My back ached like a motherfucker when I went down for breakfast yesterday.
It damn well should have. The day before, I’d hiked two miles in an overstuffed backpack to get to my first pickup point. Then I rode a series of five buses and vans to get from the Cincinnati suburbs to downtown Indianapolis, loading and unloading that millstone every time I got on or off one.
But with the Colts playing away (badly) that Monday night, Indy’s Wholesale District was pretty much abandoned. With the Hilton Honors status I’d garnered in a previous self-reinvention as a corporate road warrior, I ranked a major upgrade at that monument to lucre, 120 West Market Street. They gave me a king suite with two bathrooms, a conference table, a TV nook with a six-foot sofa and two wing chairs, free wi-fi, free cocktail and ultimately a free breakfast. And all it cost me was $50 and 12,000 hilton points (of which I currently have around 250,000). You’d be lucky to get double beds at a Hampton Inn for that.
Nobody remarked when I showed up at the host stand with my backpack strapped to my shoulders, chest and hips. I calmly followed my waiter to a table and responded positively to his offer of coffee as I went through the practiced steps of taking the fucking thing off.
Breaking fast lightly with oatmeal, croissant and smoked salmon, I relaxed to enjoy my third cup of coffee before leaving on the mile hike to catch the first of three transports I had scheduled for the day. I relished how well the cushioned seat cradled my newly fragile spine. I contentedly acknowledged that the coffee was good, even if the cold buffet was nothing special and the hot buffet wasn’t worth ordering. And then I noticed how people were looking at me and then looking away before I could make eye contact. I guess they weren’t just looking, they were staring.
Trying to make sense of me.
Here I was, in a Brooks Brothers polo shirt, sipping coffee over a white-linen tablecloth, relaxed in my posh environs. My coat and trousers might have been no-name and rugged, but my boots were top-of-the-line Keen hikers from REI, my watch an understatedly elegant sports model, and I was tapping away on an iPhone 6s for chri’sakes.
To all appearances, I was one of their tribe. I don’t mean that literally, of course. I’m not sure how many Jews there are in Indiana, but it’s entirely likely I was the only one in that restaurant. I mean that I was obviously part of the patrician class to which everyone else in the room was born or aspired to or achieved through merit, luck, or sociopathic disregard for others. I was an outlier, with my two weeks’ growth of graying scalp and beard and a backpack at my feet, but they all presumed I had as much right to breathe that air as they did. They saw me as a rogue, a traveler with some interesting stories to tell but, when I was done, I’d settle back into a martini glass at the Nineteenth Hole and spin tales of the road for their amusement.
What they couldn’t see and couldn’t know was how casually their cousins had tossed me out of that club.How the only reason I’ve been able to maintain my family’s middle-class stature over the past two years of sketchy employment is because I realized I never really was part of that high-flying fraternity, so we lived beneath my means, banked all we could, and are now cracking open the piggy banks that, had all gone well, we’d have kept on the shelf for years to come.
How just that morning I was in a redneck bar that was serving liquor at 9 a.m. and advertising that a band called (no shit) Southern Cross-Fire would be playing there Saturday night. How I’d slept mainly on couches and floors over the past two weeks. How I gratefully accepted a night on the porch of a woman who had started the year living in her car. How I served as Cubmaster for the evening in the basement of a church in a destitute neighborhood, knowing that short, brutish, needle-tracked lives awaited many of the cherubic faces that so eagerly peppered me with questions as I presented them a slide show about mass transit (which their county doesn’t even have, so to these kids I might as well have been an astronaut).
How I felt every bit at home in those environments as I did in that hushed and tony restaurant a hundred feet below the thousand-square-foot, two-bathroom suite I had to myself the night before. How I had at least as much in common with the people who hosted me in their homes as with the go-getters talking business and sports at the next table.
How bad my back hurt.
The spasms in my lumbar region were the direct result of too much weight in the pack. But think of all the things I had to carry. LIke any trekker, I had a sleeping bag, mat, pup tent, ground tarp, rain jacket, single-burner stove, propane tank, and a few instant meals. That’s all to be prepared for the inevitable nights out of doors. But most of my adventure is indoors. If I were going on a wilderness adventure, all I’d need to pack in the way of clothes would be a layer of UnderArmour and a change of skivvies and socks. But I’m interacting with people in the streets and in their homes. I’m obviously spending some nights in very nice hotels. I’m on TV. I have to keep up appearances. So in addition to warm- and cold-weather gear, I also need in-town clothes in addition to the rugged wear. And I need changes of that because I’ll typically be going three or four days between opportunities to do laundry.
That’s when it hit me: I was literally, literally carrying around the world’s expectations of me on my back. And it fucking hurt.
The question is, What was I prepared to do about it.
The answer is, Nothing.
I’m going to keep on as I’ve been doing for the past thousand miles: pushing on from town to town, graciously accepting hospitality from Hiltons and hillbillies, doing my best to fit in wherever I go because, regardless of which tribe I encounter, I will observe their mores and respect them as individuals. I will act the part. I will dress the part. My back might never be the same, but what the hell else should I expect? Most my friends at this point in our lives threw their own spines out of plumb years ago.
I can’t be that guy who says, “Fuck everyone’s expectations. I’m living my own life.” But I’m not living my own life. I’m a husband, father, provider, and a guy who somehow stumbled on something that gives him a following and a platform. As a result, what other people think of me matters very, very much. Human beings are social creatures. I’m a human being.
And now I have to go catch a ride.