Coming Soon to a Radio Near You! U-Turn in Utah, The Sequel


Fate versus randomness. I don’t know about you, but I still struggle with this. Although after last summer’s road trip across the country, you may be saying, “are you kidding?” 

I mean when something wonderful happens don’t we automatically gravitate toward the “meant to be” column of our lives? Whereas, if we just happen to be in a restaurant and somebody chokes on a piece of steak and we just happen to know the Heimlich Maneuver, wouldn’t that  justifiably  fall under happenstance ? That is, unless you’re the choker. Chance are they’d file that baby under the “fate” category.  It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose.

Highway 50

No distractions out here. Just the road. Until…


Or attentiveness. One year ago, when I was blazing across Utah, my level of annoyance rising with each mile deeper into the No Cell Phone Tower Zone, (not to be confused with the Twilight Zone, which was when I found the three of spades floating in a mountain stream) which meant I could not check emails or dispatch pithy Tweets or get my writer’s fix (a favorable comment on my most recent blog post) I was left to simply watch the road, not that it wasn’t pleasant, but this was Day #56 on the highway and enchanting as the Utah desert may be, it does become rather hypnotic after a while. I’m cruising along, adding up my past due debt when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a figure on the horizon. A man. He was walking. Out on U.S. Highway 50, a stretch of highway called “The Loneliest Road in America” and I see him. Walking. I write about it in Chapter One of Off the Leash.  

What in the world is he doing out here? I’m less than a quarter of a mile away now. Is that a grocery cart? There’s a flag, a small American flag waving from a pole. He’s got it attached to his cart like a car antenna. 

Poor dude. Rough place to be homeless. Lord knows I’ve seen my share of down and outers this summer, in every city from New York to San Francisco, sleeping in bus shelters, on sidewalks, park benches, curled up inside doorways, all their worldly possessions stuffed into trash bags piled inside a grocery cart. He’s wearing a bandana; the wind is whipping it around, just like the scrubby tufts of golden grass bent sideways in this sandy soil, desperately clinging to their miserable beds. I felt like that not long ago: dried up, beaten down. Everything gets beaten down by this wind, everything and everybody, today and every day. 

He looks young! He looks like a kid, like one of my kids, I say to myself as I zoom by. What the hell is a kid doing out here on the highway, all alone, pushing a—wait a minute, it’s a baby jogger. Looked like it was all zipped up. Wonder why? 

“Surely he doesn’t have a baby in there, Lib,” I say out loud, but Libby pays me no mind as I continue blazing down the highway, eighty miles an hour and then some. “Where in the hell is he going? There’s nothing out here, and it’s gotta be fifty miles to the next town!”

I passed him by, but my curiosity got the best of me. A good five miles down the road, I hooked a u-turn and went back to check him out. 

I start walking his direction, now twenty yards away. I’m out here all alone, a divorced mother of four, former soccer-baseball-football-tennis-basketball mom, former TV news “celebrity,” exclusive provider of all things financial and familial for my kids, who are grown now, on their own. So am I. There’s not another human being for miles around, save for this man, clearly bigger than I, who could, in a heartbeat, beat me over the head, steal my new hat, my car and my dog and leave me to the coyotes, snakes and vultures. 

I’m out here all alone, and yet everything I have experienced up to this point on this journey across America and my time on this planet so far is telling me that walking out to meet this man is precisely what I’m supposed to do. 

Nate Damm

Nate Walks America and Meets Libby
Highway 50, Utah, August 26, 2011

I’m so glad I did. I mean, what are the chances that the woman who was driving across America with her dog would intersect with the man who was walking across America? Yet, it happened. Twenty-three-year-old Nate Damm walked across the United States last year, starting in Delaware on February 26th and ending up in San Francisco on October 15th. It took him about seven and a half months. I met him on August 26th, exactly six months to the day from the day he left.

After I closed my mouth from my jaw dropping over what he was doing, I kept offering him a place to sit down and food and water. He just smiled and said, “No thanks, I’m good.” Then he said something to me which I’ve never forgotten. “People have just been so wonderful.” We both smiled knowing smiles and really, not much else needed to be said. This young man had echoed what was in my heart. “People have just been so wonderful.”

This is the magic that can happen when we follow our inner voice at the same time submitting to forces far greater than ourselves. Tomorrow, my friend Nate and I will be on the NPR station here in St. Louis, almost one year to the day after our desert throwdown. We’ve emailed a few times, back and forth. I have only spoken to him quite briefly, just today. He sounds great. He’s adorable. I can’t wait to hear about the rest of his journey. Tune in and we’ll find out together.

KWMU-FM, 90.7 

St. Louis, On-the-Air with Don Marsh

Thursday, August 23, 11:00 to 12:00 PM

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About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Love your stories and I think that’s great about Nate and what he did and both of you getting reacquainted!