In Petersburg, Nebraska (population approximately 200), I was sitting at the counter at a convenience store, which also ran a small Chester Chicken fried food franchise inside. I sat next to a pile of chicken breast that had been warming under a hot lamp for hours. In front of me were two empty yogurt containers and a banana peel: the remains of the lunch I’d bought from the convenience store. I’d just finished watching the documentary Buck, about a famous horse whisperer, from David’s Netflix account on my iPad, and I began to upload pictures for a new blog entry.
I felt the presence of something to my left, so I looked over and saw a police officer in a tan uniform. On his breast was a brass sharp-cornered star. He was probably in his late-30s.“Can I give you a ride out of the county?” he asked.
“Umm… I’m actually on a walking expedition. I’m headed to Texas,” I said.
I’ve been offered dozens of rides, but I’ve politely declined them all, as I’m determined to do the whole trip on foot.
“Well, I need to give you a ride out of the county,” he said sternly.
Now what’s all this about, I thought.
He asked me what I was doing, and I told him that I’m a writer and that I’m following the pipeline. When he took my North Carolina driver’s license he asked what my job was in North Carolina. I stumbled a bit with the question, as the whereabouts of my true home and the title of my true job are unclear even to me. Eventually I said I’d been a student in North Carolina, where I received my Master’s degree.
“Hmm… A Master’s degree,” he said suspiciously.
I began to feel slightly nervous. He was carefully inspecting my every move, seeking any sign of guilt. Aware that my nervousness might be construed as guilt, I became hyper self-conscious, and every physical movement now had layers of thought behind it.
He said he’d explain everything in the car.
We walked to the parking lot and I said, “Sir, if you want me out of the county, I’d much prefer to walk out. I promised myself that I was going to walk the whole way to Texas. I haven’t been in a vehicle for 70 days. If you say I must get in the vehicle, I will. But I’d rather walk.”
“You need to get in the vehicle. I have orders to take you out of town.”
He opened the back seat, and I stepped in. Behind me, to my left, and in front of me was hard metal cage.
I wondered what could have caused this. The pipeline path, in this part of Nebraska, closely parallels roads, so for the past week I hadn’t done any trespassing. I’d been walking purely on the shoulders of roads, which is perfectly legal. So surely this wasn’t why I was being escorted out of town.
It had been a fairly normal day up until this point. I’d been walking south down Highway 14 all morning. It was sunny, warm, and windy. I arrived in Petersburg around noon. I aired out my sleeping bag at the park for half an hour, and sought the local library so I could do computer work. The library was closed, so I went to the convenience store, where I’d buy a meal and use the free Wi-Fi. I figured I’d hang out there for a bit, before heading to the local campground for a long night of pleasure reading.
Perhaps someone saw me looking into the library windows? Or maybe they thought it was strange that I was airing out my moistened sleeping bag? Or maybe a few paranoid passersby called the cops from the road, weirded-out by the bearded guy walking along the highway? I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong. Without any other ideas, I worried that someone had caught me peeing by an evergreen tree in the previous town, when I thought no one was looking.
He got in the driver seat and told me that there was a report that two homes suspected there had been an intruder. One homeowner, apparently, came home and the doors were unlocked. Another family, a few blocks away, discovered that their dog was out of the house when they remembered locking him in.
“I’ve been walking for 70 days,” I said. “I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I’d been breaking into homes along the way.”
He took me to the first home, and asked, “Does this look familiar to you?” It was a small home, about the size of a double-wide, that was so bland and nondescript my memory of it has already vanished.
“No,” I said, laughing. “I haven’t even been on this side of town.”
We drove down a few blocks. “You said you got two calls?” I asked. This is when I turned on my camera to record the conversation.
“Yepper,” he said. He pulled up to the second house. “And this house right here,” he said pointing to an equally bland house. “I hope it wasn’t you, and if I find out it was, you’ll be coming back to Boone County, Nebraska.”
“Well,” I said, unable to hold back a chuckle at the ridiculousness of all this. “You’re free to check my stuff.”
