WALKING THE ROCKAWAYS
It’s 9:30 a.m. on March 27, 2010. Matt Green of Bay Ridge straddles the shoreline of Rockaway Beach, shivering. On this gusty morning the 30-year-old will begin his 3,100-mile walk across the United States.
Standing on the sand, Matt wears nothing but quick-dry shorts and the squinty grimace of someone about to dive into freezing cold water. It’s just under 30 degrees outside but it feels colder, thanks to a late-winter wind that’s chapping lips open and whipping up some serious waves for the nearby surfers, all of whom are wearing full-body wetsuits. Four of Matt’s friends have reneged on a promise to swim with him and are standing on a cement platform several yards away. He doesn’t mind. For the next six months he’ll be pushing his body to its limits and doing it mostly alone, through all varieties of North American weather and terrain. The dip in the Atlantic is just the first bookend of a 14-state trek that will take him “from Rockaway to Rockaway,” respective beaches in New York and Oregon. Without ceremony, he sprints fullspeed into the ocean and belly-flops into a breaking wave. He stays underwater long enough to draw concern before emerging gape-jawed from the froth. Photos are taken quickly and then he highknees it back to shore. The walk has begun.
The first question most of us would ask a person attempting a transcontinental walk is Why? There’s a limit to how far someone can go, how long someone can put their life on hold, before interested parties start to poke around for a motive. Dozens of people have completed walks across the United States and most have had no problem sharing their reasons, which usually involve championing a cause—charity fundraising, political canvassing, awareness-raising for all kinds of social issues. Others walk to lose weight, like Steve Vaught of Oceanside, CA, who in 2006 arrived in New York City at least 40 pounds lighter. Still others, like Helga Estby, walk for money. In 1896, Estby and her 18-year-old daughter walked from Spokane, OR, to New York in hopes of winning a $10,000 prize to save her family farm. They set out with a compass, revolver, and curling iron and reached Manhattan seven months later, only to be denied the reward when the sponsor claimed they had missed the deadline.
But Matt Green is not walking for financial gain, not for his own coffers or any organization’s. He is not making a documentary about small-town America, collecting citizens’ suggestions for Obama, trying to break a Guinness World Record, or writing a book about regional barbecue. He is not seeking emotional renewal after a divorce or trying to prove that the country has or has not gone to shit.
Matt is walking across America because he feels like it.
I’m Just Walkin’ is the title of his website (www.imjustwalkin.com) and this more or less sums up his ideology. He has purposely resisted attaching causes, personal or political milestones, or even must-see destinations to his trip. He’s not taking a guidebook or a checklist of places to visit. His will be a journey purely for the sake of the journey. Posted on his website is a long excerpt from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which includes these lines:
And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country. Because he loved true things, he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot. And people didn’t like him for telling the truth.
While it’s hard to dislike a person who appreciates the land he or she lives in, there is something unsettling, especially in a time of financial, political, and environmental crisis in this country, about a guy who decides to ditch a stable job, give up his Brooklyn apartment and most of his possessions, and walk 3,100 miles to some beach in Oregon—just for the hell of it. Drowned out by the narratives we’re used to hearing—Working Hard For a Goal, Overcoming Adversity, Supporting a Worthy Cause—is the far less popular Doing Things For Their Own Sake, which is fun to witness in movies but pretty darn hard to perform ourselves for more than a 10-day vacation. When one considers all the walkers and runners who’ve traversed America for medicine, politics, or social activism, Matt’s act seems downright selfish, hostile even. It defies our daily routines, suggests that we, with our responsibilities and goal-oriented lives, aren’t awake to the glorious country around us. Walking for half a year for no reason other than to “smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees”—isn’t this a waste? Couldn’t he at least pretend to attach some deeper meaning to his trek? Or is enjoyment of the journey the only true purpose and are all the other walkers just deluding themselves? Is this man revealing something honest and real and sparingly beautiful about human experience? Or is Matt Green just a self-indulgent asshole?
By 10:15, after Matt has dried off and changed, there are 34 friends gathered on the beach to send him off, and more are arriving. Most of them are members of Matt’s urban exploring club, Hey I’m Walkin’ Here, which meets every two weeks for 15-to-25-mile hikes around New York City. The walkers are young professionals and artists in their twenties and thirties, with one exception being Maurice Teahan, a sexagenarian powerhouse who pads about with the gait of someone on coffee-can stilts and will almost always walk home after the hikes, even if he’s two boroughs away. We are all here to accompany Matt on the first leg of his trip—19 miles from the Rockaway boardwalk to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Some of us are crowding around his pushcart, which carries two plastic storage bins full of his belongings. Donated by a builder of high-end strollers for active parents, it boasts, among other features, a hand-welded steel frame, bicycle handbrake, and three all-terrain wheels the size of Brooklyn pizzas. “We May Never Meet Again” reads a laminated placard up front, a message that’s both an acknowledgment of the ephemeral friendships to be made and the great, perhaps dangerous, uncertainty of what’s to come. But Matt won’t be without lifelines and reliable communication. Clipped to his belt is a bright orange GPS beacon with a panic button, which, when pressed, will contact a 911 dispatcher via satellite. He’s also packed a small solar panel that will charge his smartphone, which he’ll use to access Google Maps, email, and weather information throughout his journey. Cross-country walking is serious business. Regardless of his just-do-it intentions, Matt is certainly not the lone vagrant with a rusty penknife and a plaid bindle over his shoulder. Painstaking precautions have been taken, efficiency maximized.
