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The things I carry

On my first day heading into North Dakota oil country in May, I walked past a driftwood stick. This seemed a sort of sign, as trees are few on the prairie, and this stick was perfect for walking. So I picked it up and took it with me. Here it is on day six of that journey through the plains.

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It didn’t seem right to leave it behind, so – very long story short – the stick flew in a Delta luggage bay back to New Hampshire with me.

I brought the stick along on this walk through the Marcellus gas country of New York and Pennsylvania. Here it is resting outside the court house in Owego, New York.

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The stick has proven a crucial companion on this walk. For one thing, it seems to send a signal to people who see me wandering some rural stretch of road with my backpack: that guy means to be out here walking. And that often leads strangers to ask questions, which brings interesting encounters that teach me about life in gas country, the thing I’ve come to see in the first place.

There is more inside that pack, of course. Walking clothes and resting clothes. Rain gear. Water bottles. A first aid kit. A tent and sleeping bag. A cook stove. Food for the road. Water. A list of reporting contacts. And, naturally, notebooks, pens, and my iPhone.

I have experience with this stuff, so I try to keep things light and only to the most essential. But walking and working for 70 miles requires a lot, and my pack weighed in at 45 pounds. After three days on this outing, I started to crave a lighter pack, so I left a few things with new friends in Owego: Long underwear. A rain parka. And, knowing food would be more available in the settled East, my stove and cooking pot.

But I kept my tent and sleeping bag. The independence that comes with carrying shelter is key when wandering rural roads. I set off yesterday on a 20-mile route with no public land along the way. I hoped to stop somewhere for the night, and I knew once again I would be counting on the kindness of strangers – someone to offer up a distant corner of field where I could sleep for the night.

At about 5 pm on a beautiful afternoon, I stopped at a hidden house with a backyard creek that babbled and asked the man working on his window if I could sleep on his land for the night. He said sure, the first offering of hospitality that included cold Rolling Rock and a BBQ with his wife and grown kids and a window into their experience living in a gas field, including thoughts about the well a quarter-mile up the road and the royalty agreement they received in the mail just two weeks ago.

But that too is a long story, which I’ll have to carry on with me until I have time for another post here.

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