May 1 – May 6
During the night in my barricaded motel room it had become apparent to me that my top priority for a while would have to “baby” myself physically even if it meant spending my precious money for motels and café foods. The little town of Gardner where the old Santa Fe Trail split south of the Oregon Trail was eight miles away. In the morning three people assured me that Gardner had a motel, “right across from the gas station just as you enter town.” So I drove myself by sheer force of will toward that promise of rest and safety. At about 4 o’clock I tottered tot the edge of town. I hadn’t stopped for rest because that had seemed to make the blisters blow up worse the day before.
With disbelieving eyes and ears I learned that Gardner had no motel, hotel, nor guest house and never had. It was my first encounter with the unreliability of people’s knowledge of neighboring towns. I wanted to cry. I asked a few people where a motel was, hoping they’d take pity on me and invite me home. They didn’t. Humbled and apologetic I crept to the porch of a Laundromat where I lowered myself painfully onto a bench fearful of being chased away.
During those frightened minutes a new attitude began to take shape inside me. Instead of relying on people’s pity and charity, I felt the stirrings of assertion. “I am not a bad person,” I said to myself. “I am not hurting any of these people. I should not need to apologize or grovel to find a yard to unroll my sleeping bag on.” And with a wee bit of indignation I even thought, “Why, I even have the right to be treated decently!” But then the other half of the coin came into view, the most important lesson for many months: I would have to learn to ask directly for help. I would have to learn to ask without cringing, without resentfulness and with the assumption that I am a kind, reasonable person dealing with kind, reasonable person with kind, reasonable people.
I took a deep breath and heaved myself after several tries onto my now full blown blisters. “I’ve done nothing shameful. I don’t have to feel guilty about my physical condition to anyone,” I kept telling myself as people stared at me with embarrassed expressions. I decided to start my new regime by asking for help at the tiny library near the center of town. A faintly human teenage girl directed me to it and my unwanted belligerence began to melt.
The unflappable librarian maintained her controlled demeanor as she directed me to a possible camping place a few miles out of town. She turned away expecting to have efficiently dismissed me along with my problem. But I held my ground and leaned heavily on her good manners. “I could never make it that far,” I said smiling. “Is there a place nearer by,” I continued, “maybe a history buff who’d have a space in her yard,” my voice trailed off open ended.
“I don’t know of anyone,” said the librarian in her polite voice.
“Well what do you suggest I do?” I was only one sentence away from asking directly to sleep in her yard. With a sigh at this persistent problem who wouldn’t leave, she turned to her assistant for help. This was a problem for the mayor, they decided, and placed a call to the town hall to which they directed me, down the street. They had been cordial enough, but the old me would have slunk away at the first hint, imaginary or not, that I was bothering someone. The new me headed resolutely down the street determined to see it through.
The mayor was out of town but a lively woman responded to my “deal with me” presence with resourcefulness. She called the Presbyterian minister who said immediately, “send her over.” I had turned the corner! Things were going to be OK! I just knew it!
Reverend Ashmore greeted me with curiosity and eager to please generosity. He led me to a vacant house next to the church which I was “welcome to”. He began to give me a tour, faucets, etc., but I was too footsore to stand for another second, so I plunked down my pack and me, in the center of a room, where I remained helpless to move until next morning. Rev. Ashmore left me alone with anxiety for my condition, finally deciding that what I needed was undisturbed rest. He checked back later to strongly urge me to see a doctor in the morning, offering to drive me there. I slept that night soothed and thankful for inspiring good hearted people like Rev. Ashmore. Even the dry old wheat germ tasted pretty good!
Next morning in the café, a line of smiling faces tuned to ward me. Word travels fast in small Kansas towns. I had been seen limping into town the day before and now knowledge of my Oregon Trail attempt made me a bit of a celebrated person. I basked happily in the good will. It was even more nourishing and needed than the good food. Gardner, Kansas, so unfriendly the day before now extended its warmth and encouragement just as I was preparing to leave. In my short stay I had learned much here. Scratch a stranger and you’ll find a friend, but don’t be afraid to scratch!
The doctor at the hospital knew less about feet than I did, although my money was accepted cheerfully enough! The doctor suggested that I give up the trip as a sure foot cure. On the other hand, he murmured, my feet didn’t look all that bad. It was true. Yesterday’s bulging blister no longer stuck out one half inch and the firey red swelling was diminished. Only I could know that under that faintly discolored heel skin was a blister or an infection or some horrible sore that would turn my plodding into pure hell within a mile. But I was amazed then and throughout the trip at the rapid recovery rate of the human body. Feet and ankles that actually could not support me in the evening would be recovered sufficiently for one or two miles walk by the next morning. Unfortunately, I would always try to extend that one or two miles to ten or twelve. After all, I was trying to keep up with the wagon train of the Donner Party and day by day I was falling behind by 11 miles per day minimum.
