Walking to Listen - How a complete stranger on the side of a country road touched my life

Yesterday was a difficult day, or at least it started that way. As I was doing my morning ritual of driving an hour and a half to school, the song I'll Be Seeing You by Billie Holiday started playing. Though the song is on my iPod, and I've heard it many times, this time the words hit me like a ton of bricks. As the sun rose on the horizon, grief's thick, heavy blanket rose with it  and for the rest of the day I was drowning in thoughts of Cleve; first as I drove, then in between classes as I walked to my next destination. It was sunny and chilly - perfect chilly - the kind where a simple cardigan, a light scarf, and a pair of boots is just enough to keep warm. Headed to my next class, I stared at my shoes as they took turns hitting the pavement of the sidewalk. I lost myself to thought in their rhythm. Suddenly I was beginning to feel uncomfortable again. Fear and sadness filled my heart. Memories flashed before my eyes.


 "He should be here. He was supposed to be here for this. What is this? This isn't right. What am I doing?"


It just didn't feel right, none of it; my walking, the people around me, the cheery sun beaming down on us as we scurried around like Ants on an ant hill. My very breath felt uncomfortable knowing he - my beautiful husband and best friend - was no longer here scurrying around with us. For the rest of the school day, I struggled to keep the tears hidden behind my eyes where no one could see them. I was relieved when my classes were over. I went to the gym out of principal and against my inner self strongly objecting. I did a shorter workout than usual and headed home. My bed was screaming my name.


For my long trek back, I rolled down every window in my car and found the loudest, dirtiest, mindless rap I could find and blared it. It was beginning to get warmer out. The warmth was making me feel more content and the vitamin D from the sun was beginning to finally kick in. The day was looking up. I pulled off of the freeway onto my exit. One small town after another flashed by - business as usual - when I noticed a young man on the side of the road with a hiking backpack, a walking stick, and a sign on his pack that said, "Walking to Listen". I know these towns like the back of my hands, and that man was not from here. Not to mention, curiosity always kills the Karie and I needed to know what that sign meant. I pulled over in the first parking lot I could find, pulled out my phone, and googled Walking to Listen. A blog popped up. This is what it read:


"On October 14, 2011, I walked out the backdoor of my home in Chadds Ford, PA and began a cross-country search for the most basic human interface of them all: stories. Every one of us has an extraordinary story worth hearing, and I’m walking the country to listen. There’s no such thing as the Average Joe, no such thing as a boring, uninteresting, unexceptional life (for more on this, see this poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko). This walk is to honor that. Life is fast, and I’ve found it’s easy to confuse the miraculous for the mundane, so I’m slowing down, way down, in order to give my full presence to the extraordinary that infuses each moment and resides in every one of us. We’re a country of great diversities and divisions; sharing stories, I think, is one way to find resonance." 


It goes on to say that he would be going through Alabama, then over toward Texas. I knew this was the same guy. I instantly felt compelled to talk to him, but always being the first one to tell you that rapists and murderers live among us, I sped home to Google it on my laptop and investigate this whole thing further. Call me simple, but what I found blew me away; the pictures he had taken, the stories he had written, the comments from people he had met on his adventure - one of which saying something along the lines of "Angels walk among us".


"Angels", I thought, "I could use an angel. Or a friend. Something."


The more I saw, the more I was convinced that I needed to meet this guy. I needed to pick his brain. I needed to hear why he was doing this and what he had gotten from it. I needed to be in the presence of someone who would actually have the balls to do something like this. I can't explain it, but I needed to do it. While essentially stalking him through his blog, I clicked on his contact tab and, luckily, he listed his number. I sat in my bed, phone in hand, and hesitated to text him for a second, again considering the rapist thing because it's what I do, and then considering him not wanting to meet me. The thought made me sad, but I did it anyway.


No reply.


I called Melissa whose voice sounded like death. She was extremely tired. I somehow coaxed her into coming with me to find this stranger again. I told her to look up his blog. She did and agreed that he indeed seemed like a "cool dude". I picked her up, fed her redbull, and we backtracked to find him. Sure enough, he was right where I thought he'd be, looking quite exhausted and conveniently right in front of a little gravel road. I put on my blinker to let him know I was going to pull in. He stopped, I parked, and I rolled my window down.


"Hi. Do you have plans for dinner?"


He smiled, "No actually, I don't. Are you Karie, by any chance?"




"Oh hi, it's nice to meet you , I was just going to text you back as soon as I stopped."


"Oh, cool! Well, if you're not doing anything for dinner, I'd love to treat you."


"Wow, awesome! I'm going to walk just a little further, probably about an hour, and I'll give you a call when I know where I'm staying."


"Perfect. See you in a bit."


I took off, giggling with Melissa.


"I can't believe I just did that."


"I know! But he seems so nice!"


"I know! I'm excited to pick his brain, dude."


We didn't drive long before Andrew (that's his name) called and told us he had found an RV resort sooner than he had expected. He was drawn in by a sign that said Bluegrass Tuesdays and the owner was willing to let him pitch a tent in one of their sheds.


"It's Ray's RV Park. Just follow the signs that say bluegrass music, and I'm behind the sheds on your left."


