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Miles to go, p.13
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       Miles to Go, p.13

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  “You’re kidding,” I said.

  “No sir.”

  “But why me?” Nicole asked.

  “Actually, the change was made only two weeks ago. He did leave a letter for you, perhaps it might explain things.” He pulled several documents from the stack he held. “I’ll need a few signatures from you, and, as outlined in the will, I’ll be deducting my fees from the estate prior to disbursing funds.” He handed her several papers. “I’ve marked where you need to sign.”

  She signed the documents and handed them back. Snarr put them in his briefcase, then handed her a tan envelope. “Here’s the letter Mr. Dodd left for you.”

  “Thank you,” Nicole said.

  Snarr stood, lifting his briefcase. “You’re very welcome.” He handed Nicole a business card. “If you have any questions, please feel free to call at any time.”

  Nicole walked him to the door. “Thanks for coming by.”

  “My pleasure,” he said.

  She shut the door behind him and then turned back and opened the envelope. Inside was a note penned in shaky handwriting.

  Dear Angel,

  I hope you don’t mind me calling you that. It’s certainly applicable. If you’re reading this, then be happy for me, as I’m finally with my family again.

  The last two years have been difficult for me. Ever since I lost my sweetheart, I lay alone in my cold bed at night listening to the infirmities of my age and hoping for it to catch up to me. The worst infirmity of all has been the loneliness. As you know, June passed several years ago. Our only son, Eric, died nearly twenty years ago. My two brothers and my sister have also died, as have most of my friends. I have no one. Or, I had no one, until this last Thanksgiving when you reached out to me. It may seem a small thing, inviting an old man to join you at the table, but, for me, it was everything. I woke the next day happy for the first time in years. But you didn’t end there. You included me in all of your activities. Even with that young man you room with, you brought me along. You made me feel alive again. You were my friend.

  I hope you will accept my gift as a token of my friendship. I honestly can’t think of anyone more deserving. If you wish, I would hope that you would extend to Christine free rent until she graduates from school. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. You have made an old man smile again.

  God bless,

  Bill

  CHAPTER

  Thirty-four

  Forgiveness is the key to the heart’s shackles.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  Not surprisingly, Nicole was a little overwhelmed by it all.

  “I don’t know anything about trusts or real estate. How am I going to handle all this?” she asked. “Will you help me?”

  I almost laughed. “That would be the blind leading the blind. But I do know just the man who can.”

  “Who?”

  “My father. The man knows how to handle money.”

  “That would be perfect,” she said.

  My father was the only number programmed into the cell phone he gave me, something he’d done himself. I called him and told him about Nicole’s windfall. He was pleased and glad to be asked to help.

  “I love it when good things happen to good people,” he said.

  Nicole went into work the next day and gave her twoweeks’ notice. A few days later I accompanied her up to Gonzaga’s enrollment office as she enrolled in school and registered for the Spring semester. She was finally going to complete her film studies major with a minor in American literature. She also began writing a new screenplay, one that I think has promise.

  “It’s the story of a young police dispatcher,” she said, “who gets involved in the life of someone she meets through a crime.”

  I thought she’d probably start looking for a bigger home, but she didn’t. “I don’t want too many changes in my life right now,” Nicole said. “Baby steps.”

  “Sounds like something my father would say.”

  “Actually, he did,” she replied.

  The next three months were filled with so many remarkable changes that the time passed quickly. Nicole was truly a new person, or, more accurately, herself again. She loved going back to school, and she and Christine began carpooling, leaving me with a car during the day, so I got out more and spent several days each week at the Spokane library.

  In mid-January, Nicole called her sister, Karen. Karen was relieved to hear from her and apologized for not being there to support her through her accident and Aiden’s funeral. “I was just in such a crazy state of mind,” Karen said. “But there’s no excuse for me not being there for you. I hope you can someday forgive me.”

  “I forgive you now,” Nicole said.

  Those four words had a miraculous effect on both women. They made plans to get together that summer and vacation at Bullman Beach for old times’ sake.

  While I waited for better weather, I stepped up my physical training. I walked twice a day or swam at the community center when the weather was inclement.

  I had gone through my road atlas so many times I could recite the towns and cities I would pass through on my way to South Dakota.

  My muscle mass had returned and the pain I had overcome was just a bad memory. I was getting antsy to leave, and it seemed that with each new day I felt more acutely my own path calling me.

  Spokane had a mild winter that year, and around March the snow on the ground had completely melted. Every day I’d watch the weather reports, and Nicole had taken it upon herself to call Yellowstone National Park daily to check on road conditions.

  Saturday afternoon, March 19, I had just finished my morning walk when I found Nicole sitting on the outside steps of her building waiting for my return.

  “How was your walk?” she asked. She looked upset.

  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

  “I don’t want to tell you.”

  “Tell me what?”

  “If I answer that, then I’ve told you, which is precisely what I don’t want to do.” She stood up and walked inside. I followed her in.

  When I had closed the apartment door, Nicole said, “The east gate of Yellowstone is open.”

  “Oh,” I said.

  We were both quiet for a moment.

  “When will you leave?” she asked.

  “I’ll need a couple days.”

  She looked down. “Then we have a couple days. How do you want to spend them?”

  “I’ve got some preparations I need to make.”

  “Anything else?”

  “What do you want to do?”

  “I don’t care. Just as long as I’m with you.”

  CHAPTER

  Thirty-five

  I don’t think it is as much a human foible as it is a human curse that we cannot understand the beauty of a thing until it is gone.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I woke Tuesday to the smell of bacon and coffee. I pulled on my sweat pants and walked out of my room. Nicole was in the kitchen. She had made me breakfast. “Morning, deserter.”

  “Good morning.”

  “Would you like some coffee, Mr. Abandonment?”

  I grinned. “Is this necessary?”

  “I think so, Mr. Exit. How about you stay until tomorrow.”

  “You’ll say the same thing tomorrow.”

  “It’s the magic of tomorrow. It never comes.”

  I sat down and she sat across from me. “How far are you planning on walking today?” she asked.

  “I wanted to make it to Coeur d’Alene, but I’ll probably end up just over the border into Idaho.”

  She lifted a piece of bacon and took a bite. “What an adventure.”

  As I looked at her, I realized that we’d been together for almost five months. It was hard to believe that she wouldn’t be there every day. The thought made my heart ache. Difficult times build unique relationships, and we’d become closer than friends. She was the sister I’d never had.

  Her eyes began to well with
tears. “You have no idea how much I’m going to miss you,” she said softly.

  After breakfast I showered and shaved, fully appreciating the hot water I’d soon be deprived of, then I went into my room and checked the contents of my pack one more time. When I was ready, I put on my Akubra hat and carried my pack out to the front room. “It’s time,” I said.

  Nicole walked out of her bedroom. Her eyes were red and puffy. She took my hand and we walked out together, stopping at the house’s front door. “I better not go outside,” she said, “or I’ll probably just keep on following you.”

  I leaned my pack against the wall and took her hands in mine. There was a sweet awkwardness to the moment, like icing on sorrow. I looked into her eyes. “So, did you ever figure out why you came to help me?”

  “Maybe I’m just the kind of girl who rescues stray puppies.”

  I squeezed her hands.

  Nicole said, “I’ve realized that the happiest times of my life have been when I was taking care of someone—my Aiden, you, then Bill. I’m going to miss having someone to care for.”

  “I have a feeling that won’t last long.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “The world is full of stray puppies.”

  She smiled sadly. “Do you have your St. Christopher?”

  “Yes,” I said, pulling the chain out of my shirt.

  For a moment we just gazed into each other’s eyes then she suddenly threw her arms around me, burying her head in my chest. She began to cry again. “Will you call me when you get to Key West?”

  “Absolutely.”

  She looked up into my eyes. “Please don’t forget me.”

  I wiped a tear from her cheek. “How would I do that?”

  “Will you be mad at me if I call you sometime? I promise I won’t stalk you.”

  “You call if you ever need anything. And remember to let my dad help you.”

  She kept looking at me, as tears ran down her face.

  I kissed her forehead, then she buried her head in my chest again. “What would I have done without you?”

  I just silently held her. It’s not that there wasn’t anything to say. It’s that there was too much and words were poor substitutes for our feelings. It was maybe ten minutes before she sighed and stepped back. “I’ll let you go,” she said softly.

  I grabbed my backpack, lifting it over my shoulder. Nicole stood with her arms folded, occasionally wiping a tear from her cheek.

  I took a deep breath. “See you,” I said.

  “See you,” she echoed.

  I walked outside and I was alone again.

  CHAPTER

  Thirty-six

  Last night the reality of my impending departure hit me. My former companions—Loneliness and Despair—had been patiently waiting outside Nicole’s house the whole time, waiting to get me alone, waiting to resume our walk.

  —Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  In the storm of the emotional challenges of my departure, I had neglected to consider the physical ones. I was leaving the creature comforts of Nicole’s home for the exposure, tedium, and exertion of the rugged outdoors. Even if the roads were open, it was still very cold.

  In the east I could see dark storm clouds gathering like an angry mob. The clouds reminded me of the night I had spent in the shacks outside Leavenworth, being pelted by hail.

  I walked east on Nora to Dakota Street, then south, past the Montessori. At Mission, I turned left and walked east again for several miles until I came to Greene, turned south and walked another quarter mile to Trent, the road that would take me to the Washington-Idaho border.

  The scenery on Trent changed dramatically for the worse as suburb turned to industrial—I passed steel and aluminum buildings, a junkyard, a boiler company, equipment rental, auto repair shops, and Bobo’s Adult Video.

  Still, the names of the coffee purveyors were no less creative than what I’d passed between Seattle and Spokane—the Grind Finale, Grind Central Station, Caffiends Espresso, Sorrentino’s Espresso, and 1st Shot Gourmet Espresso.

