Encountering the East’s Petty Smallness in Western Maryland

Life is hard for everyone, everywhere. All the more reason to reach out a helping hand instead of ruining someone's day.

Zach Bowman Odyssey
Beth Bowman

Zach Bowman has sold everything he owns, slapped a camper to his high-mileage 2003 Dodge Ram and has taken his family on the road. His clan numbers three, counting wife, Beth, and their infant daughter. They are touring America, working and discovering, and are sending The Drive periodic dispatches from the road.

Part 52
Bowman's Odyssey

Every day brings a hundred questions, and maybe 80 answers. It’s something no one tells you before you abandon brick and mortar for the powerful pull of somewhere, anywhere else. That you leave behind friends and family and familiar haunts. Restaurants and bars and grocers, parts stores and fuel stations—the invisible and comforting fabric of civilization that swaddles the nest of home. Your concerns are instantly more granular. Questions that would have never so much as occupied a sliver of your mind becomes a day’s nagging, wearing worry. Ones like: Where will I get our water?

I’ve gotten better at answering them, which is how I found myself standing outside of a duplex structure in Oakland, Maryland, operating an exterior spigot with the worn jaws of my Leatherman. One half of the building was a Sunoco fuel station. The other, a beer and liquor store. I’d patronized both; filled the truck to the brim, then went inside and bought a 12-pack of beer whose price was disproportionate to its quality. It was there that I asked about filling up the camper’s water tank. I’ve found businesses are more apt to oblige after you’ve put cash on the counter.

The guy behind the register was young. Vacant. Only as present as necessary to scan a barcode and mumble something about the card reader not working. He did not know if there was water outside.

“Do you mind if I take a look?”

“Sure, man. Have at it.”

Beth Bowman

I wish I could tell you how sweet those words are. I’m not the kind to trust the universe to sort out my worries. I know better than to believe it will all work out. I will take a problem and grind at it until one of us is dust.

I found the spigot on the side of the building. Its valve wheel was disposed of long ago, broken or removed, but the brass post where it once lived was worn bright with teeth marks of someone’s pliers. I fished the Leatherman out of the center console, hooked up our hose, and turned the post. Water rushed through the clear vinyl and into our tank.

It takes a minute to move 20 gallons. Mostly, I stand there holding the hose at the fill port, waiting patiently for my arm to tingle with the effort of moving my lazy blood uphill.

The time is nice. Gives me a moment to contemplate the rest of the day’s problems. To wonder about where we’re going, to think on where we’ve been. By and large, people have been incredibly generous with their water, pointing us with a smile and a shrug to a seldom-used hose or faucet or spigot. I do the Boy Scout thing and leave it nicer than it was by coiling the hose or unearthing the spray nozzle from overgrown grass. Some small token of thanks.

Beth Bowman

I was thinking how strange it is that we put so little value on the main resource that keeps us alive. That we’ll give water away while charging for WiFi. It was about that time that she walked around the corner, tall, with the physique of a cotton candy clot on a paper stick. The spare tire of her stomach and the girth of her sagging breasts were stuffed into a pink tank top in such a way that made me feel genuine remorse for the cloth. Her dyed hair was cut in a manner that could only be described as “assistant principal.” One hand perched squarely on her hip. The other held a freshly opened Pepsi, the blue aluminum already sweating in the Maryland sun, a cheap e-cigarette dangling between the can and her first two fingers. She stood there looking at me like I was shitting on her lawn.

“Who told you you could do this?”

The tone was enough to make me want to pull the hose from the truck and spray her in the face. I resisted the urge. The tank wasn’t quite full.

“The gentleman inside gave me permission, ma’am.”

Be southern. So sweet it burns.

“Well, you didn’t get permission from a manager.”

“No, but I did just buy 12 shitty beers at a stupid price.” There is a limit to my sweetness.

Beth Bowman

She vanished around the corner without saying another word, headed, I’m certain, to spread her particular brand of joy to the poor bastard ringing up cubes of Bud Lite on a Sunday afternoon. I turned up the volume on the spigot.

The tank bubbled full in a few moments more. I shut off the flow, disconnected the hose, and began coiling it for storage. She reappeared and resumed her pose. Disappointed that I wasn’t still hard at work ruining her day, maybe. That there would be no fight. No object on which to focus the wide frustrations of her small life.

“You can’t be doing this again.”

“I’m all done, ma’am. You have a great rest of your Sunday.”

“Good. We pay for this water.”

I wanted to say that I would have been happy to pay for it, but there wasn’t a figure I could have named that would have made her happy. I just nodded, stashed the hose, and got in the truck.

Beth Bowman

The exchange dug at me, worked its way around in my chest. I cannot abide smallness. Pettiness. And the more I ground at it, the more I realized it sat at the core of my problem with the East. There’s something about the ease of life here that breeds it. That we’ve lost the ancient and true knowledge that this is all hard—all of it, for everyone. That we are not unique in the suffering our days bring, that our only real purpose on this planet is to reach out a hand and help where we can.

It’s a shame, too. Because I loved our days in western Maryland. Garrett State Forest is beautiful—quiet and cool in the heat of a mid-Atlantic summer. But when I think of the place, I won’t remember swaying poplars or watching peach-colored sunset thunderheads puff their chests. I won’t recall hearing the drill of woodpeckers beating out hellos across the forest, or the perfect little bookstore downtown.

No, I’ll remember smallness. Pettiness.