Tuesday, July 18, 2017

When we open our hearts to new people and possibilities, wonderful things can happen...

If you're visiting this site for the first time, I invite you to select the month of May, 2012 found to the right of this page. The first day begins on May 19th.

Last Saturday, my wife and I attended a wedding in the French countryside, made possible because of experiences and lessons I learned when walking across America with my family.

Six years after completing our coast to coast walk across America, I met a young man named Vianney. He was visiting a host family in my hometown of Ventura through a cultural exchange program. Vianney was staying next door to a friend I was house sitting for. I immediately liked his outgoing personality and his enthusiastic embrace of California. He was 19 and I was 20.

I was impressed with how well he had mastered English and especially expressions of everyday slang that are not taught in the classroom, but only through interaction with Americans in their day to day lives. Vianney had also mastered some of the more passionate English words and expressions that unfortunately resulted in misunderstanding and offense to his host family.

A few days after meeting Vianney, I saw him again. This time he was standing on the curb in front of his host family's house with all of his luggage. I asked him what was going on. Vianney passionately expressed his misery, confusion, and anger at being kicked out his host family's home. Now he was facing homelessness two full weeks before his flight was to send him back to France. He didn't know what he was going to do.

During the school year, I was living in Santa Barbara to attend Westmont College. When I met Vianney, it was August, 1993. I had just signed a lease with two of my former roommates on an apartment in Santa Barbara. Without hesitation, I told Vianney that he could stay with us. We had a couch he was welcome sleep on for the duration of his stay before the flight home. We have had an enduring friendship ever since that fateful day.

Several times during the walk across the United States, people opened their hearts and homes to my family. Because of those experiences, I learned by their generous examples to open my life to the people placed in my path.

Last Summer, Vianney again visited my home in Ventura. This time he brought a very special woman named Sophie, that he had been dating for five years. Cathleen and I were instantly moved by her joyful spirit and how she interacted with Vianney. We could tell that their relationship made them each better people. We could also see that they truly loved each other. During their visit, Vianney proposed to Sophie and they were married last week in Saint-Syr-Sur-Loire, France.

A few months back, Cathleen and I received an invitation in the mail to attend Vianney and Sophie's wedding. I had been saving frequent flyer miles for twelve years and this was the perfect opportunity to finally use them! Cathleen and I were unlikely honored guests at a French wedding because of the enduring friendship of a Frenchman and an American.

A week before their church wedding, Sophie and Vianney hosted Cathleen and me in their home near Paris. They were married civilly at the local municipality in May. The church wedding  and reception are the traditional completion of French marriage. We were delighted and moved that Sophie was able to serve several special traditional French meals for us despite getting ready for the biggest day of her life. We enjoyed their hospitality and the time we were able to share with them very much.

Vianney's father and mother, Roland and Bernadette hosted Cathleen and me, just two nights before the wedding. Sophie stayed in our same room the very next day before she was to be married. Despite having friends and family coming in from all over France, Roland and Bernadette  made time to prepare a special barbecue dinner complete with local Vouvray sparkling wine. Over the years they have hosted me on five separate occasions and have become my French family. Despite the fact that my French vocabulary had increased to only a few words, they have welcomed me and shared their hospitality, generosity and love over the years.

The wedding was magical. Cathleen and I stayed on the grounds of Chateau de Jallanges where the reception and dinner took place. Roland told me it was commissioned by King Louis X1 for his chief of staff and was as old as Christopher Colombus's discovery of America. The church in which Vianney and Sophie were married was visited by Saint Martin who lived in the Loire valley. The day was historic and beautiful in so many ways. We wish Sophie and Vianney a long and joyous life together. We pray that Roland and Bernadette will soon have more grandchildren.  

Thursday, December 12, 2013

If you're visiting this site for the first time, I invite you to select the month of May, 2012 found to the right of this page. The first day begins on May 19th.

Many people have asked over the years what my brother Aaron and I did for schooling during the Walk.

My Dad, Richard, was a teacher in the nearby Santa Barbara community of Goleta, California for more than 40 years. When I was a toddler back in the mid 70's, he took a sabbatical from teaching and obtained his masters degree and administrative credential at the University of California Santa Barbara.

