U-turn in Utah


I used to work with a great new shooter in St. Louis who said, “you know it’s not really a story until you’ve had to make three U-turns.” That was back in the day before GPS, when TV reporters, riding shotgun, were expected to read the map at the speed of spot news. This was typically about 80 mph, while the “shooter” (aka “videographer”) at the wheel, was hollering “which way am I supposed to fucking turn?” They hated missing the flames.

I was clippin’ along at about 80 mph on US 50 heading east when I spotted  something that made me turn around and go back. It wasn’t an immediate decision. I hemmed and hawed for about a mile and a half, talked myself out of it and then snapped back to my gut, which has been the divining rod for this entire journey. Each state nearer to Missouri, I get closer and closer to deadlines, people waiting, time tables, creditors, you name it. And I needed to make it into Green River that night to be “ON SCHEDULE.” Oh this pains me to the core.

But….I listened to my gut.

I turned around. And sure enough what I thought I saw was indeed what I did see.  A young kid, walking all alone, in the searing Utah sun, pushing one of those baby jogger strollers, (no baby inside) instead, it was loaded with gear. This guy – ALL alone, on one of the most remote stretches of two-lane highway I have witnessed on this trip. Heat of the day, walking out on the highway, in the middle of the desert.

Nate - Walking Across America

Nate, Walking Across America, wishing he had a Libby.

I pulled up about 100 yards in front of him on the same side of the highway and got out with my camera and a business card. Told Libby, “I’ll be right back” since I tell her virtually EVERY move I make now, which she completely understands, and I walked up to meet him.

“Hey, I passed you a few minutes ago — and just had to turn around and come back to find out where you are going?” I said, extending a hand. “My name is Jean and I’m driving across America with my dog….I’m writing    about it… “

“No way! ” he said. “My name is Nate and I’m walking across America and writing about it!!!”

What in the hell are the chances?  I mean, really. Really. I could have gone a different way. He could have been eating a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. I could have assumed he was some nutcase, (who’s to say I’m not?) and zoomed right past him, I could have been in the bathroom at the gas station ten miles up the road, I could have been walking Libby out behind the station. You are all far too smart for me to go on about the infinite number of ways I could have missed Nate on a desolate stretch of two-lane in the Utah August heat, but then, why would I? We have clearly established that nothing is random, time and time again. This has become a demonstrated fact. So, I’ll just go with it.

I briefly went on to explain that this was a personal journey for me, I’d lost a brother, I’d quit my job, I’d just met the long, lost brother, all the stuff that you guys know. Nate told me he’d given up everything to walk across America — a job, his girlfriend, money — it was six months, SIX MONTHS to the day he left Delaware to go on this solitary quest. This kid has been walking since February! But he’d had a calling, a moral imperative, an irrepressible urge to do.

Here’s the interview I did with him. (Apologies for the audio, it’s always windy in the desert and these iPhones are not equipped to deal with it.) But, you can make much of it out.

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After we did the interview, we swapped photos. He said he SO wanted to bring a dog, but it’s too hot and unnatural for dogs to walk for hours and hours each day. Like it’s not for humans? I got his website address, NateWalksAmerica.

I kept trying to give him stuff from my car, water, almonds, fruit — he said he was already loaded down in the stroller. He said he camps out mostly, uses the free WIFI at McDonald’s, sometimes stays with the people he meets for a few days. I asked what his folks think about this, he said they’re cool with it, in fact, quite supportive. I told him to call me if he needs names of people in California to stay with.

Mostly I kept thinking he should SIT DOWN!!!! He was really in to what I’m doing, thought it was really cool, asked a lot of questions. We talked about how much we dig the solitude, how clear and purposeful our thoughts are.

And then, it was time for him to keep on walkin’ and me to keep on truckin’. It wasn’t a mere handshake kind of goodbye, I gestured with open arms and we hugged each other like we meant it. Human to human, traveler to traveler, no matter I’m old enough to be his mom. We were just two people, sharing a cup of our authentic selves, on a wind blown two-lane highway out in the middle of the Utah dessert, wishing each other good luck, God speed, let me hear from you, watch out for snakes.

I got back in the car, gave him a peace sign and headed on down the road, his sun-drenched cotton tee-shirt scent all over me. It made me happy, a lingering trace of two humans embracing in the desert, until the wind whipped it out the window, replaced by the smell of the detergent of the last household where I’d done laundry.

I thought of so many other things I wished I’d asked him, mostly if he’d  noticed the preponderance of chicken bones strewn across America.

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. It’s too bad the sound is so muffled. you are clear but poor Nate is not audible for a lot of it. He is cute.

  2. Another link in the chain for both of you. Incredible.

  3. Gerry Mandel says:

    The title of your book, or a chapter title, or a sequel: “Chicken Bones Across America.” Love it. Did I mention I love your brother’s smile. Runs in the family.

  4. Wow – you’re right, there are no coincidences. This was so moving. Continued luck on both of your journeys!

  5. Helen Bruner says:

    We met Nate during monsoon time in Indiana. He’s right…all of us keep track of him, worry about him during bad weather and heat. And we’re with him in spirit. Can’t wait until his return.

    Love your article! Thanks so much for the cool story about America’s Nate.

    Helen Riley Bruner

  6. This is just cool.

  7. Sherry Lambing says:

    I’m so happy to see this video. We encountered Nate in Missouri. Meeting him had a somewhat profound effect on my life–though he had no idea. And now I get to read about you and your story–what a wonderful world!

  8. I came to your blog from Nathan’s blog – I’ve been following his trek across America. What a blessing serendipity can be, with the 2 of you finding each other in the ‘middle of nowhere.’ I have been catching up on your journey as well, with envy and admiration. I have a comment about your videos: the sound of the other person is often covered or distorted by the wind and you can’t hear anything but your voice. Otherwise, great job! Thank you for letting us share this journey, both physically and emotionally, with you.