Melissa and I found it, pulled in, followed the signs and, sure enough, there he was pitching his tent inside a storage shed full of lawn supplies. After he was done, he showered and we took him to a little seafood restaurant that we hadn't even tried and had shrimp, swamp soup (not sure how to explain it), hush puppies, cole slaw, and okra. We all began to talk. He asked us questions. We asked him questions. It was so interesting to me.


Me - "Are you sore all the time?"


Andrew - "Not anymore. My feet hurt at the end of each day."


Me - "Are your friends and family supportive?"


Andrew - "Yes, actually. I don't think I could do it without their support."


Me - "How often do you get to eat?"


Andrew - "As often as anyone else..."


Me - "That's so cool, dude."


I started with the small stuff to get to know him before really prying him open and attempting to steal any wisdom he may have gained from his experience. Eventually, however, the conversation turned to me and it came time for me to explain my past and my widowdom. He listened. He's a good listener - patient - more so than most people. He then told us about some of the other people he had met on his journey; mother's of boys who were deployed and veterans themselves. He said that as he traveled, he had some people record their stories if they were willing. He told me that I was the first wife that had been effected by the war, and asked me if I would like to record mine. Always taking a chance to talk about Cleve, I obliged. We finished our country cooked dinner and headed back to the shed in the RV park. We all sat at a wooden picnic table under an ever appropriate dim, blinking light, he went into the shed to dig out his video recorder, and he began to ask me one question after another. In his questions alone you could feel his true interest in wanting to know about me, a complete stranger. He was genuinely interested in my life with my husband and the feelings and emotions that came with it. One question and answer after another, he listened. Finally when we were done, Melissa and I, both teary eyed looked at each other as if we could read each others minds, "Who is this guy?"

He went back into the shed to put up his recorder then asked, "Do you guys mind if I play a song for you?"


"Not at all..."


He came out with a mandolin in his hand, sat down, and began singing the song Hallelujah.


This guy is a freaking mandolin player and singer, too. A good one. I smiled and stared at his fingers as he played effortlessly (I always watch peoples hands as they play instruments). My brain was trying to wrap itself around the whole night. There were moments I felt like I was in some crazy dream. I typically don't go and meet random strangers on the side of the road. Now, here we are at this picnic table in an RV park Melissa and I had never even noticed before, hanging out with this person we just found walking on the side of the road, and it's as if he's our long time great friend. 


He finished the song and we all sat around talking about our lives as he strung bits and pieces of songs in the background. More and more questions were filling my head. There were so many things I wanted to ask him!


Me - "Has this journey changed your perception of humanity at all?"


Andrew - "Oh, for sure."


Me - "Positive or negative?"


Andrew - "Very, very positive. I've been so surprised at how kind people are and how willing people are to take in a stranger. Like now... you bought me dinner and you didn't even know me."


This thought made me so happy. I kept grilling him and every sweet, sentimental, kind, genuine, thoughtful answer was like medicine for my aching soul - especially on that day. I needed a piece of goodness from the Universe that day. I needed a little reminder that not all is bad in the world, and that there is not only good, but true beauty; not only in nature, but inside the people, the strangers, around me. The light and beauty that beamed from this strangers soul was something that is rare and I just needed to be near it and see it for myself. I'm glad I took the risk.


There isn't much I can say to really explain why this meant so much to me other than... it just did. You, whoever is reading this, probably think I am ridiculous. It's just, over the years and through the many adventures I have taken, some of my favorite memories are of the random people I met along the way. From each person, no matter how long we were able to interact, I took a little piece of them away with me. Today I am the product of the beautiful people who have come and gone throughout my life. Andrew and his adventure, and the people he met on it, and his wisdom, and his beautiful way of looking at the world has become a part of me now, and that makes me happy. Through Andrew's exploration of humanity, I have renewed faith in it; renewed faith in this whole process of life in general. On such an emotional day, I really needed that.


Some of the best moments in life happen when something that appears to be insignificant surprises us with something extraordinary.


In the end, sure, Andrew is just a regular, 23 year old, shaggy haired, smiley, dude that decided to leave his hometown in Pennsylvania and walk across the U.S.


But then, most people would never actually have the guts to do something like that. Can you imagine?


Walk. Across. The. Country.


Not to mention, most people wouldn't take the time to get to know strangers or, "The average joe", as he says. I won't even say hi to someone in a grocery store! His adventure is not just "walking". He has decided to take the time to get to know his fellow humans, to connect with them, and to see the world we forget how lucky we are to have, from outside of a vehicle.


I think we could all learn something from Andrew. Angel or not.


Before we left, he gave Melissa and I each a little brown stone and because it was late I forgot it's name and meaning. I suck. I will report back on that. It made sense considering what he was doing, though, and was extremely sentimental, which seems to be a theme with him. We all hugged and Melissa and I went home feeling content with the world.


Andrew, if you read this, I hope you don't think I'm a freak for writing all of this, and thank you for turning what could have been considered a sad day into a learning experience and a new friendship formed. You rock.


Everyone needs to check his blog out: Walking to Listen. After he hits the Gulf coast, which will be sometime today, he is going to hang out for a day or so then start heading toward California. If you see him in your town... Feed him. House him. Talk to him. 



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