My parents approached the independent studies program with our local school district in Ventura. They requested that our school district admit Aaron and me into the program so that we could undertake our goal of walking across the U.S. At first the district denied my parents request stating that the program was rarely used and that it was designed for children in the television and motion picture industry. Dad then appealed to them in the pocket book. He told the district that he was more than happy to pull Aaron and me out of the district and start his own school because of his administrative and teaching credentials and my Mom's teaching credential as well. He just thought that they might like to have the state funding for Aaron and me. Dad proposed that they approve curriculum for the 6 and 8th grades along with our daily journals being graded for English credit. After this suggestion from my Dad, the district was more than happy to accommodate our unique situation.

During the summer leading up to the Walk, I completed a substantial amount of schoolwork. This would prove helpful during our trip. Many of our evenings after walking all day, required that we do our schoolwork. When an assignment or book was completed with my parents guidance, we would mail the work back to Ventura for grading. New assignments and our grades would be mailed to us via general delivery to a post office in an upcoming town or community. This allowed Aaron and me to remain on schedule academically and move back into our schools when we returned from our adventure. I started high school and Aaron started middle school in the 7th grade the following September of 1987.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Within a few minutes, Bill came bounding into the lobby of McDonald Funeral Home. His persona filled the room. Despite not seeing each other for 25 years, he greeted me with a warm embrace and showed the same welcome to Cathleen. After introductions, Bill invited us over to his new home a block away. After a short walk down the street, we were sipping iced tea in Bill and Joy's living room.
As you can imagine, we had a lot to talk about! Bill told us that he is still involved in the family business, but that his son Ryan is now running most of the daily operations. Along with those responsibilities, Ryan and his family have now moved into the big old house directly next to the funeral home. Bill and Joy lived there along with Ryan and his siblings when we were walking across America back in 1987. The house was built before the Civil War.

Bill asked us if he could call the local newspaper to let them know that one of the Huffs was back in Centerville. I said, "Sure, I'd love to talk with them." Soon we were all standing on the sidewalk in front of McDonald Funeral Home talking with Bradley A. Martin, the editor of Centerville's Hickman County Times. The newspaper is published every Monday and serves a county of roughly 25,000 people. After a short interview and some photos, Cathleen and I said our farewell's and continued down the road. I really enjoyed catching up with the McDonald's after so many years. Cathleen and I will definitely keep in touch with them.

A few miles past Centerville, we came across the Natchez Trace Parkway. On our original walk, after completely a 4 mile segment, Mom and Dad had driven us a couple miles back in order to explore the historic parkway. The parkway is a beautiful stretch of land with green rolling hills and lush forests. A couple miles down the parkway was a section of the original Indian trail that can be walked on. So Dad and Mom had us all walk about an eighth of a mile on it.

Many times after my Grandparents had left us back in Eastern Arizona, we had benefited from the use of a car, not just for protection, but because it allowed us to see surrounding countryside and historic points of interest. This would not have been possible without the benefit of a car. The Natchez Trace Parkway was one such experience. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sleeping in the funeral home above the morgue turned out to be really cool. The night I moved in, there were actually no dead bodies, but I could not quite shake the nervousness in my stomach. I imagined I was staying in my own motel room and so the night passed smoothly. My nightly prayers took on more urgency then they probably did most nights back then.

On the second night staying in the mortician's apartment, I had a dream that a dead body was being moved into the funeral home. Suddenly there was a loud crash. I bolted upright, my heart racing. I heard voices. One of the voices uttered an oath because apparently, while moving a body into the morgue, it had been dropped on the floor. "Mrs. Wilson's not gonna to be too happy about this!," I heard one of the voices say.

The dream seemed so real! I inquired from Mr. McDonald whether any "guests" had moved into the funeral home the night before. I was informed that there were two. I imagined the theme to the "Twilight Zone" in my 14 year old head.

