Whose story is Sam Tidwell taking in? Whose is he telling?
He doesn’t know yet. Maybe even after he’s finished walking across all America, he won’t know.
He does know this: He wants to be a writer.
Jack Kerouac inspired him during his sophomore year of college. He read “On the Road” and began imagining crossing the country on foot. Three years later, after he had graduated and worked some, the fantasy regained traction when he listened to a podcast about someone who’d actually done the deed.
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Tidwell is just 22. He told his dad about the idea first, then his mother.
“There was much freaking out,” he said. “Some discussion of something like a subcutaneous tracker so they could find my body at the bottom of a ravine.
“I had her (my mother) listen to the podcast so she knew it had been done. I wasn’t breaking any new ground for anyone except myself.”
He took three short weeks to plan, then left Southern California.
Destination: New York City.
“Bravado and denial,” he said. “It’s a combination I am really fond of.”
He left in early November. In those days, he pulled a rickshaw made of PVC pipe. He took way too much with him, he said. He brought stuff to make fires with and hardly ever started one. He packed way too many clothes. At the beginning, he took extra shoes with him.
Now Tidwell travels with three T-shirts. One is for social time; the others are for the field. He doesn’t carry soap; it’s just unnecessary weight. If it rains and he’s in the right place, he showers in the downpour.
He meets amazing people everywhere.
“I wanted to prove that generosity, trustworthiness and kindness will manifest in every environment,” he said.
Tidwell has stayed with strangers in every state he’s passed through. On average, he gets a “home stay” about every five days.
He had one in Concord because he met a friend of mine, Chris Nielsen, in the Mount Pleasant area. Nielsen overheard Tidwell explaining that he had walked a long way.
Nielsen asked him where he started. When Tidwell answered, they immediately got to talking about camping and gear and such. Nielsen has biked across the nation twice in his lifetime.
So he wasn’t too shy about his offer.
“Dude,” Nielsen said, “you need a place to stay. And you need a shower.”
Tidwell tells stories of a desert landscape with every color running through it; White Sands in New Mexico, where the beauty and isolation led to a rousing, solitary moment singing a tune from “The Lion King”; lonely, boring back country roads that look the same, step after endless step.
“There is an emptiness to travel,” he said.
There is discovery – and love, too. What about all those people he’s stayed with, who have offered him respite, conversation and safety?
“I want to be friends with them forever,” he said. “You are passing through, and you collide with these people. It’s so beautiful.”
Yet he has to face imminent goodbyes. “You are complete strangers held together by a cool circumstance,” he said. “It’s wonderful, but then you have to leave.”
What will it be like when he gets to Times Square in New York? An epiphany? A slow unraveling? Will Sam Tidwell know which story he was searching for?
All the writing and blog posts along the way – will they become a short story? A poem? A novel?
What does he know for certain as he closes in on the last weeks of this long journey?
“There’s always a place to sleep,” he said.
And dream, maybe, of the stories you have collected. Of tales you have yet to write. Of people you have met and a world you have known and have yet to understand.
Be safe in all your journeys, Sam.