Article by Eric Walther | Photography by John Morin | Owl Staff

“Snow cones, get your snow cones here!” Proud parents and grandparents clamored for my attention before the shows and during intermissions. A happy brood of excited children stretched off into the distance as each icy treat was passed down the row.

It was February, but warm air blew in through the open doors of the arena. The bleak and bitter winter weather of Maryland was two thousand miles away. Now I was working in a new city each week as a vendor with Disney on Ice.

Five days a week we worked long hours to prepare and perform a successful show. It was a fierce schedule of setting up, selling, and tearing down. We were a diverse team of more than a hundred people from all over the world.

The days were long but mutual excitement carried us through even longer nights probing the city and laughing together back at the hotel rooms. The licensed character mugs filled with flavored ice, the primary source of my income, practically sold themselves. For hours before each show we would ground ice for snow cones, spin cotton candy, and set up tables full of souvenirs.

We were united by our toil and teamwork in our shared strange destination. I felt utilized, respected, and needed. It was like boot camp and we all succeeded or failed together. We were young, energetic, unattached, adventurous, and so free.

Skateboarding proved the ideal way for us to explore our new surroundings, simultaneously gawking like a visitor, but participating like a native. We never looked at maps, we just rolled down the streets; pulled along by luck and gravity. We discovered huge parks, historical buildings, beaches, and local shops. Every Monday, we said goodbye and boarded a caravan of buses or a 747 to get to the next city.

Now here I was, thirty thousand feet up, doodling on a napkin. Clouds were below me, obscuring the ground. My reflection in the window was still unfamiliar. New muscles were engaged in what I had come to think of as my traveling grin.

I never looked like that back in Maryland where I spent my days escaping reality, hiking in the woods and my nights downing vodka. Something was missing, and the usual paths were not satisfying me, but I had no idea where to turn next.

Leaving home was as much an act of desperation as it was of adventure. I had literally run away from my problems; my depression and discomfort could not find me, I was moving too quickly and had energy again. The sporadic attempts at college, warehouse work, and playing in a punk rock band were resting peacefully, finally.

My trip had many surprises. I went swimming in Texas in March. A few weeks later, we were surfing in California. It was the first time I’d ever seen the Pacific Ocean. The water was clean and blue and warm. The sun was shining on a new beautiful day, sometimes that’s all it takes.

“We were united by our toil and teamwork in our shared strange destination. I felt utilized, respected, and needed.”

In quiet Indiana we played arcade games at Chuck E. Cheese. When we bought groceries in our new towns, we pushed the cart down the streets, through the lobby, and right onto the hotel elevator. We got up early to for complimentary breakfasts at the hotels.

In San Antonio, we ate so many burritos from the breakfast bar that I thought the concierge was going to kick us out. We almost got ticketed when we leaned our skateboards against the Alamo.

In Arizona, I slept on the balcony each night where I could see hundreds of miles into the distance across the flat landscape. I saw William Shatner in our hotel lobby in Hollywood. I was about to tell him how much I loved Star Trek when Marilyn Monroe joined him. Then I realized all these people were impersonators hired by the hotel.

I could breathe out here! I could afford a relaxed spontaneity, both financially and emotionally. I never felt out of place because there was no reason for me to feel in place, I was migratory. I was a comfortable outsider, and my coworkers were fellow strangers on this journey.

On the road, I found myself talking to my parents honestly for the first time, the distance between us somehow bringing us closer. I called old friends to tell them where I was and what I had seen. I was enthusiastic and talkative instead of distracted and indifferent. I could experience fondness and nostalgia for the hometown and people I felt so out of step with.

This was not a spontaneous cure to all my problems, but my travels rejuvenated me. Those months on the road revived my confidence and drive. I had performed a demanding job, saved money, and made great memories with new friends. I learned I was the same person no matter what part of the country I was in, but also that I was capable of more than I thought.

It took 15 more years of evolution and growth before I could begin to fully participate in life. I worked odd jobs, kept odder hours, and secluded myself in a treehouse. I hiked thousands of miles, fell down, grew up, learned to trust, and fell in love.

Finally, I can apply the perspective I have so carefully gained through time: friendship, conversation, and life experiences. Getting away became a new foundation that helped me start over and trust my instincts.

Now I am attending school at Harford Community College. My relaxed outlook is a universe away from the anxious insecurity I felt the first time I was here, more than 20 years ago.

The world does have a place for me after all. I’ve discovered fertile ground to grow the potential that’s been a dormant seed in me all along. Now being back home is the adventure.

Poems from on the Road…

Goodbye, Pittsburgh

Here I go again even though I had a great time

Breaded okra in my belly, peace in my mind

Looking out a bus window, too black to see

Everyone’s asleep so my smile’s just for me

Write a letter to my father with the sun over my seat

Outlook’s so expanded in just under two weeks

Clear off the cushions, use empty shoes for cup holders

Time so smooth and fast I don’t feel at all older

It’s all here for me now, I’m up out of the pit

Now I can really be fine instead of just fake it

Carried along by the tide on to Indiana or anywhere

Sleeping comfortably upright without another care

I never felt so at home as I did that third night so far from it

Staring into the sky from the seventeenth floor at layered streets

New friends playing games behind me, take 2 drinks for looking at her

Here I was in the kitchen, cars below followed etch-a-sketch lines

Why was I there, why was I so happy? A prediction had come true.

I had said one day I’d leave and start over and this was practice

I’ve escaped every doubt I used to have, they’re barred from Pittsburgh

This time it’s finally different, the corners of my mouth pulled higher

I can’t be stopped, I’ve been restarted, rolling like the roadboxes I loaded

Building up speed, grabbing everything I need, feeling finally freed

The Freedom of Doubt

The people I ignore the most are the ones with the answers

Feeding on their congregations like rotten, malignant cancers

No one can tell me anything about my life that’s true

I won’t accept a category and end up a pawn like you

Kill me on the day I say I’ve got it all figured out

That would mean I’d given up and disregarded all my doubt

I know I’ll never know why I’m alone and why I’m here

I won’t believe in fantasy just to avoid my fear

Humans make up gods and ideals to justify empty existence

Then spread the word to a lost herd that never had a chance

A few will always resist and start another clique of fools

Rebels claiming independence enslaved by their own new rules

When more than two people join forces something ugly often occurs

Transformation into automatons with strict programming and no nerves

-Eric Walther, June 2001

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