, but not badly,” she called.

     “Why haven’t you gotten out of the basement?”

     “We tried. The stairs are blocked, and so are the window wells from the outside—the house debris is covering all exits.” I noticed her voice was fear-filled.

     “Jessica, my name’s, Aaron. We’ll find a way to get you out of there. I’m going outside to find one of the window wells. We will see what we can do to clear one. Make sure everyone stays away from them.”

     “I will, Aaron. Thank you so much.”

     I bolted up the stairs, and after ducking under the wood beam, I moved fast to the outside.

JE  40

Mary and two men carrying heavy axes, a pike, and a large case ran to me as I came through the wreckage. She shined a light at my face.

     “What happened to your head?” she said.

     “I’m fine. It was a stupid mistake. There are twenty people trapped in the basement.”

     “These firemen are here to help,” she said.

     I looked at them and watched as the taller man stepped toward me.

     “Sir, we’re not just firemen. We’re citizens of this town. That’s the Hansen family in that basement, and we’ve known them since we were kids. We brought tools and first aid kits. We’re also trained paramedics. The rest of our crew is at the firehouse trying to free our trucks and ambulance. Let’s see what we can do to free those good people.”

     “I’ve tried to get to them through the rubble, but the basement is blocked by debris, and I don’t want to mess with it because it might come down on them. I think the safest plan is to unbury one of the window wells leading to the lower level.”

     “I know this house. I played with their sons when I was a kid. There are two windows on the right and left sides of the house.”

     “Let’s do this together.” I ran to the right side. I heard the group following close behind.

     “The first window should be about there,” the fireman said. He pointed.

     “I’m, Aaron. In case you don’t know, this is, Mary. What’re your names?”

     The taller man said, “I’m Robert.”

     “I’m David,” the shorter man said.

     We approached the window debris.

     “Aaron, David will stay here, while I check out the other locations,” Robert declared.

     I turned to follow Robert.

     “Stop,” David declared. “This window doesn’t have much debris.”

     I shined the flashlight on the pile and inched closer. The mound covering the window well was perhaps five feet deep and was comprised mainly of bricks from the collapsed sidewall. “Robert, I can start working on this window with David if you want to check out the other side.”

     “I’ll help Aaron,” Mary said.

     I smiled, hoping she’d stick with me.

     Robert, without saying a word, bounded off toward the rear of the home and soon disappeared around the corner.

     Glancing at Mary, I said, “Thanks for staying with me.”

     “Of course, was there any doubt?”

     I smiled, and despite the situation, I was feeling happy. Yes, you read that correctly, Sam didn’t make it up, I said I was feeling happy. 😊 Did you see what I did there with the smiley face? Why not? I doubt anyone will ever read my multiple Sam’s.

JE 41

There were an awful lot of bricks, and some of them remained attached to other pieces of the structure. But we kept pulling them away from the window well, piece-by-piece. I knew my hands were taking a beating, but I didn’t care.

     It helped that David, and then soon after Robert, used their gloved hands—they made much swifter progress.

     Soon, Robert grabbed the pike; that thing is an awesome tool—I might have to get one, maybe hang it on a wall in my house. But wait, I forgot, I don’t own a house now. Well, whenever I get settled in a new place, I might get one. It was impressive watching Robert yank at the material using the spear-like tool, bricks flew away from the rubble pile, soon we saw the walls of the window well.

     We each got to our knees and began reaching into the well and grabbed chunks of material and flung them far away. Mary also impressed me because she had quite an arm—she sent those bricks flying twenty feet and farther. I stopped and looked at her with what could only be a surprised expression.

     “What? You thought I’m just a girl, right? I played baseball and then softball through college, and I was a pitcher and a catcher. I can throw—and not like the proverbial girl,” she said, laughing.

     “I’ve never doubted you since we first met.” 

JE 42

We worked through the debris to the bottom of the window well.

As David reached in to break through the window with the pike, the window was slammed open from inside—a man forced it to lay flat at the bottom of the well, he placed several boards across the glass, creating a safe opening to extract those trapped inside.

I reached into the well to a man standing inside the basement at the window. “My name is Aaron. Let’s get you out of there.”

“My name is, Mark. I have everyone lined up, starting with the kids.”

I watched a young girl step to the window. Mark lifted her gently through the window. David and I carefully pulled the girl from the basement. She was followed by a boy and two more girls. Then, an older couple, who I guessed were grandparents, were cautiously moved through the window and into our waiting arms.

Mary and Robert wrapped blankets around them and guided each person away from the wreckage.

Person after person came through the window well until we had 19 safely extracted. I guessed the next person, a woman, to be about 35 years old, her clothes were torn, and her face and hair were filled with dirt. “Jessica?”

“Yes. You’re Aaron?”

As David and I helped her from the basement, I said, “I’m so happy to meet you outside the house.” I laughed softly knowing I had used the word happy to describe my feelings.

“And I’m happy people like you still exist. Thank you, so much, for helping, but how did you find us?” Jessica said.

“Mary and I were searching for people who might need help,” I nodded at Mary. “After hearing the sounds coming from the home, we had to do something.”

“You’re both heroes. We had no idea how long it would be before the house collapsed into the basement,” Jessica said.

I turned to a loud shifting sound as the pile of material comprising the house collapsed into the basement.

Jessica looked at me and gave me the tightest hug I’ve ever felt. I saw Mary watching.

     “I’ve got to find my husband and children. Thank you again,” Jessica said.

     Mary looked at me. “Now my hero has grateful women hugging him?” she said, with a teasing grin beaming through the darkness.

     “I didn’t ask for,” I began.

     “I know, Aaron. I’ve said all along that you’re a natural hero.

     “Stop saying that. You and the others helped as much as I did. Please, stop.”

     Mary laughed. “Yes, I agree. And I’m a firm believer that all heroes deserve hugs.”

     I tenderly pulled her to me—yes, in front of everyone gathered on that storm-ravaged front lawn I hugged her tight. The kiss we shared was not going to be stopped by anything or anyone, and it could not have felt more natural or more proper. It was a kiss born of a growing mutual affection combined with a joy-filled knowledge that we had made a difference, and could she kiss.  I’m not sure if Sam is keeping score, but that’s three times I’ve felt a sense of happiness in a short span. A strange and wonderful first day.

 JE  43

 The firehouse, with its trucks, and ambulance trapped inside, was filled with activity. Tractors helped clear the debris and pick-up trucks received the loads. I wondered why the crew did not access the building from the sides or rear, but I saw the facility was wrapped by a dense grove of trees. It was a majestic setting, though the fallen trees blocked everything but the front.

     After approaching one of the workers, I said, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

     “Yeah, get out of our way,” the worker snapped.

     Having no desire to slow their effort, I walked away from the crew and returned to the roadside. Motion from my right caused me to turn to the town, to my surprise, I watched Mary sprinting toward me.

     “Mary!” I shouted. “What are you doing here? I thought you were going to go send a report?”

     She ran to me, and we hugged tight, followed by another wonderful kiss.

     “I already sent a report. I had to make sure you were okay.”

     “I’m fine, I’m glad you’re here.”

     “Isn’t your tent set up outside town?”

     “Yes.”

     “Where did you make camp?” she said. It was obvious she was probing for something.

     “Why does that matter?”

     “Aaron Wright, where’d you make camp?”

     “About a half-mile outside town.” Despite the darkness, I saw her face fill with a knowing smile. “What are you after?”

     “Nothing.”

     “Mary, tell me what you’re after.”

     “If you camped a half-mile outside town, why are you here?”

     “I saw the tornado heading toward Honesta, and after it passed, I could see things were not good here.”

     “So, you had to come to town to help.”

     “Yes, that’s pretty much what happened. I did what anyone with a conscience would do.”

     The Poughkeepsie news van approached.

     “I do have to return to the office to complete my report. We took a lot of video in locations across town,” she shouted. 

     Looking at her, I said, “I understand. I’ll send you a text to let you know how I’m doing. Maybe we can see each other when I get farther down the road.”

     “That sounds perfect.”

     After pulling the pack onto my shoulder, I looked at her with a smile and said, “I’ll see you then.” I drew near to her—we kissed, and then I was off to return to my tent.

JE  44

As I left the town, my mind was reeling with the events of my journey’s first day. It was all too fresh for me to process the greater picture, but I wanted to make sure I wrote it down in Sam before I forgot what happened.   

        It’s difficult for me to grasp that I’ve been on this walking trip for less than a day and that somehow a wonderful woman has entered my life. Amazing.

     My tent rested where I had left it and appeared as if nothing had happened. After entering my update into Sam, it felt incredible to lay atop my sleeping bag. Sleep came upon me with such swiftness that I did not know it happened.

JE 45

After the events in Honesta, Mary and I decided not to see each other for at least a week, perhaps longer. I wanted to put many miles behind me, and that could not happen if we constantly stopped to be together, though my heart was telling me to stop because I wanted to see her (I haven’t felt the pull of my heart in a long time). Besides, Mary had several reports she was working on—we renewed our agreement to meet somewhere down the road.

     A strong motivation to move west caused me to increase my pace. I was thrilled to hike uneventfully across miles of terrain with nothing unusual happening after Honesta. As I crossed into Pennsylvania, I stopped to release peach rose petals, which was a promise I had made to myself in memory of Kailyn. I also poured several drops of holy water onto the ground to keep my commitment to Father Thomas and said the prayers he requested.

     I wanted to see Mary, but we had our agreement, so I pressed on. It didn’t take long for me to get a strong hint of what she had been doing since I last saw her. As I entered Milfred, Pennsylvania, it was a cool and misty day, which was often my favorite weather. I had a desire to eat and drink something other than what I was carrying in my pack. I found a diner, where I ate a bountiful lunch.

     While relaxing in a booth, I watched a special report come on the diner’s television screen—Mary was in Honesta, where she was doing an on-air report revealing how the town was recovering from the tornado—ten days after the event. Surprisingly, she went into detail about an unnamed hero she had met in the town and that he (the hero) was currently walking across the country after having helped many people in the tornado-stricken town.

     I caught myself slinking lower in the booth’s bench seat, not wanting anyone to see me, but I realized no one in Milfred knew who I was, and Mary had done a good job of not including my name or picture. I paid my bill, grabbed my pack, and quietly left the diner.

     I was flattered Mary had thought enough of my efforts to include them in her report, but I also wanted to remain anonymous for the sake of my journey.

JE 46

You might recall that I was thorough in my planning for this trip, yet throughout all the days of preparation, I never gave much thought to the natural beauty and early history of the United States.

     Milfred was a stunning small town that was established after the Revolutionary War, in 1796, it hugs the Delaware River. The place exudes history. While using my smartphone (connected to the clever charging unit), I learned some of the town’s structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Learning this caused me to slow my tour of the town.

     It was a bit humbling to know that people from the age of our nation’s founding lived, worked, and built the town. While it is true that many similar locations exist throughout the eastern regions of the United States, it is much different when you are walking among historical grounds that touch upon our nation’s rising. In the past, I would have been like most people; I would have driven to the town and I would have walked among the buildings, and yes even doing that would have been a satisfying act, but the very nature of my walk and the fact that I was living inside the natural surroundings of the lands I passed through made the experience all the richer, which came as no small surprise.

     The waters that rush through the Delaware River hold no historical value, but the river itself does. The waterway gained fame when, during the Revolutionary War, George Washington, the Commander of the Continental Army, made his critical crossing of the Delaware River on a cold and stormy Christmas night in 1776.

     The facts of the crossing and subsequent battle are well-known historical realities—I don’t need to remind myself of those events as I write in Sam. However, as I walk through lands that lie miles north from those events, and as I peer at the Delaware River, I can’t help but think of the courage and resolve it took for Washington and his army to make the crossing, which was followed by their march upon Trenton. I’ve never given deeper thought to what those days were like for those fighting for freedom, which we too often take for granted today.

     As I scan the area around Milfred, I realize the topography here is not identical to what Washington experienced at the location of his crossing, but it makes it clear how brutal those times must have been. It’s easy for me to picture farmers leaving their homesteads from around this town to join the fight, only to discover that Washington’s army was barely trained, under-equipped and weak from lack of provisions and rest. As I recall the history of the Revolutionary War, it seems clear that there was no small number of miraculous events that resulted in our liberty and I felt humbled with the sheer scope of the events that had transpired in the region, an area that I had never given much thought before this trip.

