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Talkin' by a Wood Stove
“Stop right there, son. You ain't goin' nowhere in this blizzard. Now sit down!” The huge man blocked the narrow door of the snow-covered country store. I had just thawed out from the heat of the wood stove and was ready to move on, but this outraged stranger was as round as the stove and as stout as an old oak, and the meanness in his face would have stopped a charging rhino. I didn't want to argue or create more of a scene than was already taking place, so I took off my backpack again, hoping he would calm down.
I leaned my pack up against a bag of hog feed and sat down next to a farmer in faded overalls. On my right sat a man who, along with me, looked a bit out of place in this collection of country folk. This white-haired scholarly-looking gentleman wore overalls, but they were a very new blue. His expensive golf-rimmed glasses were unbent and his hands were big and soft.
Next to the white-haired man was a man in his early twenties, about my age. He had on an insulated army jacket, and his hair, long for this part of the country, was growing out from underneath his yellow-and-green John Deere baseball cap. The worn black boots with the army canvas on the side told me that he had recently returned from Vietnam. In the seat next to the Vietnam veteran was his young son, staring at my golden backpack.
The shouting man came over to our circle by the potbellied stove.“What in the world do ya think yer a-doin' hikin' in this blizzard? Cain't ya see there's two feet o' snow on tha ground and no stoppin' in sight? What are ya, crazy?”
“Now calmdown, Tommy. Maybe this boy's got a good reason for bein' out in this god-awful weather,” soothed the white-haired gentleman.
“Doc,” yelled Tommy, “I could hardly feed ma cows this morning, it was so bad! Why the devil ya think I'm stranded here? This boy's got ta be crazy!”The doctor said, “Tommy, why don't you hush up and I'll ask the boy himself.”Here it goes again, I said to myself. For the hundredth time I am going to answer someone's questions about why I'm walking across America. It wasn't that I minded talking about it or answering questions, it was just that I really didn't know why myself.
“Well, sir, my name's Peter Jenkins.” I took a deep breath. “I'm walking across America. I started in upper New York state in October and I'm heading down through the Deep South and then on over to the West Coast.”The doc looked as if he had just delivered quintuplets when he expected twins. He blurted out, “Why in the name of God would you want to do a thing like that?”
“To get to know the country.”
Doc stared at me. “So how does everything look?” he asked.“You know, doc, it's looking better and better all the time.”Tommy, the stranded farmer, had been pacing the floor. For once he was quiet, obviously thinking hard. He broke off a wad of tobacco and began to chew. “Listen, Pete, why don't ya come over to my house fer the night? My wife will cook ya up a big batch of biscuits with some homegrown steak.”
He was still trying to keep me out of the storm, and he had just offered me a temptation I almost couldn't resist. I hated to turn down those hot biscuits, but I declined his kind invitation. This time Tommy didn't stand in my way when I walked over to my pack, which I had just crammed with a day's food supply. He reached over and with a groan lifted the sixty pounds onto my back.“Shoot, boy, I can hardly lift it! Ya know, carry'n' this thang all day must be worse than throwin' bales of hay on a hot summer day.” He aimed a spit of tobacco in a nearby can. “Pete, yer all right!”
I opened the ice-caked door and whistled for Cooper, my half-Alaskan Malamute dog. For the first time he didn't instantly appear. This puzzled me because Cooper always waited for me no matter how long I was gone.
But now he was nowhere in sight. I whistled as loud as I could and yelled, “Cooper! Come on, let's go!” Over to my left I saw an exploding mound of snow. Inside that explosion was smiling Cooper. He came crashing over and jumped up on me with so much power and excitement that he knocked me back five feet. I would have fallen if big ol' Tommy hadn't been standing behind me; instead I just bounced off him.
What happened next was one beautiful moment in our long walk. When Cooper jumped up on me and I bounced off Tommy, I was spun around and there were all the country store people standing in this freezing, blowing snow ready to say good-bye. First the little boy walked up to me and handed me a Hershey's chocolate bar his dad had bought him. Then the doc came over to size up Cooper and said, “Yes, sirre-e-e, I guess with him taking care of you I don't have to worry so much about you.” He paused. “Listen, son, what we were saying back there in the store, well, we were just concerned, that's all.” Another pause as he started to shiver.
Then out from the weathered little store came the thin farmer with the antique overalls. He hadn't said a word, but now he walked over to me, grabbed my hand hard as a bear...A Walk Across America. Copyright © by Peter Jenkins. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.