On Oct. 10, 1987, I was camping at Fairview Recreation Area near Pelsor with my new bride.
It was my 24th birthday. Miss Laura and I had gotten married the previous afternoon. North Little Rock mayor Terry Hartwick officiated an impromptu ceremony. The late Jackie Neal, the longtime North Little Rock city clerk, attested. We'd never met Neal before, but she wept tears of joy.
The next morning, Tony Hagerty and Diane Hagerty, now Diane Wingard, drove us to Fairview in Tony's 1970 Mach I Mustang. They helped us set up our camp and then left us to begin a backpacking journey that ended almost a year later in Bar Harbor, Maine.
I was so not in shape for the undertaking, physically, mentally or spiritually. I put the spiritual part in the Lord's hands about a week into the trip and marveled thereafter at what I can only describe as daily miracles. An example was near the end, on a lonely highway along the Androscoggin River in Maine. We were out of money, and we were hurrying to reach Bar Harbor where we hoped to get jobs and earn enough to get back home.
I saw a piece of paper fluttering along the road shoulder up ahead. It was a dollar bill. Further ahead was another, and then another. Over the next hour, we found about $20. Another day, we found several dollars in change along the roadside. It wasn't much, but it was enough. There was always enough.
We met so many kind, generous people. Many have passed away, but some remain friends.
Carrying a 70-pound pack up to 30 miles a day got me in physical shape pretty quickly. When you walk all day under a heavy load, you have nothing else to do but dream and think. My dreams were grand, and for the most part, they all came true.
After experiencing that degree of freedom, I understood that I would not adapt easily to a traditional career. Writing was my calling, and walking across America gave me the foundation for a career in journalism.
Before I committed into it, though, I worked all kinds of jobs. I was a roofer in Virginia's Shenendoah Valley, installing shingled and built-up roofs. I worked as an auto mechanic in Waynesboro, Va. I worked as a farmhand, a house painter, and courier. I worked in restaurants. I worked in factories.
If I have any advice for aspiring journalists, that is it. Do a lot of other things when you get out of J-School. Do what other people do. Nothing teaches you more about other people and their values than working beside them. Read a lot about things you don't know. Immerse yourselves in perspectives that you oppose. Familiarize with the unfamiliar. Befriend people with whom who have nothing in common.
That is the key to your own humanity, and that is necessary to give you the depth and empathy to offer a journalistic perspective to the rest of the world.
On Oct. 10, 1987, I did not foresee the joy of raising seven children, nor the soul-numbing pain of losing a son.
At the peak of physical health and vitality, I certainly did not foresee battling cancer in my mid 40s. For those of that age, get screened regularly. Eat well. Exercise. Get a healthy work/life balance. Live well.
On Oct. 10, 1987, I carried everything I owned in a Texsport backpack. I had a year of experience writing for the old North Little Rock Times, and I had a handshake agreement with Paul Borden, then sports editor for the Arkansas Gazette, to write columns from the trails and backroads.
I turned that into a career that has given me more than 1,000 paid bylines in about 100 publications. I've published one book and have another soon to be published. I worked for two state game and fish agencies, but my best 16 years have been right here, writing hunting and fishing stories for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I look forward to doing it for a long while yet.
Some dreams unfold differently than you envisioned, and others crash and burn. I dreamed of being as successful as William "Least Heat" Moon, Bill Bryson and Peter Jenkins. Instead, I'm more like the session player that nobody's heard of, but whose discography is a mile long.
It all started with a meager first step on the Ozark Highlands Trail in October 1987.
I wrote a book about that adventure in 1989. It has sat in a box ever since. It's of an age where some might find it interesting.