I was sitting on the edge of the planter just outside the Bloody Bucket just watching the day go by. I couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen at the time. The Bloody Bucket was the local tavern in town. It was right on the waterfront and there was always something happening there. I liked to sit outside and watch the people go by. It was also one of my spots to escape to when I wanted to get away from the heavy hand of my mom and dad seeking to work me to death and send me to my grave long before I had even passed puberty. I remember this day very well because it was the day I first saw him, or one of his kind. It was early springtime and the air had just a hint of warmth to it, enough that you may decide to leave the jacket at home or maybe not.
I saw him as soon as he turned the corner and began walking down main street. I couldn't take my eyes off of him. He moved with a smoothness and grace that I had never seen before. I know the phrase is a bit clich? but he was poetry in motion, even more so, he was a sonnet. The funny thing is no one seemed to notice but me. Everyone else was far too busy running errands and studying the dirt in front of them as they spent all their energy doing nothing. The closer he came the more I was able to tell about him. He was old. Now keep in mind this is the eyes of a twelve year old that were making the judgment, but I saw streaks of gray in his hair. I still remember that. His face though didn't seem old, all I remember is that it struck me as a kind face. While everyone else looked at the ground in front of them when they walked, he looked ahead. You could tell he was studying the buildings, the people, the trees, the waterfront, he was taking it all in. His eyes passed over me and before I had the chance to look away, lest I appear like I was staring at him, I could swear I saw him wink at me and flash the barest of smiles. It was a warm gesture and even though I was embarrassed for staring it made me like him instantly.
Just then old man McCartle came walking out of the Bloody Bucket and nearly tripped over me. All my attention was taken up helping him stay on his feet for the next few seconds. This was enough time to let the stranger pass in front of me on the other side of the street and start getting farther away from me. I was really sad about this, and a bit angry at old man McCartle. He saw me staring at the stranger who was getting further away with each step. We both watched him turn and walk into the Lemon Tree, our local diner. He turned to me and spoke, "Haven't seen one of them in a long, long time." McCartle had this way of speaking that left things hanging. If you didn't ask him what he was talking about he wouldn't say any more and you would be wondering forever what he would have said.
For a twelve year old this was severe torture and besides that I was really interested if he knew anything about this guy. "One of what? Who was that guy? What do you know about him?" Yeah, I was curious, very much so.
He laughed at me. "Slow down boy. That man you saw there is a Ridge Walker and the reason you don't see many of them, is because one, they don't frequent towns like the rest of us and two, there aren't too many of them." He spat on the ground and began to reach for his pipe and pouch of tobacco.
I knew what a Ridge Walker was. I had heard all the stories growing up. Ridge Walkers were those travelers who had achieved such perfection in the art of getting from one place to the other that it was said they could transcend the boundaries of time and move from one place to another in almost the blink of an eye, even places that no one even knew existed. Stories of them were fantastical and mostly, I had come to assume in my advanced twelve years, designed to entertain kids. Yet here I was listening to old man McCartle telling me I had just watched one walk up the street. I studied his face to see if I could detect any signs of his trying to pull one over on me. I couldn't. He was droning on and I wasn't really even listening to what he was saying. I hadn't heard any of it. I never got past the part where he said the guy was a Ridge Walker. I zoned back in just when I heard him say, "Why don't you walk on down and get yourself a closer look."
I looked up at him with a somewhat distracted gaze and replied, "Thanks, I think I will." With that I began to cross the street and walk towards the Lemon Tree. He was staring at me like I was not completely right in the head but I couldn't see and wouldn't have cared if I could. All I really wanted to do was get another look at that guy. As I came closer to the diner I got more and more nervous. Just what exactly did I have in mind here? Was I going to stand at the window and stare at him? Was I going to walk up and invite myself to breakfast with him? I stopped right at the window to the diner. In moments like this we hold multiple potential destinies in our hand. The next few moments choose which of all those possible paths we hold in our hand will become the one we walk. Of course I wasn't aware of it at the time, we usually aren't. All I knew was I was feeling nervous about walking up to the man. I turned back and saw old man McCartle staring at me. It looked like he was starting to laugh and that tipped me over the edge. At twelve years most boys are governed very much by avoiding any embarrassment. I certainly was. I walked the remaining steps, opened the door and walked in.
I stopped at the door to give my eyes time to adjust to the light and survey the room. Of all the days for them to have competent service it happened to be this one. Miss Lizzy was right there asking what I was doing and preparing to send me out but I cut her short. "I'm here to see him," I said and pointed to the stranger who had taken the table by the corner window. I knew she wouldn't stop at this so I just brushed past her and started walking to his table. Now usually I'm nowhere near this forceful with people. No, I'm the quiet kind that sits back and lets things happen and takes things as they come. The only way I could describe it is that I have this tendency to swing to extremes. If I'm not quiet and unassuming I am forceful almost to the point of being overbearing.
