Walking Across America
The last time I saw Jeff Dean, he was saying goodbye as my daughter moved out of the Brooklyn apartment they shared. She was moving back to the country and he was staying in the city.
They were schoolfriends, two sweet kids who were part of a crowd at the arts charter school they attended in Hartford. They drifted apart, as high school friends often do. But Jeff suddenly reappeared. He'd left New York, he'd been staying with his parents, but he was now preparing to walk across the country. At first, he was going to be accompanied by another one of their mutual friends. But she's always been a volatile person, and she tried to blow up their plan just two days before their departure.
Jeff decided to go on alone.
The night I spoke with him, he'd been in Lambertville, NJ for four nights. He hadn't meant to go there, but someone told him he should.
“It's right on the Delaware River...and New Hope, Pennsylvania is right across the bridge. They're very interconnected. Everybody here has been so amazing. I was actually taken in by a group of girls who work at a place called Zanya Spa. They saw me on the street and one of them asked me what I was doing with the stick – I have this giant walking stick – and when I told her, she brought me over to meet the rest of her friends. So this will be my fourth night here.”
“Only a couple of miles is where George Washington crossed the Delaware River in that famous painting on Christmas Eve just before the Battle of Trenton. There are so many art galleries – and the people have made me feel so welcome. Two days ago the creative director at the salon invited me in and even gave me a hair cut.”
I asked him what had happened in his working life since I'd last seen him.
“The thing about waiting tables and tending bar in New York City, it's a cycle that sucks you in and it's hard to get out. You're making good money, making cash every night. You work til two or three ayem, go to get a couple of drinks after crazy twelve to fourteen hour shifts, and you get up and just do it again. And one day you wake up and realize you're not doing what you set out to do at all. And you're not getting any younger. So I made the decision to cut it off – just cut it off. I knew if I didn't do it very dramatically, it would be harder for me. So I left, went home to Connecticut for about seven months, regrouped, and I made the decision to go to California.”
But why walk there? What does he hope to find along the way?
“That's something I tried to figure out before I left, and I realized if I waited for the answer I would be waiting forever. So I decided to leave and let my thoughts sort themselves out while I'm walking. Let me tell you about this – I met a guy in Trenton who is an immigrants rights activist. He asked me why I didn't walk for a cause, that it would help people better identify with this walk. But here's what I came to after I thought about that for a couple of days – this walk is not for other people, this walk is for myself. I don't want this walk to have some kind of agenda. That would mean I couldn't focus on what I want to focus on. And I want to be very inclusive. And that's what's happening so far. A couple from Raleigh offered their couch when I come through North Carolina. A couple from Phoenix that I met offered the same thing. I'm getting so much positive feedback. And as I go farther into the South and the Midwest, I'll be meeting people with different beliefs, different viewpoints from the ones I grew up with. I want people to see that just because we may differ on political views or religious views or philosophical views, that doesn't mean that we don't have so much in common, because we do. I want to meet people and focus on the common ground that we share and what we do agree on.”
“I lost my optimism working in New York. The biggest reason was my own complacency. If you don't nurture your self, your soul, that promise that life gives you – if you don't nurture it every day, it dissipates, it fades away. You're working to survive. That's not a healthy way to live out your life. I left there feeling like I needed to not be stagnant anymore. I needed to find that optimism that high schoolers have – there's so much before you, it's stretching out before you. But as you get older you can forget that it's there. But I know that as long as you're alive, no matter how old you are, there's always promise. You just have to seek it.”
“I've heard about farms you can work on in exchange for shelter and food. I have my guitar with me. If I'm in a place where I can't walk because of weather and I have to stay for a few weeks, I'd do it. Everything is so open ended, I have no expectations. I mean, New Hope and Lambertville wasn't even on my itinerary. I backtracked north because someone said I should see it. It was a big decision, but I told myself to take the time to let it happen. The cool thing about walking is things aren't planned and anything can happen.”
I wondered about his safety.
“I stupidly put myself in a situation early in this walk. But it's a learning experience. I was walking through Newark from midnight to three ayem with my whistle in my mouth, bear mace in my hand and this enormous, Gandalf-stick. I was ready to fight for my life. It was a huge mistake and I will, in future, plan out things like that better.”
“Right now I'm having new experiences day after day and it's very early in this walk. I'm still organizing my thoughts. Even my itinerary is still changing. I know at some points I'll be in the desert – it'll just be me and my books and my journal and my guitar. It's hard to say how it's going to affect me. I've been touched by people's kindness. I mean not everybody has been kind – I've been accused of looking for handouts. I've made it clear I'm not looking for contributions. But some people have given me food, or water, or a place to sleep. I've been very touched by everything. Hopefully in the end I can get in touch with that optimistic spirit I once had.”
Once he reaches the West Coast, Jeff is meeting a friend and making a serious effort to be a full time musician.
“I want to dive into my music in a way I never did in New York. I never gave my music the respect that it deserves, that I could have. Toward my latter years in New York I had stopped playing and lost touch with music – and it's my heart and soul. Since then, I've been writing and writing and writing. And when I first started, in New Haven, this little girl was dancing to my music. I noted in my journal that children are the best critics. They are unabashed. They'll tell you if it's good or if they don't like it. When I get to LA, I want to put my music out there. I want people to hear my music.
If you want to follow Jeff Dean's walk, visit http://jeffdeanwalks.wordpress.com/