Read an Excerpt
Miles to Go
The sun will rise again. The only uncertainty is whether or not we will rise to greet it.
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
Several months after I was mugged, stabbed, and left unconscious along the shoulder of Washington’s Highway 2, a friend asked me what being stabbed felt like. I told her it hurt.
Really, how do you describe pain? Sometimes doctors ask us to rate our pain on a scale from one to ten, as if that number had some reliable meaning. In my opinion there needs to be a more objective rating system, something comparative; like, would you trade what you’re feeling for a root canal or maybe half a childbirth?
And with what would we compare emotional pain—physical pain? Arguably, emotional pain is the greater of the two evils. Sometimes people will inflict physical pain on themselves to dull their emotional anguish. I understand. If I had the choice between being stabbed or losing my wife, McKale, again, the knife has the advantage—because if the knife kills me, I stop hurting. If it doesn’t kill me, the wound will heal. Either way the pain stops. But no matter what I do, my McKale is never coming back. And I can’t imagine that the pain in my heart will ever go away.
Still, there is hope—not to forget McKale, nor even to understand why I had to lose her—but to accept that I did and somehow go on. As a friend recently said to me, no matter what I do, McKale will always be a part of me. The question is, what part—a spring of gratitude, or a fountain of bitterness? Someday I’ll have to decide. Someday the sun will rise again. The only uncertainty is whether or not I will rise to greet it.
In the meantime, what I hope for most is hope. Walking helps. I wish I were walking again right now. I think I’d rather be anywhere right now than where I am.
Miles to Go
We plan our lives in long, unbroken stretches that intersect our dreams the way highways connect the city dots on a road map. But in the end we learn that life is lived in the side roads, alleys, and detours.
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
My name is Alan Christoffersen and this is the second journal of my walk. I’m writing from a hospital room in Spokane, Washington. I’m not sure how you came to be holding my book—truthfully, I don’t even know if you are—but if you’re reading my story, welcome to my journey.
You don’t know much about me. I’m a thirty-two-year-old former advertising executive, and sixteen days ago I walked away from my home in Bridle Trails, Seattle, leaving everything behind, which, frankly, wasn’t much by the time I started my trek. I’m walking to Key West, Florida—that’s about 3,500 miles, give or take a few steps.
Before my life imploded, I was, as one of my clients put it, “the poster child for the American dream”—a happily married, successful advertising executive with a gorgeous wife (McKale), a thriving advertising agency with a wall of awards and accolades, and a $2 million home with horse property and two luxury cars parked in the garage.
Then the universe switched the tracks beneath me, and in just five weeks I lost it all. My slide began when McKale broke her neck in a horse-riding accident. Four weeks later she died of complications. While I was caring for her in the hospital, my clients were stolen by my partner, Kyle Craig, and my financial world collapsed, leading to the foreclosure of my home and repossession of my cars.
With my wife, business, house, and cars gone, I packed up what I needed to survive and started my walk to Key West.
I’m not trying to set any records or wind up in any newspapers. I’m certainly not the first to cross the continent by foot; I’m at least a century too late for that. In fact, the first attempt was made more than two hundred years ago by a man named John Ledyard, who planned to walk across Siberia, ride a Russian fur-trade vessel across the ocean to (what is now) Alaska, and then walk the rest of the way to Washington, D.C., where Thomas Jefferson would warmly greet him. Such are the plans of men. Ledyard only made it as far as Siberia, where Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, had him arrested and sent to Poland.
Since then, no less than a few thousand pioneers, prospectors, and mountainmen have crossed the continent without air-cushioned walking shoes, paved roads, or, unbelievably, a single McDonald’s.
Even in our day there is a sizable list of countrycrossers, including an eighty-nine-year-old woman who walked from California to Washington, D.C., and a New Jersey man who ran from New Brunswick to San Francisco in exactly sixty days.
Nearly all of these travelers carried causes with them, from political reform to childhood obesity. Not me. The only torch I’m carrying is the one for my wife.
You might guess that my destination was chosen for its balmy weather, blinding white beaches, and topaz blue waters, but you’d be wrong: Key West was simply the furthest point on the map from where I started.
I should add the disclaimer that Key West is my intended destination. It is my experience that journeys rarely take us where we think we’re going. As Steinbeck wrote, “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” There’s a difference between reading a map and traveling the road—as distinct as the disparity between reading a menu and eating a meal. So it is with life. As the saying goes, “Life is what happens to us while we’re planning something else.” That is true. Even my detours had detours.