     As I leave the town behind, I realize that I’m beginning to make real progress on this walk, and I’m feeling as if my journey has begun in earnest. The fact that I find myself thinking of someone, other than Kailyn, is a massive bonus, for I miss Mary and wish she were with me. Yet, she has a profession and cannot join me.

     On I marched in a mainly western direction, with much of the Poconos lying in my path, and many miles of the Delaware River running through my route.

     I love this cool misty weather, and it casts an amazing hue on this land—making it feel as if I’ve been transported back to the days of the Revolutionary War. Those thoughts make me wonder, would I have left my family and farm to join the Continental Army?

     That question remained with me for a long time.

JE 47

I have tried to maintain a positive attitude about humanity. As a Catholic, I know we’re fundamentally flawed; I’ve never believed that humans are good. I think I’ve always instinctively felt that people need to strive for goodness, it doesn’t come naturally. It’s always seemed kind of obvious to me that if people were fundamentally good, we’d have far fewer wars, fewer disagreements, and less strife. For me, it’s just how the system of life is designed, we must strive against our lousy natures so that we can attain some level of good in this life. It seems, today, we need more strivers.

     I’m sure you can detect I’m in a bitter and philosophical mood.       I write this to Sam because I had a bad day today. The ugly side of humanity had struck me hard.

     Several pleasant days had gone by since Milfred. I had seen Mary in a small town, where we had lunch and enjoyed many great kisses under the starry skies. I didn’t have to worry about her because she had driven to my location and after we had enjoyed seeing each other, she drove back home.

     I feel exhausted, and you’ll understand why after I explain, but for now, I’m closing Sam and getting some rest in the basement of Saint Mary Catholic Church in a small town. I used one of the Bishop’s signed letters to gain entry to the church.

     I’ll finish this entry in the morning.

JE 48

Why did I sleep the night in the basement of a Catholic church? Great question. I’ll try to provide a decent answer.

     Do you recall the time I spent in martial arts? Do you further remember the uncountable hours I spent hitting the heavy bag—so many hours that I was forced to purchase new bags for my workouts?

     Well, it seems all those workouts came in handy, though for me it was a barely escaped handiness.

     I had just said goodbye to Mary after thanking her for respecting my desire to remain anonymous in her reports. I felt comfortable that she was safely driving to her home in Poughkeepsie, which was many miles away since I had been making great progress.

     It seemed like a benign event at first. Though the night was still young, it was dark since it was still springtime. Despite being in the Poconos, a range in the Appalachian Mountains, with the land not making it easy on me, I wanted to put a few more hours of trekking in before I stopped for the night. The road was difficult to cross with its sharp inclines, and the declines presented unique walking problems, yet overall, I was doing well.

     I had come over a rise and could see the shadows of the hills all around me as headlights from the cars kept sweeping by me. When the road began to decline, I saw the lights of a small town ahead. I wasn’t sure it was a town because I had seen nothing on my printed maps, nor my GPS maps.

     I had already put down my fears of the wild animals that had to be present in such areas, and I was relieved to see even a small hamlet of some type. Nighttime in the mountains is a spooky affair. My relief ended when I saw it was a gasoline station with two buildings flanking the station’s parking lot—a restaurant and a gift shop.

     I figured I’d just keep walking since I only had about five miles to the next town. I had become comfortable with walking as far as I could each day, but I modified that based on where the towns were along my route. It seemed to me I was safer from the wildlife if I was resting inside a village’s park or some other location inside the towns I journeyed.

     As I approached the station, I suddenly had a taste for a candy bar. Yeah, I know, stupid sugar cravings got me.

     After purchasing several of my favorite candy bars, I left the station and returned to my walk along the side of the road, facing the oncoming traffic while wearing a light-reflecting jacket.

     I had journeyed about a quarter of a mile from the station, and as I was opening a candy treat, I heard footsteps from behind. Many footfalls were approaching that didn’t sound like animals. I dropped the food and turned swiftly around to face the fast-approaching foe.

     In the darkness, with the bright lights from the gas station filling the sky behind my enemy, I didn’t see the punch coming to my face, but it sure hurt.

     My martial arts instincts engaged. I stepped to the side to avoid the second punch, while at the same time I dropped my bag. I saw, against the background light, that four men were coming at me, and I had no idea why. They seriously outnumbered me, so I took off running to try to put space between my assailants and me. I realized I wasn’t going to easily get away from them. I stopped and faced them and yelled, “Why are you doing this?”

     They did not respond.

     The tallest foe approached. My survival instinct kicked in. I lashed out at him with a powerful side kick to his midsection, which brought him down. Many martial arts and karate movies make it look easy to face off many foes at once, yet those are often silly cartoon-like scenes that bear little resemblance to real life. After dropping their leader, the other three came at me fast and with lethal intent. I honestly figured death was going to find me at that moment.

     Have you ever noticed how swiftly our minds can think when in crises? I laughed as they surrounded me figuring after everything I have come through, I’d die in a fight with four men I’d never met, and I had no idea what they wanted from me.

     I gave as good as I could, and I left some heavy marks on them, but with four men attacking, sheer numbers alone eventually broke through my defenses and counterattacks. My face didn’t like the beating it took, and neither did my stomach or back. I could feel the blood dripping down my chin as I looked up at the men from a lying position on the ground.

     The attack ended almost as quickly as it had started. They searched my pockets, stole the money ($1,000) I had on me, and they smashed my phone. After kicking me several times to subdue me further, they took off running.

I don’t know how long I was lying in the dirt.

JE 49

While looking at the gas station, I saw the men who had attacked me get into a black pickup truck. They drove away with great speed.

Blood continued to run down my cheek. I had no choice but to return to the station for help.         

I grabbed the remainder of my phone and then shouldered my pack. Pain in my shoulder caused me to wince; I assumed they must have kicked me there.

I limped into the station and heard a gasp coming from the attendant when she saw my bloodied condition.

     “Are you okay? Should I call a hospital?”

     I smiled. It somehow made my heart soar knowing amid this painful event, a nice person was offering me help. “My name is Aaron Wright. Do you remember me from earlier?”

     “Of course. I’m the only person working. You bought some candy. My name is Emma. I saw you walking away with your massive backpack on. I wondered about you.”

     “I didn’t make it far. Four men attacked and robbed me. They must’ve forgotten about my backpack, but they didn’t forget to smash my phone before they took off.” I showed her the destroyed smartphone. “I’m walking across the country and was taken completely off guard by the attack. They took all my cash, but they didn’t bother to take my wallet. They seemed to be in a hurry.”

     “You can use the station’s phone, but you look like you could use a doctor more than a phone,” she said.

     “I need to call a friend in Poughkeepsie.”

     “Poughkeepsie? Wait! You’re that guy. The one walking across the country,” she said, with excitement.

     I chuckled. “Yes, as I said.”

     “You’re a hero. Did you know that?”

     I winced. “Don’t call me that.”

     “But you helped all those people in Honesta. It’s true, you’re a genuine hero. It seems so unfair for you to be attacked,” she said.

     “I’m no…”

     “Stop, please. Let me show you the back room where you can get cleaned up and make that call,” she said.

     Laughing softly at her determined manner, I gladly followed.

JE 50

Despite my objections, Emma had called the police while I was cleaning my face and wounds. I was questioned for more than thirty minutes, after which the Pennsylvania State Police released several squads to hunt for the men who had done so much harm to me.

     The police had called local paramedics to come to the gas station. The emergency responders did a great job of bandaging my wounds, and all cuts and lacerations were cleaned and well dressed. No matter how many times they recommended I go to the hospital, I refused. I knew I had no broken bones, and I had suffered no blunt force trauma to my head; therefore, no concussion.

I waited for hours for Mary to arrive. She read me the riot act. By then, the police had left. She paced the inside of the gas station yelling about my refusal to go to the hospital.

     I cut her off in mid-pacing. “If I knew you’d behave this way, I’d never have called you.”

     She glared at me. “I can’t help it, Aaron. This is so terrible. They could have killed you.”

     “I held my own for a while—there was just too many to fend off. They were out for money, nothing else. I doubt they would have killed me. They snatched my money and took off—simple robbery.”

     “I’m taking you to the hospital,” she declared.

     “No, I will not go. I’ll continue my walk to the next town. After I told you about what happened, I called Father Thomas back in Oak Valley, Illinois. He has me set to stay the night in Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Dunnam, a one-hour walk from here. I will be leaving soon. In the morning, I’ll contact my bank to replenish my cash reserves, and I’ll purchase a new smartphone. I’m glad the robbers ignored my backpack, or I’d have to replace everything. I also asked Father Thomas to have a new charging unit sent to me overnight.”

     “Why are you being so stubborn?” she said.

     “I am injured, but I knew this journey was not going to be easy. I will not let an attack keep me from walking across the country.”

     “Then I’ll drive you to the church,” she said.

     “No!” I took her hand and pulled her outside where I could speak to her privately. “We’ve known each other for some time now. I feel close to you, and it seems you feel the same for me.”

     “I do, which is why I’m worried about you,” she said.

     “Then, please understand that I must do this.”

     “Then, I’ll walk with you,” she said. “I’ll ask if I can leave my car here, and after we get to the church, I’ll get a ride back here.”

     “I don’t want to place you in danger.”

     My response was interrupted as a state police squad entered the parking lot. I watched as an officer exited the vehicle and walked to me.

     “Mr. Wright, we found the men. They were in the process of robbing a store one town east from here. We have them in custody. They are dangerous men and might have become violent if we didn’t stop their stealing spree. We have you to thank since your excellent descriptions of the men and their clothing helped us identify them quickly. I hoped you were still here so I could give you some peace of mind. We love your story—we’re glad we were able to find the suspects so quickly. Good luck on your journey. Please keep your promise to call us when you have a new cell phone. We’ll eventually return the stolen cash to you. I hope you’re not too banged up.”

     “Thank you, officer. I appreciate you letting me know. I’ll purchase a new smartphone tomorrow. I’ll call your station at that time.”

     With a tip of his hat, the officer turned, reentered his squad, and drove away.

     “See, in your way, you’re once again the reluctant hero. Come on, the road is safe—let’s get you to the church,” Mary said.

     I could think of no argument that would cause Mary to drive home—yet my heart soared knowing she’d be joining me on my walk to the church.

JE 51

The road was dark with few cars passing by as we hiked through the hills and bends for two hours to Dunnam. It was approaching midnight by the time we saw the sporadic lights emanating from a spattering of buildings positioned across the village. I searched for a steeple to help us find the church, but the darkness covered most of the buildings in a shroud.

     “Father said the church is at the end of town.”

     “Then, we should see it soon,” Mary said.

     As we reached the end of the village, which covered no more than five blocks in length, I saw the church set back from the main road. “It’s closed tight. I’d hate to wake them up. Maybe I should just pitch a tent on their grounds. I need some rest and the weather is good.”

     “No, you need real rest. I insist, Aaron. You took a beating tonight. You should have gone to the hospital—the least you need is rest,” she said firmly.

     I didn’t feel like arguing with her. “I’ll knock on the rectory door. I won’t ring the bell or make a bunch of noise. If they answer, great, but if not, I’ll pitch my tent on their side lawn.”

     As I approached the rectory door, an automatic outside light turned on, and the front door opened.

     “Welcome to Mount Carmel parish. I’m Father Antonio. I’m glad you were able to make it here.” He held the door open. “Please, come in.”

     “Thank you, Father. I’m Aaron Wright. This is Mary Clarke. Thank you for letting me stay here. It’s been a rough night. I need some rest.”

     “Yes, Father Thomas told me everything. I’m sorry you had such a terrible time. You’re welcome to remain here in the rectory,” Father Antonio said.

     “No, I’d rather something less conspicuous. I will likely rise early to get something to eat, and to take care of some business before I return to my walk.”

     “Will the church basement do?” Father Antonio said.

     “That’s perfect.”

     “Will Mary be staying?” Father asked.

     “No, she needs a ride back to her car. Five miles from here.”

     “I’ll gladly take her,” Father said.

     “No,” Mary said. “I don’t want to leave tonight. Someone needs to make sure your injuries are not worse than you think. I’ll stay the night.”

