Dude is sweaty. He’s got an 80-pound backpack slung over a shoulder and he’s trying to get the other arm under the strap, but the whole procedure is a little awkward now because the bag’s pretty heavy for just one arm. The five-foot American flag is making weird angles out the back of the bag, sand camouflage, seems to be military-issue. Desert Storm boots and fatigues, except for the A-shirt, the wife-beater, equal parts dark and light gray, you know, for the sweat. Did I mention dude is swea-tee?
I’ve gotten to know Damion Maynard today over some kind of sweet coffee concoction with four shots of espresso in it. He’s drinking it, not me — no way I’d take down something that potent, not even slowly. But it’s his second today, and it’s only, like, 1:45 in the afternoon. And boy is it hot. Today will top out at 103. Surely you’ve heard.
We wouldn’t have occasion to meet had it not been for Maynard’s current quest, which is a beast: He’s walking one mile for every American soldier who’s died in the conflict in Iraq, or war, as some people who aren’t the Bush administration call it. By the time he reached Louisville last Monday, he’d logged 1,422 miles on foot. He started on the steps of the Capitol Building in Carson City, Nev., on Dec. 17. He intends to stop at the White House lawn — not so much to make a grand statement as it just seems like a natural place to wrap something like this.
In between, he’s survived on the charity — read: coins, beds, grub, clothes and spirits — of strangers. He’s staying with “some hippies” in a condo in Louisville, and carries a military-issue sleeping bag, given to him by a former soldier, for nights without four walls.
You may wonder why Maynard, 32, decided to leave his common-law wife Gina at home, in Pocatello, Idaho, where he’s lived for 16 years now and does flooring for a low wage, to walk for an indeterminate amount of time in the ice cold of Western winters and the super heat of this Midwestern summer. Fair question.
Maynard pulls on a Camel Filter, pausing in brief reflection. I’ve just asked the most obvious question there could be, the one that betrays my general ordinariness as a member of the self-served, soft-serve masses. I watch him contemplate the difference between us.
“I wanted to honor and give tribute to those who have given their lives for a greater purpose, a selfless act, and they volunteered to do that,” he says in a sudden flurry of exposition. “I’m willing to give a little bit of my life to pay my respects” to soldiers and their families.
And Gina is behind this? Normally such voyages are the stock of loners. At this he digs into his backpack and soon a tattered cow-leather journal emerges, held together mostly by his right hand. He retrieves a neatly handwritten letter and slides it across the table. I scan the page, surprised he’s offered this talisman to a guy he met 15 minutes ago. Gina is proud of him for what he’s trying to do, it says, but she’s scared for him and misses him, too.
This, of course, is the essence of the way most people feel about what Damion Maynard is doing. It is the most human of responses to become befuddled when our humanity is so supremely outdone. That this man is walking one mile for every soldier killed in Iraq is both touching and absurd.
He has never known anyone to die in combat. During a recent chat with Gina, which happens about every other day, she told him their neighbor — who lives one street over in the mobile home community — had just lost a son in Iraq. It was sad there, she said. Maynard didn’t know the neighbors, but he seems to have felt the loss.
He has never served in the military, though the profuse military decorations — cap, all kinds of pins, fatigues, boots, backpack — would suggest otherwise. Both of his brothers-in-law are active-duty Army. His grandfather served in World War II and Korea. His stepfather is a Vietnam veteran. His uncle served in the first Gulf War.
Naturally, most people wonder about Maynard’s politics. Some view this walk as a war protest. Others peg him for a hawk because of the flag — which has been stolen twice now — and fatigues. Maynard insists his walk is apolitical. Plumb this and you get an obtuse answer.
“Our job as citizens also includes backing our president when he makes a decision, whether we like that decision or not,” he says. This conflicts directly with my general view of American citizenship, so I push for his thoughts on this war in particular. He says he doesn’t necessarily agree with Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, or the logic used to defend that decision. He says the war, like Afghanistan, was motivated by 9/11 and the compulsion to kick some ass and preserve American honor. He says, convincingly, that he understands that kind of behavior.
Perhaps most intriguing about Maynard, though, are the parallel humanities he is pursuing, almost witlessly. He left Carson City with 50 cents in his pocket, and at every stop, with nothing more than a telling of his ever-unfolding story, has been provided the amenities he needs to continue walking. I tell him that the number of small selfless acts that his one big selfless act has provoked along the way fascinates me.
“Most are good people and they believe in the whole rather than the part,” comes his reply. “Most want to do something but they don’t know what to do. When it comes to something like this (war), it’s just so chaotic.”
Some minutes later we finish our second chat in as many days, and Maynard is off toward downtown, to see the river. He slides silver sunglasses onto his face, interrupting broad streaks of sweat. The force of the pack pitches his body slightly forward. He stomps the terra.
Write to Damion Maynard at [email protected] He’ll write you back, though he doesn’t get to check it every day, so be patient.
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