The original plan was to ascend 1,000 feet in a hot air balloon, and then drift with the wind for an hour or two. Wherever we ended up would be our starting point, and from there I would try to find my way home on foot.
Alas, ballooning doesn’t seem to be a good business to be in during a recession. Most of the local operators that I called were either disconnected lines or recorded messages explaining that they had gone belly up. One ballooner sounded possibly operational, but he never returned my calls.
I hatched a new plan: On a recent Sunday, I departed from the state Capitol building in downtown Raleigh and went, on foot, wherever the wind blew.
Sunday, May 10: I put on my imitation Casio wristwatch (bought from a street hawker in Nicaragua), slide on its band a micro waterproof compass (found on the sea floor in the Gulf of Thailand), and pack my backpack with a disposable “panoramic” camera (reloaded for the umpteenth time), a Nikon FM2 (with 50mm lens), a sweater (gray, cardigan) and a Beaver Lodge Local 1504 water bottle (a gift). I grab a handful of change so I’ll be able to use a payphone if I need to. I’m ready to get lost.
Noon: I depart from the state Capitol. It’s difficult to get a fix on the wind, because the buildings and traffic are creating confusing gusts. I gradually work my way through the downtown grid alternating between southeastern and southwestern headings.
12:42: Raleigh’s small assortment of skyscrapers is becoming smaller on the horizon. I find myself on a footpath beside a stream. It turns out I’m in the Dorothea Dix Hospital complex.
12:59: Across the stream, I spot something blue in a thicket of bamboo. I not-so-gingerly thrust a foot into the water as I cross the stream. It’s a tent. Clothes are strung on a line. It looks like someone has been living here a long time. I cannot decide if the lump I see hazily though the tent’s mesh is a duffle bag or a curled-up body. I move on.
2:11: I find myself on a railroad heading directly south. I see a young, female Eastern Box Turtle. She seems perplexed by the railing blocking her way. I wonder if she can pull her weight over the tracks. (Later in the day I found another, older box turtle in the middle of the tracks, dried, desiccated and deadanother victim of the urban fragmentation of the natural world.)
2:35: The railroad crosses a secondary road and the wind blows me westward into an apartment complex. The housing is dense and dilapidated. All the people have dark brown skin. They’re friendly. They all smile.
2:39: I exit the apartment complex by slipping behind a fence at the end of the row. I am immediately thrust into an impossibly lush and manicured vista of greenery and waterworks. It’s a golf course. All the people have light pink skin. They’re friendly. They all smile.
2:43: I’m back on the tracks.
3:48: After a stint through apparent wilderness, a major highway roars in an overpass above. I see a Citgo nearby, so I decide to buy some cashews. I ask the guy at the counter what the highway is. He says, “Some people call it 401. Some people call it Fayetteville Road. It depends on how you look at it.” It’s all the same to me. I’m completely lost.
5:06: I’ve been back on the railway for more than an hour. Every few minutes I encounter a snake sunning itself on the rails and we startle each other. I’m getting a little weary. The Beaver Lodge water bottle is empty (most of the water was used to flush an insect out of my eye). I creep up behind a dusky, old brick house to steal water from a spigot. As I fill the bottle, I notice moss on the masonry. Suddenly I hear a weak, elderly voice call from inside the house, mother… mother…
5:33: I leave the railroad at a pond. I pass through a fence and notice a sign that says “No trespassing against the quiet enjoyment of this land.”
5:53: There’s no longer any guiding wind. I decide to continue generally southward in hopes of finding some discernable landmark. I stop at a derelict house to pick through the wreckage of an abandoned life. Western sunlight cuts through filleted slats. A bottle of castor oil is illuminated in what was once a bathroom.
6:02: Somehow I’m back on Fayetteville Road. This doesn’t make sense. Haven’t I been walking away from this road for over an hour? The wind has completely abandoned me, so I continue southward.
6:38: I arrive at Wake Technical Community College. I find a payphone and call my editor to come pick my ass up.
8:03: My editor arrives to pick my ass up. Later, using Google Earth, I determined I walked about 18 miles.