Rather than walking across the country, I’d walked into the death of my first self. I’d hoped to find the center. What I found, instead, was the void.
It was February 20, 1992 and it was the first day of my walk across the country. Twenty snowy miles from Cambridge to Sudbury, Massachusetts. I’d set my tent up in the woods beside Longfellow’s famous Wayside Inn and as I sat in my sleeping bag, I began the audio journal of my trip.
“Lying in bed right now,” I said into a handheld Panasonic tape recorder, “it’s getting around 7, 7:15. I can tell by the sound of my voice I’m a little dazed. Hard to believe that I have 150 more nights, 150 days of walking 20 miles or so.”
I was a fan of the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus’ idea on the nature of the universe. That the totality consisted only of atoms, motion and the void. No sentimental meaning to be found, no story to be unraveled.
“There is no such interconnectedness in the universe,” I told the Panasonic, “all things are alone and isolated. All atoms are spaced appropriately. The only connection is accident.”
The next morning I rose and packed my atoms and began my motion, having no idea I was headed directly into the void. “I’m trying to drink as little as possible,” I noted, as I began my 20 miles that day.I didn’t mean water. I was 24 years old and I already knew what I was. I’d been drinking almost daily for 4 years. I was an alcoholic and couldn’t find a way to not be. The simple hardship of walking across the country, I figured and hoped, might be my only cure.
On my second day, I stepped into a bar.
“Rained a little bit last night and I got a little too drunk at Mondo’s,” I confessed. “Hope not to do that again.”
I wanted to be a writer, but my constant drinking had dropped me into a constant depression. “I want to put myself back under the spell of living,” I told the recorder. “And I have lost it.”
Laying back in the weeds
I’m a lot like my grandfather, and a lot like his son too I guess, so they say, my Uncle Dick. Both were effortlessly charming, which I have never been and both full of life. Maybe I shared their looks. It’s what my mother said, my grandmother, all my aunts. You’re so like your grandfather, they’d say. So like your Uncle Dick.
“I’d like to take some kind of oath or allegiance to one big spiritual personal world truth that I would like to try to be faithful to,” I told my audio recorder.
Democritus’ atoms, motion and the void were not a belief system. They were facts, not a faith. And though I wanted to find something to believe in – it would have to be a truth beyond question. Something I just knew was true. “I’m beginning to think it’s all that I came on this walk for. Finding the center is what I’m doing.”
My grandfather stayed with us every summer, all summer. He’d sit on our porch, we’d play cards. He’d smoke and sing and talk. He had dozens of old cardplayer expressions. He’d accuse me of laying back in the weeds, of dancing on my heels. From Nachez to Mobile, he’d sing in a smoky voice.
He’d talk about the great tragedy of his life, the loss of his only son. A magically attractive genius boy who came home wrecked from Viet Nam and died in what was called a canoe accident. Really his canoe had tipped over in a calm and shallow river and my Uncle Dick was too drunk to swim.
“I can’t believe it’s only been two days. It seems like a month already,” I said into the handheld, “But I suppose I’ll have to get used to that. Or not get used to that, I’ll have to break into a thousand little pieces.”
My grandfather wasn’t shy about his past. I knew he was in and out of the gutter, here and there homeless, on and mostly off the wagon. He lived in a monastery for a while, in shelters and charity homes and on the street. His wife left him. His daughters – even my mother who let him come stay with us – didn’t want to see him.
I didn’t drink until college. I abstained. A teetotaler like my mother. I went to plenty of parties in high school where drinking was the main attraction. But I’d sit by the stereo with a coke and listen to the music and marvel at my restraint.
I got a scholarship to a little Ivy league school not because I was smart, but because I could run fast. I ran a 4:12 mile my freshman year. Fast enough to get my coach talking about the Olympics, fast enough to start talking about sub 4-minute miles. Drinking ended that my sophomore year. I quit the track team, lost my scholarship. Stopped running.
