Somewhere in central South Dakota, I passed the 600-mile mark of my trip. While my legs and hips and back felt good, and my feet were no longer plagued with cuts and blisters and gashes, I began to feel a weariness settle into my bones, into the very roots of me; a weariness that I knew wouldn't go away with a day's, a week's, or even a month's rest.
Because of the waning daylight, I'm limited to walking from 6:30 am to 3:45 pm, making it all the more difficult for me to reach my 20-miles-a-day goal. To compensate for the lack of daylight, I push myself hard, taking as few breaks as I can, reminding myself--when my feet and shoulders are aching--that I'll have the whole evening for lounging and reading and writing.
In Midland, South Dakota, where I'd pick up a food package, I spent the evening at the local bar, where I ate a double bacon cheeseburger and charged my electronics. The bar also functioned as the town's gas station, grocery store, and casino, the last of which was located in a small dark room behind old-style saloon doors.
I sat quietly in the corner trying to write, but the bar became rowdy and I wasn't able to focus, so I entertained myself with the Broncos-Chargers game on the television. The conversations in the room ranged from branding cows to hammering fence posts to Kim Kardashian to a very sincere debate about what it means to be a good son.
Roger the plumber was the first person to befriend me and he told me that when I went to the bathroom the whole bar wondered aloud who I was and what I was doing. "They thought you were a monster," he said laughing. What really confused them were my trekking poles. When the bartender, a middleage woman, asked me, later on, what I used my "skiing poles" for, she, clearly unsatisfied with my explanation, gave me a dubious look and seemed even more leery of me. When Roger announced to the crowd what I'd set out to do, the bartender told me I'd get shot if I walked over so-and-so's property, which was a warning I instantly dismissed, as I've heard warnings like this again and again. "Oh, he'll shoot you!" she said. I gathered that these aren't so much warnings, but reaffirmaing boasts about how rugged their land is and how tough the people who dwell on it are. The men, at most all of my stops, warn me about cougars, talking about the big cats with intimate knowledge, as if they engage in monthly wrestling contests with the animal, even though no one has even seen one. "Has he shot anyone before?" I asked the bartender. "Well, no," she said.
Roger called himself a "black sheep" because he was one of very few people who favored progressive politics in South Dakota. Throughout the night, the bartender screamed at him, with equal parts affection and scorn, "Obama lover!!" Roger laughed, and tried to engage them in a political discussion, but the bartender and the rest of the bar, deflected his efforts and repeated the refrain of how Obama helps lazy people. Roger suggested I sleep on his floor for the night--an invitation which I eagerly accepted.
He ordered two more beers ("two for the ditch") and I followed his truck to his home in the center of town. I sat with him in his house-trailer at his kitchen table, which was cluttered with a rat's nest of magazines, envelopes and a pair of Hane's briefs, which he saw no reason to remove.
"What do you think about the legalization of marijauna?" Roger asked while constructing a makeshift pipe out of a Coke-a-Cola can, piercing a hole into the polar bear's head. "It doesn't bother me," I said.
He told me that the South Dakotans are conservative and pro-business, but that they're "South Dakotans at heart" and they don't like it when a big corporation forces them to put a pipe on their property. Still, he said, they rarely vote in their best interests, unthinkingly favoring the party of the wealthy when it might be better for them to vote for the party that best represents the middleclass. When I asked him why they do this, he said, "People around here don't know how to have an intellectual conversation." His voice was a slow, slurred baritone: drunken but wise.
I knew what he meant. I'd been walking for two months, but it wasn't until now, with Roger, that I felt completely free to share my thoughts, uncensored, with another person. It is difficult to find a true conversant: one who is not ruled by his own prejudice or dogma or even his own opinions. The true conversant is one whose opinions are alive and vibrant, living documents of the mind, subject to change, evolve, and grow nuanced and complex.
In the morning, when I awoke, I found that Roger had already left for work. I packed my things, wrote him a thank you note, picked up my package at the post office, walked down gravel roads, and then hopped a barb wire fence into prairieland. And I didn't get shot.