     I felt the frown instantly cover my face. “Mary, I insist. I want to get some sleep, and if you stay here, I’ll worry about you. Please, let Father take you to your car, and text me in the morning to see how I’m doing.”

     “No! Father is there a hotel in town?” Mary said.

     “A small bed-and-breakfast,” Father said.

     “I know it’s late but is it possible to call them and see if I can stay the night there?” she said.

     “Stop this. You can stay. Father, I’ll give her my sleeping bag, she’ll be fine. Do you have an extra mattress and some pillows and blankets?”

     “Yes, in storage, in the church basement,” Father said.

     “Great, then I’ll sleep on that. Please, bring us to the basement, and I’ll get to the business of sleep.”

The church was 150 years old—its basement showed those years. It was a dark and dusty space filled with the usual building necessities,  a boiler furnace, and all the typical accouterments all structures need.

     “Thank you, Father. I appreciate your help. I might be gone if you check in on us in the morning.”

     “I understand, though we have seven o’clock daily Mass throughout the week so noise from the church above might rouse you,” Father said.

     “If I wake in time, I’ll join you.”

     I spent a few minutes setting up the sleeping bag for Mary. Father had already snatched the mattress and bedding.

     After kissing Mary, I dropped onto the mattress and fell immediately into a deep sleep.

JE 52

 I woke hours later with Mary lying next to me on the mattress. I have no idea when she joined me, but it felt nice to have her with me. It was almost seven in the morning, so I decided to slip away from the basement to attend Mass, which would start above me in about ten minutes. I left her sleeping soundly. I confess my body was incredibly sore and as I walked around, I suffered new twinges of pain. Sleeping had caused an aching stiffness to settle in the areas I was struck.

     I didn’t know where the interior stairs were, so I climbed the steps leading to the outside and walked around the building to the front entrance. After entering the church, I noticed there were about twenty Mass-goers. I thought that was a good number for a small town. Several people stared at me—I had forgotten my face also took a pounding during the road encounter, I was not looking my best with heavily bruised cheeks and two black eyes. Oh well, there was nothing I could do.

     After Mass Father Antonio approached. “Did you sleep?”

     “Yes, very well, Father. Thank you again.”

     “How are you feeling?” Father said.

     “I feel banged up, but that’ll wear off once I get back to walking.”

     “Where’s Mary?”

     “She looked tired. I left her in the basement sleeping.”  

     “We should check on her,” Father said.

     I followed the good priest around the Nave and Altar areas to a hallway leading to a dark stairwell. As we entered the basement, I saw Mary had packed the sleeping bag inside my backpack, which was resting on the concrete floor waiting for me.

     “Good morning,” she said. “I figured you’d go to the Mass. I packed and got us ready for the day.”

     “Thank you, Mary, that was very nice,” I said with a smile that revealed my joy.

     “Will you be leaving now?” Father said.

     “We won’t leave town immediately. I need to contact my bank, and I’ll wait for an hour or two to purchase a new smartphone. I was wondering if there’s a diner where Mary and I can grab some breakfast?”

     “That depends. Am I still driving Mary back to her car?” Father said. “I have a busy schedule this morning.”

     “Can I get a ride from someone else?” Mary said.

     “I’m sure I can find you a ride,” Father said. “I will set up a ride for nine o’clock from here if you’ll be ready.”

     “That’s perfect, Father. I owe you a great debt for all your help. I will have Father Thomas send you a check from my reserve account.”

     “No, Aaron, we’ve all heard your story, and we know about the people you’ve helped. This is the least I can do. There’ll be a car waiting in the parking lot at nine. Did you come through the center of town last night?”

     “Yes, why?”

     “Dunnam Diner is at the midway point through town. You’ll love their food,” Father said. “Good luck to you. It was a pleasure meeting you.”

     After I shook his hand, Mary hugged him, we parted ways. Despite Father Antonio’s objection, I planned to have a check sent to Mount Carmel parish.

JE 53

 Our breakfast was fantastic. I’m not sure if I was overly hungry, or if the diner simply cooked eggs in a way that I’ve never experienced before, yet it sure hit the spot. I can’t deny that having Mary with me at the meal increased my enjoyment.

     After we left the diner, I immediately noticed an open cell phone store across the street. It didn’t take long for me to purchase a new smartphone and have my number and information transferred over to the new phone. I immediately called the state police, as promised, and let them know they could contact me via my cell phone.

     Our next stop was a bank ATM, where I replenished my cash reserves. I was still sore from the beating I took the night before, yet in truth, I was feeling fortunate that it was taking little effort to get back to normal. “That’s all my business wrapped up in short order.”

     “It still burns me that you had to suffer such a horrible assault,” Mary said.

     “They’re in custody, and I’ll be fine. It’s time to return you to the church so you can catch your ride back to your car.”

     “I don’t need a ride,” she said.

     “You should take the ride, Father Antonio set it up for you.”

     “No, I don’t need a ride because I’m going with you,” she said.

     I could not hide my surprise and concern. “No, Mary! You can’t do that. I’ll be worried about you the entire walk.”

     “You misunderstand. I’m walking with you just today,” she said. “That’s what, twenty miles or so, right?”

     “Yes, but I’d rather know you’re safe back in Poughkeepsie.”

     “Aaron! I’m no wilted flower. You should know that by now. I can give as good as I get. Besides, my dad has already picked up my car, so I have no vehicle to return to.”

     “But why?”

     “Because I care about you. You’re a hero in my eyes. But I don’t trust you. If your injuries get worse, you’ll just ignore them and keep hiking without stopping for medical help. I want to keep an eye on you throughout this day, then, and only then, will I feel safe leaving you alone,” she said. She laughed.

     “What’s so funny?”

     “You didn’t notice my dad driving through town about ten minutes ago. He’s on his way to your next stop, Somerset, where he’ll stay until I get there. We plan to drive back to Poughkeepsie together. It’s all set.”

     I pondered the situation for at least a minute, which seemed a long time of silence between us. I knew she had me out-planned and had left me no choice, but I still didn’t feel right about having her on the open road with me. “Okay, you win. I can’t sway you from your plan, so let’s let Father Antonio’s ride person know they won’t be needed, and then we can start walking toward Somerset. I’ll be walking faster than usual.”

     “Lead the way,” she said in a triumphant voice.

     I wasn’t happy, and a creepy feeling had washed over me, yet I accepted the situation while walking to the church.

JE 54

I have no way to describe how pleasant it felt to have Mary walking with me toward Somerset, though, I could not shake the creepy feeling that had consumed me, or perhaps it was a sense of doom that gnawed at my soul.

     As we reached the top of another long, steep incline, I noticed two sets of tire marks leading from the road to a drop-off to our right. It was not a cliff, more like a long rolling hill that had many large trees scattered across the terrain.

     “I wonder what those are from?” I pointed at the tire marks.

     “It looks like someone lost control,” she said.

     I dropped my backpack in the grass, away from the road. My body still ached from the beating I took, but something seemed eerily familiar to me, which put me into a full-out run following those frightening tire marks. Recall, I have a history with tire marks.

     “Where are you going?” Mary yelled.

     “I don’t like the look of those marks,” I yelled as I continued following the black rubber, which soon left the road completely, and was heading across a shallow stone culvert and into the grass beyond.

     “Aaron be careful!”

     Ignoring her, I ran across a softly declining field with the double tire marks running side by side—they had carved deep grooves in the soft soil.

     Mary had increased her pace. She caught up to me. I saw fear in her face as if she now understood why I was running.

     We raced across the terrain.

     Soon, the decline leveled.

     I stopped when I saw the wreckage below us, maybe 200 yards ahead. 

     “That’s my car—my dad was driving it!” Mary screamed, her fear and pain echoed off the nearby trees.

     I dashed to the two cars, which seemed to have engaged in a tangled downward sliding marriage of steel and rubber.

     “Be careful,” Mary yelled.

     I slowed and crept with care to the wreckage. The situation took my breath away—the cars had somehow locked together in their front side panels, with the driver’s side steel panel of one car wrapped around the passenger side panel and frame of the other car. The vehicles had come to rest about ten feet from a much more severe vertical drop of perhaps 200 feet. I was anxious as I approached Mary’s car.

     “Be careful, Aaron, please be careful.”

     I looked inside the car and saw Mary’s father leaning over the steering wheel, unconscious. After inching my way to the other car, I saw a male driver sprawled unconscious across the front seat.

     “Stay here! I’m going to get some rope from my backpack, and I’ll set flares on the road. Call the police, tell them where we are, and to get here with heavy equipment and ambulances, right away.”

     I don’t think I ever ran as fast as I did when I charged back up the hill and to my backpack. I set the flares on the road, and I took my backpack with me as I raced back to the wreckage. My painful past propelled my legs at strides and speeds I never dreamed I could reach.

JE  55

 As I ran to the wreckage, I noticed the cars had shifted slightly toward the drop-off. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to save the men in the cars. I figured the emergency responders were on their way, but I had no idea how long it would take before the cars plummeted. My mind was filled with the sight of Kailyn sleeping in our car well before it fell from the Rocky Mountain cliff. I was determined to stop that from happening to Mary’s father or the man in the other car.

     I had about 100 feet of high-strength rope in my backpack. After stopping at a wide tree, I dropped my pack and yanked the rope from a lower zipped pocket. After pulling the rope around the tree and securing it, I ran to the wreckage while pulling the line.

     “That rope will never stop the cars from falling,” Mary screamed.

     “I know. I plan to wrap it around your father’s waist when I climb into the cars to get him and the man in the other car. I don’t want anyone making that plunge!”

     “You can’t do that. Wait for the emergency crew,” she said. “You might make it worse.”

     I didn’t have time to mull it over. “If something isn’t done soon, we will lose them both.” I cautiously approached Mary’s car and pulled the driver’s side door open—slowly, and cautiously.

     “Be careful, Aaron,” Mary said softly in a tone that betrayed her fear.

     With the end of the rope fixed into a large loop, I crept toward her father, still unconscious and leaning against the steering wheel—his breathing was steady.

     I unbuckled his seat belt, inched the line over his head, struggled to move his arms, one at a time, through the loop, stopping around his waist. I heard Mary move closer.

     “Is he okay?” she said.

     “I honestly don’t know. He’s breathing regularly. I’m guessing he slammed his head against the steering wheel when the cars collided.

     The vehicles shifted downward.

     “Get him out of there!” Mary shouted.

     I wrapped my arms around his upper body and began to pull him from the car. It took me about a half-minute to have him freed from the vehicle. I extracted the rope from around his waist as Mary helped me gently place him on the ground, away from the wreckage. We turned to the sound of the cars shifting and saw the vehicles had moved several feet toward the drop, leaving trenches in the soil.

     Pulling the rope with me, I ran around the cars to the passenger side of the stranger’s vehicle. The door was locked, so I put my martial arts sidekicks to work and smashed through the window, unlocked the door, and pulled it open.

     After noticing the man was easy to access, I dropped the rope and grabbed the man under his arms, pulling him from the car. Siren sounds swirled around me as I pulled the stranger clear of the wreckage. As I reached thirty feet from the two locked-together autos, several paramedics came to my side and immediately took the man into their care.

     As I ran to Mary and her father, a second paramedic crew took charge of her father. We all turned to the sound of steel grinding against steel—the two cars inched toward the drop-off, and to our horror, the cars plunged over the edge.

     Yeah, I get that this all seems contrived, as if I’m embellishing the account in Sam, but I described it as it happened. It was with incredible joy that I was able to pull both men from their joined cars before they plunged. I crept to the drop-off and looked below to see the cars had landed well below with gravity having crushed both. It was a creepy sight.

     I’m sure you can understand the amazing healing power this event had on me. I’ve never been able to forget the sight of Kailyn plunging to her death. She died, and I had no opportunity to save her, yet in this case, I was able to extract Mary’s father and the stranger before they plunged to their death.

     I jumped when Mary tapped me on the shoulder.

     “I’m going with my dad in the ambulance. They’re taking him to St. Michael the Archangel Hospital in Somerset,” she said. She looked worn, relieved, and shocked, all at once.

     I gently took her hand and pulled her to me. “I understand. I’ll see you there whenever I can get to Somerset.” I hugged her, kissed her, and let her go.