Betty Turner, a reporter for the local paper fond me at the hospital and in a very human, unreporter-like manner allowed herself to be amazed at my espoused trail attempt as she looked deeply into my eyes. For an hour she played friend to me and took me under her wing. At the drugstore I bought an arsenal of Dr. Scholl weapons against foot problems. In the months ahead I was to support half the company I’m sure! Few if any of the remedies helped except arch supports and athletic foot powder.
I said a quick goodbye to Rev. Ashmore. A few in the room expressed frightened doubts about safety, but the good minister said, “The Lord will keep her safe. She doesn’t have to worry.” We shook hands and I left with his optimistic benediction ringing comfortingly in my ears. Betty drove me to my drop off spot and removing my jacket to the warming day, I waved goodbye and was off.
For the first time, for a few hours, I truly enjoyed the Kansas beauty. Kansas in May, could there be anything lovelier? “Kansas in May! Kansas in May!” I chanted rhythmically as I walked. The freshly plowed soil was the color of dark chocolate. The green hay shimmered like party ribbons. The sun was warm and the breeze fragrant, horizon blue, etc. I gazed around me in a full 360 degree circle. Like a child’s kindergarten drawing, everything sat boldly on the horizon line. A bold red barn, a classic red tractor, a blue truck, a sturdy round topped silo and barn. A white farm perched next to one perfect lollipop tree. Then my feet got bad again and the grueling plodding began.
At one rest stop my shoulder nerves acted up, like a dentist drill hitting nerves. I cried briefly, became enraged and spoke between clenched teeth my desperate accusation, “Damn you, God, you’re not helping me one bit, not one little speck! I’m not a member of any church, but even I was shocked at my blasphemy.” I stopped. I tightened my strap, and miraculously the pain never returned for the rest of the day.
Toward the end of the day a husky young boy stopped to talk and brought me a luscious shiny red apple from his Grandmother’s house. The kind woman directed me to her church, a tiny speck on the flat horizon as a place to stay. She said, “It isn’t far, only about one and a half miles.” It seemed like a million miles to me but it meant a place of quiet shelter, out of the rain and I thought I could probably make it that far. I baby-stepped toward it. My blisters were growing rapidly.
A wonderful dog joined me the last mile. I wished he could stay with me the whole way. I’m not a dog lover, but this dog was so happy to be alive and delighted to walk with me that I found his presence very supportive. At the end of the walking I threw my arms around his smelly neck in a big emotional hug saying, “I love you. Oh, thank you. I wish you’d walk with me all the way.”
In the front hallway of the Little Friend’s Church I collapsed and looked at the pleasant scene outside. A crippled man was moving around the ancient gravestones in an a jointing cemetery. Mile square green fields stretched to the horizon. In the distance an old abandoned homestead sagged sadly within its own clump of shade trees. My friendly dog waited patiently outside the door until the crippled man called him away and they both left in a truck. Then I was all alone. It was spooky. There wasn’t a person or farm insight. I studied my maps and concluded with a surge of excitement, that once again I was probably right on the old trail.
Sleeping in the church hallway that night was OK, but my blisters hurt in almost any position. While dozing off I heard, then felt, a faint patter and saw two little mice silhouetted as they scurried over my sleeping bag and across my hand. With my feet wrecks, mice were easy to cope with so I just moved my pack so my seeds were closer to defend and went back to sleep.
In the morning I again oriented and centered myself by writing in my journal:
Have no time for anything yet, except survival. Strange, no one offered to give me a ride yesterday although now I’m on very rural dirt roads. Earlier a woman stopped t say that lots of people were out packing in Colorado. It made me feel much better to hear that others are out walking the country and tails. I do not enjoy feeling like a freak. All this foot attention! I never really paid any attention to my feet before. Now suddenly they’re very important and fascinating. My hip bones which were excruciating, were OK yesterday and my shoulder is infinitely better. (It still hurts sometimes though. Wow!) The pack is the killer. My feet feel bruised on the bottoms from the extra weight. All in all it was a good day, maybe because of the low mileage. I don’t really look around much while walking. I have to concentrate too much on where I put my feet. If it’s not a smooth level spot, it hurts worse.