Day turned into night as we headed south down Highway 14. I could still vaguely see the rolling land, mostly fallow hay and corn fields. I was upset that I was in a vehicle, but for the most part I was amused with the situation. There was something very movie-like about a stranger being wrongly suspected of a crime (what was the crime exactly!?) in a small, rural town. Think Into the Wild meets My Cousin Vinny. All that was missing was a conversation in which each of us thought we were talking about two different crimes.
“Listen, officer,” I’d say, thinking this was all about me indecently peeing in the woods. “I just had to do it. I didn’t think anyone was watching.”
“You had to do it?” he’d say, thinking I was talking about breaking and entering into the two homes.
“Well, it’s an impulse, a compulsion…”
“So you admit to it?”
“Well, yeah I admit to it.”
“And this wasn’t the first time you’ve done it?” he’d ask.
“Goodness no,” I’d say, taken aback. “I’ve been doing it in towns all along the way.” He’d nod to himself, as this would confirm all his suspicions.
“Normally, I’m more careful about it,” I’d say. “But when you gotta go, you gotta go.”
“Well, you ain’t goin’ to be goin’ nowhere for a long time, boy. We’re gonna settle this right here in Boone County, Nebraska.”
“So how far along is the county line?” I asked.
For the past week, I’d planned to arrive in the town of Albion, Nebraska on December 4th. There was to be a big hearing there regarding Nebraska’s long-awaited environmental assessment of the Keystone XL route. There would be protests, demonstrations, and impassioned testimonies. I’d meet many environmentalists and landowners opposed to the XL. It was sure to be a goldmine.
But to be in Albion on the 4th, I’d had to significantly slow my pace, which was something I wasn’t keen on doing since I was eager to move south, and escape winter, as fast as possible. So, because I’d already sacrificed many miles of southward momentum, I was not at all happy with being shipped far away from Albion.
“You got 13 miles till you get to Albion,” he said. “Then another 13 to 18 miles to get out of the county from Albion.”
“So does that mean I won’t be able to be in Albion tomorrow for that meeting?”
“You mean I probably won’t be able to be in town?” I asked.
“Not unless you get yourself back there. Alls I know is that I’m gettin’ you out of my county, because of what’s happened so far. I can’t prove you did anything wrong, and you’re not in any kind of trouble, but things like that don’t happen in a population of town of only 180 to 220 people. We don’t got no crooks in Petersburg.” He emphasized this last part. My amusement turned to annoyance.
“Sir, I don’t appreciate your accusatory tone,” I said. “I’m a good person, I’ve never stolen anything in my life. I think this is wrong.”
He coughed, then after a minute of silence he started to make small talk about the weather, but I was too upset to indulge him.
For some reason, he couldn’t take me the whole way, so he pulled over in a big gravel lot, where another police SUV was parked. When we got out, I asked him, “Do you want to go through my pack?”
“No, because I don’t know if I’m missing anything,” he said.
He then commenced to update the other officer:
“We had one report, but with two houses. Since this morning, have open doors in their house. One of the houses had a dog that was inside the house. Now the dog’s outside. No one else is around. They should be at home. So it leads to suspicion. Can’t accuse him of it, cause you can’t prove it. So the sheriff just said, ‘Move him out.’ He’s a writer, and he’s following the pipeline, and he wants to be at tomorrow’s meeting. Guess we can’t stop him from coming back. At least we’re getting him out of the way now.”
I was standing only feet away when he said this. And despite the disrespect and accusatory tone, my amusement had returned and I listened with an emotion bordering on glee.
The other officer seemed far more level-headed. As we continued south past Albion, he asked what I was doing. I started from the beginning of my trip–all the way back in Denver–and gave him a thorough description of all the stages of my journey.
“I think this is all so silly,” I told him. “I have a book deal and plenty of money. I have an iPad. It’s not like I’m destitute.”
This new officer, gathering that I probably wasn’t guilty, and feeling sorry about the whole Albion thing, turned down a gravel road and made his way back to Albion, where I am now, in a campground, innocent, and still very amused.
My mug shot, appropriately unbecoming.