About the Walk

WHAT WERE WE DOING?

We tried to walk across the United States of America.  We dipped our feet in the water at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, just outside of New York City, on March 16th, 2013.  Our destination was the Pacific Ocean at Gold Beach, Oregon.  The total distance would have been about 3,100 miles.  We planned on averaging 20 miles a day and taking some days off to rest, so we expected the walk to take about 6 months realizing it could take longer. We were in no hurry.

WHY WERE WE DOING THIS?

In two words: Why not?

In too many words:  We’re not exactly sure why we were doing it.  Part of it was to test ourselves; to see if we could face the challenges an adventure like this would inevitably present.

Part of it was an idea that, for better or worse, I (John-Michael) couldn’t seem to get out of my head. When I was a teenager I often daydreamed and sometimes threatened that I was going to walk across the United States after I graduated from high school.  However, as it is wont to do, life just happened. Before I knew it I was in my thirties, married, had a job, yet still had this idea in the back of my mind that I buried deeper with each passing year.  I figured I was too old and my opportunity had passed.  Then, a few years ago, I stumbled across the website (imjustwalkin.com) of the incomparable Matt Green.   He was in his thirties and quit his job as a civil engineer in New York City to walk across the United States.  He wasn’t doing it for a cause or as part of an organization.  He was doing it simply because he loved to walk and discover.  The idea was back and I no longer had an excuse. Tara, ever the adventurous spirit, required little convincing.  It sounded like fun, and while she didn’t share my obsession with it, she was all in.

Also, I’d grown tired of sitting indoors all day, staring at a glowing monitor, and moving little more than my fingers.  Both Tara and I found ourselves loaded with nervous energy, at times riddled with unexplainable consternation, and a feeling of subtle defeat most workdays.  It’s unfair for us to complain, because by most accounts we had good jobs and were following the blue-print for the “American Dream.”  It’s not that we were unhappy, and with a bit of humility, we realize ours are “first-world problems.”  However, our Monday through Friday lives had left us feeling dissatisfied, and we’d become cynical.  We were cynical about our work, our interactions with other people, and what we heard and saw all around us.  Some say this is endemic in growing up, and that being skeptical about everything is wise, but neither of us was ready to accept that as a truth.  Cynicism seems such a cowardly form of self-protection.

We wanted to do something we’d always dreamed of doing.  We wanted to meet strangers.  We wanted to reconnect with friends, family, the country, each other, and ourselves, and we hoped to do it in a more meaningful way than modern communication methods allow (yes, we are aware of the irony of that statement being posted on a website).  We wanted to celebrate the things that unite us as neighbors, a nation, and as human beings.  We were open to the possibility that the cynics and skeptics were right.  Either way, we wanted to know.  While we were not going to live off of the land in the woods for two years, I think Henry David Thoreau went to Walden for some of the same reasons:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it.”

Finally, Tara and I love to walk, camp, and hang out with each other.  This seemed like a good excuse to do all three.

WHAT HAPPENED?

I honestly think it is better to be a failure at something you love than to be a success at something you hate. – George Burns

Our walk ended prematurely.  Our bodies betrayed us.  We were dealing with plantar fasciitis, blistering, sore and popping ankles, and random undiagnosed pain on the tops of our feet, in addition to other ailments.  We tried to ignore them all, naively hoping they would go away or at the very least, stop getting worse.  We wore a brave face as long as possible to convince not just others, but also to delude ourselves into believing that everything was fine.  No one issue was that big of a problem, but the cumulative effect of them became too much.  We didn’t want to risk a debilitating injury or permanent damage.  Accepting our limitations can sometimes be as difficult as dealing with them.

After spending the better part of the last two years thinking about and planning this trek, and after spending two of the best months of our lives living a dream only to have it come to such an abrupt and unceremonious end, to say that we were disappointed would be an understatement.  We also felt incredibly guilty.  Nearly everyone–friends, family, and strangers alike–had been so supportive, kind, generous, helpful, encouraging, and wonderful to us along the way.

SO WHAT DID YOU ACCOMPLISH?

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened. – Unknown

As far as testing ourselves to see if we could face the various challenges something like this presented, we admittedly came up short.  But, we are so glad we tried, because it wasn’t just about trying to walk across the country.  Regarding our other ambitions, we met with resounding success from day one.

Despite our own fears, what the news reports, and the warnings of countless others, the world is not out to get us.  Not once were we ever threatened, intimidated, or otherwise harmed by anyone.  In fact, the worst thing that happened was we were flipped-off by a passing driver; one single driver out of the thousands that passed us.  Instead, what we found was a real sense of community.  In small towns, large cities, on farms, and in forests, it’s apparent that despite our many differences, we’re all in this together.  Strangers saw two people, completely exposed to the environment, terrain, roads, and traffic, and they just wanted to help.  Friends and family saw us doing something different and admittedly crazy, and wanted to lend a hand.  Whether it was finding us a place to stay, giving us water, providing information about an area, food, money, or even just stopping to talk to us, we were shown love and tremendous generosity almost every day, usually multiple times per day.

Our blog, which began as a way to let our friends and family know what we were doing and where we were, morphed into a love letter and thank you to all of the amazing people we were privileged enough to meet along the way, and the incredible country we call home.  Words can’t do justice to how fantastic you all have been, and there aren’t enough ways to say thanks.  Please know that we have been affected in such a positive way.  You’ve cured us of the disease of cynicism and changed the way we look at each other and our interactions with anyone and everyone.  For that, we will forever be grateful.

Our joy from what we learned and who we met far exceeds our disappointment in not making it cross-country.  We had a dream and chased it.  We won’t have the “what if” haunting us the rest of our lives.  Instead, we’ll have the “remember when” to look back on happily.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.  He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.  If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them. – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
John-Michael Elmore