If you're on the road and stop at a rest area just about anywhere you might see a wandering woman. She won't be sitting by the water fountain holding a sign announcing that her car broke down, or that she needs money for gas or food. She doesn't have a car. If it isn't raining, or only sprinkling, she'll be sitting at one of the tables. On it she will have placed her backpack and an open book. She'll be waiting for you. Well, not specifically "you," but for the one who stops. Her name is Jean Davis.
I saw her just outside Bellingham as I came out of the women's restroom and began to walk back to the car. John was sitting across from her engaged in conversation. This is not uncommon. He's a regular Studs Turkel. I walked up to the table and saw the open book, hard cover, older, the kind often found in antique stores and collected by people like my cousin Shirley because of the atmosphere such artifacts provide when stacked on a coffee table. I bent to read the open pages, curious about what this woman had been reading.
"What are you doing?" She queried, turning from John to me.
Her eyes a bright blue. Her face leathery from the sun. Her gray hair pulled back neatly in a knot. Her clothes layered, selected to last. She knew how to Thrift Store shop. Great walking shoes. Good sturdy jeans--no holes. Eddie Bauer jacket. She smiled--almost no teeth. I'd say she's probably my age, this or that side of seventy.
"I was curious about the book you're reading," I told her.
"Lots of people pretend I'm not here. Most who see me don't stop. Those who stop ignore the book and just want to know how I fell on bad luck. Once they realize that it's not bad luck but is my choice, that scares them. The police are scared, too. I don't fit the profile.
She calls herself a traveling educator. Once a teacher in the school system, she developed a sense of injustice over what she was required to teach. History seems to have been her forte, and so much was left out. What had been included in the curriculum gave young students a twisted sort of truth. So she dropped out. She traveled the country to discover its real history. She walks the country. Once in a town she finds the library and reads the original documents of the region that survive. She's incensed when told that such documents have been destroyed in the interests of providing room for newer books.
She is sometimes invited by people at rest areas to spend time at their homes, to teach their children, to enlighten their friends. "Read Dan Cushman," she suggests. "Read Elaine Dewar, George Grinnell, Jim Schultz, Dickleson Doubleford, Theadora Kreeber." She scribbled their names on a too small scrap of paper. (I've no idea who those writers are! but I saved the paper scrap and have copied their names here as well as possible considering the flourishes in her penmanship.)
Jean Davis is on a pilgrimage to find the open mind and the listening ear. She's a woman of the roads. Somehow she manages to stay healthy and to increase her knowledge day by day. Somehow she is passing it on. She spends most nights on public land beside the road. She seems to prefer the country and small towns.
When we left her, after an hour of good conversation, Jean Davis waved us goodbye, and sat down to continue reading her book.