Countdown Story #4: Athens, AL

By noon it’s pushing 95˚ and I’ve already covered more than 23 miles. Twenty-three used to be a big day, but now it’s just a typical morning. I’m fitter now than I’ve ever been. Able to pull off week-long strings of ultra distances and not feel gassed. It’s weird, sort of like I get stronger as the miles add up. Recently I’ve been ending each day wondering how to pass the time before calling it a night. I usually go for a walk. The humor of this isn’t lost on me. 

As I roll into Huntsville, I wheel Little Buddy to a picnic table behind a gas station. An adjacent metal barrel overflows with trash and the ground is dashed with cigarette butts. Idling long-haulers sit empty in the facing parking lot while drivers stretch their legs. 

A man joins me carrying a McDonald’s bag. Says hello and introduces himself as Chris. We quietly eat our lunch together, meditatively watching as an endless chain of 18-wheelers come and go. When Chris finishes his sandwich, he stares at Little Buddy and breaks the silence.

“Man, I can’t even believe this,” he says, motioning toward the cart. “You mean to tell me you’re walking around the world?” 

Funny he should say this, because I’ve definitely been considering it. 

“Everyone’s got their thing,” I say. “I guess walking is mine.” 

More trucks pull in and come to a slow stop.

“Walking’s my thing, but what’s yours, Chris?” I ask. “What gets you fired up?” 

He thinks for a minute then says it’s his job at Applebee’s. 

“Really?” I say. “Your job?” 

Chris’s mouth contorts. His eye twitches. He scratches his cheek and looks up at the clouds. “Shit man, I don’t know, man. I’m 57 years old,” he says. “I got kids and grandkids. So maybe it’s them. I grew up in Detroit and used to box. Did Golden Gloves back in the days of Sugar Ray and Tommy Hearns. Could be that, too.”

Chris shrugs. Takes s sip of his soda.

“I used to train with Hearns, you know,” he says. “He was a good buddy. But dang, those days are gone.” 

I ask how he ended up here. 

“My baby sister lives nearby,” he says. “Year and a half ago I came down to visit. Four days later I had a job. Didn’t plan on that happening, but I never left.” 

I ask how he likes it. 

“Oh, it’s like anywhere,” he says. “But actually I’m a cold weather guy, so I’m still getting used to the weather,”

Chris pauses.

“And you know, this place is still pretty racist, even if folks are quiet about it,” he says. “Believe it or not, I work with a kid whose grandad is a KKK grand dragon. That man ought to be slapped raising racist grandkids. I mean, come on. It’s 2018.  Give me a break.” 

Chris also says he’s allergic to everything in the south. For as long as he’s been here he’s had a runny nose and weepy eyes. 

“So if you think I’m crying, I’m really not,” he says, wiping his eyes. “But truth be told, I am having a hard time connecting with people. I feel like I don’t fit in. I probably need to just get outta here.” 

Chris is off today and tomorrow. I ask if he has plans.

“Not really,” he says. “I usually come here and sit to watch all this happening. People moving along. It’s crazy to think that earlier today these trucks were all somewhere far away.”

We watch as large diesel truck eases out of its long space and another takes its place. Chris crumples his assortment of trash into a ball and stands up. 

“Honestly, man,” Chris says, “I really don’t know why I keep staying. Guess I’m just stuck here for a while.”

He balances his garbage atop the heaping pile and wishes me good luck.

“I hope you make it, Tom,” he says. “I really hope you do.”

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