     I was sad to see her leave.

JE 56

The hospital had a towering statue of Saint Michael the Archangel outside the entrance. Mary was waiting for me inside the wide doors. “How’s he doing?” I was surprised when she leaped into my arms, almost knocking me over.

     “He has a mild concussion. You saved him. I can’t believe how quickly you acted out there. Even the paramedics were impressed with your speed. My father is alive because of you, and he’ll likely go home tomorrow! I told you on the first day we met that you’re a hero, and you’ve proved it once again.” Her expression was filled with joy.

     Before I could respond, I found her incredible and soft lips on mine. Since I’m writing this in Sam, I can say honestly that her kisses from the very start were amazing, yet this was different, closer, warmer, much more intimate, and far more meaningful (dare I say loving) than any kiss I shared with her before that moment. I didn’t want to stop—yet the commotion of people walking about the hospital’s entrance caused us to break the embrace. I looked at her and could not find the words, so I simply said, “Wow.” In truth, I wanted to say a lot more, yet I didn’t want to wreck anything by reacting too strongly to our decidedly wonderful embrace.

     “That was amazing,” she whispered in my ear.

     I beamed with joy and with what was my best ‘why of course’ macho smile. “I agree, that was amazing.”

     “I need to get back to dad. I’ll be staying here tonight. I already called my mom, she’s on her way,” she said.

     “Is he awake? Can I see him?”

     “Yes, let’s get you a visitor badge, and then we’ll go to his room,” she said.

     I smiled.

When we entered the room, I saw her father sitting up in bed and staring outside.

     “Dad, this is Aaron,” Mary said.

     “Hello, Mr. Clarke. It’s a pleasure meeting you. I wish it wasn’t in the hospital, yet it remains my pleasure,” Aaron said.

     Mr. Clarke smiled. “So, you’re the man our Mary has been chasing along the roads?”

     “Yes, Sir.”

     “You saved my life today. Call me James.”

     “Thank you. But James, if your daughter wasn’t walking with me, you wouldn’t have been in that accident, and you wouldn’t have required saving.”

     “There’s nothing wrong with a father helping out his daughter and the man who’s entered her life. It was a freak accident. The guy who struck me didn’t see me in the right lane, and there’s no way to explain how our cars jammed together like that. From what Mary has explained, you wasted no time pulling me from the wreckage just minutes before both cars dropped off a cliff. You saved me, and I’m profoundly grateful,” James said.

     “How do you know the guy didn’t see you?”

     “He told me. A nurse brought him into my room, in a wheelchair, about a half-hour ago. His name is Harold or Harry. He told us his side of things. He has a broken left leg, a mild concussion, and several bruised ribs. His wife and three kids already visited him. They were incredibly happy to see he was doing well. They’re keeping him a couple of days, yet he’ll be fine. If you didn’t take quick action, this would have ended much worse for us, and it would have been very bad for our families.”  

     “See, you’re a hero!” Mary snapped, as she looked at me, a smile radiating from her.

     “I side with my daughter on this. You’re a hero, and I’ll always be grateful,” James said.

     I didn’t know what to say or how to process the appreciation they poured on me. I looked at them and said, “Thank you.”              

     “Are you going to stay in Somerset or continue your walk?” she asked.

     “I’ll continue walking until I’m ten miles outside town. Then, I’ll find a place to make camp for the night.”

     After some additional conversation and pleasantries, I wrote down my walking plan for the next 200 miles, gave it to Mary. “I’m thrilled you’re okay, James. It was a pleasure speaking with you. I’m going to leave you alone with your daughter, and I’ll get back to my cross-country trek.” With that, I was off, not sure when I’d see Mary again.

JE 57

It’s early May. I haven’t seen Mary since the Somerset hospital. Two weeks have passed, and while we text each other several times each day, I can’t help but think we had not grown as close as I had assumed. That realization left me feeling a sense of loss, and that was accompanied by no small amount of sadness. I missed seeing her. I missed seeing her beautiful face. I missed the feeling we shared each time we kissed.

     But the purpose of this journey was to place my pain behind me permanently, and I cannot expect Mary to help make that happen. Since the ravine, I’ve learned to deal swiftly with sadness, and that has helped me push ahead with great speed. Cincinnati, Ohio rested a scant twenty miles to the west, which places me ahead of schedule.

     These have been a peaceful two weeks, no horrible events, or assaults—just days of walking, as I had planned from the start.

     As I make this entry in Sam, I realize there’s been no entry since Somerset. I’m sitting inside my tent, which rests inside a small-town park and it’s ten o’clock at night. The weather is reasonable for this time of year (mid-spring), with the temperature hovering around 50-degrees Fahrenheit. Bewilderment filled my senses. Since I began journaling, I can’t recall going two weeks with no entries in Sam.  

     It strikes me that I’m comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not in luxury sitting in my borderline chilly tent; rather, I’ve grown comfortable with my journey, and I’ve fallen into a routine that has left me little to write in Sam. It’s not a state of boredom, for my days have often been filled with difficult roads, traffic, rain, and cold. I believe, now that I give this proper thought, that we humans can allow ourselves to become comfortable with a great many different conditions. I don’t find anything wrong with this line of thought; instead, I think it reveals that perhaps my deep-seated pains are not ruling my everyday life as in the past. 

     I consider this progress. Since my first day, I now consider my situation normal—nothing to report to Sam since everything I’ve experienced since Somerset was anticipated, expected.

     The truth is, Mary has also filled my thoughts, and there was little to report to Sam in that regard since we had not seen each other—though, our text messages were as good as ever.

     I’ve clicked off the miles without interference while listening to music and saying my prayers as I go.

     Oh, a couple of interesting updates. I’ve made it to several morning Masses, and as I passed into Ohio, I dropped several peach-colored rose petals and several drops of Holy Water as I had committed to do at the beginning of this journey, and I remembered to say the prayers requested by Father Thomas. I had the strangest dream about the Biblical story of Jonah and how he was ordered by God to preach to Nineveh and call them to repent. In the dream, Jonah was dropping peach-colored roses. I can’t discern the meaning of the dream, but it reminded me to drop the petals and holy water. Maybe it was just that, a reminder.

     I’m off to sleep in what has become an incredibly comfortable down sleeping bag. I hope to see Mary soon.

JE 58

I thoroughly enjoyed Cincinnati. It was there that I began to gather a bit of a following, though I wondered why.

     As I journeyed along the east to west streets, perhaps fifty people were walking with me, some were children with their parents, there were women and men, fathers, and mothers.

     Most of those following seemed excited to express their wishes for my success to cross the United States. I came to understand through listening to their statements that Mary had been quite busy since I had last seen her with her father. She had done a full-court media blitz about me and my journey. The TV and radio stations were filled with the story, and so were the newspapers and internet news sites, and blogs.

     From everything I heard, Mary had not offered any details beyond my solo journey across the country and or that I had been assaulted and robbed during my trek, but people came to know it was me.

     The people of Cincinnati poured affection on me, it made me wonder what all the fuss was about. After all, many people have taken up the task of walking the country, most made it, some quit partially through, but I knew that I wasn’t setting unique ground, by any measure.

     The crowd was large enough for the police to enter the fray. They didn’t stop the procession through the city streets, yet they kept a close eye on the grouping. I hoped and prayed that the group would not do something wrong.

     The throng grew as I drew closer to the western edge of Cincinnati. I was by Summit Lake when I decided to stop and address the group. I asked those closest to me to cease walking and to wait for me there, which caused the crowd to stop.

     I walked onto a slight embankment along the Ohio River, where I looked at the crowd and realized there had to be at least 200 people following me. I’m not much of a public speaker, so it was not surprising when I felt a slight sense of panic rise.

     The people sure looked happy, which took the edge off my nervousness. I raised my arms straight into the air as if I were reaching for the sky, and then I said, “Thank you for this incredible welcome.” I was forced to stop speaking when the throng raised their hands and shouted well wishes from every position in the grouping. My heart soared with that incredible greeting—those people didn’t know me, they had no real knowledge of me as a person, and yet after hearing my story, they filled me with their support.

     Wow talk about a moment of humble gratitude—it was beyond heartwarming, it was beyond words, and it took a long time for the crowd to quiet, at which time I said, “I don’t have the words to tell you how grateful I am. You have truly warmed my heart with this loving support.”

     “You deserve it,” shouted a person in the middle.

     “You’re a hero,” yelled another from the front.

     And the shouts of support continued emanating from all around the group. I was taken aback.

     And then, the greatest moment of all occurred. Mary, dressed in hiking clothes and wearing a backpack over her shoulders, and looking like a beautiful angel, walked through the center of the crowd, joined me on the river’s embankment. I didn’t say a word; instead, I went to her and grabbed her tight, and we kissed for what seemed like an hour as the crowd cheered.

     She leaned close to my ear and provided me the explanation I was seeking when she whispered, “My stories to all the news outlets provided details of the people you’ve helped, even saved, including my father. These people love you because your help was freely given without any expectation of getting anything in return.”

     “But I just did what anyone would do,” I said.

     “No, Aaron! You’ve done things most people would never even think of doing, and you didn’t do it for money, or for fame, or anything other than concern for those you helped. I made sure to keep your pain from the past out of the stories, yet I sure did include the incredible things you’ve done while walking across the country.”

     I hugged her tight again, kissed her, faced the crowd. “Cincinnati, thank you for this. You have shown me such warmth and support—no matter where my journey takes me, I’ll never forget this day.”

     The crowd broke into joyful, raucous noise. I raised my arms to the sky, which calmed them.

     “We are going to continue our journey to the west. I’ve many miles to go. Please, do not follow me from here on. I hope one day after this trek is complete, I’ll have the time to return to Cincinnati to visit you again,” I shouted.

     The crowd roared. I saw additional police gathering around the edges of the still-growing throng. I saw an officer standing close to us. I went to her and said, “Is it possible for us to leave town without the crowd following?”

     “Yes, Mr. Wright. We’ve already blocked off the street.” She pointed to several rows of wooden barriers at the end of the block. “We’ll make sure the crowd breaks up now that you’re leaving. And, if I may, I’d like to join the group in thanking you for all you’ve done.”

     “Thank you, Officer. I appreciate the kind words and help.” I pulled on Mary’s hand. We left Cincinnati with the crowd still celebrating, yet they were beginning to disperse. As grateful as I was for the support, I realized I didn’t want such adulation in the cities I might trek. I’d have to recalibrate my journey. I sure didn’t want anyone hurt if they followed me.

JE – 59

My heart soared when Mary told me she was going to hike with me for three days. Her news outlet wanted her to get first-hand facts about my journey. She had done such a wonderful job with keeping my past a secret, that I approved the plan without hesitation. Truth be known, I was also swayed by her presence. She captivated me and having her join me was an unexpected delight.

     As we proceeded west from Cincinnati, the weather became brutal, with clouds every day and a near-constant biting strong wind filled with cold rain. It was still spring, and in this part of the country, one can expect winter-like conditions from time to time.

     After all the preparations leading up to my journey, I was used to ignoring the bitter weather, yet Mary had no preparations to lean on. I was saddened to see her push ahead in obvious discomfort as we hiked through rain that froze after landing on our backpacks, clothes, and gear.

     “We can stop in the next town,” I offered.

     “Aaron! Tell the truth—if I wasn’t with you, would the weather make you stop?” she said.

     “No, I’d keep going. The weather doesn’t trouble me.”        

     “Well, as I’ve said before, I’m no wilted flower. We’ll keep going until we reach your planned stop point. I can handle it.” She turned away from me and kept pushing forward.

     Her stout attitude was soon put to the test as the winds increased and the rain turned to full-on snow, which lasted for several hours. I’ll admit the conditions had dampened my spirits, not because I couldn’t handle it; rather, the horrible conditions prevented us from speaking, and I always enjoyed conversations with Mary.

     As we marched on, I re-directed our path to the west. I had planned to move northwest to Indianapolis, Indiana, yet after we encountered the crowd in Cincinnati, I decided to avoid the major population centers. I’ll cut a hiking swath southwest to Indiana, where we’ll pass through Scottsburg, and then into southern Illinois. I had never planned to hike through Chicagoland since that is where I lived with Kaitlyn and I saw no point in revisiting familiar territory. I have no desire to return to Oak Valley, at least not anytime soon.

