When I was young, I walked.
The roads were nothing more than tracks made in soft earth by logging trucks, their narrow wheels cutting deep into soft forest floors, leaving pockets of scar tissue filled by rain and, now and then, steaming streams of horse piss.
There was nothing to walk to, in particular. It was not as though I walked to the drugstore, or the café, or any of those places built by people for the use of other people. There were none of those places. Instead, I walked the hills and hollows of West Virginia, walked the river banks, walked the trails that led through damp, pungent forests with their mesmerizing network of shadow and shine and then out into the bright warm clearings, walked the tangled gentle ridges past the ruins of anguished homesteads and beside the bleached and tumbling split rail fences long abandoned to the creeping encroachment of the weeds, vines and insects. I walked beside narrow rocky creeks that pushed out into shaded pools, tight-roped across walk-logs, eased slowly across creaking, drumming wooden bridges that were works of art from some other time, for some other reason. I walked narrow dirt roads and gritty railroad tracks that led to places whose names I could not spell. I walked among tilted, empty clapboard shacks and beside fences leaning away from the wind, walked through corn and cane, through watermelon patches, and waded through staked tomatoes that grew as high as my shoulder.
I walked because I had to.
I walked because I was meant to.
When I was older, and had long ago found my ride, I walked because I wanted to. I walked in the high winds in the craggy busted-rock mountains of Colorado and across the black-glass cliffs of Oregon, slick with cold, white rain. I walked in the company of snakes across the tangled table of the Yucatan. I walked alone in the carved and silent farther reaches of the Grand Canyon and in the hard old snow of the Sierras. I walked in the lulling rain forests of Honduras. I walked, lost, frozen and in the dark, [End Page 33] through the black and solid heart of the Bitterroots. I walked in mud and sand and gravel and dirt and scree and talus. And once, when I fell out of a canoe in southern Georgia, I walked in that quiet vital and awful beauty that is a swamp. And that time I damn well walked as fast as I could.
Walking, the knowledge that you can walk, may well be the first true feeling of freedom that any of us ever have. We waddle across the floor and bang into the wall and crash, but we have walked. And from that moment we know, sooner or later, that we can walk the hell out of there.
And that's the way I looked at it. Walking was always my escape. I could walk away from almost anything, at almost any time. I could just … leave.
And I did.
But gradually I came to know that walking just wasn't enough. Walking was short range. I could walk away, but I couldn't walk to.
I would walk down out of the hills and sit on a large and shaded rock above the one narrow highway that clung to the river and watch the crippled old cars and death-beaten trucks struggling to stay in motion, bits of wire and broken bolts raining from beneath their engines. They were miserable machines, but I didn't know that. With their spider-webbed windows and missing running boards, steaming radiators, doors that wouldn't quite close, with their grinding transmissions and broken headlights … with all that, there was still something about them that was special. And I knew exactly what it was. They moved, and people were riding in them, and they were going somewhere else.
And it was there, on that rock, that I caught sight of a machine that drove straight into my mind. It had only two wheels, and it made more noise than anything I had ever heard...