“Last night I stayed in a broken down shack filled with mason jars and chairs and old farming tools,” say my old tapes, my old self.
By the end of the first week of my walk, I was drinking during the day. Like some kind of landlubber pirate, for me, that meant singing.
“I’m gonna mush your skull with my crawdad armpit. I’m gonna bust some bones on my way to hell,” I sang. Then: “I’m thirsty from drinking too much…just kind of dying…and no good…”
I’ve never listened to these 22 year old microcassettes until now. “When I’m feeling blue, all I have to do, is cast a look at you and I’m saved!” I sang.
Putting on a voice
I went away for a semester abroad in Ireland my junior year. I didn’t attend a single class. I woke up in fields, beside the ocean, with cuts and bruises on my body from falling down. I wasn’t effortlessly charming, I wasn’t smart, I wasn’t full of life. But in one way, at least, I was just like my grandfather.
At the time that I left for the walk, I was living with my best friend Chris in a house in Watertown, Massachusetts. “I think you were somebody that was in a way maybe having a kind of breakdown,” Chris recalls. “I remember when you left and you were a broken up person.”
Chris worked at a liquor store, delivered newspapers at 4 a.m. But every night he and I would go down to the basement and play music. We had a small amp, a mic, a couple guitars. A drum machine. A tape recorder and whatever liquor we could get. Chris would play and I would sing.
“You were just making up lyrics on the spot that rhymed and sounded great and had little stories,” Chris says, “and like I listen to things we did and, ‘Oh he sounds exactly like the Cure. Oh he sounds exactly like Morrissey. Oh, he’s doing his Michael Stipe,’ and it’s perfect.”
But I had no voice of my own. Only borrowed voices.
“We knew that you were not right,” Chris says. “You drank an extreme amount of booze all the time. And I was quite the drinker also but I couldn’t keep up with you. And you would just keep going. You needed to straighten yourself out and that was your way of doing it.”
As a poet, musician and all around artist, Chris decided to film some parts of my walk with a super 8 camera. “Maybe,” Chris says, “in the back of my mind I thought, whoa, I’ll do this Wim Wenders black and white thing of this guy walking on these barren roads.”
Chris and a friend came and went and shot the guy walking on the barren roads and then, as he was nearly out of film he suggested a sit-down interview in Pennsylvania. “We would ask you a question and you would pause and think for what seemed to me an excruciatingly long period of time before you started saying anything,” Chris remembers. “And when you did speak, I could not understand what you were talking about. I really couldn’t.”
I pushed on through Pennsylvania. My inability to communicate deepened.
“I think I’ll be somewhat speechless,” is the last thing I said into the Panasonic.
I stopped writing in my journal. I stopped recording on the handheld. I kept drinking. I kept walking. I crossed through Ohio.
A reappearing act
Deciding that I was done is the last clear memory I have. Things began to dissolve. There’s a blank space that stretches out and never clearly ends. I know I kept walking, but I was no longer there.
“It seemed to me you were gone for years,” Chris says.
Eventually I returned home. I don’t know how or when.
“But somehow when you got back, it fixed you, whether you like it or not,” Chris says. “Or maybe it was like electroshock, you weren’t fully cured but you were put back together by the time you got back.”
I drank less. Took long breaks from drinking. I started running again. And writing. My walk across the country was not a triumph. My rock bottom lay below the rocks below the bottom.
Rather than walking across the country, I’d walked into the death of my first self.
I’d hoped to find the center. What I found, instead, was the void.
I haven’t had a drink in a long time now. I run every day or walk. I write stories and songs and plays.But there’s an intensity to drinking. It is a chosen hardship and a full time job and a dark and upside down way of trying to figure out who you are.
What I mean is that I still have the intensity. I have trouble not working, not writing. And I’m still trying to figure out who I am.
But now, instead of drinking, for example, I run up mountains. And instead of disappearing, when I reach the top and am exhausted in the middle of nowhere, I appear. And there I am.