“There’s always somebody worse off than you.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase or sentiment expressed in some way or another over these past six months. I can tell you my first reaction was always silent disbelief. I never doubted the sincerity; I only wondered how the person who said it could focus on and be thankful for what they had instead of lamenting what they didn’t. They were entitled to be angry, to complain that times had gotten tough. But any bit of wallowing quickly vanished at the thought that things could be worse.
The face I see when I hear those words today is that of Judy, one of the very first people I met on this journey as she stood in line at a food bank in Southwestern Virginia. She had made the difficult decision to ask for help when she realized she would not be able to make ends meet that month. Judy was proud, but this was the right decision for her family.
She had reluctantly been coming to the food bank for about a year, on and off. Her eyes began to fill with tears when she thought of another family that might go hungry because of her. She needed staples to help stretch what was left in her pantry and freezer because there were grandchildren at home she was helping to raise. Still, Judy said, she would gladly give up her place in line if someone needed it.
She tried not to cry, but a tear made its escape down her cheek. Judy spoke of her grandmother who taught her that if you help others it would always be returned in your favor. She hoped that her summer garden would be plentiful so that she wouldn’t have to come back again to the food bank any time soon, and maybe even be able to share some fresh vegetables with her neighbors. My disbelief turned into awe.
So often those that have the least to give are the first to give it away. It is a humbling reality and a challenge to those of us who have so much to be thankful for. Will there ever be a day when we can say that no one is “worse off”? I would like to believe there will but I know the odds. Still, I’ve seen how simple acts of generosity can make a world of difference, whether it’s canned goods for a food bank, blankets for a homeless shelter, or taking just a moment to smile at a stranger.
I gave Judy a hug when our interview was over. She was so brave to share her story. I knew I couldn’t make things any better for her in that moment but I could take her message and pass it on. Maybe her story would help someone in some way and then it would be returned in her favor.
I believe she’s off to a good start.
The Escaper’s retired from The Hardest Year duty and just in time by the weather reports I’ve seen lately from Colorado! The camper served us well, carrying us from Virginia to Seattle, WA and back again. Of course, there were some speed bumps along the way: gas caps kept getting left behind, the air conditioner never worked quite right, endless anti-freeze and oil refills, some thingamajig on the transmission stopped us in our tracks in Oregon and we blew a tire the day before we made it home. But the point is we made it back safely and I can’t really ask for more than that.
You may have noticed there’s no more map of where we are; that’s because John and I have returned to our own lives and responsibilities. That doesn’t mean the project is over – it is The Hardest Year and according to my calendar that still adds up to twelve months. More importantly, I believe there are still stories that need to be told. Officials may quote numbers that show the economy is turning around but the reality is a lot of folks are struggling and will continue to do so for awhile, especially with the holidays and winter coming. There is no time limit on rebuilding one’s life.
So thank you for following along and sticking with us during our journey. There are stories from the road trip that will be edited in the coming weeks and observations that will likely make their way into this blog space. Then you’ll see some stories that are closer to home base, here on the east coast.
It’s both wonderful and strange to be back in the old routine: wonderful to reconnect with family and friends, but strange to leave new friends and experiences behind. Although I know they’re never very far away since I carry them all with me. It was an amazing four months on the road and a summer I will never forget. Thank you again for being a part of it and sticking around for the next phase!
We take our shoes off before entering the Escaper. Not while we go in and out during the day, but when we’re in for the night.
It’s become a ritual: John stands in the doorway, scraping the heel of one foot with the toe of the other until his running shoes land outside. He pushes them underneath the camper a bit, but ever since we started experiencing sudden rainstorms, I’ve been pushing them under a little further along with mine so they don’t get wet.
The ritual is more of a courtesy. After months of wearing the same shoes pretty much every day, well, you can imagine that Lysol doesn’t work as well as it used to. Probably too much information, but that’s life on the road!
And so it went again, our shoes tucked in under the camper while we parked for another night at the Wal-Mart in Butte, Montana. We had spent the day with our parking lot neighbors and new friends, Mike and Jane, whom you will meet in one of our next videos.
