WRITTEN BY STUART ESKENAZI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY AARON HUEY POLARIS IMAGES
Walking Across America
In street preachers, frat boys and family men,
an itinerant photographer found the kindness
Huey takes his first steps of the walk on Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, Calif., in shoes he spray-painted gold to slip into the superhero mindset.
Near the Arizona-New Mexico border, Cosmo rests. Huey resorted to duct tape to protect Cosmo’s paws after the $40 doggie boots he bought wore out in two days.
Huey steps onto the sands of the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island, N.Y., marking the end of his 3,349-mile trek.
AMERICA, IN ALL its glory, love it or leave it, started revealing itself to Aaron Huey along the highways and byways of the desert Southwest.
A man in blue overalls, his fingers stained orange from cigarettes, sits across the counter from Huey at some small-town café in Arizona. He uses a walker, outfitted with tennis balls at the base of the legs. His baseball cap says "Old Fart."
A boy with a metal halo screwed into his head shoots a BB gun in his front yard. As his dog barks, his mother stands on the porch, watching Huey, hands on her hips, palms out.
Eight kids in the flatbed of a white truck, covered in blankets, drinking half-gallon sodas.
A roadside banner, duct-taped to three broom handles, proclaims "Jesus Saves" in faded blue ink.
A waitress wearing a Harley Davidson T-shirt — and not for the sake of irony.
Cherry pie and ice cream. Purple mountains majesty.
It's January 2002, four months past September 11, and most everyone still is walking around in a daze, trying to figure out the meaning of it all. At a time Americans are searching for impossible answers to complex questions, 26-year-old photographer Aaron Huey laces up his hiking boots and leaves behind a great life in Santa Fe, N.M., to walk across America. Southern California to New York City — 3,349 miles in 154 days. A journey into the unfamiliar, it is Huey's trip outside his comfort zone.
His objectives for each day: Walk 30 miles, eat, meet people, take photos, write in his journal, find somewhere to sleep. His goal for the trip: Experience America without the clutter of life's daily distractions, free of the judgments and preconceived notions that prevent us from really getting to know people.
Ever enterprising, Huey has secured supplies for the walk from sponsoring companies, such as Leica and The North Face. Still, he sets out with little more than a toothbrush, some beef jerky, $200 in cash, a credit card and a harmonica. No cell phone. He brings along his favorite shirt, the gaudy one with the Hindu deity Ganesh on the front. He also takes a cowboy hat because cowboys personify the myth of the American hero he fancies. His dog, Cosmo, an irresistible malamute-wolf mix, will provide company and assistance for the long walk ahead. She will pull a wheeled cart that Huey has decorated with flames on the sides. The absurdity and audacity of the odyssey will help attract people to Huey, lower inhibitions and break down most barriers.
"Your belief system saturates the space around you," says Huey, in Seattle, reflecting on his walk across America nearly three years after it ended. "On the walk, I was an anomaly. Because I didn't fit anywhere, I fit basically everywhere."
AND SO BEGAN another adventure for the self-confident, self-styled explorer with the bushy sideburns who first started questioning everything around him while growing up in the secluded foothills of Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains. In school, Huey was one of those gifted kids the rest of us admire and resent at the same time. He ran cross-country, played the lead in school plays and made a name for himself as one of the best student artists in Wyoming. After high school, he landed in Slovakia as a Rotary Club scholar. Rather than settling on the school he was placed in, he found an art academy where he studied ceramics and stone sculpture. After school adjourned, he set out on a three-month trip across Europe, sometimes spending the night on rooftops or in doorways.
Enrolled at the University of Denver, he took part in another exchange program, this time in London, then returned to Slovakia his senior year, again finding an excuse to explore. While traveling in Turkey, he met a Kurd who escorted him into Syria. In Damascus, authorities harassed Huey, suspicious of his camera.
Huey's knack for making friends opened the door to Taliban religious schools on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 1999. During his travels across South Asia, he met a French guy who had secured a Taliban visa in Afghanistan. Together, they visited the refugee camps, where Huey befriended a tribal leader. With him as sponsor, Huey photographed the orphans at the schools for a week and a half.
"These were all chance meetings," Huey says. "Just like the walk, I had no clear path and nothing prearranged."
