Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.
—- Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
Three Punches Left
Craig was working late, as he always did. His eyes were tired, achy and blurry from staring at the piles of reports he had to double-check, then type into an endless series of punch cards. The tan cardboard slowly filling long steel boxes to be sent down to the ravenous mainframe three stories down. It was dark outside and he was so worn out he was making more mistakes than correct entries. The bus wouldn’t run too much longer so he shut it all down to take the elevator down the giant steel and glass tower to catch his bus home.
As boring and tough as it was, he was grateful for his job. With gas up to a dollar thirty, the economy had collapsed across the country. Back in Kansas, he had a promotion at work, bought a new car, bought a new house, and had a new girlfriend. Then everything tanked and the company folded, He lost his job, his girlfriend left, and all he had left was debt.
The only places where you could find a job in 1981 were the big Texas cities – fueled by the flood of petrodollars. So he went to all his friends and was able to borrow twenty five dollars for gas and set out south down I35 to look for a job.
But it worked out, he found this job and a crumbling studio apartment on the Belmont Bus line which ran downtown. He had not been able to afford the payments on his car and as soon as they found him it was repossessed.
Craig stood in the darkness looking down the street at the line of buses moving along, stopping every block, getting the last of the worker drones out of the giant buildings. There it was, the Belmont Bus, route #1 – can’t miss it, on its way.
He had a sudden moment of panic – did he have any punches left on his transit card? He bought a card worth sixteen rides – he knew his wallet and pockets were otherwise empty. Sweating, he pulled out the card and breathed a deep sigh when he saw three punches left.
He looked up and saw the open door of the bus looming in front of him. He stepped on and gave the card to the driver for a punch. Then he settled in an empty seat and half dozed off, waiting for the hour-long ride home. A deep pothole lurched Craig awake and he looked out the window to gauge how long it would be until his stop. He had ridden the bus home enough to know the route by heart.
He bolted in his seat when he realized that nothing looked familiar. The area was really sketchy, with groups of young men gathered under the streetlights at every corner. They stared at the bus with faces of violent hate, and Craig was afraid they were looking at him.
When he looked up from his card and boarded the bus, it had been the wrong one. This bus must have passed the Belmont #1 and pulled up to him first.
What neighborhood was he in? What direction was he going? He knew his bus route but not the rest of the city. He walked up to the driver. At least he had two punches left on his card. He could catch a bus back downtown, then another home.
“Uhh, I think I’m on the wrong bus,” he said. “I need to get off and catch a bus the other way, back downtown.”
“Sorry, sir,” the driver replied. “This is the last route of the night. Ain’t nothin’ ‘till five in the morning.”
The next block looked deserted so he got off the bus. He stood there wondering what to do.
There was nothing except to start walking. He could go back along the bus route, follow the signs and stops to downtown, then walk along the Belmont route to get to his apartment. It might be twelve… fifteen miles – he might not make it home until dawn…. If he survived the walk and the night.
“The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,” Craig said and started to put one foot in front of the other.