It was their 25 year-old Toyota camper that caught John’s eye. There aren’t many of them around and we’re always on the lookout for the Escaper’s long lost twin. They have the New Horizon model. Not quite our twin, but close enough.
Mike and Jane recently moved out of their apartment and into their camper full-time because things are tough these days.
We enjoyed their company as they introduced us to the wonder of grilling out in a Wal-Mart parking lot. People would honk and wave at us as we sat around the mini-grill in folding chairs, eating our hamburgers and hot dogs. Mike and Jane have become regulars around the Wal-Mart.
When the sun set for the evening and the night air chilled, Mike and Jane helped us bring our chairs back to the Escaper. We said goodnight and agreed to see them in the morning before setting off for our next destination.
The parking lot was the fullest we’ve ever seen during one of our Wal-Mart stays. RVs and campers of all shapes, sizes and price ranges with license plates from Iowa, Washington, Louisiana, Texas and beyond. Ours fell somewhere in the middle. I thought we blended in pretty well.
Which was why I was caught completely off guard when I woke up this morning and quietly stepped outside. I reached down to get my sneakers and noticed that our shoes, normally tucked away in our separate pairs were alternated in a row. In one of John’s was a ripped piece of blue-lined loose-leaf paper with “God Bless Safe Travels” written in blue marker. In one of mine was a dollar bill.
I didn’t know what to make of it. Had we unwittingly stumbled upon some traveler’s code? Were we asking for help by leaving our shoes out for the night? Who was this mysterious donor and had they done this for everyone? When I told John, he wondered if maybe someone had mistaken our camper for Mike and Jane’s.
I felt guilty. There are more deserving people who should have received this thoughtful gift, not me.
Mike and Jane aren’t proud about it, but Jane sometimes stands on the side of the road holding a sign asking passers-by for a little help. They only ask when they really need it; they use the money to buy food and gas. We often assume the worst about those people standing there, avoiding eye contact at any cost. Jane doesn’t care if you don’t want to give her money, but she sure appreciates a friendly nod.
I wanted them to have the dollar, but there was no way of slipping it to our new friends without being insulting. I hoped the mysterious donor had left one for them, too. Every little bit helps. Mike and Jane want people to know that – even if all you can afford is a smile and a hello.
Which is why I took the dollar out of my pocket and tucked it in the glove compartment. I’m waiting to see someone standing on the side of the road “flying a sign.” I plan on rolling down the window, looking them in the eye and handing it over along with the handwritten note.
“God Bless Safe Travels.”
Growing up a television junkie (I’m talking broadcast, we didn’t get cable until I was in high school), I found that limited programming made for a greater shared experience by us, the viewing audience. There were only so many Saturday morning cartoons to goof about at the cafeteria table; there was only one Fonz.
Even so, television offered us choices. But there was a time when even if you had the choice to change the channel, you still turned on CBS News to watch Walter Cronkite.
I’m young enough (barely) to not actually remember watching Cronkite anchor the nightly news. But as I grew interested in journalism, I found his presence was still felt by those in the business; his viewers still touched by how he covered the major events in their lives. I may have learned about the day President Kennedy was assassinated or when man landed on the moon in history class, but I see those events in my mind as reported by Walter Cronkite. Those images will forever flicker across the television screen as each anniversary passes.
The most trusted man in America is no longer with us, but I would say that 92 years is a darn good run. I think the melancholy I feel is that it truly is the end of an era. I looked up to Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor as what journalism could and should be. I was lucky enough to start my career at a time when those who worked above me had the same vision.
For every name and face you see bringing you the news, there are hundreds of others who help get them into your living room and onto your computer or iPhone. While it was exciting to work the days when Peter Jennings came to Washington, DC to anchor the ABC News broadcast, I got more excited when a producer gave me a phone number to call or handed me video to review.
These were the people who took the time to help a kid in the trenches climb her way upward. Without them and countless others, I believe I would not be the journalist I am today. They are not known to most of you, but you have seen their work – trust me. There are just a few I would like to stop and remember.
Rebecca Lipkin, Leroy Sievers, Leo Meidlinger. My colleagues, mentors and friends. All gone too soon.
