At 7 a.m., I switch off my car. “The Wild Hunt” is my pump-up jam. I fold up my headphones and drop my iPod in my pocket. I turn off my phone. There are no electrical outlets in Illinois cornfields, so I’ve left my charger at home. I strap on my cumbersome academic backpack full of water, food and sunscreen. I stare boldly at the rising eastern sun and move toward it out of the Walmart parking lot, a symbol of my exodus from industry and more importantly a place where my car will not be towed for the next two days. I’m going to Champaign, from Springfield, IL, on foot. It’s 80 miles between, not a terrible threat to one who trains in long distance moving. I wonder why I’m going into the sunrise and not west into the sunset, because I’m trying to be poetic here. But sunsets are for endings, I justify, and this is the beginning of a journey. Perhaps I will go east until I have reached the western sunset of where I came from, and I will have taken the long and proper way to the ending. And it is all about the journey anyway. Yeah. My reams and scrolls of Google Maps printouts flutter and billow in the wind as I awkwardly try to study them. Six miles on Sangamon Ave, continue onto Camp Butler Road.
My trip will take 2 days. On the night of Day 1 I will stay with Phil Romano, 52, a man I met on the internet a day before. On the night of Day 2 I will presumably stay with Eliot, 19, who lives in Champaign. That’s the plan. On the night of Day 3 I’ll call someone in Springfield and tell them surprise I’m in Champaign come pick me up. I don’t want to give them foreknowledge of my trip and allow them to tell me my plan is stupid and they won’t pick me up. This way they’re trapped. Anyway, I can’t very well walk back to Springfield. I have to be in Missouri for work by Day 4. There’s a limit to my wanderings. I will have to return like Emerson to the village if I want to be able to pay for my suits.
Exhilaration and freshness fall out of me as I cross the first bridge of the first highway. Maybe I should be taking this as a dark portent, as the first step of any bad thing is usually bold. But the weather is beautiful, sunny, intermittent white wisps of shade, and high 80s—no time to be thinking of portents. The top of the first bridge, the first view of the familiar skyline—familiar because all central Illinois skylines are the same—is not quite real. It’s because I haven’t been to that skyline yet, because it is only a picture still, because it is only false distant light that sprays into my eyes and romances me, that it isn’t real. It’s a beautiful landscape, and an endless expanse of sauntering solitude, full of enough fertile earth to care for me and to keep me and the rest of the American population nurtured in womblike quietness for the rest of our lives. Were I to know the fearsome reality of things like this before I started them, I would never to my ability start anything at all. That’s the beauty and benefit of romanticism. A romantic will never get what he wants, but he will get something, and enough to turn the next person in line into a romantic. He gets the landscape and the fields, but not the pathway into heaven and its Elysium fields that he thought he saw running through it. Which is just as well, because really there were only the landscape and the fields to begin with. I step off the bridge, put on my aviators, what a remarkable view.
My main route to Decatur is along IL Old Route 36, a little B-side route of a highway that may have once connected real towns and carried real travelers. Now it has me, my detailed Google printouts, and residents of towns like Buffalo and Dawson, too small to even list their populations on their entering signs. It is the most direct route between Walmart and Philip Romano besides the interstate, on which I am not allowed, presumably because government workers with shovels do not want to clean up splatters of human paste on the roadside, slowly untangling cords of intestines that have wrapped themselves around the cornstalks and down into draining culverts. I know I would not like to be either the current or the former human in such a scenario. But as I walk, on the left side of the road to avoid being rear-ended into the afterlife, I wonder if it’s any less unnerving to be on roads where the speed limit is 55, cars go 65, and more importantly there are no rumble strips. I consider myself a relatively bad driver, but if normal drivers find themselves tearing into rumble strips even a third as often as I do, I have about a 50% chance of my vital organs remaining within 50 feet of each other at the end of the day. Rumble strips save more lives a year than drunk driving takes. I don’t know if that’s a real statistic, but I imagine it to be.
Exhilaration and freshness fade away a little bit once I realize that if I manage to miss a turn, I could end up walking an entire half hour before I’m really sure of it. If I’m walking at 3 mph, the distance I travel in about a half hour is the same as if I drove a car for a minute and a half, and this is coincidentally the strongest argument my friends use for thinking that this is a ridiculous thing I’m doing. Terror strikes each time I see a street that doesn’t appear to be on the map. Something similar to terror, but with a more steady, consistent pulse, begins festering when 19 minutes pass and I’m still not on Camp Butler Rd, 25 minutes, 30 minutes. I can’t lose a half hour; I’m already arriving at Decatur after nightfall. Why did I even attempt this. What a laughable embarrassment to be turned around on the first hour of the trip, to have lost too much time to continue. I’ll be home by 9 a.m. Good god. I will never tell my friends about this. I’ll tell them I slept in today. Failing is absolutely not an option, especially this early, but I have to find—oh, look, Camp Butler Rd. Hoorayyy.
Ah yes, my exhilaration and freshness. It is back and I’m once again floating above the pavement in the great American trip of vast American beautiful waves of grain, yes, Kerouac. Of course, 12 hours is a long time to be alone, and pretty soon I find myself hungry for human interaction. Just as apple cores are to beggars, my simple brief hellos with the traffic taste like buffets of conversation.
One thing I notice in particular about highway drivers, people in trucks are friendlier than the regular people in regular cars. My only communications for these 12 hours last about 2 seconds each, the time it takes for me to nod the brim of my blue and white Red Sox cap to oncoming cars and for them to lift a few fingers off their steering wheels back at me. It’s the ones in the trucks—the semis, the construction workers, the government trucks—that wave. Most other people in cars and minivans sort of look at me and move on, either registering too late that someone acknowledged their existence on earth, or afraid of or disgusted by the dirty vagabond and the dirty wild things that they imagine must go on behind those big blue aviators (I do look pretty trampy), although what on earth exactly they can’t pinpoint, because their imaginations are restricted to summoning up only gross ambiguous blobs of fear. Nevertheless, it is the truckers I can count on to wave—a meaningless gesture, but it’s all we have, and I think that is why truckers do it, because they are in the same boat. I see one truck in particular, one of those multilevel flatbeds of death, stacked up crushed cars on its back, and I imagine what it must be like to be the grim reaper’s janitor. The driver nods at me, and I continue on.
One other mode of communication: every once in a couple hours, someone takes pity on the boy walking in the blazing sun and pulls over to pick him up, take him as far as the interstate. “No,” I say politely to the first truck and “No” again with a smile when he persists. “I do this for fun. I like this.” The most effective form of hitchhiking, I think, is to be on the highway and pretend like you don’t need a ride. Only then do you have their compassion. Let the needy stay needy—there is something ambiguously fearful about them.