Today, Cathleen and I were visiting Centerville. Could it be possible that Bill McDonald was still running McDonald Funeral Home? Cathleen and I figured out that the McDonald Funeral Home was just off the main square. Soon I was anxiously hopping out the car with Cathleen trying to keep up. Inside the funeral home an young women greeted us pleasantly and an older man stood behind her. He asks in a friendly voice what they could do to help us. I grinned from ear to ear and said that I was looking for Bill McDonald. I quickly explained that I was revisiting the town we had stayed in 25 years before as we were walking from California to Virginia. I was soon on the phone talking to Bill himself!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cathleen and I arrived into Centerville, TN around midnight. We had traveled from central Arkansas  the day before, and I was looking forward to the prospect of reconnecting with the McDonald family.

Our 1986-'87 Walk really was a journey of discovery. We kept our minds open to whom we might run across or meet in the small towns across rural America. The first Tennessee town we walked through was called Bolivar. We had stayed in the Bolivar Inn for a couple of nights. One evening after walking, we ate at Austin's Restaurant where met Rick Kee, the general manager. It turns out that he had bicycled from Tennessee to Los Angeles and could relate with some of what we had been up against. Rick turned out to be very helpful to us by referring us to various friends and colleagues who could provide us a safe place to camp during the next couple of weeks from western to central Tennessee.

On Saturday April 11, 1987, my Dad and I were walking a segment east of Parsons when a man rode up on his bicycle. He asked in a European accent whether we knew of or happened to be the people walking across America. The young man introduced himself as Ben from Austria. He had ridden his bike all the way from Alaska and was on his way to Florida! As we were chatting by the side of the road, another man pulled up across the street and walked over to where we were standing. He introduced himself as Harold Fasmire. Harold and Rick Kee were friends in Bolivar. Rick had given Harold advice on how to finance his own bicycle ride to Florida!

Harold then recommended that Ben head to some friends of his at the McDonald Funeral Home in Centerville about 35 miles down the road. He said that they would take care of him for the night. Coincidentally, Rick had lined up the McDonald Funeral Home for us to camp in their back parking lot. Ben was pleased because he wanted swap more stories with us. So we ended up inviting Ben to join us for dinner that night in our tent trailer.

I can remember swapping stories with him and enjoying the intersection of our paths crossing. Bill McDonald, who owned the funeral home, was out at a function at the local high school when we pitched camp behind the funeral home. We met him later that evening.

Centerville just happened to be the town where all the signs for McDonalds Restaurants were manufactured. So at the back entrance to the funeral home, there is a sign that reads McDonalds in strangely familiar lettering. The factory presented it to the funeral home. Bill confessed later that he would tell people there are two McDonalds in Centerville...long pause...and one's a restaurant.

That night, Bill made the studio apartment above the morgue available to anyone who might appreciate some privacy and a warm bed. Ben was offered a room in the family residence next door because he usually had to sleep in a backpacker's tent. After Bill's invitation to sleep in the funeral home, there was an awkward silence. My mind raced as I weighed the new opportunity.  I blurted, "I'll take you up on that!" My parents exchanged concerned looks, but then said, "If its okay with you, Bill, its okay with us. Behave yourself Allen." As if I was going to climb into one of the coffins or do something crazy. "No way! I'll be fine...When will I have an opportunity like this again!" Aaron piped up, "Uh...when you're dead!"

I began to privately question the wisdom of my decision, but I couldn't back down now!

McDonald Funeral Home, Centerville, TN.

Parking area where we camped behind the funeral home with he familiar McDonald's restaurant sign.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

There are few places in a America more beautiful than the back roads of Tennessee. Lush green hillsides give way to valleys filled with hardwood forests. Ash, Poplar, Oak, Hickory, Cottonwood and Cedar are just a few of them. The steady hum of insects fill the evening sounds of the forest as the sun steadily dives to meet the Western horizon. Lightning bugs illuminate the deepening shade of the trees on either side of the highway. The heat of the day begrudgingly gives way to the pleasant mild warmth of a Tennessee Summer night. A canopy of shimmering silver stars begin to fill the sky.

The rural highways my family walked stretch nearly 500 miles from Bolivar, Tennessee east of Memphis to the Appalachian Trail east of Elizabethton in the northeast corner of the state. The small corner of Mississippi that we walked allowed us to skirt the large city of Memphis and afforded greater perceived safety. 

