When Gagan Basra (his real name) was young, he used to walk–multi-day or multi-week treks across country. It gave him time to think and see the land. He’s no longer in shape for a hundred-mile expedition, nor is he a young man anymore, but he still dayhikes when he can and thinks back on his earlier travels.
Gagan grew up in India, but for the last year and a half, he has worked as general manager for Okanogan Inn & Suites. While walking from one edge of town to the other, I stopped to use the hotel bathroom and escape the sun. When I entered, backpacked and sweating, I found Gagan in the lobby, talking with a maintenance worker.
I couldn’t tell who was in charge, so I asked both where I could find a bathroom.
“Do you have a room?” Gagan answered.
He started to deny me, but then looked at my backpack and stopped. “Are you walking?”
“Walking and hitchhiking, all the way to Michigan.”
“From western Washington. I started near Bellingham yesterday.”
“You want to see the country?”
I nodded. “I just graduated, so now’s my chance to learn and get some experiences. I’m taking the highways, sticking to small towns. I’m avoiding interstates, because all you see there are cars and concrete.”
He nodded. Then, “I’ll unlock the bathroom for you.”
I thanked him, and when I came out, he asked if I wanted anything to eat. Gagan pointed to the continental breakfast and offered cereal, waffles, fruit. “Whatever you want–help yourself.” I had finished my leftover Concrete burger that morning, so I was more than happy to accept.
He disappeared behind the counter while I ate. But when I stood to leave, he reappeared and asked if I wanted any more to take on the road. I declined, mentioning the oatmeal and pasta and stove I had packed from home.
Gagan shook his head. “What’s your favorite cereal?”
“I’ll get you some.” He went downstairs and brought back a full 39-ounce bag, dwarfing the box of cookies he also carried. “Take these. Do you need a place to sleep?”
The offer of a free hotel room shocked me. Then tempted me. But it was just after noon, and I hoped to reach Idaho by nightfall. I turned down his offer.
He pulled out a twenty. “Take this. For the road.”
“I can’t! You’ve already given me food!”
“No, no. I insist.”
I told him about my rule against money.
“Then use it for dinner. Same as me giving you food.”
I wavered. “How about five dollars for a meal, not twenty for a meal.” He swapped bills, and I accepted it. “Thank you, thank you.”
We talked a little about his travels, and a little more about mine. When I turned to leave–again–he took out another five. “Make it two meals.”
So I have broken my rule against touching money. People like Gagan hear about my trip and remember their own travels, or feel inspired to take a trip themselves, or just feel glad that someone else is out there doing it.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this, man!”
“Back in my twenties… I hitched around Chicago, Boston, and all the roads in between.”
“You’ll learn a lot, I’ll tell you that much.”
For some, I become a sort of proxy, their connection to a dream or a memory. For others, I am their hope, living on trust in a way that they are too afraid to do themselves. Others see me as a son or a grandson, and they become invested in my safety and the trip’s outcome.
All of them want my experience to succeed, and they want to feel involved. But for many, limited by schedules or families, all they can offer is money. They can’t waste a half hour on lunch or invite me into their home. So they wish me luck or pray with me, they give me a business card or email or phone number, and–because they want to contribute something tangible–many give me a twenty dollar bill.
In Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, a woman in a working camp goes into labor. Steinbeck’s protagonists rally the camp and collect bits of cloth to use in the delivery–far more cloth than necessary–and the birth is safe and clean. Afterward, Mac explains why he collected so much: “Men always like to work together. There’s a hunger in men to work together … Every man who gave part of his clothes felt that the work was his own. They all feel responsible for that baby. It’s theirs because something from them went to it. To give back the cloth would cut them out. There’s no better way to make men part of a movement than to have them give something to it. I bet they all feel fine right now.”
Since a meal rarely costs more than $10, I set the rest of the money I receive aside for writing. Already, I have learned and experienced more than will fit in twice-weekly blog posts, and those who have helped me along the way have done more than keep me fed–they are extending the time I have to translate this experience into a longer piece of writing.
Because this experience, I am reminded again and again, is about far more than myself. It is the baby of In Dubious Battle. It is an experiment and an expedition in which many have a stake, and it belongs to everyone who has given me a ride or told me a story. It belongs to everyone who encourages me, who prays for me, who reads my posts. Gagan Basra is just one of many who have overwhelmed me with generosity, and in return, as just one stakeholder in this journey, I will do my part to document as much of this experience as I can. In accepting money from strangers, I commit to using it as best I am able.