     I’m not sure where Mary will depart, yet I figured I’d be with her for at last two more days—and that warmed my heart against the bitter weather swirling around us.

JE 60

The horrible weather cleared the day after the snow and ice storm had made our journey miserable. That night, after we had set up our tents, exhaustion caused us to fall into a deep sleep.

     The following morning brought us weather and conditions straight out of a fairy tale, almost as if there was a natural payback for what we had experienced the day before. Birds were chirping, the sun was blazing over the eastern horizon, the temperature was at least 20-degrees warmer, and as we repacked our tents, we noticed a fragrant smell emanating from a field of flowers to the north, which we had not seen in the dark while setting camp. The snow and ice were gone, replaced by slight dampness on the greening grass and fields. It was as if we had woken inside a fantasy land filled with sights, colors, and smells, that jumped at us. Yes, I realize how hokey, or clichéd, this must sound, yet since I’m writing this in Sam, who cares.

     Mary had to leave me sooner than I had hoped. As we quietly trekked through a small town to find a place to eat, we did not speak. The affection between us had grown palpable—we knew how we felt about each other, and we shared a sadness about her returning to Poughkeepsie to file reports about my journey, though in truth the journey had become our trek since I have seen so much of her since the first day on the Hudson Walkway Bridge.

     The small town did not show up on my GPS maps, nor on the printed version. It appeared to be a beautiful place to live. Mary’s news crew is on their way to take her back to Poughkeepsie, though this time they would take her to an airport to take a flight. The news crew and van were ordered to stay in my general area, so they and Mary could monitor my progress.

     It took little time for us to find a place to eat, which we did with quiet swiftness, no longer wanting to part ways, yet knowing it had to happen.

     After eating, to delay our parting, we toured a local church, St. Joseph. Its history stretched back to 1890 when the Christians at that time built their first church bearing that name. The church and parish underwent many changes in the intervening years, including suffering a fire that gutted a large portion of the structure. I have journeyed hundreds of miles, and it still makes me feel small when I contemplate the various eras and proofs of history my eyes have witnessed while progressing west across the country.

     I’d like to be able to write that Mary and I had a movie-worthy goodbye when she got into the news van, yet that just wasn’t what happened. Instead, we gave each other cursory hugs and parted ways almost as if we were mere acquaintances.

     As I walked back into St. Joseph Church to refill my holy water container (I had been using it more liberally than Father Thomas had requested), my mind filled with the cold parting we had. I can’t claim to understand all the intricacies of relationships and love, yet I sure knew how I felt about her. I believe we both wanted to avoid a mushy goodbye. That’s what I am going with.

     I had no idea when I’d see Mary again. Her producer insisted that she spend time creating a multi-day package centering on my walk across the country. Knowing this left me with a sense of frustration because my original intent was to take a solo walk across the United States, without fanfare and attention of any kind. Yet, my affection for Mary had increased to a level that I chose not to fight against her work. One positive point, I did secure a firm promise from her to not use any pictures or images of me in her daily segments, which gives me some sense of anonymity while I continue my trek. Onward I hike.

The story continues in Journal Entry forty-one, which I will upload the first week of March 2022.

JE 61

As I left Indiana, it was time to do some math to determine the status of my journey. As expected, my journey to this point has not followed my plans precisely.

     You might recall that I projected my trek to cover 3,500-4,000 miles, depending on diversions, weather, and road conditions. So far, I’m walking twenty miles per day, a bit less than I had hoped, not sure why. If I use the lower projected number of 3,500 miles (I’ve got to think positively), then I have covered about one-quarter of my planned trip. I feel heartened by that.

     I have many miles to go to reach the shrine. If I maintain a pace of 20 miles per day, all told that would be 175 days to walk across the country. Of course, if I quicken or lessen my pace, those numbers will change. I am satisfied with my progress, it places me in serious western mountains in summer weather, which makes me feel a sense of relief.

     Mary and I exchanged text messages throughout the days since we parted. She was now far enough away that driving to meet me on the road was not going to be a simple trip. Her news station planned to fly her to airports in my path and have the news crew and van bring her to me on the road. The news crew is bored beyond words, they remain within twenty miles of my location in case the station flies Mary out to be with me. It’s too much effort, yet I’ll tolerate it so I can be with Mary.

     The weather remained good, with temperatures in the 50s and 60s, clear skies. I dropped peach rose petals, and the holy water on Indiana’s turf—then I said the prayers. It feels a little Jonah-like doing that across the country.

     All things considered, I was in high spirits.

 JE 62

I wasn’t foolish when making my plans to cross the country. I knew poor weather and natural obstacles were obvious problems that I’d have to deal with as they arose. Yet, there was no way for me to anticipate what happened after I left Indiana.

From there, I headed almost directly south, a benign choice since it would allow me to place many miles behind me.  

     Recall, I’ve already experienced a tornado back in Honesta, and my walk with Mary through the vicious winter storm left a definite impression on my memory. Neither of those events caused me any harm, though the attack close to the gas station was unpleasant at best.

     When I was miles from Carbondale, Illinois, a spring storm rolled across the full breadth of the Midwest—I watched it creep toward me on my smartphone app. It was massive, covering many states. It wasn’t filled with lightning, and so far, it posed no threats for spawning tornadoes, yet it was dumping record amounts of rain across the region, and there was no escaping its assault.

     I was plodding through heavy rain as I passed through one small town after another, which forced me to think of stopping. The problem was the storm was so large, and it was moving so slowly, that it could take three days to completely pass the area. I didn’t want to give back so much time to nature since I had no idea what time-robbing problems waited for me ahead. I stubbornly, and I’ll admit stupidly, pressed on despite the conditions.

     Sometimes pride can get in my way. I felt as if I was already a battle-weary road warrior and that no matter the challenge, I’d find a way through. It’s a dangerous thing to doubt nature’s ability to humble us without notice.

     Right now, I’m tired and will get some rest. I’ll continue writing my story in Sam tomorrow morning. There’s much more to tell, some of which I learned from others. Goodnight, Sam. (see what I did there?).

JE 63

I apologize for having stopped writing my story last night, though I think you’ll understand why when the tale is told. 😊

            Continuing…

     Mary had warned me many times (text messages) not to hike through the storm. The meteorologists at her station informed her of the storm covering the Midwest. She pleaded with me to get a hotel room, or even ask a local if I could stay with them for a few days. I refused.

     Prideful Aaron Wright marched on through the deluge without any real concerns—and yet, I knew better. I had allowed for extra time in my schedule assuming such things would happen. It is an undeniable reality that my plans included being slowed by unknown events, yet like a fool, I pressed on anyway. Pride can be a terrible thing. ☹

     I knew things were not good when streams of rainwater poured across my water-tight boots while walking south on a state road, which was devoid of cars—people had the sense to stay home. There were times that the road declined away from me, which helped because the rainwater didn’t have as much impact. Yet, conversely, there were times when the road inclined or dipped, and in those sections, I was inundated with small rivers of waters rushing by, around, and over me—several times the water was strong enough to push me off my usual stride.

     The clouds were hanging low. I could see they were pregnant with vast amounts of water and man was it dark out. At noon, the clouds blocked enough light that it seemed like near evening conditions.

     I pushed on; the conditions had not changed at all. I started thinking of making a stop for the night. I found an open field hugging the road, which was part of a local farm—I could see the silos and buildings in the near distance. The field was elevated above the main farmlands, which gave me comfort that I’d not be washed away by rushing rainwaters while sleeping. 

     I pitched my tent, which was no easy task in the torrential downpour. I’m happy I purchased quality equipment, for with the seam-ceiling I painstakingly did back in Oak Valley, once zipped, the tent allowed no rain to enter despite the lashing showers pouring upon the landscape.

     I ate some of the dry goods in my backpack, and sent Mary a couple of text messages, telling her where I was and how the day had progressed. I also told her my messages would be few because I had to maintain a watchful eye on my battery levels since I could not use the charging unit in the storm.

     With that, I climbed into my sleeping bag while resting upon elevated farmland as a massive storm crossed over the full breadth of the Midwest. It wasn’t long ago when I could not sleep more than an hour or two each night, yet now even a dangerous storm posed no threats or problems for me. It struck me how surreal life had become, I was alone in natural surroundings using only my abilities and instincts, and I was making it through. If I could, I would have patted myself on the back (that pride thing again). Before I fell asleep, I wondered if I’d ever grasp the sheer magnitude of what I was doing, but then I realized that’s what the Sam’s are for. 

JE 64

It wasn’t easy to relieve myself the following morning, with the rain continuing its assault on the land. Yet, when nature calls. 😊

     It’s difficult to remember all the different storms we’ve experienced in our lives, yet I was certain this was the worst rain I’d ever seen, though the fact that I was in the storm on such a personal level might make me biased. At any rate, packing the tent and my supplies was no easy task, and I strove to keep everything properly stowed, so I’d remain dry at night.

     I had plenty of rations and water, so I made no plans to stop for food. I wanted to continue my march through Illinois. I sent Mary a text and then returned to the road and my trek.

     Some roads were unpassable due to flooding, which worked to re-direct me to the west. This is where things get a bit dicey, or dangerous as one might say, though I was ultimately glad that I had sent Mary a text of my location and direction.

     The simple truth is, it happened with such swiftness, I had no time to react. I was crossing an overpass and noticed the short guard rails were crammed full of debris—tree branches, mud, and rocks. The debris had wedged against the rails causing a build-up of rainwater on the bridge surface. The water naturally ran off the sides, yet not fast enough to keep up with the flow.

     I didn’t see the truck driving swiftly toward my location. It seems certain the driver did not see me walking on the bridge. As the huge vehicle crossed the bridge, its wheels created a massive wave of water, which headed directly toward me. I launched, with the backpack still strapped to my back, over the railing, pushed by the massive wave.

     I watched the overpass road deck rise above me as I dropped to the water. I slammed into the turbulent water with great force. I immediately forced panic away since I knew how to swim well. As I reached for the straps of the backpack to release it from my body, a tree stump (which had broken free under the water’s onslaught) slammed into my head. That is the last thing I recall. The rest of this tale was relayed to me by others involved.

     The truck driver saw me go over the rail. He immediately called for emergency services. It turns out my backpack saved my life, for as the water rushed me away, the pack kept me afloat, and somehow my face remained out of the water. I’m very relieved that I was unable to release the backpack, for I think the tree stump would have hit me either way and without the pack, I would have had no chance.

     My next break—and I needed plenty while in that overflowing rushing water—came when my pack snagged on a wide tree branch jutting into the rushing water flow. That branch is normally ten feet above the usual water line and is often used as a fishing spot for many local fishers. On hot summer days, people would sit on that large and thick branch and cast their line and bait into the water—they did so often while eating lunch, or some other snack.

     After the emergency crew arrived, the truck driver pointed to me hung up on the branch. They tied three strong ropes to the bridge and two firemen put on life jackets—tying ropes around their chests. They jumped into the water while carrying another jacket and the third rope.

     The crew on the bridge released the rope swiftly, allowing the firemen to reach me. They took off my backpack and attached it to a clamp on one of their ropes while the second man held my head above water. They worked fast to pull the life jacket around my body, and then they snapped it in place.

     The bridge crew began pulling the three ropes evenly toward the bridge where a traverse line had been set that ran across the river, from side to side. Once to the line, the firemen guided me toward the side where several paramedics waited.

     By the way, these facts were reported to me by Mary, and yes, I have acknowledged to her that she was correct, I should have taken a room at a hotel and waited out the storm.

     I remained unconscious in the river, during the rescue, during the ride in the ambulance to the hospital, and for almost an entire day once safely inside the hospital. When I woke, the sun was shining through my room window, almost as if it was mocking me.

     “Hey, Aaron the Lumpster is awake,” Mary shouted.

     Hearing her voice was amazing, yet when she stepped into my view, I had such love for her—well, there are no words, so I’m just going to close Sam now before I make an even larger fool of myself.

JE 65

The doctors said I had a concussion, yet otherwise, I was fine. It was a relief to learn I had not suffered permanent damage, yet I was not happy when they told me I’d have to wait two more days before I could leave the hospital.