I looked up from my writing to see an older man, the minister coming through the door. He handed me a church bulletin entitled, “Overcoming evil with good”, along with a piece of banana bread. With unmistakable distaste and disapproval he said ot me, “Do you realize that if everyone had as much energy to put into spreading God’s word as you are putting into this trip, then just think how many more people would be saved.” I was hurt. I’m oversensitive. It’s a lifetime trait.
I taped around my bulging blisters and started painfully off. I hobbled for miles, the local older (and younger) farmers driving by peering with mixed disapproval and fear. One man leaped off his tractor and peeked at me as he hid behind it. “The more helpless and pitiful I look, the more negative the reactions. I guess I understand this. I tend to look at really down and out people, drunks, or starvation cases, as less than human.”
One bearded guy in a VW drove up gently and offered to drive me anywhere. I refused and he offered me water. His manner was so humane; he’ll never know how much it meant to me. There’s something Biblical comparing the minister and the bearded VW guy. It reminds me of the story of the good Samaritan and the bum. In as much as ye have done it unto the least of these. . . . . . . .
That evening in my Journal I recorded the bare facts of that grueling day without acknowledging the tremendous, almost heartbreaking physical and mental struggle that I had waged. There was no self pity and probably that’s why my heart didn’t break. It’s amazing how a person can detach!
Somehow I got to Lawrence and no one else offered to give me a ride, incredible. I baby-stepped the last 4 miles, barely moving. At one point the muscle in my left leg wasn’t working. I’d been tiptoeing on that side for two days. I was near falling into a ditch and then something (quickly) told me to start squeezing my foot in a certain way, and yup! That’s what was needed to keep going. I’m in the Holiday Inn. Can’t walk for food next door, crawled to the bathroom. I must say, despite the wreck I was all day, I feel triumphant and high. I “walked” 13 ½ miles and had a sense of victory all the way, plus a “new” for me , compassion for the dregs of society who I’ve always scorned. It’s also a trip sleeping on the floor with mice one night and in an ultra plush suite the next.
When I was dragging today I lost , for the interval, some of the vulnerable fear I had about being attacked. I figured if anyone bothered me, I’d loose with an indignant blistering torrent of “what the hell’s the matter with you bothering someone who’s so helpless and suffering with such sore feet!!”
Perhaps unfairly, Lawrence became a symbol of callous indifference to me. One tiny incident alleviates this memory. Along the busy strip I passed some workers as my ordeal was full upon me. The Holiday Inn sign in the distance let mental relief just as my physical predicament threatened to overwhelm. I searched the faces of the workers for the faintest sign of humanity and one, a young black boy, paused and gulped and looked again. My eyes were pleading for some signal of understanding. He said softly, “Sore feet?” and I found the energy to reply barely, “Awful”. His small acknowledgment was enough to sustain me for the last ½ mile.
In the haven of my motel room I luxuriated in the sleep of perfect thankfulness. On awakening I faced two uncomfortable facts, first, I would have to spend a second night and a large chunk of my vanishing money supply for the motel, and secondly, that my feet instead of toughening were showing definite signs of getting worse. Now I not only had surface blisters to contend with, I was also developing deeper problems. Pains were cursing within my feet in more directions and places and varieties than one would believe possible. At one point when I managed to stand, I gazed down in utter amazement. My right foot would not, would absolutely not, flex upward. It was not a matter of pain but rather some kind of paralysis. Down from my brain would go the message, “lift up” and absolutely nothing would move, not even a twitch! The sensation was one of amazement more than alarm.
My gray hiking boots stood beside my bed like a pair of medieval torture instruments. By the second day I could walk around my room barefoot and I contemplated starting out on the road in thick socks only, but decided to part with some more money and try flexible sneakers instead. I crammed my screaming feet back into the boots and hobbled doubled over to the nearest store. I hardly managed to open the door since the mere act of pulling on the door increased pressure on my feet. Inside the store the irony and hilarity of my transaction was lost on the shoe clerk, who never cracked a smile despite my explanations. I had minced into the store in my fancy expensive imported hiking boots. I bought a pair of cheap good old American (made in Korea) sneakers and presto! Walked, not hobbled, out of the store a new person, head high, chin up, etc.! To hell with those fancy expensive imported hiking boots!