Rebecca passed away Sunday after fighting a brave battle against breast cancer. Always honest, always spirited, her poignant video diaries can be seen on YouTube should you want to meet the woman so many of us are lucky to have known.
It’s been almost a year since Leroy Sievers died of colon cancer. I knew Leroy when he worked at “Nightline.” He also bravely shared his experiences battling brain tumors and cancer in the hope that it would inform and bring solace to others who may be touched by something similar. His story was part of a Ted Koppel documentary, and Leroy created a forum on National Public Radio and at NPR.org called “My Cancer.” His work continues: as of January, the forum is now called “Our Cancer.”
And Leo. He didn’t have time to do such things, but there was not one person who walked through the doors of ABC News that did not know Leo. He was old school and we, especially the younger folk, loved him for it. To know Leo, all you have to do is turn on some Otis Redding, set yourself up with a double Cutty Sark, and laugh until there is no more air in your lungs.
Leo reminded me a lot of another one of those nameless, faceless guys found behind the camera. But to me, he loomed larger than life: my Uncle Ed.
Had it not been for Ed Dyas, I would not have known that this love I had for pictures and words could actually be channeled into a career. He worked at NBC News, and when I was no more than eight years old, he took my family on a tour of the studios at 30 Rock in New York City. I never realized before then that behind all those tubes and wires in that box, there were people who put those shows together. I got to sit on the Today Show news set and we bumped into anchorman John Chancellor in one of the control rooms. I was hooked.
Uncle Ed was my first mentor and my champion. We always talked shop – and Eric Clapton. There’s no need to count the years he’s been gone because I still think of him every day.
I would love to hear his sermon about the state of the news biz today, with all these cable and Internet outlets. And I wonder what he would think of this adventure I now find myself on. My Aunt and cousins tell me he would be proud, and I admit that still makes me misty-eyed. I think it’s because I realize how lucky I am that I found something I love to do and that I still believe in.
I am grateful to all those who helped me along the way. They are gone but certainly not forgotten.
And yes, that’s the way it is…
Julie laughed. Kinda hard.
It was funny because I’d just been on the line with the manager of a Wal-Mart Supercenter outside of St. Louis, asking if they would allow us to park overnight in their parking lot. We’d be sleeping outside “Wallyworld.” Read more…
One month and three gas caps later, John and I have literally driven from Kingdom Come to Promised Land.
Granted, those are State parks in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, respectively, but in just the few weeks that we’ve been on the road in our rusty, trusty RV we affectionately refer to as the Escaper (because that’s what Toyota called it some twenty years ago as evidenced by the paint job – and it’s absolutely appropriate), I feel like we’ve covered a lot of ground in many ways. Read more…
John gets full credit for the title of this blog even though he doesn’t remember uttering the phrase “jazz hands.” It was an observation made over a week ago about an enthusiastic waitress at a Chinese-Thai restaurant outside of Berea, Kentucky who delivered the squeeze bottle of hot mustard with flair.
I almost did a spit take with my Pad Thai. Read more…
The last time I wrote here I was at home in Jonesville, Virginia and was thinking about the ease and comfort of being in a place you know. That’s changed.
We hit the road less than a week ago but we’ve already been deep into unfamiliar territory. I’ve been to these parts of eastern Kentucky before, but never like this. We’re seeing the places and the people I would usually zoom by at 70 miles per hour. And we’ve become again the faceless, forgettable people who “aren’t from here.” Everybody’s a stranger and every turn is undiscovered country. As much as I enjoyed being home and rooted, life on the road ain’t bad either. Read more…
The rain keeps falling but it has not kept the birds outside my window from their early morning revelry. As I sit safe and dry, listening to the drops pound against the roof, I wonder what exactly these little creatures have to sing about while stuck in the treetops, their flights delayed? Read more…
You may have noticed from the map box over there on the right side of the page that we haven’t moved around much in the last week or so. It’s because we’re at my Mom’s house as the family deals with a few things that have come up. Julie’s been wonderfully understanding of the situation and we hope to be back on the road by the end of this week. Read more…