One of the many stories from this journey I’ve not yet shared:
Three days had passed since I was at the Pacific Ocean. Three days as well since my last hot shower. I was still wearing the army-green cotton Gap cargo pants, one of my old cotton t-shirts, and my cotton dark-grey hoodie. That’s the best I could do at the beginning of the walk – go with what was already in my closet. In this constantly damp climate, at nearing a month into this journey, I was miserable. I was clammy all the time because of the way cotton holds on to moisture. My body was still building up its physical strength to endure a trek like this. And my mind and spirit were still struggling to get through these long, weary days.
Like so many nights at this point in the walk, I had no idea where I was going to sleep the day I walked through Chehalis, Washington. A small city situated almost exactly between Seattle and Portland, Chehalis felt more like a sleepy old rail town than anything I was used to calling a city. As I walked through downtown, I felt as if time had stopped in Chehalis fifty years ago.
Walking south of town, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’ll do as I’ve been doing. Make it past the edge of town and set up my tent for the evening off of the road behind some rainforest-like growth.’
“What’s that?” slurred a bare-footed woman as she emerged from a single-story simple home about a mile south of downtown.
“What? Oh. I’m walking across the country for gender and sexual orientation equality.”
As she walked down the drive towards me, beer bottle in hand, I figured this was my daily opportunity to share the message behind my walk. Smiling, I repeated the purpose of my journey, adding at the end the customary, “You know, like equality for transgender, bisexual, lesbian and gay people.”
Causing my eyes to widen, she exclaimed, “Oh my god! Oh my god! You’re not going to- this is great.”
Leaning into me as if she were improvising the scheme of the year, she accelerated the tempo of the whole scene. “My man Freddie. He’s inside. My man Freddie hasn’t talked to his brother in ten years. His brother’s gay. This’ll be great. Where you staying?”
“Well, uh, I haven’t quite figured that out yet. I was thinking I could camp on the side of the road somewhere on the edge of town.”
“Camp on the side of the road? What are you crazy?”
I was beginning to wonder. “I have a tent.” Realizing the potential opportunity I asked, “Would it be OK if I camped on your front lawn?”
“I don’t see why not. But come in. Come in. I want you to meet my man Freddie. Are you gay?”
Taking a dramatic pause as I started to assess the entirety of this situation, I mustered the confidence to say, “Yes I am.”
“This is great. Freddie needs to meet you. But you sure you’re gay? Because Freddie- well, you’ll see.”
Seeing my discomfort growing she assured me, “He’s not going to do anything. He just gets protective. Doesn’t want anyone messing with me. This’ll be good. C’mon.”
I reluctantly followed her up the driveway and into the house. What was worse, sleeping on the side of the road or taking a risk meeting Freddie and spending some time with he and this woman?
“I’m Crystal by the way.”
“I’m Alan. Good to meet you.”
Freddie stood about 6’ tall, was build like a brick house, and was quite attractive. Freddie didn’t have anything to worry about tonight. Crystal on the other hand…just kidding. It was the type of house I would enjoy living in – a simple home built probably in the 1940s with well worn-in wood floors, egg shell plaster walls, and an open area from the living room through to the kitchen. I would imagine at some point there was a separate dining room between where I was standing and the kitchen. Walls were probably knocked out in the 1980s when the open concept living space movement started sweeping the nation. Across the room on the stove and counters were pots and plates with remnants of food on the plates and counters. It looked like they ate a while ago and were well into drinking by this time of night. It was getting late after all. As I walked by their house the sun was setting high in the northwest summer sky.
“Freddie this is– what’s your name again? I’m sorry. I’ve had a few drinks. Not a lot but a few.”
“Alan” I said as I waved to Freddie from the doorway.
Clearly shocked at Crystal’s impetuousness Freddie exclaimed, “What are ya doing? Ya can’t just go letting strangers come in.”
“He’s walking across the country for, what you say? For gay people.”
Looking me up and down, Freddie said with stunned curiosity, “You’re what?”
As is now becoming usual and customary, I smiled at him as I said, “That’s right. I started in Seattle and I’m walking to Washington DC. Crystal saw me walking by the house just now. That’s my cart outside. I push it with all my gear. It has rainbow signs on it, which is what I’m guessing caught her attention.”
“I wanted him to meet you. And he wants to camp in our yard. I told him that would be-“
“You told him-“ Looking to me he said, “She can be a bit too friendly, especially when she’s had a few-“
“I’ve only had a few. Let’s just talk for a bit. Then, if you don’t feel comfortable, he can go on his way.”
Great for them. Going on my way after dark – not great for me.
They invited me to sit with them in the living room while we talked about why I was walking and what the word transgender means, which I feel was somewhat lost on them as it is on many people I meet.
“Would you like a beer?” asked Freddie.
As Freddie got up to get me a drink, Crystal proceeded to tell me that in the past she was in a long-term relationship with a woman. “Freddie knows all this. He probably would want to bring a woman into our bedroom sometime.”
Freddie looked up from the kitchen. “Don’t go sharing all that with the man.”
“Well it’s true. I wouldn’t do that though. Freddie is enough for me. More than enough.”
“Crystal!” he exclaimed.