Soon after crossing into Tennessee from Mississippi, my Dad and I found a strange metal tower that was built similarly to the giant metal structures that carry high voltage wires high above the ground below. Inside the structure was a metal staircase. Some might call it a ladder. It beckoned to our curiosity. Such a tower would surely be off-limits in California to keep people from jumping off, but not in Tennessee! The tower rose at least 50 yards above us. We had to climb it! After we had climbed about 30 feet, the tower began to sway under our weight and the strong breezes would shake the tower without warning. Neither one of us was afraid of heights, but we soon experienced some healthy respect and concern as we neared the top of the tower. It was then swaying more than either of us was particularly comfortable with. The view outweighed our concern as we were able to survey the terrain for miles around. The tower was built as a look-out for fires. As Cathleen and I were driving, I was surprised to see one still in existence in 2012! I didn't feel the need to climb it this time.

We awoke the next morning in Centerville, TN. Twenty-five years ago in this very town, I had spent a few nights sleeping alone above a morgue!

Tennessee fire lookout tower

Friday, June 22, 2012

Northwest Mississippi was impoverished when we walked through 25 years ago and it seems impoverished today. Cathleen and I drove past homes flying the Confederate Battle Flag and sometimes that flag was flying by itself. People are proud of their state's history, but in Mississippi, it seems that some are content to live out their own reality that the South is still separate from the Union. I did not stop to take any photos of the flags, feeling that it my not be safe to do so.

The terrain is primarily flat with rolling hills. Trees cover most of the land where crops are not planted. The air is humid. As a kid, I wrote in my journal that we walked past occasional bayous. Dad and I were walking a segment through a small black community when I saw a kid playing basketball. The basketball hoop that was made out of an old plastic milk box attached to a pole with a plywood back board. I felt that it was so clever. I wrote about feeling guilty because I had a beautiful fiberglass backboard and basketball court that my father had built for Aaron and me back home. It was arguably the best in the neighborhood, and I used it only occasionally. I felt homesick, but I also wanted to join the kid and check out his homemade court.

Cathleen and I stopped in Holly Springs, MS to take some pictures of the town square. It was patriotically decorated with American flags because of Memorial Day a couple of days prior and the upcoming 4th of July. The town seemed deserted at about 7pm in the evening, but for some black young adults socializing just off the square. I passed them with a nod and a smile and continued walking to a better vantage point to snap pictures of the historic town.

Holly Springs had housed several Union generals during the Civil War. My family had attended a Presbyterian church that was built before the Civil War. The story goes that locals had begged the Union Generals to spare their beautiful church. It still had a slave gallery where African American slaves would have sat during Sunday services. It seemed strange to be standing in this town again with so much history. As I stood thinking about the past, one of the men who had been socializing just off the square approached me from the back and asked why I was taking pictures. I smiled and said that I was taking pictures of their historic town. He said, "Oh, its got a lot of history all right! Its historic!" He and a woman with him, continued on down the street.

As I was walking back to the car, the woman ran back to me and started telling me about how hungry she was and how she had lost her job. I asked her where her man was and she just mumbled that he  was somewhere else. Regardless of her motives, I felt compassion and reached to give her my last couple of bucks.

As I walked back to my car, I felt like I was being watched. About five minutes out of town a Chrysler 300 with all tinted windows rapidly approached our car from behind. It slowed and began to tailgate our car with its hazard lights on. The road was empty and it was in an area with a passing yellow dotted line. My senses were instantly heightened. I knew that I was not going to pull over, but strangely didn't feel any fear. After a couple of miles, the car pulled around us and whizzed off. A few minutes passed and suddenly the Chrysler was speeding towards us and back into Holly Springs.

It saddens me to think racism and ignorance still exists. This is perhaps more obvious in an area where some people are content to pretend that the Confederacy won the Civil War and slavery should still be legal.

Watching us watching him.

Driving into Holly Springs

Courthouse in Holly Springs

 Flag decorated town square.

Pre-Civil War First Presbyterian Church of Holly Springs, MS as seen in 1987.