     Mary gave me tons of grief for even thinking about leaving early. I wasn’t going to fight this time. I was glad to be alive.

     “Do you know how beautiful you are,” I said. I smiled.

     “Stop that. It seems the tree caused some damage after all,” she snapped.

     “No, it’s just the truth—you’re gorgeous.” She blushed in such a humble way that it made me feel more attracted to her. Yes, I said she blushed, because she did, and I don’t care if it sounds corny.

     “Settle down—you need to rest,” she said.

     “You’ve told me the story of how I got here, but you haven’t told me how you got here.”

     “That’s simple. My number is on your phone. You don’t have a lot of contacts, and a few people saw my national reports about your trek. They called and told me what happened. By the way, you’re in a St. Louis hospital. They brought you here because they specialize in head trauma. I flew here yesterday. I was worried sick,” she said.

     I didn’t know what to say. It felt amazing to have someone care about what happened to me. Mary’s amazing. She saw my inability to speak.

     She said, “I’ve finally managed to tell you something that’s left you speechless.”

     “Mary, thank you.”

     She came to me, leaned over. We kissed. It was not a kiss born of passion; rather, it was much more than that. We experienced a closeness during that kiss that I have never known before. We both knew our affections had crossed over into love, we were too cowardly to speak it aloud; instead, we lingered and enjoyed the moment.

     She flew to St. Louis to be with me. How cool is that?

   JE 66

I was thrilled to watch Father Thomas enter my hospital room. It seemed as if I had not seen him for years, rather than weeks.

     “How’s my parish-saving friend doing?” he said.

“Father! You’re a wonderful sight. What do you mean, parish-saving?”

     He sat in a chair next to my bed. He said, “Since you left Oak Valley, much has happened with your old property and home. I found several contractors in the parish that wanted to take over the rebuild of your home, yet it gets better. Do you remember George Stephan?”

     “Yes, of course.”

     “He owns a construction business. He and his lawyers crafted a deal for us to transfer the insurance money to them while allowing the projected profit on the sale of a newly built home to remain with the parish. You’ve helped save our parish,” Father Thomas said.

     “That’s amazing news.”

     “Yes, and the greatest part of it all is we are now rebuilding the giving center pantry, and we’re restoring the soup kitchen portion of the buildings. We’ll also make many of the repairs needed in the church and school. Your generous gifts will result in blessings for many people—many hundreds over the coming years,” Father said.

     I must admit, the news left me feeling good. “I don’t know what to say.”

     “You don’t have to say anything. You’ve already done enough.” Father placed a bag on my bed. “I also heard from Mary, and she told me your charging unit was lost in the accident. I brought you a new one.” He pulled the device from the bag.

     Mary, with a happy smile, remained standing at the back of the room listening.

     “Father, thank you. This is so nice of you,” I said.

     “It’s nothing, Aaron. It’s only a five-hour drive from Oak Valley. I’ll be back for evening Mass tonight,” Father said. He laughed. “With that, I can’t stay. My prayers are with you, and please know that we in Oak Valley are proud of you and pulling for you.”

     And before I could say a word, Father Thomas left the room.

I pushed the doctors hard to get them to release me. After three days in the hospital (ouch) I was aching to get back on the road.

     Mary argued against me leaving the hospital. She understood I was intent on continuing my trek, yet she felt a few more days of resting my bruised brain would be best.

     I prevailed.

     The other issue, or problem, with my stay in St. Louis, was the greater metro area held a large population, and it leaked out that I was staying in a city hospital. Throngs of well-wishers waited for news of my pending departure. I didn’t desire a crowd following me.

     Mary created a plan. She worked with the St. Louis police to acquire clothing and backpacks mimicking the sort I used. She also arranged to have people act as decoys using the acquired backpacks and gear to allow our covert exit from the hospital. She had street clothing purchased for us—the authorities would bring our real gear to us once we were far outside the city, and they would drive us to the Illinois road close to my watery accident. I did not want to break the continuity of my walk. It was a clever plan, and it worked.

     Mary often calls me a hero, yet she’s been my hero in many ways. I tried telling her that, she wouldn’t accept the praise.

JE 67

It  was good to be on the road after such a long medical stop. Mary and I felt as if we were actors in a suspense movie when we left the hospital dressed in regular street clothing, with her wearing a baseball-styled hat. We exited through the rear doors, walked two blocks to the west, and then started working our way south through the city streets. The massive crowds waiting at the front of the hospital were met with disappointment when we never appeared.

     After a series of text messages to set the location, the police met us on the road south of the city to acquire our gear. They brought our belongings in a van, which allowed us to discreetly change into our permanent hiking clothes. They drove us to the site of the accident. We thanked them and returned to our trek.

The concussion I suffered offered me no troubles as we trekked our way across the land. We adjusted our path as we went, yet I’ll say my feet had a renewed lightness to them having Mary with me.

     The TV producers wanted Mary to return to Poughkeepsie. She told them she had no intention of leaving an injured walker until it was obvious my wounds were healed. After several days of arguing, the producers consented to her remaining with me until we reached Kansas City, where she would take a flight back to Poughkeepsie. My story, my journey, and the various events during my trek to date had gone viral—Mary’s bosses wanted to maintain the exclusive inside story, they gave in to her wishes. Got to love that!

     I dropped peach-colored rose petals and holy water on the ground after we crossed into Missouri, said the prayers together. We were grateful that Missouri offered us no challenges. The country never stops presenting surprises. I had never heard of Columbia, Missouri, which is no shock since the country is massive. It had a much larger population than I would have thought, and it was a delightful place to eat and renew our supplies. Way to go, Columbia!

     Despite all the difficulties, especially the watery accident in Illinois, it had turned into a wonderful journey for me. I especially loved the nights when I’d set up our separate tents, and we’d sit by a fire just talking, hugging, and being together.

     I was sad when the news crew picked up Mary outside Kansas City. We hugged, kissed, hugged again, and parted ways. She was off to the Kansas City International Airport to fly back to Poughkeepsie, while I plotted my path around Kansas City. Running into crowds at this stage of my trek was an unwelcome possibility.

In Kansas, I dropped peach-colored rose petals, holy water, and said the prayers Father Thomas requested. Kansas is a gorgeous state, it feels great to be at the center of the country, considering the journey I’ve had since Poughkeepsie. Kansas is the last state before the more rugged terrain found in the western states.

     The western half of Kansas represents my journey’s rough halfway mark—that makes me happy. Have you noticed I no longer have a problem saying the word ‘happy?’ 😊

I had been journeying for 80 days, including three spent in the hospital. I had to trek more than 400 miles to reach the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado, roughly on schedule. 

     I’m grateful that I’ll be on the road when this year’s Kailyn death date arrives. It is stunning that the date does not have the same hold on me.

     If all goes well, I will reach the bridge within three weeks, which places me in the mountains in mid-summer, as I had hoped and planned. Things are going well now. My body seems acclimated to walking 20-30 miles per day as if I’ve done this my entire life. My mind has adapted to the lonely conditions, though I have ached to see Mary again. As usual, we text each other several times a day, though I don’t know when I’ll see her again. I hope it’s before I reach the bridge.

     Everything was going so well I couldn’t help but wonder what could go wrong.

JE 68

Mary joined me in Colby, Kansas. The news crew drove across Kansas from Kansas City until they found me on Route 24 one mile from Colby. The town is another gem in a long line since leaving Poughkeepsie. The USA is such an amazing country, with many wonderful towns, and people. Colby had a population of 5,317. We found a beautiful Catholic church in town, where we attended Mass. I dropped peach-colored rose petals and holy water on the streets of the town, we said the prayers together.

     Mary plans to stay with me until the end of my journey, which makes me so happy. 😊

We took Route 40 into Colorado, where again I dropped the peach-colored rose petals, holy water, and we said the prayers together. The land appeared the same as in Kansas, no rise toward mountains, yet. Soon, we took Route-287 south to Route-96. The land remained passable, though the natural surroundings had become more arid, dry.      As usual, we made stops every night. Several ranchers allowed us to pitch our tents on their land. The skies were clear, with no threat of rain, the nighttime celestial views were incredible, with stars splashing the sky as if from an Astronomy book.

     I will share this topic this one time with Sam, never again. It turns out (something I did not know) Mary is a Catholic, always has been. She shares my love for the Lord and His Church. You might wonder why this is important to put in Sam at this stage of the journey. Well, Mary and I had become close—we had expressed our love in real terms by then and we no longer felt shy about admitting those emotions. However, we were also strongly attracted to each other—intimate physical relations would be extraordinarily easy considering we camped together, alone, every night. We discussed this because we wanted to have those relations, yet we agreed that such things should wait until marriage. Therefore, I continued to set up separate tents every night. In a way, we were both happy with these discussions because it meant we would join in marriage. After Kailyn’s death, that is not a desire I thought would ever return to me.

     We marched on through still unchallenging roads, yet as we progressed across Colorado toward the bridge, we could see the land was beginning to change, rise, and was becoming a greater physical challenge. I welcomed that because it meant we were closing in on one of the primary sites that Kailyn had identified in that cool flyover in my dreams in what seems like an eternity in the past.

JE 69

I will admit, the Royal Gorge Bridge was an amazing sight. I couldn’t imagine what the place would do to people with a fear of heights. If I did not have the flyover dream, the bridge would not have been on my list of places to stop.

We learned the bridge stretched 1,260 feet across the Arkansas River, was 1,053 feet above the rushing water below, and had 956 feet of clearance below the span. The structure opened in 1929; and had withstood the tests of time until a massive wildfire swept through the region in 2013. Many buildings and rides inside the park fell to the blaze. The bridge suffered little damage, and it remained a much-desired tourist location, helping fuel its fast recovery.

     Mary and I ate at a food stand. It was a beautiful day, though a noticeable breeze crossed the area, and my feeling or sense of trouble continued to haunt me. I’ve had that feeling since Kansas, though the long hike to the bridge presented no reason to hold such sensations, yet this journey has taught me not to ignore my gut.  

     As we neared the bridge, I noticed a married couple with a stroller with a baby inside, and a young boy standing by his mother. The father appeared frightened. It was obvious he did not want to cross the bridge, I overheard his name, Aedan. The couple was fighting about crossing the bridge, I couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.

     “Why are you walking so slowly?” Mary asked.

     “I’m worried about that family. This is a bad place to fight.” I nodded to the couple.

     “It’s not our business, stay out of it,” she said.

     “I’m not prying. I’m concerned. I think the guy is really scared to cross the bridge. He keeps saying he’ll keep his promise by crossing the bridge, yet look at his face, he’s petrified.”

     “So? It’s not our business. Aaron, leave them alone,” she said.

     I chose not to respond. I remained concerned.

     As we entered the bridge walkway, I noticed the structure’s cable towers were well above all other structures. As I wrapped my hand around Mary’s, I glanced back at the couple. The mother had moved onto the walkway, pushing the stroller, holding her son’s hand as they walked well ahead of the frightened, Aedan. I felt bad for the guy, it was obvious each step was excruciatingly difficult for him. I stopped, look at him.

     “Sir, are you okay? I’ll help you to the other side if you’re having trouble. We are on a high bridge. Not for the weak of heart.” I smiled.

     Aedan offered me an angry grimace. “Did I ask for help? Why don’t you mind your own business? I’ll make it across by myself, and I don’t have a weak heart.”

     Mary nudged me. “I told you. Mind your own business. Leave him alone.”

     I turned back to the bridge deck, which we had learned spanned 1,260 feet and contained 1,292 wood planks. For two people used to hiking many miles per day, the span posed no problem to cross—we had no fear of heights and we enjoyed the stark and rugged beauty of the site.

     Glancing back, I saw Aedan continued to struggle as he crept across the span. His wife and kids were across the bridge, getting into line at a food stand on that side of the edifice. I increased my pace, curious to hear more of the couple’s conflict. That is not like me since I cherish privacy, yet I continued to have a sinking feeling and wanted to make sure it had nothing to do with that couple.

     “You’re still worried about that family?” Mary said.

     “Yes, that poor guy, Aedan, is having a terrible time. Look at him, he can barely move, and his shirt is soaked with sweat. I want to help the guy.”

     “Stop trying to find ways to be a hero.”

