Leaving Home

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The door stood at the end of the hallway like a tall and powerful black sentinel. Open me, step through to the other side, and you shall never know peace again, it seemed to be saying.

Still . . . I knew I had no choice.

I pursed my lips, brushed a jacket sleeve across my eyes, and prayed. Lord, please, don’t let this be our last good-bye. Please, watch over him and let him still be here when I return. . . . He’s so weak, and I love him so much.

My father’s heart and lungs were failing, my mother had revealed to me only hours before, in the curtained dawn of my bedroom. She had begged me to assure him I was not going off to perish.

My backpack "Clinger" leaning against a typical "hotel" for us on the USA phase of the Worldwalk

My backpack "Clinger" leaning against a typical "hotel" for us on the USA phase of the Worldwalk

Very slowly on this gray and bitterly cold April Fool’s morning, I coaxed my lungs into tasting a full breath, as I prepared to say good-bye. Would my father give me his blessing, or ask me at this last minute not to go?

Except for one son who had died in infancy, all six of my father’s children had grown up as his treasures. And now that he had been bedridden for two years with a weak heart and emphysema, we and our mother, always in her rocking chair in a corner of his room, had become his whole world. But the nest was breaking up; his twenty-eight-year-old son was going off to possible tragedy in a desert or jungle.

I had told him of my plans four months ago–had returned home from the snow-covered peaks of Wyoming to confess to a journey that I knew would only make his heart weaker. Behind that same door he had sat up in his bed, and Mom in her chair, as I pointed to a large map of the world I’d pinned to the closet door and revealed the meaning of the thick dotted line drawn across its colorful seas and continents. Trying to disguise my nervousness, I had revealed for the first time to my family what I had found hard to say even to myself:

“On the first of April, 1983, I will step out the front door to start a journey never before made by anyone. I’ve spent many years preparing. I won’t fail. And”–I looked at my father’s sad eyes–”I won’t die. Please believe in me. What I am going to try to do is walk around the world . . . alone.”

My mother had gasped, slammed her hands down upon her chair’s spindly armrests, and glared at me. “Oh, no, you won’t! You’ll never live! There’re too many bad people out there who’ll try to rob and murder you. You can’t be serious.”

Dad had simply lowered his head and shaken it slowly back and forth. In his silence I thought I heard the one implication I dreaded more than anything: that I was a fool.

Determinedly, I had said, “This walk is something I must do if I am ever to get a true sense of what the world and its peoples are like.

“I want to do this not just as a learning experience, to find out what all those other people’s dreams and hopes and fears are, but also as a test to see if the world is still a place where love and compassion prevail. And a place where romance and adventure abound as much as they did in the days of Marco Polo and Sir Francis Drake.

“I want to do it alone, without sponsors, so that I can have total freedom to do anything and go anywhere I want to, when I want to. Except for a librarian or two who’ve helped me find the right maps, I’ve done everything alone on this project. I’ve done it because I want to show others, particularly the young, that an individual can realize his or her dreams without outside resources.

“I will have only a backpack to carry my supplies, so that I will have to depend upon the generosity of others to help feed and shelter me. Hopefully, that will get me into many homes, so I can see what their everyday life is like.”

“And you think that people will come running out to the road to invite a total stranger into their house?” Mom had asked.

“Well, that’s what I’m hoping. Because if they don’t, I’ll probably never last. You see, I’ve set two conditions for myself: never to pay for any accommodations, except if my health is in jeopardy or I am way behind on my writing and need privacy, and never to eat in any restaurants fancier than a sidewalk cafe or a teahouse.”

“But you’ve never been outside of America, Steve. What do you know about these other places?” Dad had asked.
The truth was that I knew very little about most of the countries I planned to visit; only what I’d read in my schoolbooks, or seen on television and in newspapers, or found in the travel booklets sent to me by their embassies. And that was exactly what I had planned.

“As much as possible, I want what I encounter in each country to be a surprise–from, say, what they eat to even what language they speak. Then, every day there will be something new for me to learn, and my mind will remain curious.”

I sat on the edge of Dad’s bed.

“How long will all this take?” Dad had asked with his eyes averted.

I fidgeted and rose to the map, as if I needed that space between us to be able to answer.

“Three to five years . . . I figure I have fifteen thousand to twenty thousand miles to walk.”

I started tracing with my finger the dotted line I’d drawn across the map.

“My plan is to walk from here to Washington, D.C., then north along the Atlantic Coast through the major cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York, to Boston.”

The slap of a palm against the rocking chair behind me made me cringe; Mom had grown up in the New York City area and had told me over the years about its high crime rate and violence.

