Life has happened. It passed you by with barely a goodbye. A “so long,” and a “see you later,” is all that's left; so much more you could have done with your life. We all have our bucket lists that we wanted to complete in life. Some do more than others, some never even get started. Welcome to Life as it Happened a fictional retelling of those real bucket list items we all hope to complete before our last candle is snuffed. All are welcome to join in and contribute the stories of how they think their experiences would go. I'm your host, Marc Sakol, and I'm here to say “Hello” before Father Time says, “Goodbye.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

7. Take a 300 mile hike.

The idea was inspired by a friend, who nobly -- although perhaps misguidedly -- made the decision to walk from his home in Champaign, Illinois to Chinatown; more precisely, to the Zodiac statue of the Rabbit. He was unable to do the full one-hundred-mile trip on foot. Pain, the most intense storm Illinois had seen that year, and poor preparation all conspired to do him in, and only fifty or so miles were done by foot alone.

But the idea of it -- of abandoning the world at large to truly experience it -- that stuck with me. And so, in late spring 2034, I took the first steps towards changing my life through suffering.

The preparation.

I read blogs, watched vlogs. This was not a new concept; human beings are one of the hardiest animals in nature, capable of maintaining reasonable speeds for miles and miles and miles. but I was not in shape, not by far, and age had been taking its toll on me. It's pretty rare for a thirty-year-old to submit himself to the hell of a multi-day trip, let alone someone pushing fifty.

It wasn't like my life was worth living in and of itself. Still stuck as a programmer, my first wife gone -- who gave a shit how I spent my vacation hours? So I started dropping hours in my work schedule; cancelled my therapist; and pushed myself. Whatever it was I did, it wouldn't be as hard as Israel, wouldn't be as hard as this trip. Thinking about it now, it's kind of sad how little preparation my military stint offered me. Firing a gun or piloting a drone wasn't the same as walking three hundred miles. Killing a guy didn't help me be friends with anyone. And I was sure I would need friends to make it.

Ten miles out.

I remember walking down Prospect Avenue, the sky a beautiful red as the sun had begun to rise, and my iPod randomly turning itself off.

"What the flying fuck? Piece of shit." I whacked it with the heel of my palm a few times, to no avail. So I kept walking, grumbling miserably to myself. I'd barely begun, and already things were turning sour. I actually almost said "At least things couldn't get worse," but cut myself off halfway through. Now, I wasn't -- I'm still not -- a superstitious guy, but even so.... there are just certain things you don't say.

Forty three miles out.

It was at about this point in time that I began to realize the real folly of my situation. It wasn't the walking itself, although I had already switched socks once on the trip and my feet were aching beyond anything imaginable. It was that I had to walk along highways, and statistically, the odds were pretty good that I would get hit by car well before I made my destination.

The drivers were rude, too. They liked to swerve close to me, one window down, while some snot-nosed little shit shouted obscenities. "Fuck you, old man!" "The road's for cars, dumbass!" Yes, thank you, kid-with-la-brea-piercing. I had no clue that a road was for cars.

The problem was exacerbated when, forty three miles out, I ran into two cars already pulled to the side of the road, blinkers on. There had been a fender bender, it seemed, and what looked to be an ex-military guy like me was chewing out the other person, still in his or her car, hidden in the driver's seat.

"Excuse me," I said, trying to pass around the pissed-off Marine. He spun around, spittle flying, and I realized he wasn't any ordinary soldier; he was a red pill reject. I realized that the only thing worse than directly antagonizing him is trying to avoid him, but I'm exhausted and frustrated from the trip so far. The light of cars zooming past us is blinding, and in the LED luminance his face was a whitewashed grimace, an ivory mask of frustration and impotent rage.

I don't remember what he said, but I remember very distinctly the confused look in his eyes when I jingle my dog tags. "Look," I said in my most calming voice, "just... jack the guy in the face once, he'll learn his mistake, he won't do it again. I'm walking to St. Louis. I'm fine." I almost told him it was a training exercise, but before I could speak I realized that meant he would probably follow me. Red pill guys are obsessive about training. So I just walked away and hoped to high hell that he didn't do anything.

He didn't; behind me, there was the sound of a window breaking.

One hundred and fifteen miles.

This was the... third day, I think. Yeah. Start of the third day. I was bleeding profusely from my feet and the skin on my shoulders had been rubbed raw from my pack digging into my neck. I left the hotel with all of my food in my room. My original plan had been to just keep walking and walking and walking and walking and live on my own, but this was just idealism, and I had no hurry. I doubted that my job would want me back when I finished, anyways. So I was going to take my time, stop pushing so hard, and just eat at a restaurant or diner whenever I was hungry.

This turns out to be pretty good for my sanity, if not the exercise itself. I'm stopping far more frequently, and at the first place I eat -- an Arby's -- I ordered way too much terrible food, forcing me to stop an hour later at a shady gas station. I'm nearing one of the more dangerous areas, but I'd made sure that my route didn't cross any of the official gang zones. Still, wandering around just to find food has left me lazy and uncomfortable, and I make almost no progress.

One hundred and seventy two miles.