That evening I tried again to come to grips with the fear theme: “I’m still disgusted with the effort spent in trying to play the odds at safety and avoiding kooks. I figure it’s fairly safe on crowded highways because there’s lots of people around and way out in the middle of nowhere because there’s no one around (one car per hour). The chances of that one car per hour a primed criminal are small. I am more fearful of the bad guy who hears about me and comes after me when I’m alone. So in that sense, the less publicity, the better, but on the other hand, a little publicity (grapevine or whatever) makes the good people more receptive and meeting people is most wonderful! I think my fears of monster people will diminish daily, but EVERYONE says, “You’re traveling ALONE??!!” gasp gasp,You must be awfully brave. I’d NEVER do that . . . too many creeps out there running around!!” Gasp horror. So then all my self doubts get a new boost. No, I’m not brave, so maybe I shouldn’t be doing this after all.
I guess people have always had fear on these trails. A thousand years ago the Indians feared the next tribe. Later the mountain men and fur traders feared the Indians. The wagon trains feared the Indians and I fear the psychos. We all fear the snakes and tornadoes a bit and sickness. We all worry about food supplies. The wagon trains and I are very, very concerned about getting in enough miles per day, pushing ourselves or oxen to limits but not too far.
I’m unhappy about wasting money.
For 3 days I have been obsessed with visions of a quart of milk and a box of Oreo’s. And so today I finally indulged, and it was a disappointment. Now I have a feeling of nausea, and a new craving - - - - for a hamburger!!!!
After an extra day’s rest I re-emerged from the warm soft womb of the Holiday Inn and re-entered the world of maps and miles and uncertainties and pain.
Today was very hard. Near the end I felt I couldn’t go on and stopped by a pleasant house with an old man outside. I asked him for water and collapsed on his lawn. He was so very old, hard of hearing and barely walked. He scowled. I put on my sunglasses to hide the tears of weariness brimming. He said there was no motel at Big Springs. I asked if I could possibly unroll my sleeping bag in his back field. He said, “No. I’m alone here and it wouldn’t look good.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I laughed. What a tight old fart! The shock was so startling that I managed to walk again. I never expected to be considered a bad woman of the streets!
Assertively I asked for and was given permission to sleep behind the Methodist Church in Big Springs, Kansas. During the 17 mile day I had rotated hiking boots (for support) and jogging shoes (for relief from hiking boots) but I had overdone the mileage. I had 6 new blisters even where there was no rubbing, but most alarming was the swelling. It ballooned out both feet to above the ankles like old ladies with edema.
During the night I crept into the basement Sunday school room when it started to rain. I had been invited to the 5:30 men’s breakfast.
There were 8 to 10 farmers for the pancake feast and they were “regular folk”, coped easily with me, no fuss. They had a scripture reading and incredibly I was in a time machine, back to my childhood, same smell in the Sunday school room, same voices intoning the same incomprehensible scriptures, same groping for meaning as they all strained to discuss it. They were all good people, the salt of the earth. I’ll never understand why they spend such seemingly fruitless effort and time on this Bible stuff.
One farmer stayed behind to talk, blue denim overalls and cowboy boots.
He gave me excellent advice for my trip. He said that I must not anticipate danger, live in fear, or expect fearful events because if I get really scared I’ll end the trip. I must expect the best from people. He believed in the philosophy of expectations so never locks his house and always leaves his keys in his car. Also I must not be surprised if people see me as a bum because I am a bum. I must stop and talk with folks, tell them who I am and what I’m doing and give a bit of time to adjust to me, all very sensible. I can see that I was unrealistic in expecting people to accept me so quickly. He said, “The world is full of good folks. Give them a chance.” True, true. So as I enter the rural part of the trip, I’ll have to be more assertive about presenting myself and asking for what I want and need. I think I will not be so shy about asking the churches for shelter. This man suggested I sleep in hay barns and sheds. I still feel better getting permission first.
Walked to Topeka in torment. This morning noticed my ankles black and blue after the swelling went down. I was very discouraged about my progress in general, my feet, my money situation and everything. The Ramada Inn is $21 which is really upsetting, but again, I could go no farther, and here I am stranded in bed again unable to walk. My muscles are getting into the act, too. If I stop for more than a few minutes, I cannot get going again. It takes all kinds of grotesque lurches to move again and then it’s with a ludicrous limp. I really mad quite a scene in the posh lobby here! It’s strange how after a dozen or so yards the muscles can at least be directed again, but some of the pain remains. The phone call home was very encouraging, and I feel optimistic again.
I left the Ramada Inn and walked through Topeka to the far side of town. Some guy with a twangy voice approached me and asked if I had some drugs! Just what I need, to look like a drug dealer. . .