You are currently viewing The Long Walk

The Long Walk

In a previous musing I wrote of my quick departure from Notre Dame. Today I want to spend a little time elaborating on my time there, howsoever short it was, and my (prolonged) departure.

I arrived with the best intentions; really I did. I had no plans to leave until my time was done. I settled into Howard Hall into what they called a forced double, which means they stuck two people into a room meant for one. That’s OK’ there was enough room and my roommate was nice enough. Since it was several days before classes, there was time to explore and understand what was where, sign up for things like food in the dining hall, and – oh yea, classes. I met some nice kids in the rec room at the dorm, one who was clearly from the not so cool side of the tracks, but with whom I struck an accord rather quickly on the foosball table. Turned out he had at least cool aspect – he could play the piano part of Layla that sounded exactly like the recording. Blew me away – so impressed! I met another kid that was more athletic like me and he asked if I played handball; I had never heard of it so he took me to the gym and introduced me to it. Harder than it might seem and great fun. And so went the first few days, end of summer heat, new campus to explore, a general sense of trepidation mixed with excitement.

My first trip to the dining hall was eye opening; there were 75-100 of us on the steps leading up to the doors, all milling about, waiting. I glanced inside and there were people carrying trays with food and eating, so confused, I tried the door; it was locked. A couple of kids laughed and I asked what was so funny. They explained that the doors would remain locked until 12:00 (or whatever the “magic” time was). I pointed out that there were people inside eating and they explained that they were the football players – they had their own private seating! Darlings of the campus they were…..

So first classes arrived; physics, astronomy, geometry, world lit, Spanish, and maybe psych 101 or something similar. First class was Spanish – the teacher introduced himself in English and stated that those would be the last words in English for the rest of the year; all conversations, tests, and assignments would be in Spanish from that point forward. Gulp. I could read it effortlessly and I could understand some of it when spoken to me. But I could not speak it to save my life. A bit of despair began to set in.

Astronomy was good as was physics; I did take note at how smart many of the kids were, but remained enthused and excited. World lit came and we were assigned to read the Epic of Gilgamesh and to write a “something” page paper. Funny, looking back, that papers were assigned by word or page count, not content. Rather than assigning us to write a detailed summary of the book and to draw our own conclusions from what we read, it was to write a 5-page or 10-page paper. Weird.

So there was handball, there was foosball, piano, and TV in the rec room, and there was the constant challenge on how to call Teri back in RI. Calls were hard back then; you needed a pocket full of change and the dimes and nickels rolled up fast. But I was beginning to settle in.

And then it was around 1:00 AM on a Tuesday morning. The couple of us still up were lazing around watching Creature Double Feature on TV. And that’s when I realized I had not even begun to read that damned Gilgamesh; hadn’t cracked the cover. And the report was due. I am not sure now (it’s been 44 years) but I think I also had a math or physics test coming in a few hours (first class was 8AM). And I kind of freaked. A little bit. And I decided to leave.

Yup. Leave. College. After not even two weeks.

I went up to my room and grabbed my roommate’s gym bag and filled it with what I could fit into it. I took $5 from his dresser and left him a note telling him how sorry I was and that my Dad would pay him back. I left my parent a note apologizing for leaving, for having charged stuff at the school store, and for disappointing them. I had worked all summer and had a decent sized bank account and told them to take it all to help cover the expenses I had stuck them with. And I walked out the door.

I got to the main gates and literally stood there, around 2AM, looking left and looking right, no idea which was to go. No cell phones then, no GPS or Google maps. So I picked a direction and started walking. And walking. And walking. No road signs and no signs of life anywhere.  I walked for about an hour until I spotted something up ahead with lights on; a 24-hr laundromat. There was no one there but there was something (map on the wall or in a newspaper) that made me realize that the highway was just mere minutes away – from the University – in the opposite direction I had chosen to walk. So an hour later, now two hours after having left the school, I was back at the main gates.

I suppose, looking back, that arriving back at the school was one of those cosmic moments of destiny; a chance to rethink, to retract, to reset. Whatever. I didn’t. I kept walking and in 15 minutes found the highway and walked down the dark and depressingly quiet on ramp to the highway.

Remember please dear reader, this is 1974. The US is in the midst of an economic crisis; inflation was out of control, gasoline crisis, President had been forced to resign, and a brand new 55 MPH speed limit had been handed down on highways. Never mind the low volume of highway traffic anyway back then, the state of the nation only served to reduce traffic even further.