Huey's camera also has shot anti-American protests in Iran, ancient temples in Burma and tribal families in the remote Caucasus Mountains of the Georgian Republic.All of his experiences helped establish, then reinforce his world view. The walk across America would challenge it. He no longer could dodge the suburbs he'd always thought more deserving of bar codes than names. He had grown cynical of the nationalism in post-9/11 America, believing that the image of the flag had been co-opted. And he was a devout agnostic.
On the walk, though, Huey would find himself staring into the face of Jesus, etched into the bathroom mirror of a Mexican restaurant. Looking into that mirror, Huey no longer could deny that Jesus was in him and he was in Jesus.
An evening in Carnegie, Okla., proved eventful. After a friendly cop invited Huey and Cosmo to spend the night in an empty jail cell, he found out that the officers were working security at the high-school prom, so he tagged along.
He would depend on the kindness of strangers, and many took him in, offering a safe place to sleep — an empty jail cell, the local firehouse — and whatever they could offer in sustenance, be it an egg sandwich, red and green pistachios pulled from a sweaty pants pocket or a couple of Bud Lights.
"Without hesitation, these people brought me into their homes," Huey recalls. "They gave me access to their whole world, with no conditions. It was all open — any closet, any cupboard — for as long as I needed to stay."
Some of those Huey met along the way thought the kid could use a good haircut, like Phil with the sideways teeth who was certain Huey was a Red. On a single day in Texas, three different strangers handed Huey a copy of the Bible. Women at truck stops fell victim to his charms — he looked 18 and vulnerable — and ministered to him, as mothers do.
While Huey is an agnostic, he could not ignore Jesus during his walk. At a Mexican restaurant in Borrego Springs, Calif., Christ's image was etched on a bathroom mirror.
He would find wisdom in odd places.
"It could come from a guy snorting Ritalin in his trailer house," says Huey, recalling a tree trimmer who showed him hospitality in Missouri.
"I went into the walk as another adventure, and it became obvious right from the beginning that it was going to be about the learning more than the adventure."
He attracted his share of eccentrics and amateur philosophers, but also those wanting to live vicariously through him. People opened up, sharing stories of regret and risks not taken. After Huey spoke to a Sunday-school class in Oklahoma, the teacher confessed that what he really wanted to be doing with his life was to be on the road in a trailer with his wife and kids.
A FEW DAYS after starting off from Encinitas, Calif., Huey profits from the kindness and wisdom of Gabby, a biker with a long white beard, a wheelchair, a big-screen TV and a wife who thinks America should blow up all those other countries. Gabby invites Huey to camp in his front yard, next to a shed and two beat-up old Fords.
"If everyone would ask themselves honest questions about their day, about their life, about the decisions they make, and give themselves truthful answers, they would stop stumbling," Gabby tells Huey.
Nina, an extroverted and eccentric street preacher who reached out to Huey on the walk, lays hands on a woman during a Baptist revival in Thermal, Calif.
Six days into the walk, Huey's Achilles is a sore heel. For four hours, he rests inside a café on the Salton Sea in California's Mojave Desert, pondering whether his epic journey is going to end before the first chapter. That's when Nina, a 70-year-old street preacher and missionary for the homeless, invites herself to his table.
She stands barely 5 feet tall, but everything about her is either large or loud — her massive white wig, the "Jesus Saves" ring stretched across her finger, her booming voice, the purple eyeglasses with rhinestone studs. Nina waves her arms wildly and points her finger as she goads Huey into debating her on morality in the schools. Then she invites him to spend the night in an RV parked outside her house.
Huey never would have guessed he'd have such a great time with a bunch of former frat boys at their party house in Canyon, Texas, but Big Pikey — with a little help from his friends — showed him the way.
Actually, the mobile home is a mobile church with an altar featuring a huge cross and an embroidered banner decreeing "Jesus is Lord." Over fruit and tea, Nina finishes telling Huey her life story — born in England, abused as a child, ran away from home as a teen, worked as a journalist in Cambodia before the war. She feeds off her own drama, and Huey's.
"She said she was always flipping through Proverbs in her mind, like a Rolodex, and she came upon the one about the good Samaritan. She thought of it as her duty" to put him up.
