I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was about to change profoundly. There was nothing extraordinary about the reporter’s interview. It was essentially the same interview I had given over five hundred times. The same questions, and the same rote answers. Looking back, I know I had crossed some imaginary line. I was no longer speaking to the newspaper’s readers, but finally allowing myself to be honest. It may cost me the interview, I thought, but I was tired of portraying myself as what the external world expected of me.
The question the young woman asked was, “So why did you undertake such a long journey in the first place?” I looked at her and asked whether she wanted the rehearsed answer, or the truth. Even she sensed that something different was taking place between us, and flipped to a fresh page on her notebook.
“I took the trip because I wanted to prove to myself that I was still alive. My life no longer made any sense to me. I had everything that the television had told me for 25 years that I needed in order to be happy. But I felt like an M&M… I had this wonderful candy-coated shell, but there wasn’t any chocolate inside of me. I didn’t have any noticeable depth, I guess. I had become little more than a consumer, and I couldn’t face another 25 years living like that.”
“I was waking up every Monday morning wishing it were Friday, and soon realized that I was hoping away five out of every seven days. And I was a real stress junkie. I wasn’t happy unless the pace at work was frantic. I was up to four and a half packs of cigarettes a day, 70 pounds overweight, and I didn’t care if I was shortening my life. It’s a slow form of suicide, and there are many of us out there who live this way and don’t realize that.”
A typical interview would last about 15 minutes. That interview at a county fairground in southern Idaho lasted six hours, including a large pizza. She even returned the next day with supplies for my journey, and heartfelt thanks for inspiring her to follow some of her unrealized dreams. From that day forward I have never told anyone what they wanted to hear, and have found it increasingly difficult to engage in small talk (or superficial talk).
The journey referred to was one of the longest horseback rides in recent history. It began in 1991 when I dropped out of the rat race, purchased a Shire draft horse, and logged in nearly 14,000 miles over the next four years and two months. What made such a bold move more astounding, was that I had never ridden a horse prior to undertaking the trip. I chose an unlikely ride on a draft horse, but wanted something that matched my disposition; in other words, liked to eat and refused to run. Louise was perfect, going the distance that a more suitable choice probably wouldn’t have.
I had a variety of animals with me, usually strays, that would join up until I could find them suitable homes. There was Skidder, a Newfoundland-mix dog that paced from New Hampshire to Florida with me, only to be eaten by alligators there. There was Myles, a yellow Lab mix who decided to join up in North Carolina. He traveled 6,000 miles with me to Oregon, where I finally found him a suitable home. I never really clicked with Myles. He was a real strange one. He was always sitting in an open spot staring up at the sky, as if waiting for the mother ship (UFO) to come and get him.
The weather was rarely kind to me. I got trapped by a hurricane the fifth day of my trip in a cemetery in Massachusetts. It was 104 degrees in Washington, D.C. and only 8 degrees in Tallahassee. It rained the whole way, it seemed, aside from a surprise snow storm in June in Montana. It rained so often that the press had dubbed me “The Rainman”, a title that sent drought-stricken farmers in Utah to the fairgrounds I was staying at, bearing gifts, and asking me to please stick around. They hadn’t seen rain in three years, until a black cloud followed me into town.
I camped out at every place imaginable, from zoos to jails, city parks, inner cities, remote outback, and all points in between. It was one of the unusual side effects of the trip, to wake up and take several minutes to remember what state I was in, let alone what town. It took almost a year to cross Texas, and about the same to get from southern to northern California.
The people were friendliest in the Midwest, and the most unfriendly in the southeast. Denver was the best large city for horseback tourism. I also rode through the downtowns of Philadelphia, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, and even took a picture of the White House in Washington, D.C., when the Secret Service allowed me to ride through the Presidential Rose Garden so I could get from the back of the building to the front.
I was, in total, interviewed by more than 600 newspapers, magazines, and special interest publications. I appeared nearly 100 times on television, including the NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, as well as countless radio interviews. I even did a live weather report in San Diego, California. The media coverage helped me to get donations of money, food, and supplies, as well as some great invitations to stay with folks. As I wasn’t independently wealthy, the entire trip was funded by private donations. I refused to take sponsors.
In writing this, it is not my intention to get into much more detail of the trip. For that I could write several books. I wrote this article (July – 1999) because this month it is four years since I last saddled Louise up. I also wanted to share a chapter of my life with my friends and family here in Maine. I hoped to find out what subtle changes such a journey had made in me. I was surprised to discover how much of my present day life was based on the personal growth I experienced those 50 months through 33 states.
You have to bear in mind that the journey wasn’t about high adventure (although there was plenty of it); it was about discovering what was important in life. It was about reclaiming those day-to-day things that we all take for granted, such as shelter, warm food, a hot shower and true friendship. After meeting nearly a million people, I can assure you that these “luxuries” aren’t as universal as you may think. I can remember thinking I had discovered the Holy Grail in the West because I had finally saved enough money to buy a hotplate, and was going to be able to have hot meals for a change.
One of the most enduring, and endearing, habits that I developed on the trip was to witness the world going to sleep each night, then waking the next morning. Today I spend an hour or so every dawn listening to nature waking up, and repeat the same contemplative exercise every dusk. It is a gift that I give myself each day – a time out from life’s ambitious addictions. On the trip it was especially poignant when I was camped at a city or town park. I was determined to witness the final sound of the day of that particular town, and be witness to the next day’s initial activity.
This discipline may seem a bit strange in a culture driven by the necessitous activity of doers, but until you witness dawn and dusk in silent contemplation, you have no idea how desultory your life has become. I can recall a day in Kansas that I was increasingly disturbed by a deafening sound, and when I focused my attention on it, was surprised to discover it was silence. Today I search out that same silence. The fact is, I’m one of those rare people who isn’t afraid to be alone with his thoughts.
The other gift the trip afforded me was simplicity. I have remained very faithful to the reason I undertook the journey in the first place – a need to keep my life simple. Undertaking such a trip brings into stark reality that there are few things that we really need in life, aside from food, shelter, and friends. I know that I will never return to that place, in debt, where my possessions owned me. I’m still not certain if a stress-free life can be achieved, but I do know that you can make your environment more conducive to peace.
And so this day has brought me full circle, to the greatest gift I ever gave myself – the choice of living my life in the most natural way for me , and not having it dictated to me by a culture that has gone money mad. Independent thinkers like myself will always be criticized for our lifestyle, but it is my life – a fact that I discovered on a four-year horseback trip. And to those critics I will disclose a truth I discovered along my travels: the people most judgemental of others are the ones who are most disenchanted with their own lives.