At 11:00 the walk begins and Matt leads the group down 90th Street. He’s about 10 yards ahead of the crowd, which has swelled to nearly 50 people and is making this experience feel very much like a certain scene in Forrest Gump. And while I’m hesitant to make the comparison between Matt, who has a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Virginia, and a fictional idiot savant, the former does seem to have that Gumpian magic, the unspoken leadership of someone who knows the way. He takes us on bizarre detours through back alleys and panicked sprints across six-lane highways. We charge through giant puddles (lagoons, really) and dirt patches that seem an awful lot like private backyards. No one questions him. I’m certain that we’ll lose half the crowd before lunch but, inexplicably, our numbers seem to grow with each passing hour. Every time he stops to point something out, a few walkers whip out their cameras and take pictures, even if what he’s pointing at is a pile of plastic tubing. One such photo-op is John Gotti’s former home in Howard Beach, where a woman with a near-parodic Brooklyn accent hustles out and asks “what da fuck” we’re doing taking pictures of people’s houses. Another is a wonderfully named street that used to support a pipeline from the reservoir at Highland Park, and is now called Force Tube Avenue. We laugh, get to know one another, marvel at the distance when we pull up Matt’s route on our mobile devices, but not a single person I talk to wonders if our leader is maybe lacking in purpose or blowing a huge opportunity.
“He’s not trying to sculpt this into anything or get a bunch of media coverage,” says Mike Heavers, a web programmer from Clinton Hill who admires Matt’s refusal to wave any banners. “It’s a purely unselfish act. When people do these things for a cause, a lot of times they’re trying to make themselves feel better or gain a sense of self-worth. He’s approaching it from a learning perspective.”
No one seems to be worried that he might run into trouble along the way. Hey I’m Walkin’ Here has logged over a thousand miles in two years, and the tours have taken its members all over the five boroughs. It’s not uncommon for walkers to get heckled or antagonized, though no one has ever been injured as a result of public hostility. Still, the walks have taught Matt and his crew plenty of lessons in interacting with strangers. “If you can do this in New York,” I overhear a woman saying, “you can do this anywhere.”
The responses won’t always be so encouraging. Weeks later, on the road in Pennsylvania, a man will pull over in his pickup truck and, after hearing Matt’s “motive,” accuse him of scoping out houses to rob. There will be many evenings when Matt will ask strangers if he can pitch his tent on their farms and have doors closed, with varying degrees of force, in his face. Dogs will lunge at him and eventually scare him enough to purchase a weapon for self-defense, a yellow toilet plunger handle that he’ll keep within arm’s reach. Strangers in bars will give him faulty or useless advice, and drivers and pedestrians will hand him change thinking he’s a homeless transient, which he, technically speaking, is.
But two months after Day One, when I drive out to meet him a few miles outside of Madison, WI, at an intersection of rural county roads, Matt is in good spirits. He’s walking 20 to 25 miles a day and is way ahead of schedule. The previous night, he camped on the lawn of a hospitable couple who fed him a giant dinner, measured his blood sugar for kicks, and entertained him with saxophone-playing and a full-on puppet show. He woke up later than usual this morning and is excited because today, just before entering the city of Madison, he will reach the 1,000-mile mark.
It’s hard not to smile when I look him over. Matt is the stereotypical image of a park ranger, outfitted in olive green zip-offs, a slouch hat, and a fluorescent yellow reflective vest that you could spot from the next state over. His beard is thick and mangy. He has not showered or changed his clothes, including his underwear and socks, in six days.
“I’m pretty lucky in terms of body odor,” he says sheepishly. “Though I’ve noticed my left armpit smells more than my right.”
I don’t smell anything and neither does a group of middle-aged women in matching pastel shirts who are standing in front of a nearby barn and immediately swarm Matt when he tells them what he’s doing. We have walked together maybe 30 yards. The women put me on camera duty. It’s fascinating to watch Matt, who immediately enters a kind of celebrity mode and fields their questions like a pro, using canned answers that he’s had to revert to daily for the past eight weeks. But he’s got the off-the-cuff amiability down pat. Later, he’ll admit that he would feel too self-conscious to have me around for more than a day because he often recycles his jokes and witty replies; there are only so many ways to answer the same questions. The inquiries include: What’s your cause? How long will it take you? What inspired you to do this? Where do you sleep? What are you going to do afterwards? Are you writing a book?
My favorite is, “Do people know you’re doing this?” and a few of the women seem shocked that there aren’t television crews following Matt in a slow-moving van or corporate logos stitched onto his clothes. Perhaps it doesn’t look right to them that, at the moment, the only person invested in a man who’s walking across the continent is me, some random Asian guy with a notepad. Some immediately lose interest and wander off after he explains that he’s just walking for its own sake. Others are disappointed that he’s not famous yet but promise to tell their friends and family about him.