Two weeks later, Huey and Cosmo reach Salome, Ariz., a desert town where people are hesitant to give their real names. Huey meets Bill, whose real name is Larry. He is eating unpeeled raw potatoes out of a sack. He tests Huey before confiding in him the most important event of his life, the day he was visited by an angel — a 20-year-old punk-rock girl with red-spiked hair and tattoos, dressed in studded leather. Somehow this girl, this supposed angel, knew Larry had planned to kill a man that night and she talked him out of it. Changed his life.
In Fairgrove, Mo., Huey captures a junior-varsity girls’ softball team practicing its version of the great American pastime.
In east St. Louis, Mo., sisters share a playful moment as boys joust behind them in the street.
Huey meets his own angel a few days later in Buckeye, Ariz. Dressed as a gas-station cashier, she hands him a wallet-sized plastic card with a floral border and an inspirational message printed on it:
"Believe in yourself, in the power you have to control your own life, day by day. Believe in the strength that you have deep inside, and your faith will help show you the way. Believe in tomorrow and what it will bring — let a hopeful heart carry you through, for things will work out if you trust and believe there's no limit to what you can do."
IN THE TEXAS Panhandle, a circle of college-aged friends who are mostly fraternity-house dropouts and soccer teammates host Huey at their apartment — a party house with walls covered in photos of them doing fun things and doing them all drunk.
Inspired by their ringleader, Big Pikey, the guys party into the wee hours, teaching Huey drinking games, eating chili dogs, dancing on tables and singing the same U2 song over and over, arm in arm, as loud as they possibly can. Five cases of Natural Light help fuel their bliss, but doesn't necessarily create it.
"They were so happy, they were like a bunch of little kids, unaware that there was anything to be afraid of in the world, or be anxious about," Huey recalls. "They had found a group of people they liked to be with, and life for them was simple. I tried not to analyze whether these were guys I would want as my roommates or people I would want to work with. I tried to stay in the moment, appreciating what I was seeing. I was with these kids who were blown away by their own happiness, and it made me really happy, too. I didn't care how they had gotten to that point. It was enough that they had gotten there."
Huey jots down in his journal a lesson from the evening: "Men are separated by so many petty things."
Members of "The Aces" street gang hang outside a liquor store in East St. Louis, Ill. While Huey easily integrated into many different social scenes, he found African-American street life difficult to penetrate.
Later in the walk, on the streets of East St. Louis and Cincinnati, a very different group of kids, African-American, wouldn't invite Huey in.
"They wanted to play this game — them in the gangster role and me in the role of meek, white, well-to-do 20-something. I tried hanging out with them several times. A few kids would start communicating with me and then a few others would refuse to engage, step back and rile everyone else up. And it would almost get violent."
Veiled threats were made, and, sensing a mob mentality, Huey decided to leave, resigned to the truth that some walls might never come down.
IN VERSAILLES, IND., population 1,781, motel owner Hank Graves invites Huey to join him and other townfolk at the VFW hall, where all are preparing for the annual Memorial Day parade. The ceremony is huge, with bands, baton twirlers and disabled veterans who cry during "Taps." Baron Hill, the local congressman at the time, gives a speech about September 11 and the roots of democracy.
After the parade, everyone returns to the VFW hall, where they sit around for two hours and watch a video of what they had just experienced — but this time, they get to experience it with a beer in their hand. From there, they retreat to a park on the edge of town for a picnic and barbecue. A couple invites Huey to give a short speech. He stands on a picnic table and thanks the veterans for taking in a stranger and making him feel like part of their family. He relates how the walk has expanded his definition of the family of man.
"I didn't mean it to, but the talk eventually turned a little political," Huey recalls.
On Memorial Day in Versailles, Ind., a baton twirler participating in the town’s annual parade stands respectfully in front of a veterans' graveyard.
When Huey ventured to the Afghan-Pak border in 1999 to photograph Taliban schools, among the first people he met were boys playing soccer on the grounds. He watched them laugh a lot and enjoy the company of classmates. Like any students stuck in a regimented environment, they broke rules, sneaking out to play drums, which was banned by Taliban law. There were many things about the boys that reminded Huey of himself, or of friends. He shares that thought with the Versailles vets.
