Miles to Go, p.20Richard Paul Evans
There were few towns on my walk, the largest being Gillette, Wyoming, with a population of about 20,000. The city calls itself the “Energy Capital of the Nation” and is abundant with natural resources: coal, oil, and methane gas. The town was dirty and gray, and I was more eager to leave it than I was to arrive there. There was a desolation of spirit that was as palpable as the cigarette stench of every restaurant I entered. Wyoming is one of the last holdouts on public antismoking laws, and smoking is as much a part of the culture as license-plate-sized belt buckles. Simply put, every public place in the city stinks of ten thousand cigarettes.
I’ve known people from Wyoming (one of my agency’s media reps comes to mind), and I’ve heard tale of its rugged beauty and friendly, folksy inhabitants, but honestly, in this part of the state I didn’t feel it. Wyoming depressed me to the core, though I’m certain that it’s likely that my feelings were less a result of the actual state than my state-of-mind—my pain stemming from a combination of loneliness, physical discomfort, and the unchanging landscape.
Each day the postwinter, gray-yellow terrain that surrounded the highway appeared pretty much the same as it had the day before, and my toil felt like that of the Greek Sisyphus, each day pushing a stone to the top of the hill only to have it roll down again.
Nicole’s former landlord, Bill, had said something to me a few days before his death that I now had reason to recollect. Without his wife, he said, his life felt like a walk through a desolate and forlorn wilderness. Each day was a pointless trek with no one who cared, no one to ask him about his day, his thoughts, his colitis.
That’s exactly how I felt. Perhaps this walk through Wyoming was the perfect metaphor for my life without McKale. As I wrote once before, I was lonely but not alone—my companions were despair, loneliness, and fear. And they were a talkative bunch.
During these difficult days I called my father once and Falene twice. My father spent a half hour telling me about his last golf game and, for the first time in my life, I relished each word. Falene could sense my discouragement and she lifted my spirits greatly. She even offered to drive out, an invitation I came seriously close to accepting. But an internal voice told me to push on through the shadow lands alone, that I would have to walk them sometime—if not now, then later.
So I trudged on, and the more I walked, the more difficult it became. My mind began to work against me, to focus on the hard and the despairing, to see only the shadows and not the sun. A thousand times I relived the final days and minutes of McKale’s life. Worst of all, I began to doubt.
What was I doing out here? This was an insane idea to walk across the country—there was nothing here, and nothing at my destination was waiting for me. My body ached as much from depression as from the elements, but not nearly as much as my heart. I knew that I was in a bad way, but in dark moments like these, it’s not what you know, it’s what you feel. And I felt hopeless. I doubted my motives. I doubted that I would ever finish my walk. Then, in one especially dark moment, I doubted my wisdom in not swallowing the bottle of pills. If it hadn’t been for what I’d soon find in South Dakota, I don’t know how much longer I could have held on.
I spent the night in Custer, South Dakota. I hope I have better luck here than he did.
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
On my thirteenth day from Cody I reached Wyoming’s eastern border. Crossing from Wyoming into South Dakota was like the moment Dorothy emerged from her relocated Kansas home into the magical, Technicolor world of Oz.
The roads I walked were no longer rough, potholed asphalt, but smooth, paved concrete of a pinkish hue. In eastern Wyoming the dingy, prefab homes I passed were surrounded by their own weedy landfills of rusted cars and abandoned household appliances, while just over the border the land was green and lush, with well-kept farms and beautiful red barns.
By evening I entered the town of Custer and my spirits lifted some. I ate dinner at a pizzeria (I downed an entire medium-sized pizza myself) and found a warm, bright hotel crowded with tourists excited to see Mount Rushmore and the myriad sites the area offered.
A long row of Harley-Davidson motorcycles were parked in front of the hotel, presumably on their way to Sturgis, even though the Harley gathering wouldn’t officially begin for another hundred days.
I lay in bed the entire next day, melancholy and defeated. I had walked more than a thousand miles and for what? What good had it done? McKale was still gone—and my heart was still broken.
I didn’t eat that day. I never left my room, acting the hermit I was looking like. My beard was several inches long, and scraggly.
The second day I was hungry and bored so I forced myself out of bed around noon, I ate lunch at a Subway sandwich shop, then took a shuttle to see the nearby Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.
When I first arrived at Mount Rushmore, the monument was concealed by clouds, which seemed appropriate for my life, and since the shuttle didn’t return for an hour I waited at the visitors’ center and gift shop, where they had plastered the four presidents’ faces to everything conceivable, from playing cards to chopsticks.
Then I heard someone shout, “Look, you can see them!” and I walked outside as the clouds dissipated and the faces were revealed: Washington first, then Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
You hear it all the time: Mount Rushmore isn’t as big as you think it’s going to be, but even in my state of mind the memorial was phenomenal.
All art intrigues me, and something on this scale had an especially powerful effect, so I hiked the trails beneath the mountain and lingered around the visitors’ center and museum until it was beginning to get dark. At that late hour I found myself debating whether to just head on back to my hotel or over to the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Frankly, Crazy Horse was an aside for me. I knew little about the monument, except that it was an incomplete statue of Chief Crazy Horse, someone I didn’t know or care anything about. It certainly couldn’t compare with the majesty of Mount Rushmore. But in the end, curiosity won out and I took the shuttle over to the memorial. I didn’t anticipate the profound effect it would have on me, my life, and my walk.
Some men see mountains as obstacles. Others as a canvas.
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
The Crazy Horse monument was started in 1948 by a Polish-American sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski. Korczak was born in Boston in 1908 to Polish parents and orphaned at the age of one. He spent his life being shuffled through a series of foster homes in poor neighborhoods. Though he never received formal art training, in his teens he worked as an apprentice to a shipmaker and began to demonstrate his skill in carving wood.