Once the photos are snapped and Godspeeds given, I ask him if that was a common public response.
“People have been extremely nice to me,” he says. “There are some who don’t understand why anyone would want to do this. But for the most part, everyone’s been really supportive.”
Nearly every day he’s witnessed the kindness of strangers, people who are understanding enough to let him camp out on their property, who pull over to offer help and then try to help anyway after he tells them he’s on the highway by choice. Friendly citizens have given him everything from sardines to brandy to a special pin in honor of fallen police officers, which the donor swore was an instant free pass if he ever got stopped by a cop. Families frequently invite him into their homes for meals or snacks, and the warm welcomes haven’t been limited to any specific regions. One of the major lessons Matt has learned on this trip is that “the borders of states say nothing about the people who live within them.” People are the same everywhere, he’s discovered, and if he’s heard the occasional insensitive remark or gotten a few cold shoulders, none have been linked in his memory to a particular area. He does talk at length about Indiana, where four different strangers stopped to buy him lunch in as many days. Then again, he adds, “it’s also the state where I saw the most street signs with bullet holes.”
So maybe it all evens out in the end. But isn’t his observation that people are, at heart, more or less the same, the antithesis of what travel should teach? Don’t most wayfarers set out to learn how unique regions are, how people can have widely varying attitudes and behaviors within the same nation? One would expect Matt to return from this tour with the authority to say, “The folks in Chicago are x, while those in Warren, PA, are y.”
This is the kind of social compartmentalizing and ethnographic study that Matt consciously tries to avoid. He has done trips with agendas before and every one has at some point brought on feelings of deep inadequacy. There was always the panic that he missed something, a landmark or revelation that escaped him as soon as he zoomed on to the next destination. When you frame or politicize a journey, you often only see what you assumed you’d see from the beginning. What you’re left with is disappointment, a terrible, sinking feeling, Matt remembers, and he decided that this trip would be different, even if people didn’t quite understand his intentions. He would leave out causes and objectives altogether. “Several people, often artists, have referred to this walk in conversation as a ‘project,’” he says. “But I don’t see it as a project—I just want to take in as much as I can with open eyes and an open mind. I want this to be an experience.”
Which means what, exactly? Somewhere along the 11-mile walk to Madison, we pass an abandoned farmhouse where lilacs are growing right up through the pantry floor. We see open prairies of knee-high grass, unfinished housing developments in the middle of nowhere, sidewalks that start and stop within a hundred yards. We step around roadkill, two raccoons and a dried out squirrel. We smell the fresh mulch of a wood recycling plant, where out front are three brightly colored hills of sawdust—brick red, brown, and curry-powder yellow. We wave at oncoming drivers, who sometimes wave back. We stop at an Arby’s off the highway, pee in their bathrooms, and eat carrots and canned kipper fish on the picnic tables outside. We take pictures and update our blogs while five-axle semis thunder past us. We feel the spongy give of wet soil under our shoes, the unforgiving concrete, the cracked and weedy asphalt. We watch boats knife across Lake Monona while the afternoon haze mutes the skyline behind them. And I can’t help but wonder if all this is peanuts compared to what Matt has already seen, or what he will see in board-flat North Dakota or lush Montana. I even wonder if his experience now is worlds better than mine. After all, here is someone who’s finely attuned to his surroundings, who can spot a patch of wild mushrooms or a funny-looking mailbox that would be invisible to me. But maybe I’m overthinking things.
“My moment of truest, purest happiness,” he says, when I ask him about any highlights, “is when I’ve been walking all day in hot weather and I sit down in a booth at Subway with a cold, bubbly drink. And next to me is an outlet to charge my phone.”
It’s not the answer I’m expecting, but hours later, celebrating his first thousand miles over an IPA at a lakeside bar, I think I understand. Sure, it’s beautiful to watch the sun set over the water to a live bluegrass tune, while small children dance in awkward circles nearby. It’s heartening to know that around us are plenty of Americans who, despite war, crushing debt, and ailing health, are still raising glasses and looking alive. But right now none of this seems all that important. After a full day’s walk, sitting on a wooden bench suddenly feels a lot better than you remember, the cool breeze feels a lot fresher, and all over your body you feel the soreness of a day well lived. And maybe this is the simple point of the journey: to be completely and honestly alert to your needs and how the world will or will not provide for them. To understand what’s really lacking or overabundant, and what is there, however banal or nondescript, for you to respectfully enjoy. It’s incredibly difficult to do this in the real world. Everything seems either deficient or hyper-available, and we often mislabel paralyzing indecision as freedom of choice, or disguise self-worship as goal-driven living.
But even the cross-country walkers with last-minute causes and delusions of grandeur know these things. On lonely nights, a thousand miles from home, they aren’t thinking about target fundraising or getting airtime on NPR. They aren’t bemoaning the nation’s endless problems or debating which city serves the best lemon meringue pie. They are curled up in a tent on a stranger’s farm, happy for the nylon above their heads, the bit of food in their hands, and the faint but sure promise of morning.