     That was the first time Mary said something that upset me. My dream with Kailyn caused me to select the bridge as one of my stop points, I have no idea why, yet it could not be to simply walk across a high structure. My gut told me something was off, I had no idea what that might be, yet Aedan and his family troubled me, deeply. I glared at Mary. “I never wanted to be called a hero. I’ve asked you not to call me that from the beginning. You know that’s true.” I turned from her.

JE 70

I noticed the breeze had strengthened. Despite the cloudless sky, the smell of rain filled the air.

     “Do you smell the rain?”

     “Smell rain? How does a person smell the rain?” Mary said.

     “You’ve never smelled rain after a long dry spell?”

     “No, but I don’t pay attention to things like that,” she said.

     “Well, I smell rain.”

     “But it’s a clear sky. We couldn’t ask for better weather. I think we need to move away from the Royal Gorge Bridge and get on with our walk,” she said.

     “Well, you might get your wish because I see no reason not to return to the main road and move away from here.”

     “Good, because you’re making me uncomfortable by watching that family,” she said.

     I saw Aedan had managed to cross the bridge and join his family. He was a sweaty, unsettled mess, yet he made it across. He was about twenty feet from us, standing with his family, urging them to do something. I walked closer to them.

     “Aaron, stop!” Mary called.

     I looked at her, went to her, lovingly took her hands. “Mary, when I left the road after seeing the tire tracks, I had the same disturbing feeling I have now as if something was wrong or off. That caused us to find your father in the wreckage. I must find out why this couple, strangers to us, are causing me so much concern. Please, join me, help me, I need to know.” I kissed her.

     Mary smiled. “Okay, you have me. Let’s move closer and try to see what we can do.”

I heard Aedan pleading with his family, mainly his wife, I heard her name was Ciara. He was begging them to cross back over the bridge with him and to do so immediately. I found that strange since he had such a hard time getting across.

     “What’s his problem?” Mary whispered.

     “I’ve no idea.”

     I watched as Aedan looked west, over, and over. Fear filled his expression. I wondered why looking west seemed to cause his fear to increase. I took a chance, walked to him.

     “Sir, I noticed you looking to the west, can I ask you why?”

     “You’re the nutjob from the bridge. Are you following me?” Aedan said.

     “No, Sir, we just noticed you looked concerned,” Mary said, in a well-timed defense.

     “He thinks it’s going to rain. He’s lost his mind,” Ciara said.
            “I think it’s going to rain because I can smell the rain, and I feel the breeze has stiffened, gotten stronger,” Aedan said.

     I glanced at Mary. “I smell the rain too. It makes me glad to know someone else can smell the storm coming,” I said.

     “Storm coming? There’s not even a cloud,” Ciara said.

     “Please, enough, we have to get back over the bridge and to our car. I want to get out of here, now,” Aedan said.

     Sounds of many voices came to us from behind. I spun around and saw at least 100 people had gathered in a group about 200 feet away. I worried about them and wondered what they were doing.

     “Okay, okay, but I need to take my pictures of the bridge. I have to have them, let’s go now,” Ciara said.

     The family left without saying anything to us. They re-entered the bridge walkway. I noticed Aedan was moving much faster as if concern for his family was making him ignore his fears. I wondered why she had to take pictures, yet it calmed me that they were getting back across the bridge.

     “Let’s go, Aaron, we have no reason to stay here,” Mary said.

     “You’re right, let’s go.” I looked back at the family, and then at the large gathering—my troubled feeling was stronger, yet I could not determine why. We began walking across the bridge wanting to reconnect with the main road.

JE 71      

`I could not get the intense smell of rain out of my senses. It struck me that I had that same intense smell of rain during the horrible storm that struck Honesta—that thought made a shiver race through my body. I looked at the large group in the near distance—an officer stood nearby, I ran to him, with Mary following closely.

     “Hey, you’re the guy, the walking guy. They had pictures of you on the news. Your journey took you to our wonderful bridge?” the officer said.

     “Yes, and I need your help. It might seem very strange, yet I’d like you to order those people to seek cover in one of the buildings,” I said, in a near shout.

     “That makes no sense,” the officer said.

     Mary stepped between us. “Officer, have you paid attention to Aedan’s story?”

     “Yeah, sure. Why?” the officer said.

     “The wonderful things he has done were not intentionally heroic, they were just part of his instincts. If he says people need to get to safety, I’d do as he says,” she said.

     “Okay, but this won’t be easy. Those people are here for fun, they won’t be happy,” the officer said. He walked to the group.

     “Thank you, Mary, that was incredibly helpful,” I said.

I glanced at the bridge, which was crowded with tourists. My concern deepened. I did not know why.

     “Aaron! What are you doing?” Mary yelled as she followed me onto the wooden bridge deck.

     I went to a man on the bridge wearing a uniform, he appeared to be a site worker. “You have to help me get people off the bridge.”

     The man looked at me with anger. “Get them off the bridge? They came here to walk on this bridge. Why would I tell them to leave?” he yelled.

     Trying to get the bridge worker’s help was a hopeless effort. I ran from person to person telling them a storm was coming, they needed to get off the bridge because the winds would place them in peril. Few people listened, most thought I was nuts.

     I wondered why I still smelled rain—the storm clouds must be far off; the winds are pushing the scent of rain well ahead of the leading edge, but that means the storm must be a monster. I stopped, looked at Mary. “It’s going to be a massive storm, soon.”

     People laughed as they looked at the cloud-free sky.

     “I’m telling you I smell the rain,” I yelled. “It’s coming in on the winds. I’ve encountered this before—the storm must be ferocious because the leading winds are carrying the smell far ahead of the primary cloud system.”

     Mary pulled at my arm. “Come on, you’ve done everything you can. We can’t make these people believe you.”

     “Okay, you’re right, let’s go,” I said.

JE  72

I saw Aedan and his family at the Royal Gorge Bridge sign. The wind stiffened again.

“I felt that,” Mary yelled. “And I feel the moisture in the air.”

“I told you.” The wind increased again. I jogged toward Aedan and his family. The wind was becoming a much stronger force across the wide-open bridge span. I’m not afraid of heights, yet the situation was becoming perilous. People began to rush off the bridge, seeking shelter. The wind was strengthening into a stronger force.

I looked to the west, saw massive, dark, and low-lying clouds in the distance. The clouds appeared filled with water ready to give way to gravity’s pull. “Look.” I pointed.

I watched as Ciara stood next to the sign, Aedan was poised to take a picture of her. I had no idea why she seemed so stubborn about getting those shots. Ciara rested the stroller against the fence. The ominous clouds continued to roll toward us.

I looked at Aedan. “Stop this insanity. Get off the bridge.”

In absolute panic, Aedan screamed, “Cia, we must stop, we’ll get the pictures later. The clouds are getting much closer.”

“Aaron, forget them, we have to get off the bridge,” Mary said. “We can’t make them listen.”

“Okay, okay, let’s go.” I turned to leave, but I saw Ciara climb onto the fence railing, inching higher for a better shot. My instincts kicked in, ran to her. “Stop this, no picture is worth dying for.” I shuddered as the wind increased again. The bridge moved under the wind’s force. This time, panic rose in me, knowing I’d witness someone dying if Ciara did not get down.

     Bridge employees entered the deck to vacate it before the storm hit. Warning alarms blared, loudspeakers called everyone to take cover and leave the bridge.

     Ciara, oblivious to everything that was happening around her, climbed to the second railing. She was paying no attention to the approaching storm or the high winds surrounding her.

     Aedan ran to her. “Come down, now!” He reached for her to pull her from the railing. Two workers approached, they grabbed the little boy and the stroller—guided them off the bridge. I watched as Aedan’s outstretched right arm made it to her first; however, it was too late. The seventy-miles-per-hour wind gust crossed the bridge as a savage horizontal rain began to inundate the region.

     I hate to admit this, it sounds so cliché, but I gasped when I saw the wind lift Ciara from the fencing as if she were a doll; she floated in the swirling crosswinds. The camera she held broke free from her right hand; it dropped toward her feet with the long strap wrapping around her right ankle.

Mary screamed.

The winds changed, I watched in horror as Ciara dropped toward the gorge, a powerful gust coming off the decking pushed the camera toward a wide suspension cable that ran parallel to the fencing. I saw her face fill with fear and horror as she dropped. The crosswinds buffeted her wafer-thin body as she plummeted. Aedan clutched at the air trying to grab her; she was too far from him.

     Mary and I joined the group at the railing.

JE 73

I had no idea what to do as Ciara dropped toward the river—screams of agony crossed the bridge deck as her camera strap, which had wrapped around her ankle, wedged inside a steel bridge bracket—it seemed her right ankle must have broken from the twisting it took.

     An intense gust caused Ciara to swing, head-first, toward a steel angle brace, she screamed and tried to raise her arms for protection, but it was too late; her head slammed into the bracing. In an instant, blood flowed from her head as she hung, unconscious, from the bracket. The winds lessened. Her body stopped swinging.

     Several workers rushed a rope drum to the location.

     Without prompting, I climbed over the railing and crept onto the wide suspension cable. I heard Mary gasp.

     “Stop! That’s my wife—I’ll get her,” Aedan shouted.

     “Toss me a rope.” After catching the lead end of the rope, I tied it into a loop. I was three feet from Ciara. The multi-strand cable was more than a foot wide, with enough space to crawl. The shock of seeing her swinging in the wind hit me hard. I calmed my nerves, reminding myself that Ciara had a husband and two children. I wondered how Mary was doing—this could not be easy on her. I glanced at her—she looked worried and angry, didn’t say a word.

     I watched as Aedan, frightened, nerve-wracked, climbed over the railing, inched toward me on the suspension cable.

     “Be careful, the wind almost knocked me off, twice,” I shouted. Looking to the west, I watched, and yes, I was scared when I saw small funnel clouds dropping from the storm’s main body. “Faster, Aedan, don’t look down, don’t look back.”

     We worked together to get the tied loop to Ciara. Aedan stretched his upper body into the open air while wrapping his feet and legs around a steel vertical mainstay control rod. I fed him the rope, he lowered it to Ciara’s head. To steady him, I grasped his right leg, held him tight against the mainstay as he stretched further to reach her with the rope.

     I watched as Aedan began swinging the rope back-and-forth trying to get the looped end to catch around her dangling arms. The high winds made the work slow and dangerous. “Keep trying, you’ll get her.” I maintained my grip on his right leg.

     Aedan dropped the looped end of the rope, again and again. On what I think was about the tenth attempt, he had the line rising over her downward-facing arms. He moved it upward, over her outstretched arms.

     “That’s it, you’ve got her now,” yelled a worker.

     Aedan pulled gently on the rope, guiding the loop upward until it settled around her hips. He yanked with more force until it tightened against her body. He looked back at me and said, “Now!”

     I looked at the deck, two large men grabbed the rope, ran it through the fencing. They held it fast. They gave a thumbs-up.

     Looking at me, Aedan said, “I have her now, you can leave her to me. Thank you for your help. I’m not sure how much longer that camera strap would have held. You helped me save my wife and the mother of my kids. Please, get off this bridge so you’re safe.”

     I smiled, turned, crept toward the railing. The workers helped me climb back onto the decking.

     Mary ran to me. “Let’s go—they can get her from here, you did everything you could.”

     I was in no mood to argue as the storm drifted away, and sunlight broke through, we left Aedan and his family in the hands of the bridge crew.

JE 74

As we moved along Route 50, a definite quiet had come upon us. I waited for the verbal hurricane.

     “You might as well release on me. I know you’re mad.”

     Mary remained quiet.

     Walking through the mountains was beautiful, yet not easy. We had not yet journeyed through the more intense ranges and peaks, yet the two-lane paved road offered a difficult passage, with the tiny shoulder space causing us to leave the surface many times when large semi-trucks passed us. The road hugged a river for many miles, we were tucked between moderate mountains on our left, the river on our right, and a tight road shoulder on which to walk.

     I wondered when she would release her tirade, we had been walking for hours, still not a word from Mary.

     Finding locations to rest was difficult, few towns and open spaces existed along this stretch of our route, yet we managed to find a small rest area where we left the road to eat and drink. Our quiet hiking had caused us to journey farther than we had hoped—though, our meal remained as silent as had our hiking along the road.