My most recent detour has left me in the emergency room of Sacred Heart Medical Center with a concussion and three knife wounds to my belly after being jumped by a gang three miles outside Spokane. That’s where you’re joining me.
For those of you who have been following my walk since my first step (or before), I warned you that my story wouldn’t be easy. I suppose that’s no surprise; no one’s story is easy. No one goes through life without pain—of this I’m certain. The price for joy is sadness. The price for having is loss. You can moan and whine about this and play the victim—many do—but it’s just the way it is. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. That’s one of the benefits of walking.
I also warned you in my first journal that you might not believe or be ready for all I have to share with you. This book is no different. No matter—accept or dismiss what you want to believe.
Since I began my walk, I’ve traveled only 318 miles, less than ten percent of the distance to Key West. But already there have been profound experiences; I’ve met people along the way I believe I was meant to meet and I’m certain there are more to come.
This is a story of contrasts—about living and dying, hope and despair, pain and healing, and the tenuous, thin places between both extremes where most of us reside.
I’m not sure whether I’m walking away from my past or toward a future—time and miles will tell and I have plenty of both. As the poet Robert Frost said, I have “miles to go before I sleep.”
I’m happy to share with you what I learn. Welcome to my walk.
Miles to Go
I’ve gone from a schedule of hours and minutes to not being able to tell you what day of the month it is.
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
My second night in the hospital was rough. I was wet and hot with fever and somewhere in the night I started coughing. Each expulsion felt like another blade plunging into my stomach. The nurse checked my bandages, then told me not to cough, which wasn’t at all helpful. In spite of the medications they gave me to help me sleep, for most of the night I just lay there, lonely and aching. I wanted McKale more than life. Definitely more than life. Of course, if she were with me, I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. Exhaustion finally overcame me and I fell asleep around 4 or 5 A.M.
The next day I woke to a young nurse walking around my bed looking at monitors and writing on a clipboard. Since I’d been admitted to the hospital, a bevy of nurses and doctors had been swarming around me in my delirium, flashing in and out of my consciousness like dancers in a music video. But I didn’t remember any of them. This was the first nurse I was cognizant of. She was small, petite, and barely the height of a floor lamp. I watched her for a few minutes then said, “Morning.”
She looked up from her clipboard. “Good afternoon.”
“What time is it?” I asked. It was kind of a funny question since I didn’t even know what day, or week, it was. The last two weeks had run together like eggs in a blender.
“It’s almost twelve-thirty,” she said, then added, “Friday.”
Friday. I had left Seattle on a Friday. I’d been gone for just fourteen days. Fourteen days and a lifetime.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Norma,” she said. “Are you hungry?”
“How about an Egg McMuffin?” I said.
She grinned. “Not unless you can find one made of Jell-O. How about some pudding? The butterscotch is edible.”
“Butterscotch pudding for breakfast?”
“Lunch,” she corrected. “Also, in a couple hours we’re sending you in for a CT scan.”
“When can I take the catheter out?”
“When you can walk to the bathroom on your own—which we’ll attempt after we get the results back from your scan. Are you claustrophobic?”
“Sometimes people get claustrophobic in the scanner. I can give you something for anxiety if you are. A Valium.”
“I don’t need anything,” I said. I didn’t care about the scan; I wanted the catheter out of me. In the haze of the last forty-eight hours, I vaguely remembered pulling the catheter out and making a real mess of things.
I had two good reasons for wanting it out; first, because it hurt. No one should stick anything up that part of the male anatomy. Second, an infection from a catheter is what killed my wife. The sooner the thing was out, the better.
A hospital orderly, a husky young freckled man wearing bright purple scrubs, came for me around two in the afternoon. He unhooked some wires and tubes from my body, then wheeled my entire bed down the linoleum corridor to radiology. I didn’t know it was my second visit until the technician operating the equipment said, “Welcome back.”
“Have I been here before?”
“You were out the first time,” she replied.
The scan was tedious, surprisingly loud, and took about an hour. When it was through, the orderly wheeled me back to my room and I fell asleep. When I woke, Angel was back.
