A few weeks back, a friend called because he was short-handed, and needed help on his shrimp boat. My family had eaten all our shrimp from my last time crewing, and by chance, I had that Friday off, so I readily agreed to meet him in Louisiana,
That Friday morning, I left our house near Andalusia, Alabama at 3:00 AM. Three miles out, a man was standing beside his car, parked on US 29, with his hazard lights flashing. I pulled over and rolled down the passenger side window. He approached the car and said “I’m out of gas. I got out of prison and I’m on my way to a new job. My sister must have used all the gas last night.”
From that spot to the nearest 24-hour gas station was eighteen miles.
I told him, “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
He said, “I believe in you man.”
I turned the car around and drove back to my house, to retrieve a full, one-gallon gas can.
During that short trip, I considered the risk associated with this good deed. He didn’t have to mention his time in prison, his face told the story. The flattened nose and empty eyes spoke to: violence, decades of drug abuse, and moral vacuity. If I read him correctly, he may profess his undying loyalty at 3:45 PM, and cut your throat at 3:46 PM, after noticing that nice watch you were wearing.
I pulled over beside his car with the passenger window down, my seatbelt off, and the car still in drive. There was some space between us, and some freedom of movement. He approached the passenger side and I handed the can of gas out the window.
In the ten minutes required to retrieve the gas, his story had changed. “Hey man, I’m looking for a job. I’m a hard worker, anything you have to offer.”
When he turned to poor the gas in his car, I drove off, leaving him with the can and enough gas to get to Brewton, if he was continuing west.
I had mostly paid attention to his face in the beginning, but as I drove west I considered the car. It was a very nice, late model sedan, probably worth about twenty or thirty times the beater I drove. It may have been a hot, in which case I had just assisted a felon in the act.
I rendezvoused with my friend Paxton near Ponchatoula. We the crossed the Lake Pontchartain causeway and launched out of St. Barnard Parish. We shrimped though the day and night, putting back in at about 8:00 AM on Saturday.
I drove East on I-10. On Saturdays, my family sets up as vendors at the Palafox Market in Pensacola, Florida. We had a bunch of mushrooms to sell this particular Saturday, so I figured I’d meet the family on Palafox Street, and help with sales until the market closed at 2:00 PM.
I made it out of Louisiana, through Mississippi, and into Alabama. Just past the exit to Fairhope, a sharply dressed woman was standing on the shoulder of I-10. I figured less risk, offering a ride to a female, so I stopped again. By the time, I pulled over, I was about 100 yards past her. Rather than walk towards my car, she stared at her cell phone. That should have been sufficient warning that something wasn’t right, but perhaps my mind was addled from lack of sleep.
I slowly backed up on the shoulder, until I was directly beside her. She wore the skin tight black clothing, that I have seen many waitresses utilize in upscale restaurants. She looked to be about thirty, thin, with blond hair and a tongue-stud. She looked at my dirty old Buick with obvious disdain and asked, “Don’t you have something to put over the seat?” I placed my rain slicker over the passenger seat. She opened the door got in and announced, “If my uniform gets dirty, you are going to burn in hell.”
I thought, “Oh God, I’ve screwed the pooch again.”
I started driving east. I didn’t know how far she was going, so I asked, “Where are you headed?”
She turned to stare at me and spit these words out, “I don’t know you! It’s none of your business.”
This situation was going downhill fast.
I stared straight ahead and made sure I had the cell phone ready, if I needed to pull over quickly and exit the car.
Her hands didn’t stop moving: rapid darting movement, back and forth, as if she was in silent conversation. Without permission, she turned the heater to full blast. Then she turned the radio to maximum volume, and randomly pushed buttons on the stereo. She was either out of her mind, or tweaking hard on meth.
This was scary shit.
We approached the Florida line, and an overpass came into view. She said, “Pull over, now.” One way or the other, we were rapidly approaching the end game.
I stopped beside the overpass with my hand on the seat-belt release. She opened her door, stepped out, and looked at me, “You are going to kill Paul White. There is no doubt about it.” She waved me off saying, “Go.”
So why tell this story?
In the fall of 2014, I walked the length of the Texas-Mexico Border. Along the way, I was assisted by dozens of strangers. People that offered rides, money, food, even spare bedrooms while I was passing through town. I started that walk on October 27th, 2014 in El Paso, Texas, and finished on Boca Chica Beach on December 21st, 2014.
I learned many things during that 1,010 mile trek, but perhaps the most important lesson, was the restoration of my faith in humanity.
In less than a week, I fly back to El Paso. On December 21st, I’ll catch a ride to International Mile Marker #1, where I will start walking west, into New Mexico and Arizona. Once again, strangers will come to my aid. They will see an unshaved transient with a backpack, and accepting the risk, they will stop to offer assistance. This election didn’t change who we are, or who they are.
After my first walk along the Texas-Mexico border, I swore to repay the many favors bestowed upon me. So, I give food to the homeless in Pensacola. I stop to help stranded motorists, and sometime in the next year or so, I hope to publish a book with the working title, “Border Walk.” I will let the world know that we must consider how our border policies affect the millions of people who call the border their home. Author Page on Facebook
In the meantime, there is a film about my Texas-Mexico walk titled La Frontera. It was produced by Rex Jones with the Southern Documentary Project. It has played on PBS stations from Florida to California.
With just a few days until my walk, I feel buoyant each time I strap on the pack for a conditioning hike through the Conecuh National Forest. A funk has been hanging over me since the election, and another three-hundred miles along the border: it’s just what the doctor ordered.