A PERFECT STRANGER
Written by Meredith Bean McMath - first published in the former
“This is Martha at the Hill Tom Market. There’s a... This is kind of unusual, but there’s a woman here who... says she’s been walking all the way from Washington...”
“No… Washington State.”
“She says she’s been walking across America, and she’s looking for a place to put up her tent for the night.”
O—kay. Martha is asking if I’ll let a lunatic stay in our backyard overnight. We have a son...
“She seems really nice. She and her dog...”
“She said her dog can stay outside.”
Great. Our dogs will hate her. They’ll bark all night. They’ll...
“I was trying to think who might, you know, think it was okay to have her in their backyard, and I thought of you....”
What should I do? Haven’t heard about her on the news. But what if she really has walked all the way across? How could I let her walk past my house? Surely we’re only going to get a chance like this once in our lives...
Think, woman. Think...
Ten minutes later, my son and I were standing in the doorway of our home in Hillsboro, Virginia, watching for the arrival of a perfect stranger - with a zillion questions still running through my mind. What kind of a woman would do this? My husband and I had read Peter Jenkin’s book, Walk Across America, and he’d convinced us America was better off than we thought. But that was in the ‘70s. Had she found a different America? Wouldn’t it have to be different for a woman? Which brought me back around to.. Was she insane?
Then up she came. Her long brown hair sun-streaked and shiny; her skin not too darkly tanned; a full backpack swaying behind her, keeping time with her strong measured step; a sleek black labrador trotting happily beside her. I smiled when I saw the dog had packs, too — one on either side. When she was close enough to shake my hand, I caught the scent of fresh fields and road dust.
Her name is Ananda Woyer, and she was 26 years old when we met in November of ‘96. Her plan was to plant her toes in the Atlantic Ocean on the Delaware shore by Christmas and then fly home to Seattle, Washington. Seattle — where she’d begun her trek almost two years before.
She said the whole thing began when she was having lunch at a bar and saw a poster — an advertisement for people who wanted to walk across America. To this day she has no idea why it appealed to her, but she couldn’t get the thought out of her mind. Two weeks later, she quit her job and signed up.
Just like that.
Eighteen months later, she'd lost her fellow travelers, gained a sprightly black lab named Roxie, and walked all the way from Washington State to Virginia.
Right away I realized I could not possibly have this woman sleeping in our back yard. No way. She was going to have to stay in the guest room.
“Ananda, would you like to sleep in our guest room?”
She laughed and nodded. “Love to.”
Something about the laugh made me ask, “How many times have you been asked to stay in people’s homes?”
“Quite a lot, actually.”
Sometimes folks hear about her on the news, but usually they don’t know her from Adam. Still they take her in.
“And that’s the way it’s been all along. Sometimes I have to ask if there’s a place I can put up my tent.” She smiled. "But then I hardly ever need to put up my tent. Oh, and then some times someone knows someone in the next town and calls ahead for me.”
“Ever been in danger?”
“I got followed once, but eventually they left me alone. Of course, having Roxie along helps.” At this, Roxie perks up, presents a lovely grin and plants a wet kiss on my son’s face.
My son is enchanted. At seven year’s old, Palmer doesn’t understand the magnitude of Ananda’s walk, but he sure is impressed by her dog. As far as he’s concerned, only great people have great dogs, so Ananda has to be great. Actually, this makes sense to me, too. Roxie bounds around the house like a puppy and runs off to wrestle with our pooches: immediate best friends.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting in awe of our surprise guest. “So, what do you when you get sick?”
“I got a cold once back on the west coast. But that’s it. I haven’t been sick a day since. We walk about eighteen miles a day.”
“How does Roxie like the walk?”
“She loves it! You’ll see tomorrow morning: she can’t wait to get out on the road again.”
“Do you feel the same way?”
“Pretty much. Only now I’ve started thinking about what I’m going to do when I get back.”
“Will you write about it?”
“I’ve definitely been thinking about it.”
“So, if you write a book, what’ll you tell us about America?”
She grins. “That it’s safer and more friendly than you think. Especially in Kansas. Ever since I left Seattle, I’ve heard the same thing over and over, ‘Our town is terrific. Perfectly safe. Great people, but watch out for that town down the road.’ Same story in every town.”
“That’s funny, ‘cause I was just going to warn you about D.C... Hey!” I whacked my hand on the kitchen table with the suddenness of inspiration. “I just remembered I have a good friend in D.C.! Want me to give her a call and see if she can take you in?”
“That,” she said with a smile, “would be wonderful.”
Which is how Ananda met my friend Peg Grant... who had a friend in Annapolis, Maryland... and on and on Ananda walked...
And she was able to put her toes in the Atlantic Ocean by mid-December and eat Christmas dinner with her family back in Seattle.
Soon after that, she moved to Kansas.
Looking back, I can honestly say that - as much as Ananda taught us about America during her brief stay - she taught us even more about ourselves: how a split second decision to do something different and scary can lead to something wonderful — if we’ll just finish reading the poster on the wall... or allow yourself say:
“Sure Martha. Tell her to come on up.”
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