It was a late spring day and the garden needed some fence wire to tame an over-exuberant blackberry vine. The wire happened to be in the barn.
I don’t go out to the old barn very often. The animals are all gone now and cousin Ronnie is farming our ground. My wife Dot and I still live on the home place but probably not for much longer. I was born on this plot of ground in the middle of Illinois and my children were raised here.
Our barn is close to 100 years old and it’s one of my favorite places. The ground level livestock area has given shelter to every kind of farm animal you can think of. The stalls are all cleaned out now, the only residents being a few cats and some stubborn mice.
Upstairs is the hayloft. Nothing smells like summer more than drying hay. It’s hard to describe. There’s a sweetness in the breeze that recalls hard work and satisfaction as the hay is baled and lifted into the mow for winter feeding. When we fed cattle the hayloft would be completely filled with straw and hay by the first snow. Now there are just a few bales slowly turning to dust.
I swing open the top of the dutch door and reach in to unhook the bottom. Memory tells me there’s a roll of wire hanging on a nail just past the ladder to the loft. I brush away a few cobwebs and spy a mouse seeking shelter from the light pouring in the open door. The wire is just where I thought.
I consider taking a detour up to the hayloft. Relaxing on the haystack was one of my favorite places to get away from things. A quiet space to put things in perspective or work through a knotty problem. Just something about the sweet dryness that made it ok to let go. I take a deep breath hoping to catch a whiff of long ago summers. But there was something else, something that smells like scorched straw. Fire? Couldn’t be but I had to check it out.
I used to scamper up the ladder but now it’s a long trip, one painful step at a time. I finally poke my head through and look up at the oak-beamed roof, sure enough, there is a tiny wisp of smoke hanging in the air. The threat of fire motivates me to scamper up the final rungs.
In one corner someone is leaning over a makeshift burner heating a pot that I assume is water. The tin can burner is resting on a brick. My uninvited visitor is slowly feeding it some straw to keep the fire going.
“Hello?” I say as if meeting someone on the street so as not to startle them. I can’t risk them upsetting the tin can stove.
The visitor looks up and sighs. I think she was hoping to avoid being found out. “Could you put out the fire, I really don’t want to lose my barn today.” With another sigh she lifts the pot of water and pours it down the stove. “Thanks,” I say.
Now that the fire is out I can see that she is a 40ish hiker. A new backpack leans against a straw bale. Some hiking poles rest against the wall. Her outfit is simple and practical, white t-shirt and Capri style walking shorts. A few strands of raven black hair escape from under a Chicago Cubs ball cap while laugh lines dog her eyes.
She wasn’t the first unexpected visitor this old barn has seen. When I was a kid at the tail end of the depression hobos would often stop by to spend the night. These men would travel the Nickel Plate chasing rumors of jobs. Mom would feed them and dad would fix up a place for them to rest in the hayloft. Dad always asked them the same question.
“Walking to something or from something?” I ask like dad.
“I’m just walking Route 66,” she replies.
I nod my head. Walking from something I think to myself. Folks going somewhere easily share they’re plans and desires. Those walking from something, not so much. “That’s quite the hike, what about 2000 miles?”
“2400 from Chicago to Santa Monica Pier,” she replies. “I started out a week ago. I thought I had trained right but my feet are killing me. I was hoping to give them a rest for a day or two, but I’ll clean up and get out of your way.”
I walk over and extend my hand, “I’m Bill, Bill Haines.”
“Cassidy Baxter, just call me Cass,” she replies shaking my hand. “Sorry I, um, didn’t ask permission.”
“Bygones are bygones, let’s get you to the house. We have a spare room and Dot can tend to your feet.”
“I don’t what to be any trouble.” she pushes back.
“And I’d rather you didn’t set fire to my barn. So I think we can call it an even trade.” Cass collected her things and winces as she pulls on her hiking boots. While she was packing I gave the area a close inspection for any stray embers that could flare into something worse.
Dot’s eyes betray her wonder. I had left to get some wire and came back with someone old enough to be our daughter. But it didn’t take her long to size up the situation, gather up her gardening tools, and head inside. By the time Cass and I hobbled back from the barn Dot had drawn a pan of warm water and added a healthy dose of Epsom salts.
“Dot meet Cass, she’s walking Route 66 to California.” Dot and Cass shake hands. What a contrast. Dot’s white curls to Cass’s short straight black locks, Dot’s farmer’s wife dress to Cass’s hiking gear. Dare I mention Dot’s rather plump figure compared to Cass’s lean frame? I guess I already did.
“Sit here honey and soak your feet in that pan, it will bring down the swelling.” Dot suggests with a smile.
“And let me see those boots. I did a fair amount of walking in the army.” I offer.
“AAhhh,” was all Cass offered as her feet hit the water and she relaxed back in the chair.
