A father-son story in four parts, this is part four. Hope you’ve enjoyed the journey. — Fred and Nathan First
“I wonder where I’ll sleep tonight and, Lordy, what Fiction lies ahead. By this time tomorrow I could be in anything from three feet of snow to a choir of angels, but I’ve got some real estate here in my bags.” That, from Nate’s journal, first night on the road.
And Lordy, how his mom and I tried to trust those angels — that they would keep up his pace and oh please, leave him down here on Earth to grow up beyond his Karouack-y idiot dreams.
Wide-eyed and awake in the wee hours of April 2000, his mother’s voice quivered in the dark. “I wonder where Nathan is right now”. I couldn’t tell her I wished that it was me out there with no obligations but to see what and who would be around each new bend. And yes, I was worried, too.
His unconditional trust is the thing that worried me most. He believed the best of everyone and if he jumped, he couldn’t image not landing on his feet. That the trip might leave him “disoriented” wasn’t so much a fear as a solemn wish:
“After all, we look around the most when we don’t know where we are. And the more we look around the stronger–and more helplessly, wonderfully lost than ever–we become. When a generation gets swallowed up in believing we’re not lost, it makes for a youth that’s too much like adulthood. Our generation, for instance, has been all too miserably found. Being found has made us sheltered. Being sheltered has made us dull.”
That spring I learned the minutiae of New England geography, sending Ann’s cookies and dry socks to post offices in tiny villages along the way. We tried to imagine each night that he would be taken in. He wasn’t always.
He learned to face rejection, and small wonder–a long-haired young stranger who appears in the cold rain on the doorstep. He stopped into a country church service one stormy late April evening where the sermon topic was on taking in the needy. How providential, he must have thought. Afterward, they closed up the church and sent him on his way, Lord bless you, son.
Later that same frigid night, miles further down the road, an elderly lady also regretfully told him “no.” A half block later, she came running along behind him in her robe and slippers, convicted that it was the right thing to take the risk. A stranger, she took him in, and became his surrogate grandmother and friend for one night over cocoa and cake and conversation.
When he’d lost his way on the Massachusetts Mid-state Trail, four lady hikers gently let him know he was on the opposite side of the mountain from where he thought. They carried him to dinner in town, and late that night, re-deposited him on the trail with a good map, a full stomach, and his trust in trail magic intact.
Each new state line he crossed was a parental prayer answered, though in truth, still hundreds of miles away he might still as well be on the far side of the moon. Then finally, crossing the Potomac, our wayward son was in Virginia. A week or two later, he was at Afton Mountain. We breathed a premature sigh of relief.
He was in high spirits when he left his pack beside the Blue Ridge Parkway and ran off to call us from a nearby house. A half-hour later, his second call was not so cheerful. Clearly, he hadn’t hidden his pack well enough. When he went back for it, the pack was gone.
Everything he owned was in that old pack, including his entire journal of the walk. The next day, a Parkway road crew found the old Jansport tossed off in the weeds a mile or two away. Not a thing was missing.
On July 7, 2000, my wife and I joined Nate for the last two miles of his journey down our country lane. The stories poured out: most comforting, some unsettling, but all overflowing with the love of life and language and the heady blind curves of youth. There had been a book in every soul he’d met, in every town, every forest, every new day.
His thick journal that came from the trip is itself a fragmentary record of 1000 miles of abundant life. These four thumbnail distillations here in the Press do scant justice to the richness of the story. Even so, I’ve appreciated this excuse to collaborate with Nathan, to tell together a bit of our sometimes-harrowing, ultimately joyful, family adventure. Thank you for letting us share the tale.