It all collapsed unfortunately at the exact point I arrived at his table. I stood there not quite knowing how I got there and wondering how I had come up with the huevos to do such a thing. I was just starting to wonder how I might gracefully extract myself from this predicament when I noticed he was staring at me smiling. He was waiting to see what I would do next. When I saw him staring at me though it struck me that I could feel his presence too. There was this feeling about him, a feeling of peace, even of virtue. I know that sounds ridiculous and believe me I wouldn't say anything to anybody about it except it was really there, and I had never felt it with anybody before.
He seemed to realize that I wasn't going to say anything or perhaps wasn't able to because he spoke to me. "Have a seat young man and join me, I've been waiting for you." He motioned for me to take the seat opposite him. I meekly did as I was told unsure if I heard him correctly. Did he say he was waiting for me? That made no sense at all. While I was pondering this the waitress came over and he asked her to bring another plate of the same thing he was having. This took enough time that it gave me a chance to collect my wits. "What do you mean you were waiting for me," I said.
He laughed and it was a warm pleasant laugh, not the sound of someone laughing at you, but the sound of genuine friendship. "Well," he said, "Whenever I walk through a town I can always tell if there is anyone here who has the desire to be a Ridge Walker. I could feel from the moment I stepped into this town there was someone here who did."
I was amazed and had a thousand questions spring to my mind all at once. The only thing I could get out though was, "You knew I was going to come to you?"
Again he laughed and said, "Not you personally, though when I saw you from across the street I thought you might be the one, but I knew that before I was done with breakfast someone would approach me." He then appeared to look me over and spoke again, "I have to say though that you are one of the youngest that I have seen."
I had no response to this and therefore ignored it. I was neither impressed nor put off and continued with my questioning. "Tell me what you do, tell me what it's really like to be a Ridge Walker." This was the question I really wanted to ask and I was looking at him expectantly waiting for him to start to talk.
"Well," he said, "Now that is a good question but it's not the one you really want to ask. The short answer though is that all the stories you have probably heard are true or nearly so. I can walk the mountain tops and cover a thousand miles in a single moment. I have been places that you wouldn't believe exist. The real question you want to ask though is how can you become a Ridge Walker."
I was thrilling to the sound of his melodious voice. It drew me in and completely captivated me. "Yes," I said, "That is what I want to know. How do I become a Ridge Walker?" I was a bit embarrassed because I thought I sounded really juvenile and at twelve years old you try hard not to do that.
I still remember that he treated me with respect that day, like I was his equal in every way. He never talked down to me, never laughed at me, never made me feel like I was a foolish little twelve year old boy.
He continued, "Before I answer that question I have one of my own to ask you. I can tell you how to become a Ridge Walker. I can show you the way and I can teach you all you need to know. First though," and here he became most serious, it set me back a bit because one minute he was all friendly and conversational and the next I felt like I was being grilled by my parents for taking a shortcut through Aunt Ellie's garden and trampling all her pea's or something. Only this wasn't anger, it was more solemn like being in church. He continued, "First though, you have to be ready to commit to walk the path to become a Ridge Walker. You have to promise not to let anything get in your way, to never quit, and most important you have to promise to never look back. Are you willing to promise that Jimbo."
Now, I was wondering how he knew my name, my nick name that only my closest friends called me. I was pretty sure I never told him. I thought about what he said though while he sat back in his chair and studied me. I knew this was important and that it deserved more than the exuberant answer any of my friends would give were they here. After some moments I replied with what I hoped sounded well thought out, "I don't know what you're asking me to promise and I'm only twelve, I don't know myself well enough to know if I have what it takes."
"Both of those statements are true Jimbo, and it's not what I asked you. I understand this is a bit unfair. You have no idea what you're signing up for. What I'm asking you for is to commit yourself heart and soul to do this and not look back. If you can't say yes, then you will never be a Ridge Walker." There seemed a bit of an emphasis on the word never. "At twelve this is quite a decision to have to make," and here he stopped again and studied me. A warm smile crossed his face as he did so and I swear I could almost feel something in the air that made my hair stand on end. "I think it's a decision that you can handle though."
I don't know how grown ups make decisions but I do know how twelve year old boys do, serious ones anyways. I thought about it for a second and had this feeling like it was all I had ever wanted to do and like this was what I was born for. Yeah, I think back on that moment now and it seems idealistic and even foolhardy. Like all good decisions though it was made from the gut. "OK," I said, "I promise all those things." I looked at him and he looked at me. Neither one of us blinked or looked away for several long seconds. I think it was the first time in my life I had ever looked someone in the eyes for that long.
He stuck out his hand across the table and said, "Excellent, now shake my hand to seal your promise to me and you will become my apprentice." Now the hair on the back of my neck stood straight on end and it felt for all the world like I was watching myself reach my hand out and shake his. His grip was firm and strong. Part of me was thinking what have I just done and the other part was jumping up and down dancing. I was so excited and nervous all at once I almost didn't hear him say, "Eat up your breakfast we have a long day ahead of us," and then almost as an afterthought, "I sense great potential in you. If you survive one day you will be truly great." I think he meant it as a compliment but the "if you survive" part sent a shiver through me.