So I walked, thumb hanging out as I had seen others do. But not standing still; given the nearly zero traffic I was seeing, standing made no sense. At least walking was progress. The night sky was already lightening with the grace of dawn and I was feeling the weight of the world. Quitting was ridiculously easy and desperately difficult at the same time. It weighed heavily on me, knowing the sorrow and hurt I was placing upon my parents, never mind disappointing them so. So I began to weary greatly. The Indiana summer August heat was already beginning to rise and I was hungry, thirsty, and tired. Traffic remained thin and progress was slow – no one had stopped and thinking back on my really long hair and disheveled appearance, walking the highway carrying a gym bag – I kind of get it!

I came up to an off ramp shooting up a hill and sharply to the right. In between the two strips of back asphalt was a beautiful tree lined field of meadow grass and flowers rising up toward a rock outcrop. I split the highway and the off ramp and climbed up the soft meadow in between. I found myself surrounded by flowers and sheltered from the highway and off ramp by trees. So I laid down and closed my eyes basking in the sun and fanned by some wonderful soft breezes. Despite where I was and what I was doing, it was simply majestic. I’ve no other word for it – I felt so incredibly alive. For the first time in my life, I was alone, in charge, and free to choose my path (and destiny). Of course I had no food or drink, all my worldly possessions were inside a stolen gym bag, and I had no idea where I was going or what I would do when I got there. But man, was I in heaven!!

Reality set back in a bit so I got back to the business of hitchhiking. I don’t remember every ride as some were very short and unmemorable. I do recall being stranded for an hour or two at the junction of several interstates in Ohio. There were 4 or 5 of us, all trying to grab a ride, most in different directions. I noticed they all had signs with which to tell potential rides where they were headed. I bummed a piece of cardboard from one of them and wrote “East” on it. This far out, writing Rhode Island made no sense. East was close enough. I grabbed a ride from a approx. 30 yr old guy driving a U-Haul truck and towing a car. He stopped, I ran up to the truck and after looking me up and down, he waved me into the truck. We rode for a while and talked; he was a teacher, heading back to his parents’ house in Pennsylvania. We were close enough in age and likes to get along really well and the miles passed quickly. We stopped at a rest area and he bought me a soda. He was not happy with how the car was towing behind the truck so he asked me to follow him driving the truck while he drove the car. We drove for hours more, then exited the highway, heading down less and less populated roads, eventually rolling down an unlit dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

I should have been scared. And I should have known better than to just blindly follow a strange man into the woods. But I wasn’t scared and I didn’t know better. Which turned out to be fine as we pulled up to the dark and quiet house. He had me come in with him and gave me cookies and milk in the kitchen. I think he gave me his name and his parents’ phone number in case I got into trouble. Then he had me hop into his car and he drove me to the highway. He dropped me at an on ramp, wished me well, and sped off back into the night. Best. Hitch. Ever!

There were a string of lesser rides until I caught a decent lift that took me into Connecticut. I ended up getting dropped on Rt 95 in New Haven around 4:00AM in a miserable drizzle. I was northbound and no one was stopping. It was a bad spot, awkward place for a drive to stop with a spit in the highway just up ahead and an access road on the side sort of screwing with the shoulder from where I would normally thumb. Across the 6 or 8 lanes of highway, on the west side of the highway, I saw a hotel. I knew hotels had vending machines so I made my way across both sides of Rt 95 and had one the best candy bars I’ve ever eaten. What was it? I’ve no idea but it was desperately needed!!

Belly full, I scrambled back across Rt 95 and went back to thumbing. I was having no luck and figured it had to do with the upcoming split in the highway, thinking drivers were too preoccupied with where they needed to go. So I trudged on northward, finally clearing the split and ending up back on just a northbound stretch of 95. I was close enough to taste it.

A young kid, not much older than I, picked me up. I was no longer advertising “East” on my sign; it was now specific to Wickford. He told me that by going slightly out of his way, he could take me right into Wickford. And 45 minutes or so, we arrived. I had $7 left in my pocket so I gave him $3 (that was a tank of gas back then) for his troubles and I was done with my journey. Better stated, I was done with that small part of what would prove to be a much longer (and arduous, but fun filled) journey.

Leave a Reply