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Trip to Bountiful

November 14, 1996

In 1994, 37-year-old California journalist Mike McIntyre decided to walk and hitchhike across the United States without money. He would accept only food, rides and shelter. He began in San Francisco and arrived six weeks later on the shore of the Atlantic in Cape Fear, N.C. He slept in a tent and foraged for food, but also he was often taken into the homes of people and offered a bed and a meal.

His reason for this personal odyssey was a sense that he had never taken chances in his life. His discovery was that in what he saw as dangerous and distrustful times, people across America were inspired by his story and offered to help him on his way.

He has described his journey in a book, "The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America" published this month by Berkley. The following excerpts describe some stops along the way.

Hot and Hungry

My head throbs from hunger and heat as I wilt on the side of a country road in Northern California. The cardboard sign I level at oncoming traffic reads "Eureka," though my latest discovery is that I'm out of water. I ate my last meal two nights ago--in a dream.

The summer sun tattooing my face suggests hitchhiking inside a microwave oven. My baseball hat would bring relief, but it stays in my backpack, leaving drivers to get a clear look at my baby blues. No matter. Nobody stops. And who can fault them? It's 1994. This is America. Land of the free and home of the serial killer.

I stagger around the bend in a futile search for another road that feeds into Highway 101. When I return, someone has taken my place. His dark eyes fix me through strands of greasy, black hair. I don't have the strength to fight, or run.

"You must've just got dropped off," I say, squinting at the stranger. "Where you coming from?"

"Jail."

The man laughs. He doesn't have a tooth in his head.

He says his name is Rudy, and the judge gave him three weeks for unpaid traffic tickets.

"Hey, you don't have any food you could spare, do you?" I say. "I haven't eaten in days."

He reaches into his grimy jeans and pulls out two pieces of candy, each wrapped in cellophane.

"It's the only food I got," he says, holding the candy in his palm.

They're frosted gumdrops. One orange, one grape. I eye the sweets as my saliva glands do back flips. I settle on the grape one.

"Go ahead, take 'em both," Rudy says.

I grab the orange one too.

"Well, I'm gonna walk up the road a bit," he says. "They see two of us here, they won't stop."

Before he's around the bend, I tear open the wrapper of the orange gumdrop. I tell myself I'll save the grape one for later, but I gobble that down too.

There's a noise behind me and I whirl to see the disheveled figure of Rudy. He's got something in his hand, but it's not candy.

"Hey, I got to thinking up there on the freeway, he doesn't have any money."

Rudy unfolds two $1 bills and smooths them flat against his chest. He irons out every wrinkle, as if the notes were shirt collars bound for church. He extends the money toward me.

I stare at the greenbacks. Two dollars. I know what that will buy. A loaf of bread and a pack of bologna. Or maybe a jar of peanut butter. I won't have to worry about food for three, four days. "In God We Trust," it says. Hallelujah! I'm born again.

"Go on, take it," Rudy says.

I reach for the cash, then pull back.

"I can't," I say. "I'm crossing America without a penny."

*

I load my pack into Linda's minivan, and we head for her house in Redway, Calif. Linda is 42 and twice divorced. She and her second ex founded two hugely successful mail-order record companies, specializing in children's and world music. They've just been bought out by a Hollywood entertainment conglomerate. Linda is a rich hippie.

Linda owns one of the area's original hippie mansions, a two-story octagonal structure built with scraps of redwood left behind by logging companies. A skylight in the shape of a pyramid crowns the roof. The house is circled by wooden decks. The trees are so close you can reach out and touch them. Forty African drums fill a corner of the living room. There is no TV, no curtains in the windows, and [her three daughters] call their mother Linda.

After the girls have gone to bed, I sit with Linda on a wicker sofa, gazing out the picture window into the dark forest. The house is still. Linda says she is inspired by my journey. Linda seems to possess an inner calm, an unshakable sense of her place in the universe. I feel like a sham in comparison. I want what she has. I confess to her that I am not brave and wise. I'm a frightened boy in the body of a man. I'm afraid of the dark, the wind in the trees, the animals in the forest.

Linda smiles kindly.

"An Indian taught me something I'll never forget. He said, 'We don't have a word for loneliness in my language.' I said, 'Why, because you're always surrounded by uncles and aunts and grandparents?' He said, 'No. It's because we think of nature as our kin, so we are never alone.'

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