He created his first marble sculpture at the age of twenty-four, a bust of judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, a hero to foster children in the Boston area and the man who encouraged Korczak’s interest in art. In 1939, Korczak moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota to assist in the creation of the Mount Rushmore Memorial.
Less than a year later, Korczak’s marble sculpture of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, pianist, composer, and prime minister of Poland, won first prize at the New York World’s Fair. Shortly afterward he was approached by several Lakota Indian chiefs who asked him to build a monument honoring Native Americans. Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote Korczak, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.”
Korczak accepted the project and began research and planning for the sculpture. Three years later the project was put on hold while Korczak enlisted in the United States Army. He was wounded on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy.
After the war Korczak moved back to the Black Hills and began his search for a suitable mountain. He thought the Wyoming Tetons would be a better choice than the Black Hills, with better rock for carving, but the Lakota considered the Black Hills a sacred place and wanted the memorial built there.
“The Lakota had no money and no mountain,” Korczak said. “But I always thought [the Indians] had gotten a raw deal, so I agreed to do it.”
When completed, the monument, a three-dimensional sculpture of the Indian Chief Crazy Horse sitting on a charging steed, will be the largest sculpture in the world, standing 563 feet high—taller than the Washington Monument—and 641 feet long. To put the size of the memorial in perspective, just Crazy Horse’s war bonnet would be large enough to contain all the presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore.
Korczak died thirty-four years after starting work on the mountain, the statue far from being completed. His final words to his wife were, “You must finish the mountain. But go slowly so it is done right.”
I stared at the mountain for nearly twenty minutes. It started to rain on me and I hardly even noticed. The whole thing was absurd. Colossally absurd. A man with no money, no training, and no heavy equipment, decides to carve a mountain. It was gloriously absurd. In Korczak’s impossible quest I found what I was looking for.
I asked myself what McKale would tell me to do and I knew exactly what she’d say, “Get off your butt, pick up your pack, and get walking.”
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
The next morning I lay in my hotel bed looking at the ceiling. For the first time since I set foot on my journey, I knew exactly why I was walking. My journey wasn’t an escape from my past; it was a bridge to my future, and each small step was an act of faith and hope, affirming to myself that life was worth living.
And with that simple revelation the weight was gone—the heaviness of my despair and self-pity. It was time to get on with what I’d committed to do and stop feeling sorry for myself. It was time to stop asking what I could take from life and learn what life was asking of me.
I opened my map out on the bed and drew a path with my finger. It was time to head somewhere warm. Time to move south. My next target was Memphis, Tennessee.
I shaved, grabbed my backpack, and headed out of the hotel. I was committed again to my next destination.
As I walked through the hotel’s lobby, I noticed an older woman sitting in one of the chairs near the reception desk. She had gray hair, a long woolen coat, and a burgundy silk scarf tied around her neck. She was beautiful, or had been once, and something about her was hard to look away from. She was likewise watching me and we made eye contact. When I was near to her she said, “Alan.”
I stopped. “Excuse me?”
“You are Alan Christoffersen?”
I looked at her in surprise. “Yes.”
“Do you know who I am?”
Something about her looked familiar. After a moment I said, “No.”
“Are you sure?”
Then, as I stared into her eyes, I realized who she was. Before I could speak, she said, “I’ve been looking for you for weeks.”
We are all in motion. Always. Those who are not climbing toward something are descending toward nothing.
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
What my father said about mountains is true. We climb mountains because the valleys are full of cemeteries. The secret of survival is to climb, even in the dark, even when the climb seems pointless. The climb, not the summit, is the thing. And the great don’t just climb mountains, they carve them as they go.
Korczak’s dream was an impossible one—that one man could sculpt a mountain. I can only imagine the barbs and insults of Korczak’s critics, and he had galleries of them. “You’re crazy, a fool, you’ll never do it,” they sang from their low places and half-dug graves. “The statue will never be complete.”
But Korczak knew better than to listen to the ghosts in the cemeteries. Every day he climbed his mountain, and with a chisel here, a blast there, he moved tons of stone as his dream emerged from the mountain.
Korczak knew he’d never live to see his work finished, but this was no reason to stop. As he lay dying, he was asked if he was disappointed to not see the monument completed. “No,” he said, “you only have to live long enough to inspire others to do great things.”
And this he did. As the mountain took form, the masses began to dream too. And they began to move. Today millions come from around the world to see Korczak’s mountain, and a professional crew works year-round to move the dream forward. It is no longer a question of if the statue will be completed, only when.
But Korczak’s greatest legacy is not a public one, the massive stone mountain that he conquered, but the mountain he first conquered in himself—a mountain that he climbed alone—and in this we can all empathize. For there are moments in all lives, great and small, that we must trudge alone our forlorn roads into infinite wilderness, to endure our midnight hours of pain and sorrow—the Gethsemane moments, when we are on our knees or backs, crying out to a universe that seems to have abandoned us.
These are the greatest of moments, where we show our souls. These are our “finest hours.” That these moments are given to us is neither accidental nor cruel. Without great mountains we cannot reach great heights. And we were born to reach great heights.
Every one of us is faced with a task equal to Korczak’s, one as gorgeously absurd—to chip away at the stone of our own spirits, creating a monument to light the universe. And, like Korczak’s monument, our task will not be completed in our lifetime. And in the end we will find that we were never sculpting alone.
Korczak said, “I tell my children never forget that man is not a complete being in himself. There’s something greater than he that moves him.”
I don’t honestly know if I’ll ever reach Key West, but I do know that I will never give up. And, when I take my final step, whether or not I made my destination doesn’t really matter, because in the end I will be a different man than the one who left Seattle. I was never carving a mountain. I was carving myself.
Coming April 2012, book 3 of The Walk series
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Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes