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Jim the Happy WandererNovember 1997
VIENNA, Austria Jim is a happy wanderer who has been following his dreams for the past five years. And now he is a it again: hiking the 1,781-mile Danube River from the southwestern tip of the Ukraine where it empties into the Black Sea to its source in Germany's Black Forest.
I met Jim while strolling down the railroad tracks one morning as I was leaving Vienna. He was cheerful and well-rested following three days in a warm bed at a friend's place in the city. The previous weeks in Rumania had "broken" him for the first time in all his wanderings.
Jim has endured many hardships - heat, cold, amoebas, malarial mosquitos, hunger, thirst, pointed guns - in his previous walks across East Africa, Mexico, Central America and Colombia. He is about 30 years-old with thinning, long curly blond hair, a radiant smile, a sing-song voice and a quick, powerful hiker's stride.
Five years ago, Jim was a civil engineer by day and a poet by night in his home state of Vermont back in the United States. He had worked from when he was 14 years-old to pay his way through college. Holding a good job, he could purchase a new pickup truck every year and anything else he wanted. Yet, the dreamer's voice inside of him insisted on being heard.
"I always knew I wanted something more out of life," he said. "So I was trying really desperately to fill that hole."
A Pilgrim's Journey
Jim started this most recent adventure in Vienna several months ago. He followed the Danube through Budapest (Hungary), Belgrade (ex-Yugoslavia) Bucharest (Rumania), Bulgaria and the Ukraine to its mouth on the Black Sea.
Now, he is making the return trip to the river's source far back in the legendary Black Forest. He carries with him a black and white-colored seashell from the Black Sea that he will place in the Danube's headwaters upon completing his trek. With the seashell, Jim carries the memories of countless people he has met along the way who have become apart of his pilgrim's journey.
Hard Times in Rumania
Jim returned to Rumania late in the autumn. Peasants were hauling crops of corn and wheat into towns in horsedrawn wagons. He was enthralled by the raw, austere beauty of the Carpathian Mountains and the audacity of the hardy folk who dare to settle back in those unforgiving peaks.
Then, the first snowfalls began. The days shortened and the sun became a pale disc that only peeked through thick gray clouds for a couple hours a day. Jim trudged on up the Danube. He was out of money and subsisted for several days at a time on a liter of water and the occasional loaf of crusty white bread that a stranger would bestow on him. On some days he arrived at forks in the river that were too deep to wade across and had to retrace his steps.
"I lost my pride in Rumania," Jim said, looking back on the experience. "I used to think I was someone special and apart because I was a traveler and I had on this backpack. I always thought of myself as being very self-reliant. I was always willing to share what I had. But, I didn't know how to accept other peoples' generosity. In Rumania, I learned."
Jim would hit rock bottom at 3 a.m. - the coldest hour of the night - when he would awake to find his tent and his sleeping bag soaked in condensation. He would wrap himself in his yellow and brown wool pancho, pull his knees tight up to his chest and wait for the first gray light of day.
More Hard Times in Rumania
Arriving in the capitol city of Bucharest, Jim saw his plight turn from bad to worse.
Bucharest is a cold, grimy city covered in a sooty, black haze of coal smoke. Packs of mangy, emaciated dogs roam wild in the streets. It is a place where food is scarce and American-made cigarettes are cheap and plentiful; where diplomats and the well-to-do dress up to eat at McDonalds and the poor drink all day to forget that there's no hope.
Jim slept in the city park, in the alcove of the university campus and in the train station while waiting for money for a train ticket to be wired to him. During this time, he was bitten on the leg by a dog and hit, for the first time in his life, in the face. He had tried to stick up for an ethnic Moldavian friend who was about to be jumped by a crowd of angry nationalists.
"I was shocked for the first day or two afterward," Jim said. "I guess that with everything that has happened to me in my travels I never expected that to happen. I didn't feel angry or vengeful. It seemed to me like I was living inside a dream."
Students at the national university, Jim discovered, live four to a dorm room. Each room is a 12 ft. by 12 ft. concrete cubicle with a single lightbulb and a single electric cookstove. The cookstove provides all the room's heat. And the students sleep on the floor. The students, according to Jim, all harbor the same unlikely dream: of someday making it to the Land of Lucky Strikes, Marlboro and Coca-Cola.
The train station was overrun with everyone who was down on their luck. While sleeping on the train station floor, Jim awoke one night to find a hopelessly drunk man passed out at his side. The man was foaming at the mouth, had pissed all over himself and lice were crawling through his tangled, matted hair.
"My first reaction was to say "disgusting!" and want to pull away," Jim said. "Then I realized that I loved these people just as they are. And that I'm not really any different. If I had been in Bucharest for another three months, my blanket would've ended up just as black as his was."
On the Road Again
Making it out of Rumania barely intact, Jim had been quickly rejuvenate by his three days in comfortable, bourgeois Vienna. It was an unusually warm November morning as Jim and I continued walking west out of Vienna. We were both in shirt sleeves. He was in a carefree mood, and I found myself imitating him; trying to walk one foot in front of the other balanced upon the bright silver rails.
I was about to veer west, hitchhiking the Autobahn toward France. The Danube was across the way. The last of the bright fall colors glowed in the morning sunlight on the surrounding hillsides. Jim would continue north following the river.
Jim keeps detailed journals of his travels and looks to publish them some day in book form. But, he is of no mind to teach or preach at people. He is content to let his actions and his smile speak for themselves.
He contemplated the upcoming German winter with his characteristic exuberance. He still had a seashell to drop off.
"I've been through everything now," he said. "If it's snowing on me, I'll just give thanks for the snow!"
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