"I said that we needed to remember that there is a little bit of us in all of these people, even as we're bombing them. I didn't know what kind of reaction I was going to get. I actually was kind of afraid as I was saying it. But they were very open to what I was saying. They applauded. I came down off the picnic table and a couple of these VFW guys came up and hugged me, and I had really not expected that."
In the heartland of New Holland, Ohio, heartfelt affection is on display along with Americana during the town’s street fair, Deer Creek Dam Days.
AS HUEY CALLS his father at a gas-station pay phone in rural Ohio, three children ages 6, 4 and 2 are petting and playing with Cosmo. Five minutes later, the children's parents, Jeff and Tricia Flickinger, are loading Huey, Cosmo and the dog cart into the back of their Suburban and heading to the family's big white farmhouse, the one with the trampoline in the back yard. Huey ends up staying with the Flickingers for five days.
Three years after the fact, Jeff Flickinger still considers meeting Huey at the gas station a form of destiny.
"There was a big storm coming," he says. "Aaron and I started talking, and he was telling me about his walk across America. I'm realizing in a very short period of time that he was doing something extraordinary in his life and that I wanted my family to be a part of it."
Huey and Jeff Flickinger spend a lot of time talking about politics and religion. A Desert Storm veteran, Flickinger tells Huey about how he returned from the war to a divorce and a dying father. He relates his spiritual journey, which dabbled in Buddhism but accepted Messianic Judaism because it provided the answers he sought. He relates the stresses of working as a paramedic. Flickinger enjoys the conversations, the depth of which he cannot always find in southeast Ohio. He sees a lot of himself in Huey, in spite of their obvious differences. Both are constantly searching for life's deeper truths.
Jordan Flickinger, 6, plays the violin in the home-school classroom of her family's farmhouse in rural Ohio. The Flickinger family opened their home and heart to Huey for five days.
The Flickingers teach their children at home and have converted a section of the farmhouse into a classroom. Huey has a picnic in the room with the kids and notices that Tricia Flickinger has written "Mommy loves her family" across the blackboard. "Loves" is emphasized in pink chalk.
The couple asks Huey to teach art to their children. Tricia Flickinger rolls a 12-foot piece of paper onto the porch and lays out crayons and paint so they can draw a mural. The youngest walks barefoot across the wet paint, putting her stamp on the artwork that way. The oldest titles the finished mural: "All the Trails That All the People Took."
"I want my children to see good things and know good people," says Jeff Flickinger, explaining why he invited a stranger into his home. "You'll never know what you can learn from someone unless you are willing to open up your heart and mind. But if you never allow it, if you don't dwell from that place of love and openness, you'll never know what's around the corner.
As a storm approaches their farmhouse near Somerset, Ohio, Jeff Flickinger lifts daughter Jessie toward the clouds. Flickinger enjoyed deep conversations with Huey and had him teach art to his three children.
"With Aaron, I'm glad that I allowed myself and my family the experience to get to know him. And I hope more people would strive toward the type of thing he did — to step out of the old paradigm and see a lot more things beyond the standard fare we get ourselves trapped within."
HIS ODYSSEY long over, Huey has settled on Seattle as a place to settle. Now engaged to be married, Huey, his fiancée, Cosmo and a black lab mix live on Capitol Hill in a corner unit of a vintage brick apartment building that sports a pleasant view of the city. He is in the throes of another ambitious photography project that satisfies both his creative urges and political objectives, gently finessing his way into the lives of those grieving for loved ones killed in the Iraq war and photographing the poignant images of their loss.
Since the walk, Huey has returned to Salton City twice to visit Nina because, well, she's a photographer's dream. He also keeps in touch with the Flickingers, mostly by e-mail. But make no mistake about it: Aaron Huey has returned to his comfort zone, surrounding himself with people who are a lot like him.
"I want to be able to sit down with people and not have arguments," he says. "I want it to be a little easy. It's really hard going into people's worlds that were so foreign to me. I tried to go to the table ready to make adjustments to my view of reality with everyone I sat down with. But it took a lot of energy to stay that open-minded."
Stuart Eskenazi is a Seattle Times staff reporter. More photos of Aaron Huey's journey can be seen on his Web site at www.aaronhuey.com.
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