Route 66 was more dangerous than I'd figured. I end up fighting with a thugger after he holds me up for my wallet. I don't think he would've normally been a problem, but the walk had taken its toll on me, and I nearly get stabbed before I have the good fortune of a passing car to throw the fucker into. The driver was apoplectic, naturally, but she saw the frustration in my eyes and after I explained the situation drove off. The thugger wasn't dead, but I wasn't about to kill anyone, not any time soon, so I left him and continued on.

Two hundred miles.

I celebrated the two hundredth mile with a nice cold beer and an extended break. Even though the sun was still out I checked into the motel early and just lay on the bed. I didn't think, I didn't eat, I didn't move. At some point I fell asleep; when I woke up, the first thought on my mind was "this is enough. This is more than enough." But then I thought about why I was doing this, about what it meant to do this, and so I got up. Only... my legs wouldn't respond. It wasn't that I couldn't feel them; the agony that shot through them was as real as ever. It was just that I couldn't wiggle my big toe, as they say.

There is no feeling worse than a loss of control.

Figuring that maybe I just had to jolt my body into action, I used my arms to swing myself off of the bed, feet planted on the ground. Big mistake. I stumbled and fell over, jamming my chin on the ground and dizzying myself. I began to panic. What if I would never regain the use of my legs again? What if this was something serious, like maybe I was having some kind of weird heart attack? Was I dying? Would I need to go to the hospital? And what about my hike? I only had one hundred miles left to go... I was past the point of no return. So, after thrashing about incompetently for a few minutes I started to crawl my way towards the bathroom. I... don't actually know why I did that. I guess it seemed appropriate? But either way, I found the sink and managed to pull myself up, dragging my legs behind me. I could feel my poor muscles throb with the effort, but the intense pain had begun to subside into a heavy, molasses-thick ache. But I could feel them again. Slowly, very slowly, I managed to stand up without using the bathroom as support.

"Hooray," I said to myself. "Only one hundred more miles to go."

Two hundred and nine miles.

Funny thing about Denny's: it really does make you want to give up at life!

The only thing that kept me going  was a phone call from my brother, who I hadn't seen since he'd moved to Canada. "I heard you were doing what Brian did," he said in his usual monotone.


"Keep going, bro."

"Thanks, man."

Two hundred and eighty two miles.

Another two days... I don't know what I was thinking when I'd originally planned the hike. It had already been something like two full weeks at this point, and my original plan was  to have finished in ten days. Clearly, I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about. Of course, my three day stint walking only fifteen or so miles a day and stopping for food at every place possible sure as shit didn't help, but the time was beginning to bear down on me with the force of inevitability. It was almost June.

With St. Louis in my sight, I had the misfortune of running into another ex-marine tweaker, a big Chinese dude who still had an accent, rare in these parts. As I walked past a dilapidated Rug Cleaning shop he jumped out from behind the wall, shouting. "Hey! Hey! Fucker! Shitfucker! get the fuck over here so I can jam this goddamn spoon into your fucking eye! C'mon, man! It'll help! I'll help!"

"Stand down, soldier. I don't have time for you."

The man grabbed my shoulder. "Hey, hey, you sure as shit do now, huh, don't you now?" The item being brandished was, in fact, a fork, not a spoon. I remember that being absolutely hilarious, so I pointed it out to him. "How are you supposed to jam a spoon in my eye when you haven't got any?"

"Huh? Fuck you!" He moved to punch; I tried to dodge, but the agony my body was in meant I just crumpled to the ground. Not the most effective defense, but... for whatever reason, the guy just walked away after that, muttering to himself.

Three hundred miles.

I'd made it. St. Louis University Hospital. The goal of my journey. I smiled at that; I had been clever enough to realize I was not going to come out of this unscathed. Even if I hadn't been in as much pain as I was at that time, it would've been a great irony and a good story to tell my kid. So, unable to lift my feet, I trudged into the front entrance before collapsing. Some nurses or whatever came by to see if I was alright; I was, of course. I just didn't want to stand any more. I could've probably done it with a bit more decorum but I didn't care. I was at the Hospital.

Before I knew it, I was asleep. Which was funny, because I remember being more hungry than I was tired. But hunger is something you have to seek, have to feed; sleep is capable of coming up from behind you and dragging you down into the depths before you even know it. Sleep is dangerous like that.

When I woke up, my ex-wife was sitting at my bed. Heart, meet throat.

"I heard you came for me."

"Not just you," I said. Why was I always such an idiot? She looked so sad there, so sick, with her pale skin and her knitted cap. Her hands shook; she had gripped the rail of my bed to stop, but it wouldn't stop. "Jenna too."

"She's at home right now. So... you came from your parents' place, right? Spencer told me about it. He called yesterday, said to..." she began to cough. I tried to reach up and comfort her, but as usual, my arms were a dead weight. The look in my eyes was clear enough, though, and she waved me away with one arm while coughing into the crook of the other. "He said to expect you. I said I had been, for years now. What have you been up to?"

"Slowly killing myself, it seems. One mile at a time."

Okay, so it sounded cleverer in my head. But I'd made it. I'd done it. My pilgrimage was over.

Zach Lome is a 25-year old programmer with big dreams. This was cross-posted to his blog, One More Level.

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