“From there I will fly to Ireland and walk north from Dublin to Belfast, where I will take a ferryboat east to southwestern Scotland. There I will go only far enough to cross into England. Which I will then walk the whole length of, from just north of Carlisle to Portsmouth.”

I started to glance back at Mom, hoping that she had softened somewhat at the mention of Ireland. But my eye got only as far as the front tips of her chair’s rockers, which were going up and down as rapidly as if in an earthquake.

Almost timidly I threw in, “I thought it might be nice to start the foreign part of my journey in the countries where our families came from . . . and where it’s supposed to be very safe.”
Then, after a deep breath:

“I will cross the English Channel by ship to the north coast of France and then continue south to Spain, where I will use the Spanish I learned in high school and college. I am curious to see if Spaniards are as moody and passionate as they are portrayed in novels.”

I took a deeper breath still, painfully aware that what I had to say next would sound suicidal to my parents–especially to Mom, who thought Islam was practically the same as Satanism.

“Because there is so much in the news nowadays about the violent anti-Americanism in the Arab countries, I plan to go from Spain to North Africa, to find out why so many Moslems feel antagonistic to us.”

Creak-creak creak-creak creak-creak . . . Mom’s chair sounded as if it would fly out the window. Quickly–very quickly–I continued:

“I’m hoping I will be permitted to walk east at least across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Since I probably will not be allowed to go to Libya–I’ll find out for sure in March, when I go to Washington, D.C. to visit the embassies–my idea is to go directly north from Tunisia by boat to Sicily, to walk north through all of Italy, then south through Yugoslavia to Greece.

“In Greece, I have two options: head south to Athens, where I can board a boat to Egypt, to walk across it and Saudi Arabia; or head east to Turkey. Either way, I am sure I will have to travel by plane or boat around the wars in Iran and Afghanistan.”

My finger had jumped to the far right side of the map.

“At any rate, the second half of the journey will take me through Pakistan and India and Southeast Asia, because I want to see if those areas are as impoverished as they seem on television. And to Thailand and Malaysia to meet the Buddhist monks and pirates I’ve heard so much about.

“Of course I will go to Australia. I hope to cross the outback through its most sparsely populated region–the vast, rugged deserts between the north and south coasts.

“Finally, I will return, most likely by plane, to North America, probably to San Francisco, and then cross the heartland of my own country. And back to you.”

There were several seconds of silence. At last Dad asked softly, “Wouldn’t it be quicker, and safer, if you went in a straight line across Europe and Asia, rather than swinging down through places like Africa and Thailand?”

“Yes,” I conceded, “but this may be the only chance I have to see the world so completely and closely. I want to touch base with as many cultures as I can. And”–I glanced at my mother–”that means exploring both the safe and the supposedly dangerous countries, because otherwise I won’t come away with an accurate picture of mankind.”

I sat on a corner of the bed and faced both my parents. “Please try to understand. I’m tired of all the pessimism from the media and the ministers and even my friends about the future and condition of the world. I have to go out to see once and for all, while I’m young and able to, if all those who are condemning this world are right.

“Maybe I’m crazy, but I truly believe this is a far better place than we give it credit for. But how can I know for sure?”

Dad had nodded, as if he was beginning to understand. Mom continued to frown, and fire still flashed in her eyes. I knew better than to argue with her; she could be extremely stubborn at times. But then, so could I. It was a trait I had inherited from Mom and her Irish grandparents.

I had put off telling my parents about the worldwalk out of fear that Mom would think I was just chasing my dreams.

My independence had always meant more to me than anything. Exploration and adventure had been paramount in my life. In my last two summers in high school, I had hitchhiked on my own all over the United States. That my worried parents had forbidden me to do such a thing had not deterred me in the least.

Graduation in 1972 from Bethel-Tate High School had meant I had less time than ever to spend with my parents and siblings. For the next five years I was away studying journalism at Ohio University and prospecting for uranium in Wyoming. Then, in 1977, I had taken a reporter’s job with the Casper Star-Tribune in Casper, Wyoming. And in Casper I had remained, with no more trips home until this past December, when I had returned to reveal in this bedroom plans for one more lengthy adventure–one that could mean good-bye forever.

I had spent every evening possible since my December return with Dad in his bedroom. He had listened, fascinated, to my stories about the four-and-a-half years I’d spent preparing for the worldwalk. With such a large family to raise, neither Dad nor Mom had ever had the luxury of freedom to travel. Besides, all his life Dad had had a bad heart. But he had reveled in my descriptions of the rugged scenery and men I had worked with for three-and-a-half years on the oil rigs in the West to save the twenty thousand dollars I figured the worldwalk would cost me. And of how I spent another year toughening myself physically and mentally by camping, hiking, and running alone in the snows of Montana’s mountain peaks and the enormous dunes of Wyoming’s harsh and empty Red Desert.