  About four hours into my walk I stopped to get a coffee at the Java the Hut, then sat behind the small wooden shack and ate lunch from my pack. As I sat there sipping from my cup, I spotted a big reflective sign that read:

  Apple Maggot Quarantine Area

  The sign raised many questions: Were people actually carrying apple maggots, and would the sign stop them if they were? Were there areas where apple maggots were considered okay? Would other types of maggots be welcome? Would apple maggots someday be an endangered species and have SAVE THE APPLE MAGGOTS bumper stickers?

  I rested for about a half hour, then set off again. Later that afternoon nature returned and the landscape grew dense and green again until it opened up into a broad, welcome expanse of horse property.

  Standing next to the road was a cinnamon-colored quarter horse that looked remarkably like McKale’s. The horse watched me approach, her head hovering over the vinyl fence. I stopped and rubbed her nose, then I took an apple from my pack and gave it to her.

  An hour later I reached the Idaho state line. Emotionally, this had a remarkable effect on me. After six months I was finally out of Washington. This small step seemed to legitimize my journey and raise my hopes that I might someday actually reach my destination.

  A few miles later, in the town of Post Falls, I stopped at a gas station for an energy drink and to ask about distances and lodging. The lady behind the counter informed me that I had only another 10 miles to Coeur d’Alene. “Just a few minutes ahead,” she said, apparently not noticing my backpack.

  “Is there anything closer?” I asked.

  “There’s a Comfort Inn just down the road, but if I were you, I’d just go on to Coeur d’Alene. Great lodging there, and it’s a beautiful town.”

  I thanked her, paid for my drink, then walked back out to the street. I spotted the Comfort Inn a few blocks down on the north side of the highway. I downed my energy drink, then headed toward the hotel.

  The Comfort Inn was small, tidy, and just $75 a night, which included a continental breakfast. I paid with my credit card and went to my room on the second floor. I lay my pack on the floor near the closet, then reclined back on the bed to rest a moment before going back out to find dinner. I woke the next morning.

  CHAPTER

  Thirty-seven

  Today God dropped someone else in my path.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I woke confused. The sun shone brightly through the window, and I rolled over and looked at the digital clock. It was already 9:09. It took me a moment to realize the time was A.M., not P.M. I was still fully dressed, boots and all, and lying on top of the covers. My legs were sore and I sat up and rubbed my calves.

  I showered, dressed, and then went downstairs with my pack. I grabbed an apple and a cheese Danish from the hotel’s complimentary selection, then checked out, stopping for a coffee at the aptly named Jumpstart Java. I arrived in Coeur d’Alene just before noon.

  I knew three things about Coeur d’Alene. First, they had a world-class Christmas celebration. Nicole and I had agreed that our visit to see the lights was well worth the trip.

  Second, the scenery was remarkably beautiful. Travel brochures to the city touted that no less than Barbara Walters had called Coeur d’Alene “a little slice of heaven” and put it on her list of “most fascinating places to visit.”

  The third thing I knew about Coeur d’Alene seemed wildly in contrast to the first two—that it was the headquarters of the Aryan Nations white supremacy group. In 1998, Coeur d’Alene made national news when there had been a standoff between federal agents and the group, ending with some of the group’s leaders being arrested.

  That Coeur d’Alene is a town of contrast is evident even in its name. The name sounds romantic (The Heart of Alent), but it’s not. “Alene” isn’t a person and the name was meant as a slur. French fur traders named the indigenous tribe the Coeur d’Alene—Heart of th
e Awl—meaning that they were sharp-hearted, or shrewd.

  The resort town’s hired spin doctors have either ignored this fact or tried to pass off the insult as a term of endearment, but native French speakers visiting the city agree that it was not meant kindly.

  Once inside the city, I stopped at a small market and bought bottled water, deli rolls, trail mix, a few apples and oranges, chocolate bars, pecorino cheese, a box of energy bars, a carton of Egg Beaters (which I packed in a plastic bag full of ice), and some dry salami. With my pack substantially heavier, I walked up Sherman Avenue, perusing the quaint shops and boutiques that lined the downtown district.

  Coeur d’Alene is the kind of town that McKale would have loved. She would have spent the day gleaning obscure facts about the city and its residents, returning to our hotel room at night with her arms needled through the handles of shopping bags and regurgitating everything she’d learned. I was disappointed that I had never brought her.

  The people of Coeur d’Alene (CDA, they call it) are as verbose as they are friendly—which is a polite way of saying they like to talk. A lot. I found myself trapped in several stores. I have nothing against friendly; I just didn’t have the time for it.

  I walked through the city center and climbed the on-ramp to I-90, a fairly busy highway, but the only route I could find to cross the mountains. The highway was busier than Washington’s Highway 2, and the cars drove faster. On the plus side, the highway had a wider shoulder. A mile up I passed a road sign for the next town:

  Kellogg, Idaho

  36 miles

  The town was too far to make, which meant I’d have to camp along the way.

  Around noon I crossed the Centennial Bridge, with its breathtaking view of Lake Coeur d’Alene. Shortly after the bridge, the road began to descend steeply while the lake continued on to the south, specked with houseboats and lake homes.

 
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