While Cass soaked, Dot threw together some sandwiches for lunch and I took a closer look at Cass’s boots. They were fancier than anything I had in the army but seemed more suitable for day hikes at Starved Rock than a 2400 mile trip on hard roads. My farm boots come from a long-established shoe store not far from downtown Peoria they might have what she needs. So I gave them a call and explained the situation.
After a bit, Cass sits up, “Oh that feels better, thanks.”
“Here’s a towel dear, dry your feet and come to the table. Lunch is ready. It’s not much, just some sandwiches and chips.” Dot offered.
I wasn’t sure how our guest would react to this next part. Dot and I always pause to hold hands and say grace before our meals. So I took one of Dot’s hands and we each offered a hand to Cass. “We’re going to say grace.” I quickly explained. She nodded and tentatively took hold. Compared to her soft hands ours must have felt like sandpaper paws. “Thank you Lord for this food and for bringing Cass our way. Heal her feet and bring blessings to our day. We love you Jesus – Amen.”
“So Cass, what made you decide to tackle Route 66?” I asked handing her the sandwich plate.
“Just seemed like the thing to do,” she shrugged. “What kind of meat is this, Salome of some kind?”
“It’s called Lebanon Bologna. It’s from Pennsylvania. We have some friends out there and they send us some every now and again. We send them apple cider donuts and other goodies from a local orchard.”
“It’s great, somewhere between summer sausage and smoked salami,” Cass observed.
“While you were soaking I called Wilson’s, it’s a shoe place in Peoria down on Adams. Been there for a long time. They think they may have a better hiking boot for you. To be honest, the boots you have were designed for day hikes, not the road. We can head in after lunch If you’d like.”
Before Cass could answer Dot added, “And you’re welcome to stay for supper and spend the night. We have a guest room you’re more than welcome to use it.”
During the trip to Peoria, I tried to crack Cass’s shell about her reasons for choosing her long hike and found that she’s very adept at deflecting. For instance, I asked when she thought she would arrive in Santa Monica, she replied with a question about corn. Definitely walking from something.
Wilson’s did have the boots she needed. The clerk offered her some valuable advice having completed the Appalachian Trail three summers ago. The owner even offered to sponsor Cass’s trek and provide her boots at a discount. One thing I learned in these conversations is that Cass launched out without any support system, just her gear, ID, and credit cards.
On the trip back from Peoria I decided to take the blunt route with Cass. “You don’t have anyone, do you? No family or friends to backstop you?” A little quiver of her lower lip and a vacant stare out the window confirmed my suspicions. “We haven’t known each other very long, but Dot and I are willing to support you.”
“My name is Cassidy Baxter,” Cass began in a dry monotone, her vacant gaze staring at the road ahead. “As of three months ago I was Cassidy Morgan, married twenty-four years with no children, Vice-President of marketing at Chicago Trust and Savings. I’m 49 years old. My husband took his mid-life crisis to the ultimate extreme, trading in his car, his career, and his wife for newer models. One month ago I was passed over for a promotion that should have been mine. I worked for it, slaved for it, gave up family for it. I resigned the next day without notice. That bridge is well burnt including connections to my coworkers. I thought some of them were my friends but only the job held us together. I have no other family, only a second cousin in Florida that I barely know and don’t care to know. All I’m doing is chasing sunsets until I die.” She said with flowing tears.
Ok, that shell is thoroughly cracked and it was more than I bargained for. “Well, let me return that favor. I’m William Haines, 78 years old. Dorothy, Dot, and I have been married for fifty-eight years. We have three grown children scattered hither and yon with seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren all of which brings us enormous joy and pride. We’re old and retired but in relatively ok health. Soon, we’ll have to give up living on the home place which makes me very sad. Our friends are dying off so there’s that. But we have our faith and we have each other, our family, and a few close friends so as far as I’m concerned life is good.”
The last few miles were consumed in silence as we pondered what had been said.
Cassidy stayed more than just an overnight. The clerk at the shoe store suggested a series of short hikes to break in her new boots before she set off again in earnest. Dot and I didn’t mind, it was a joy to have someone else share our lives.
Over the next few evenings, Cass and I planned her journey. One evening we cut her route from a road atlas. The next day, while Cass hiked to a neighboring town and back I ran to the local school to laminate them.
Another evening we look at her pack. “Try that pack on, I want to see how it fits you,” I said. Cass shoulders the pack and sets the hip belt. “It’s riding a bit much on your shoulders. You want most of the weight to hit your hips. Let’s see if we can’t adjust that.” I helped Cass out of the pack. “How much stuff do you have in there? I’ve thrown 50lb feed sacks that seemed lighter.”
“It’s everything I need.” Cass shrugs.
“Mind if we go through it? Shaving a few pounds will be easier on your feet.” I suggest.
She struggles with the thought for a moment. It’s difficult to let someone else look into our lives and suggest things we don’t need. Trust won over fear, thank God for small victories. Within a few moments everything was laid out on the kitchen table.
I won’t go through her inventory. Let’s just say she was able to throw away some things and arranged for us to send her other things when her progress required them. Ten pounds was shaved by the time we were finished and everything repacked. The rest of the evening was spent planning where and when to send her the care packages.
The next day at breakfast Cass announces, “I think I’m ready to start again. I’ll hike about twenty miles today and I’d like to fix supper for you tonight, just as a way of saying thanks. Then head out early tomorrow morning.”
“That would be lovely dear, feel free to use whatever you need in the kitchen.” Dot replied.
“Oh no, I’m doing this hiking style, any chance you could set up a fire ring somewhere? I’ll take care of everything else, even the wood for the fire. The only thing I need is a fire ring, I’ll pick everything else up at the store.”
Later, the three of us contentedly sat around Cass’s campfire as the sun’s rim kissed the western horizon. Cass’s foil pack creation of bratwurst, onions, green peppers, and potatoes hit the spot. Clean up was finished and a fire built up from the charcoal embers.
“Going to be a pretty one,” I said looking at the western sky. Orange was prominent but I knew that as the sun dipped lower the clouds would be painted with purples and reds.
“We haven’t done this in years, I kind of miss our campfires,” Dot said.
“I don’t know how to thank you two, I never expected, even dreamed, that folks would care,” Cass admitted.
“Ah, it was nothing. Just keeping you from setting fire to the barn,” I joked.
“You asked a question that morning,” Cass began. “You know, about walking from something or to something. To be honest I didn’t know how to answer. All my life I’ve walked to something and saw it fall apart. It always seemed just out of my grasp. So, yeah, I am walking away from a lot of somethings, a truckload of pain, heartache, and regrets. Truth is that I’d like to walk towards something, I just don’t know what.”
“I guess you’ll have 2400 miles to figure that out,” I said. Cass stared at the fire and nodded as the reds faded from the clouds and dusk took hold.
“You’re carrying a terrible burden dear,” Dot said.
“It’s a lot less thanks to Bill,” she replied.
“Oh, I don’t mean your backpack. I mean in your heart dear.” Dot paused to let the words settle.
“Yeah, I know,” Cass whispered. “I don’t know how to change that. It’s not like sorting a pack and throwing things away.”
“Well, it kind of is like that,” I replied. “I carried a load like that myself for a while.”
“Go on dear, tell Cass about it.” Dot encouraged knowing my reluctance to revisit old wounds.
“Well, you know I was in the army. It was during the Korean War. I wasn’t infantry, but in communications, mostly rear lines stuff. Setting up phones, running messages, and delivering orders. Pretty tame compared to what a lot of the boys went through. One morning I was ordered to hand deliver a message to a platoon on some numbered hill. We’d run phone up there several times and the lines kept getting sabotaged. So me and a few replacements drove there in a jeep. It was an uneventful trip but by the time we got there it was too late to head back. The Chinese attacked that night but we were in a strong defensive position. The captain had me radio in for some artillery support. Someone in the chain between my lips and the gunner’s ears transposed a number. The army never figured out who. But that error caused the artillery shells to fall on us instead of the Chinese. Luckily we managed to get a radio call out but not before half the platoon was killed or injured. I ended up with two broken legs and a trip stateside for the rest of the war.”
“How long did it take to recover?” Cass asked.
“Little over a year physically, but heart-wise – that took a lot longer. I was mad at everyone, the Sargent that sent me up there, the Captain that ordered the artillery, the dunderhead that transposed the numbers, the gunner that failed to double check the map, the Army, the government, the Koreans, but most of all God for letting it happen.”
“Yep, I’ve got a list like that too,” Cass agreed. “So how did you deal with it?”
“Even though I was mad at God I still went to church for the kid’s sake. One day the preacher talked about what Jesus told us to pray – forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. I guess I kind of took that to heart. Farming is a lonely business, kind of like walking Route 66 solo. Hours and hours out on the tractor working the fields. So I began to forgive everyone and everything I could think of as I worked the ground. It was like little chips of heaviness fell off with every word until there wasn’t anything left.”
“I watched it happen dear and I prayed that God would keep showing him things to get rid of.” Dot added.
“I don’t want to fool you, it wasn’t easy or quick. Several times I thought I had it all gone and God would show me a little bit more. Soon though I was going beyond what happened in Korea and forgiving things that happened earlier in my life or even that same day.”
Cass nodded but didn’t say anything choosing instead to soak in the silence of the stars, the crackling warmth of the fire, and the distant call of a coyote. I don’t know if Cass caught it but my ears heard a whisper on the breeze saying “it is well.”
Several months later an email landed in our inbox. The subject line simply said “thanks,” and the body of the email had one line, “I feel a thousand tons lighter.” Attached was a picture of a grinning Cass standing with her feet in the ocean as sunset splashed on Santa Monica Pier.
“She made it!” I yelled to Dot.
“Praise God,” she replied.