I thanked Freddie as he returned the first time and the second time from the kitchen with the round of beers for us all. About an hour into our visit they invited me to eat from the food in the pots and pans. Hotdogs, mac-n-cheese, and beer. The best home-cooked meal I had all week! Well, the only home-cooked meal I’ve had all week! But what I was itching for the most was a hot shower. As I returned to the living room with the food and a round of beers for everyone (per Freddie’s request) I asked, “So, I’m not sure if you all are cool with me camping here tonight, but if not, before I leave, can I take a shower? I haven’t had a shower in a few days and it would be great if I could-“
Crystal stumbled over her words as she tried to explain, “Well, see, we- we met in Christian rehab and a month ago we moved in here. We didn’t realize how much our deposits would come to and well, they turned off our gas. So we don’t have hot water right now. See the big pot on the stove? The stove’s electric. We’ve been heating up water and pouring it into the tub. So we can do that if you want. But it’s not going to be what I wish we could give you.”
With genuine appreciation I said, “That sounds wonderful.”
Over the next hour we heated water in the large pot. Four pots of water later and I was sitting in three inches of water in the tub. This was the most appreciative I’ve ever been for a bath. Who needs heaven when life gives us moments like these?
After bathing I returned to the living room where Freddie informed me that I wasn’t going to be setting up my tent outside their house that night. My heart sank. But then I remembered what I told myself before I even started this crazy cross-country trek – appreciate every kindness. Before I could say anything, Freddie shared, “We have a blow up mattress in the spare bedroom. If you want you can sleep there. It’s not much, but-“
“It’s perfect. Thank you both very much.”
“But you’ve- you’ve got to be gone when Freddie wakes up,” Crystal shared. “He’s afraid you might try and rape me. I told him you’re gay. But-“
Getting used to Crystal’s unfiltered tongue I looked to Freddie. “That’s totally fine. What time do you leave for work?”
Gulp. It was almost midnight now! But it was a bed. And it was inside. And I was fed. And I bathed. I was grateful. Right? Grateful.
“We’re outta beer,” Freddie said. “Come with me and we’ll get some more.” He was talking to me.
“He doesn’t want me alone with you. Even though he knows nothin’s gonna happen. You’re gay and I’m…well hell knows!”
” Confused I said, “Ah, OK.” I trusted them at this point. But should I? We all had been drinking. I’m going to the package store in the middle of the night with this tower of a man. A man who doesn’t talk to his gay brother. I get him not wanting to leave me along with Crystal. But am I making the best choices right now?
We drove what felt like across town to get to the store. In reality it was only about a mile down the street. This was good. I needed provisions for the next day’s walk. So I went inside with Freddie and quickly gathered what I needed: beef jerky, granola bars, and nuts. The blinding fluorescent lights of the store sobered me up as I placed my items on the counter. As I pulled out my wallet, Freddie quizzically looked at me and demanded, “You better get more than that.”
“That’s all I need.”
He pulled out his wallet as he repeated, “Go get some more.” And so I did. Walking out of the store I thanked Freddie for his contribution to the basic fuel that keeps me walking: food, shelter, and cleanliness. This was shaping up to be a good night after all.
We rode in silence back to the house. As we approached their street, with genuine curiosity I shared, “Crystal told me before I came in to the house that you’re brother is gay.”
“Yeah. We haven’t talked in ten years. I just don’t know what to make of it.”
“Maybe some day the two of you can reunite.”
“Yeah, maybe. He’s a good guy. He’s been with someone for a long time.” He paused before shrugging off the conversation with, “He’s in Ohio. So it’s not like he’s close.”
But did I? I don’t talk to members of my own family because I’m gay and they are heterosexists who refuse to talk about anything other than mundane topics like the weather, the latest innocuous TV shows, or the goings on with other family members. Was Freddie softening to me to somehow make up for lost time with his brother? Maybe opening up to me and letting me sleep in his home was him taking a first step. Maybe he was just helping a traveler.
A moment later we arrived back at the house. After one more beer, I was spent. I set up in the spare bedroom, reeled through the past handful of hours, and then quickly fell asleep.
A knock at the door came as darkness still cloaked the room. ‘Shit. I thought. He was serious.’
“Morning,” I said to a fully dressed Freddie. He was about to leave for work. That meant I needed to hurry my aching body. How much time did I have to get ready? Probably like five minutes.
“I’m leaving now. Just start getting ready and you can leave out the front. Crystal’s still sleeping. I didn’t want to get you up when I did because you’d have barely slept.”
I had barely slept. But again, I had to remind myself to be grateful for the kindnesses this couple gave me. And after all, had I slept on the side of the road the pervious night, I doubt it would have come with such a colorful story to tell! As Freddie walked away, I thanked him again for everything.
“You’re welcome.” And he was off.
I respected their house rule and quietly readied myself and went on my way. As I walked south of Chehalis in the morning mist, I could make out the sun rising behind the fog-filled sky. It was beautiful. Picture-perfect pine trees framed the white-appearing orb. Another day for equality had begun.
Halfway through my evening with Crystal and Freddie we went on their front porch so they could smoke. As we sat on the porch, I noticed that Crystal’s left ankle was bandaged up. I asked, “What happened to your foot?” They both tensed up. It seemed I touched on something neither of them wanted to discuss.
Back inside, while Freddie was in the restroom, Crystal tearily shared that recently the courts took away her two young children. Something about her giving them Valium in their morning cereal, which she denied. After that story, Crystal shared that she had an older daughter. She dialed her daughter and had me talk to her. Thrusting the phone towards me she said, “My daughter’s bisexual too. Here, tell her what you’re doing.” A few minutes of awkward phone conversation with a stranger on top of all of the evening’s disjointed series of events seemed…normal.
I never heard from Crystal or Freddie after that night. Maybe Freddie was able to talk to his brother. Maybe Crystal was able to get her kids back. I hope they are emotionally…and physically safe, living comfortably with full utilities, and moving towards an ever-improving future.