Miles to Go
Somewhere between being stabbed and waking in the hospital, I had an experience that’s difficult to describe. Call it a dream or a vision, but McKale came to me. She told me that it wasn’t my time to die—that there were still people I was meant to meet. When I asked her who, she replied, “Angel.” Who is this woman?
Alan Christoffersen’s diary
The first time I woke in the hospital, there was a strange woman sitting in a chair next to my hospital bed. She was about my age and dressed casually, wearing a fitted T-shirt and jeans. When I could speak, I asked her who she was. She told me that we had met a few days earlier just outside the small town of Waterville. Her car had been stopped at the side of the road with a flat tire.
I recalled the encounter. She had tried to change the tire herself but had spilled the wheel’s lug nuts down the side of the incline into a deep gorge, leaving her stranded. I had taken a nut from each of the other tires and attached her spare.
She had offered me a ride to Spokane that I turned down. Just before she drove off, she gave me her business card, which (since I’d thrown my cell phone away on the first day of my walk) was the only contact information the police found on me. They called her and, inexplicably, she came. Her name was Annie, but she told me to call her Angel. “That’s what my friends call me,” she said.
She was with me when the doctor told me that I would need several weeks of convalescence at home.
“I’m homeless,” I said.
There was an awkward silence. Then Angel said, “He can come home with me.”
Since then she had come every day to see me, staying for about an hour each night, our conversation as stilted as two teenagers on a blind date. I wasn’t bothered that she came—I was lonely and appreciated the company—I just didn’t know why she came.
Tonight’s visit (angelic visitations, she called them) was later than usual. When I woke, she was looking down, reading a paperback Amish love story. As I looked at her, a song started playing in my head.
I’m on top of the world looking down on creation...
The tune, ironically cheerful, kept on playing, as annoyingly insistent as a scratched vinyl record. The melody was from a seventies song—something from my childhood. The Carpenters. My mother loved the Carpenters. She’d talk about Richard and Karen Carpenter like they were relatives.
Even as she was dying of cancer, she’d play their records. Especially when she was dying. She said their music kept her spirits up. As a kid, I knew the words to all their songs by heart. I still did. “Close to You,” “Rainy Days and Mondays,” “Hurting Each Other”; I remember tracing the Carpenters’ signature logo on typing paper, then trying to improve it, which was probably my first commercial graphic attempt.
My mother would play their albums on our walnutveneered, Zenith console stereo (a Plymouth-sized appliance which nearly took up the entire east wall of our living room), and their music would fill our home, which always made me feel peaceful because I knew it made my mother happy.
Angel was still engrossed in her book when I realized why the tune had come to mind. She looked like Karen Carpenter. Not exactly. She was blond and probably a little prettier, but close enough to warrant a second glance. I wondered if she could sing. As I was musing over the similarities, Angel suddenly looked up. She smiled when she saw me looking at her. “Hi.”
My mouth was parched and I ran my tongue over my lips before speaking. “Hi.”
“How are you feeling?”
“A little better than yesterday. How long have you been here?”
“About an hour.” Silence. Then she said, “You were talking in your sleep.”
“Did I say anything profound?”
“I think you were calling for someone ... McKay or McKale?”
I winced but offered no explanation.
“I talked to your nurse. She said that if your scan turns out well, you could leave in a few days. Maybe even Monday.” Her mouth twisted a little. “Halloween. Scary.”
“That would be nice,” I said.
After a moment she said, “My offer’s still open. You’re welcome to stay with me. I’ve already moved some things around in my apartment ...” then she added cautiously, “just in case.”
“That’s kind of you,” I said without commitment.
She looked at me apprehensively. Nearly a minute had passed when she asked, “What do you think?”
What did I think? I had spent the last few days considering the few options I had. After the destruction of my life, the only friend I had left was Falene, my former assistant, back in Seattle. In spite of our friendship, I couldn’t go back there.
My only other option was my father in Los Angeles. If I went to California, I knew I’d never come back. And I needed to come back. I needed to finish my walk.
For the first time since I’d left my home, I realized that my trek was more than just a physical commitment; it was a spiritual one—like the walkabouts of the Australian aborigines or the spirit walk of the Native Americans. Something I didn’t completely understand compelled me onward.
And, for whatever reason, this woman was part of my journey. There was some reason she was in my path and sitting by my bed. I just had no idea what that reason might be.
After a moment I said, “If it’s not too much trouble.”
Her lips rose in a slight smile and she nodded. “No trouble at all.”