Dad’s enthusiasm for my journey had seemed to grow with each visit I made to his bedside. He had ideas about how to get my money and mail to me. And suggestions about the routes I was planning to take.

He liked my plan to follow the quieter, less-populated secondary roads. But he worried that such roads might not be as well marked as they were on my maps. Wouldn’t that slow me down, or even get me lost?

I almost let slip that I did not want to hurry through this journey, that I planned to be flexible enough to depend upon the locals to tell me the most interesting way to the next province or country. And that even though I had a general idea of which roads I was going to take across each country, I was actually willing to start over from scratch upon crossing a border, so as not to miss out on those little lanes and paths that might be more scenic and adventurous than the lines on my map.

But I knew that was not what Dad wanted to hear. Not when time was so precious to him, and not to be taken for granted. So, instead, I had pretended that I knew exactly where I was going to walk in each place. And that each route was the quickest and safest one possible.

To my surprise, Dad’s health had seemed to improve along with his interest. Sitting there on his bed reading aloud the brochures sent to me by the embassies, or discussing the pros and cons of the advanced hiking gear I had ordered at cost from Jan-Sport in Washington State and the William Brooks Shoe Company in Ohio, he had hardly needed the tall oxygen tank beside his headboard.

Just three weeks earlier, when I had returned from the trip to Washington, D.C., he had hung onto my account of my experiences there as if I had gone to see the president.

Though he was unable to leave his bedroom, Dad’s interest in the outside world had not dimmed any. He still ran the family’s nursing home on the other side of town by telephone, read thoroughly each of the Cincinnati dailies, and, every evening, right at six-thirty when the CBS evening news came on, paused from his paperwork to listen to all the major news stories of that day–stories about wars in the Middle East, Central America, and the Falkland Islands; huge antinuclear protests all over Europe; Americans being kidnapped and killed in Lebanon by Arab terrorists. I had enjoyed watching the news with him, as well as discussing the major stories from abroad. I had never told him how concerned I was that I might not make it unharmed through those dangers.

Now, I forced my hand to turn the door handle.

He was seated on the far side of the big old double bed, his bent back facing me. I quietly closed the door behind me. In a tall dresser mirror on my right, I met his light green eyes with my own blue ones.

He was the first to try to speak. “All ready to go?” I shrugged. “I suppose . . . so . . .”

Since I am over 6’2″ and had strapped to my back an enormous expedition pack that had a sleeping bag and a tent lashed to its top frame, I easily dwarfed everything inside the room. Yet my reflection in the mirror did not seem very large to me at all that morning.

Dad gave the mattress a good push with his thin arms, stood unsteadily, and looked at me–still through the mirror. Outside, the barren branches of the giant sycamore in the side yard slapped together briefly in another gust from the dying winter. Wordlessly, our images–one tall, the other bent–moved from the looking glass. We met at the end of the bed, beside the curtained windows overlooking the property Dad had finally come to own in his last years.

With a hand that looked almost translucent in the morning glow, he held out to me a small, flat card. I took it and read slowly to myself the long row of numbers written on it. It was an international telephone credit-card number of some sort. I looked up, surprised, since no one in our family had ever been outside of the United States.

“I thought you could use this,” he said softly. “I had to get it in my name, but I wanted to make sure you could reach your mother and me whenever you needed our help–or just wanted to talk.”

He squeezed my shoulder. “Please never hesitate to call home. We are here to help you. Your mother and I want so much to know how you are. We want to hear from you. After all, you–”

Almost before I knew what was happening, he was reaching for me with both of his arms. I had to grab him to steady him. At my touch, he sagged into my arms weeping like a boy of six, instead of a man of over sixty. I held him to my chest, scared.

“Promise me one thing, Steve. Promise me you’ll place a red rose on my grave when you come home,” he sobbed. “I want to know you’re home and safe.”

I nodded. It was all I could do. Try as it might, my throat couldn’t squeeze out even so much as a whisper.

At the bottom of the stairs, crowded around the front door, were Mom and all my brothers and sisters–Gary, Mary Ann, Edwin, Elliot, and Sandra. They seemed more nervous than I, yet very proud. Mom was still trying her best to make sure I was well prepared for just about every emergency possible. Some of the things in my pack, like mouthwash and laundry detergent, I probably wouldn’t have thought essential to conquer the world had she not elbowed my common sense a bit. Descending the long, straight stairway, I tried my best to look happy and eager. I knew my brothers and sisters expected that. They had all been excited about my walk, even though apparently none of them had ever been bitten by the travel bug.

I hugged Mom more tightly than I had done since I was a child. She hugged me every bit as strongly, her face buried in my heavy jacket. Then, as one, we squeezed through the front door and out onto the porch of our seventy-year-old brick home. From the street below there rose what had to be some very frozen cheers. Around two dozen of the local villagers were waiting to see me off. I guess I should have known that to a community as small and close-knit as Bethel, it just wouldn’t have seemed proper to let someone go walking around the world without a ceremony of sorts.

Some of the faces were as familiar as school memories: Debi from the Midway cinema and Rick from the little clapboard Canter Insurance office building on the village’s only main street. But some were known to me more by the way they said hello and good day than by name. Some of those cheering me on had been alerted by a telephone call from Dad, while others had undoubtedly heard about my trip from one of the clerks at the Ben Franklin five-and-ten, where I’d purchased the wall map of the world.

However, one face was missing. One whose big smile and long blond curls could have eased so much my fear of loneliness. She was the girlfriend I’d had to leave behind in Wyoming when I returned here to pursue my dream. My long love letters to Charlene from isolated oil rigs and camps in the deserts and mountains had helped me to keep going emotionally in that period of my preparations. And I knew she would have been proud of me right now.

When Charlene had first learned of my plan two years ago, she had exhibited so much excitement and pride that I had had no hesitation about acting on my dream. Yet as the day for my return to Ohio grew nearer, our mutual sadness had several times exploded into tears. More than once I had thought of abandoning my plans. And on that freezing gray windy day last December when we’d parted for good, we’d buried our heads in each other’s shoulders on the edge of Casper and cried like children, totally oblivious to the passing traffic and howling wind. Yet what could I do? I could hardly expect her to wait another three to five years for my return.

I waved numbly at my friends, thinking of the big bouquet of white daisies that had been delivered to our house from Charlene yesterday. Was this walk so important that it was worth the loss of the only woman I’d ever really loved? For my heart’s sake, I hoped so.

And so my back was slapped, I smiled for Instamatics, and I was comforted by hearty promises of prayers. I made room in my jacket for a little flashlight that would shine when its sides were squeezed, and for yet another present of several stamped generic postcards to be mailed, as the excited lady put it, “home to your mother every so often, young man!”

Naturally, in a place like Bethel no crowd could be without a police chief and a mayor. So everyone stood around as P.D., the mayor, wrote into the school composition notebook I was using for my Witness Book: 4-1-83, 9:56 A.M., Bethel, P. D. Brittain, Mayor. And then he surprised me with a letter on village stationery that read:

April 1, 1983

To Whom it may concern:
Subject: Mr. Steven M. Newman
Objective: “Walk Around the World”

This letter of recommendation for Steven M. Newman comes to you with a great sense of pleasure. I have personally known Steven since he was thirteen years of age. He is a trustworthy gentleman. He is a person that our community is proud of. I recommend him to you, without any apprehension. I feel that Steve represents the fine young people throughout the world. We hope that in his passing, through your country’s villages and towns, he will leave you with a ray of hope, in the fulfillment of your own dreams and aspirations. Any assistance you may afford this young man, I am sure will be remembered by him and the citizens of the village of Bethel, Ohio.

Our best wishes, our thoughts, and God’s will are being extended to Steve, as he endeavors to fulfill an ambition he has had since he was a very young man. In closing we wish to invite you to extend to Steve the courtesy he deserves, and in return, I am sure he will extend to you and your citizens the same favor. Upon his return home we will welcome him, and only then will we be able to understand his undertaking, and realize that a life-long dream has finally come true.

Cordially yours,
Parks D. Brittain,

And then everyone looked all the more proud, if a bit colder also, when Chief Fambry entrusted me with an honorary police badge from Manchester, England, which he said he prized, and pulled out a typed letter, too, that read:

April 1, 1983

To All Law Enforcement Officers:

I would like to introduce to you Mr. Steven M. Newman, who will be fulfilling a life-long dream to walk around the world. As we all know in Law Enforcement, our existence is mandatory. I would like to say to you, at this time, if all the people in the world had the character and honesty of this young man, law enforcement would not have to exist. I have given to Steven a badge, from a very dear friend of mine, from the country of England. He will be carrying this, not as a law enforcement officer, but for the ideal of justice it represents. Steven understands the dangers connected with an undertaking of this nature. Our good wishes go forward with him, and we look forward to be able to greet him in our village of Bethel, Ohio, upon his return.
Very respectfully yours,
Charles Fambry,
Chief of Police

When at last it was decent for me to start saying my own share of good-byes, I turned to the east, to the Williamsburg-Bethel road, and smiling bravely took the very first of what I figured would be about 40 million steps.

No one who watched me leave 450 North Charity Street that bittersweet April Fool’s Day knew of the horrible pain and sadness gripping my insides. No one, that is, except for the gaunt little man whose crying eyes peered down at me from an upstairs bedroom window.

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