Seconds later, chasing my hat again through cacti, the idea of walking across the United States at my age seemed a less than perfect idea. I was being foolish: The country is too big for an old New Hampshire woman with a bad back and arthritis and emphysema and parched lips and a splintered hat. These were not so much my own thoughts but doubts planted in me by others. I was trying to resist them, but the harshness of the desert was eroding my own propped-up notion of my abilities. I would remind myself that I had endlessly tramped the mountains of New Hampshire as a young woman and I was still strong enough to cross-country ski and hike with a heavy pack. Anyway, it would be better to die out here, spending myself in a meaningful pursuit, than at home in my old chair--this I repeated to myself a thousand times. So many people, even in my own family, had said I wouldn't get fifty miles. I would just think of that and let myself get a little angry. That would give me a boost.
Approaching the hills along the Colorado River, the mountains of Arizona visible through the dust storm ahead, I realized that I had indeed crossed all of California. That was something. I had come 260 miles from Pasadena. And Sunday, across the river, would be my eighty-ninth birthday--if I lived to see the end of this blowing dust and sand.
In that dust ahead was an old, blue-green van that would be our water oasis and evening camp through the desert.
After mile number eight each day, I would cross the highway and go to the van for a cold drink and a little nap before my final two miles. Curling up in the tight space, I would fall asleep to old memories of the great, overcrowded Volkswagen trip to Alaska in 1960 to stop hydrogen bomb tests that would have destroyed a native village. I also remembered camping trips with my sister when we were Girl Scouts in 1920, and great hikes taken later as a young bride and mother on the mountain trails of New England.
While I waited to cross the Mojave highway for my eight-mile rest, motorists, when there were any, would speed by and give me a curious stare. I must have looked like the old woman of the desert. I remember staring into the eyes of one elderly woman passenger as she looked me over. She must have been wondering about me as I have wondered about other people seen walking along remote highways.
My Crazy Idea
Mother, what are you thinking about?" my son, Jim, said as we were driving toward Florida a year earlier. It was February 1998. I was looking in the side mirror at an old man beside the road--we had just sped past him. My son was headed for a three-week camping trip in the Everglades and had agreed to drop me off at my sister Vivian's house in Pompano Beach. I had just returned from my best friend Elizabeth's funeral.
The old man on the road, wearing a black watch cap and a full-length mackintosh, leaned against his cane and blew his nose with his bare fingers. He was miles and miles from any town or house, carrying only a paper bag. "What's with the old man, do you suppose--way out here?" I said.
"Looks like he's on the road again, Mother," Jim replied.
We talked for a few miles about Jack Kerouac's life and sang a few bars of Willie Nelson's song. That sounds cheery, but I was quite melancholy.
This old man mesmerized me. His image resonated with something very deep. Now that Elizabeth and my husband no longer needed me, I had been worrying about how I might use what remained of my own time. As we drove further, there seemed to be some connection with this man on the road and that slow-boiling question.
I had been on the road with my husband nearly forty years earlier when we worked to stop the Alaska bombs. This old man was perhaps some ghost of those days, still out there like a part of me. He was calling, as might my Jim be calling. That is rather what it felt like.
Excerpted from Granny D by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke Copyright 2001 by Doris Haddock with Dennis Burke. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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