Night had fallen, we were setting up our tents in an expansive park inside a small mountain town (we never saw the name of the village). It was then, after a day of intense walking through rough terrain, that Mary spoke to me.

     “When we reach Salida, I will find a hotel to stay in. I’m done with this walk,” Mary said—it seemed there was a slight snarl hidden in the tone of her voice.

     I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Why?”

     “I sent a text to my boss and the road crew. They’ll meet me in Salida. I will return to Poughkeepsie. I will stay there until it’s the right time to fly to San Francisco to finish the story at your endpoint, the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi.”

     “Why?”

     “Your story is compelling. I’ll finish what I started back on the Walkway over the Hudson. I have a lot of work to do,” Mary said.

     Her words hit me like daggers. Finding a proper response was impossible. “That makes me very sad.”

     “I’m sorry for that,” she said.

     “But none of this makes sense. What have I done?”

     “Nothing, I have work to do,” she said.

     “I don’t—”

     “Please, accept my decision! I won’t speak to you because you’ll just keep pressing me. I told you that I have work to do.”

     I had to accept her desire for silence. We separated into a single file walking line, with me in the lead, Mary about ten feet behind me. She had created a distance that halted all casual talking. I continued trekking feeling heartbroken, sick, sad.

JE 75     

Salida was a pleasant town of more than 5,000 citizens. For me, it was a sad place because Mary carried through with her plan to leave me. She did not stay in a hotel; instead, she left with her news crew.

     Mary’s absence caused a shroud of sadness to descend over me. I decided I would stay in a Salida hotel for a couple of days before moving on.

     I refused to let my sadness permeate my plans. After two days languishing in Salida, and having attended Mass and Confession while there, I restarted my walk.

     I am more convinced than ever before that after this trip is done, I’ll destroy my Sam journals. I started this trip trying to re-ignite my life, in the process, I was blessed with a wonderful relationship with Mary, and that came as a deep surprise, for I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel love again. Mary surprised and saddened me when she dropped me and my journey, yet the fact that another woman was able to love me, and that I was able to love her, was a worthwhile experience despite her leaving.

     I’m good at shaking off sadness now. I marched on and soon returned to machine-like walking. Despite the rough and sometimes hostile terrain, the miles were clicking by at a high pace, which shocked me. The absence of Mary had increased my intensity.          

 JE  76

 The mountains are scary at night, truly frightening. I saw and heard many wild animals. There were many valleys during which the road remained flat and was much easier to walk.

     I crossed into Utah, dropped rose petals, and the holy water. I said the prayers Father Thomas had requested.

     I was forced to take lesser roads in Utah, which slowed my pace, yet I was still machine-like in my determination. I saw what I assumed were mountain lions crossing the road in the distance, it worried me, yet they seemed to run off into the brush, causing me to continue. I knew the animals could shred me to pieces, yet the dangers of wildlife remained the same behind me, or in my forward walking path.

     I found some sections of roadway close to the interstate that was used as frontage roads. It took careful planning because they didn’t always exist, yet those helped because they made for productive days walking across the stark terrain. While it was generally known that walking on the interstate roadways was not allowed, I used hundreds of miles of those highways since traffic was so low.

     As I approached the Nevada border, I checked my mileage and was surprised to discover there was a scant 600 miles to reach San Francisco. I had about four weeks until the end of my journey. It’s hard to fathom the path I’ve trekked.

     I’ve not heard a peep from Mary, which I assume solidifies her intent to remain disconnected from me permanently. ☹

   JE – 77

 The telling of this story has become a burdensome bore. I’m sick of my entries into Sam, and sick of walking. I dropped peach-colored rose petals and holy when I crossed into Nevada—said the prayers. I’m upset, angry, about Mary. I still don’t know what I did to chase her away from me. This journey has become a burden to me, I’m trapped inside my choice to walk across the country.

     I have noticed my mind is shifting now that I have crossed into California, what I beautiful state. The glorious forest had me transfixed as I hiked through mile-after-mile of towering trees. The beauty is improving my demeanor.

      The Lake Tahoe area was a splendid place. The mountains and forests continued to pose incredible challenges as I fought for every mile, up and down the roads I journeyed. Yet, the landscape was so magnificent, I didn’t mind the increased labor.

     I’ve forced myself to stop thinking about Mary. I was sending text messages to her several times a day, yet she never answered.

     For the last time, I released the remainder of my peach-colored rose petals and the holy water, said the prayers. I had kept my promises to Father Thomas and the memory of Kailyn.

I have 160 miles to reach the shrine. Did you get that? I have 160 miles to reach the shrine. That’s about a week of walking if I increase my pace. Wow! One week to go. 😊

JE 78

My last night on the road!

     It’s September 14th – I left Poughkeepsie on March 29th.

     I stopped in Burlingame, California, fourteen miles from the shrine. I sent a text to Mary and Father Thomas, letting them know I was staying in a park in Burlingame. I received no answer.

Pitching my tent for the final time was a surreal event.

 Tomorrow, I will complete my journey on the 171st day of walking. My journey will have taken me across 3701 miles, which included various extended stops, many route changes, and my hospital stay. It’s mid-September, perfect timing. I averaged 21.6 miles per day, close to what I planned. I will end this trip before the lousy weather hits the western mountains.

I had experienced a journey few people ever contemplate. I saw the country in a way that can only be experienced on foot. Thousands of miles across every type of land one could imagine, flatlands, mountainous terrain, deserts, forests, farmlands, lowlands, highlands, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, animals too numerous to count, skies too large to describe, kind people and in some cases not so kind people, wonderful towns, much busier cities, cold, snow, ice, rain, wind, heat, even tornadoes. I saw bridges many feared to cross and peaks too high to scale. The United States of America is massive and has so much beauty—I feel humbled and thankful to the Lord for having helped me cross this incredible land.

     I had plenty of time to decide what I was going to do next. During my time trekking across Utah and Nevada, which often were lonely, arid, hot days, a plan came to me (I doubt I would have thought of this plan if Mary had remained with me, I owe her credit for this decision). I have decided that I will open a Catholic Foundation helping to financially support churches, parishes, and schools across the country in their mission to feed, and clothe those in need, and to help children receive a Catholic education. For most, it’s not an impressive goal, yet it fits with my desire to help people. I’m not sure where I will place the Foundation’s headquarters, yet Father Thomas will be involved.

     Dear Sam(s), thank you for being my constant companion. In many ways, you have been my best friend. I have shared everything with you—I will miss not updating you every day.

     With that, it’s time to go to sleep while on the road, FOR THE LAST TIME.

JE 79


NATIONAL SHRINE OF SAINT FRANCIS ASSISI

As I hiked along Columbus Avenue toward Vallejo Street, people were running across the road—a chaotic crowd of people clogged the area. Police had blocked the corner of Columbus and Vallejo.

     I saw at least ten news vans parked along the road.

     The crowd began chanting, “Aaron, Aaron, Aaron.” To say I was shocked is beyond an understatement.

     I slowed, became tentative, as I approached the corner, the shrine was on my right, the streets were filled with people in every direction, for blocks. Those nearest to me smacked me on the back, cheered me, congratulated me as I approached the shrine. On the steps of the shrine, along the Vallejo Street entrance, was a massive, wide raised wooden platform.

     At the center of the platform stood Mary!

I pushed my way through the crowd, inching toward the platform. I tossed my backpack onto the platform, ran up the three steps, sprinted to Mary, grabbed her, hugged her, lifted her off her feet, and kissed her with so much depth and love that I forgot thousands were watching us!

     The crowd released a deafening roar of cheers—the scene brought me to tears of joy.

     “Speak to them,” Mary said, pointing to a microphone.

     “What do I say?”

     “Thank them, and look at them closely, for most of the people here were invited by me and Father Thomas—most are people you helped or saved during your walk!” I have spent weeks tracking down the people you have helped. My news outlet helped pay for them to see you at this shrine. That’s the real reason I left you on the road after the Royal Gorge Bridge. I knew it would take an extraordinary effort to put this together. Look at the people you helped and saved!” she shouted into my ear. “The details of your actions have been national news for weeks and weeks. You’re a hero to millions.”

     My attention was distracted by a man who walked onto the platform. It was Father Thomas. I went to him, we embraced.

     “Aaron, I have a plaque for you. It was crafted by Mary. She has worked tirelessly for weeks. It signifies our gratitude for everything you have done before and during your walk.” Father Thomas said as he handed the large plaque to me. Etched on the wood surface was:

You saved St. Peter’s parish and church.

You saved St. Peter Catholic school.

You saved the St. Peter food pantry.

You saved Mary from plummeting into the Hudson River.

You saved Bailey in Honesta after the tornado.

You saved five people in Honesta from the store freezer.

You saved Jessica and 19 others from the Honesta basement.

You helped the police find the people who robbed you.

You sent a large check to Mount Carmel parish in Dunnam.

You saved Mary’s father on the way to Somerset.

You saved Harold on the way to Somerset.

You helped save Ciara at the Royal Gorge Bridge.

You saved at least 100 people at the Royal Gorge Bridge.

You dropped holy water on every state in your walk.

You prayed for every state you journeyed.

     I was stunned when I read the list on that plaque. I never set out to save anyone. I didn’t care about other people, or so I told myself. As I looked out across the crowd, I noticed familiar faces, there were young Bailey and her parents, Brooke from the Honesta store, Mary’s father, Jessica from the Honesta basement, so many people I recognized. It seems rather egotistical to say it humbled me, yet since I am writing this in Sam, it doesn’t matter.

     Mary and Father Thomas nudged me to the microphone. I didn’t know what to say. Yet, before I spoke to the crowd, there was something I was going to do.

     I pulled Mary away from Father Thomas, looked at her as my heart ached for love of her…took her hands. “How, how did you do this? After the bridge, I thought you hated me.”

     Mary cried as she pounded my chest. “I wanted to leave you to arrange this event. You would never have let me go, so I acted as if were angry. I was so proud of you on that bridge, you helped so many people.” She looked at the crowd. “Look, Aaron, look! Look at how you turned tragedy and pain into direct blessings for hundreds, with millions blessed indirectly. Look!” She pointed at the throng of people. “God turned your horrible pain into a massive blessing for so many people—uncountable numbers.”

     I could wait no longer. I dropped to my right knee—the crowd went suddenly silent. “Mary Clarke, I love you with all my heart. Will you marry me?”

     “Yes, Aaron Wright, I will marry you.” she glared at him and whispered, “But you have to promise not to put yourself in danger again, if we are going to have a family, I need you with me.”

“I promise,” he said.

They embraced and kissed.

The crowd released a roar.

We kissed and hugged tighter than ever. I went to the microphone. While basking in the joy of knowing Mary and I would marry, words flowed from me that to this day I cannot remember. 😊

JE 80

Father Thomas gave me a tour of the renovations he made with the money from the house and the check. It was amazing how different the place looked. Many parishioners had volunteered to do a lot of the work. Father offered to take me by the rebuilt house that Kailyn and I had purchased together, yet I had no desire to step back into my history. From time to time, I return to Oak Valley to visit Father Thomas, yet I never wanted to live there again.

When people heard I was starting a Catholic foundation, millions of dollars poured in, giving me a great start, and affirming that I had made the correct choice.

Mary and I married in a Catholic church in Poughkeepsie, one month after the event at the shrine. We decided since she had family in the area, that we would settle there. We bought a nice house in Poughkeepsie, New York. We planned to have many children. Our new home was a scant three miles from Wheat & Meat.

     We intended to live a peaceful life, with very few walks. 😊

It was difficult for me when I made the trip, with Mary, to the site of Kailyn’s death. It felt surreal driving across the same road to the rest area amid the peaks. Mary joined me as I approached the edge. I sat on a rock grouping, looked down into the ravine, mountains rested in the distance. Mary handed me, Sam, number one—I tore the journal to pieces, tossed the pieces into the ravine. We did the same with all journals. That was the last time I saw the Sam journals.

THE END

P.S. I can’t leave the obvious unsaid. The final Sam entries were torn up and tossed into the ravine, and that was it for me; however, Mary kept a copy of every journal, which is why you can read my story. 😊

THE END #2 (see what I did there?)


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 Tom Johnson

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Tom Johnson