While those who follow this blog might not know, I posted the following a few weeks back on my Facebook page.It’s over. Despite my highest hopes and commitment to multiple treatments, I am still plagued by plantar fasciitis. I reached the Ohio/Indiana border yesterday, and am now 800 miles from the starting point, but I cannot go on. After my last blog post I started building up to a steady pace of 15 miles a day. To finish this walk before winter hits the western mountains, that’s the rate I must sustain. I learned, over the last several weeks, that walking 5-10 miles per day is quite tolerable. But last week, I walked nearly 100 miles, and now the pain is back. Apparently, optimism is not a cure for plantar fasciitis. And my threshold for pain is lower than can be accommodated by the schedule for this walk.
The frustrating thing for me is that I logged more than enough miles to walk across the US during my training period. My Fitbit notified me with great fanfare that I’d passed the 4132 mile mark last week (significant, as that is the length of the Nile, the longest river in the world … do Egyptians get plantar fasciitis?). Of course, that distance was covered over 2.5 years. Doing the math, that comes out to about 4.5 miles per day. Last May I did 31 miles in one day during training. Then I rested for several days. So the message is clear. I could do this walk over a period of several years, if I was willing to limit the daily distance to about 10 miles. But today, with some 2300 miles to go, that’s simply not an option.
What now? We’re not sure. This setback, along with all that is happening in the world right now, makes for a bad environment for strategic decision-making. On the other hand, Alanna and I are unbound by major obligations or commitments. So, for now, it’s one day at a time. We might hit some National Parks that we’ve always wanted to visit, take a few day hikes, and wander across the US over the next several months.
It’s now about 3 weeks later, and while the plantar fasciitis is still there, Alanna and I have done some amazing things. Since leaving Indiana we’ve:
– Traveled most of old Route 66, from outside Illinois into New Mexico
– Visited the National Weather Center (and some old friends) in Oklahoma, where only hours later we were hit with golfball-sized hail and just missed a tornado
– Walked through the battlefield at Wilson’s Creek (MO), where the first Northern General was killed in the Civil War
– Quickly drove through, and left, Branson (MO)
– Climbed the tallest mound at Cahokia, in Illinois, where ancient pre-Columbian tribes lived in the largest settlement in North America
– Toured the UFO Museum in Roswell (NM)
– Toured Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield (IL)
– Ate at the world-famous Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo (TX)
– Visited the courthouse where Billy the Kid was tried, in Mesilla (NM)
– Hiked through several miles of pure white dunes at White Sands National Monument (NM)
– Toured the King’s Palace, the Queen’s Room, and the Big Room at Carlsbad Caverns National Park (NM)
– Hiked up a dry creek bed to Devil’s Hall in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (TX)
– Hiked through the Gila Wilderness (NM) and orienteered our way to a cave dwelling from the late 1200s
– Visited Saguaro National Park (AZ)
– Ridden mules down the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
As the old saying goes, “When you’re handed lemons, make lemonade”. So, lemonade it is. We’ve had lots of fun touring the Southwest, and plan on staying on the road for several more weeks. However, I’m not sure what to do with this blog, as it was designed to follow my walk. I’ll think about that for a while, but in the meantime, if readers have thoughts about the future of this blog, I’d welcome your comments.
It’s been a month since my last blog entry. In that month I’ve walked a total of about 50 miles. That’s the same distance I would’ve walked in about 3 days during March. Having been hit with a bad case of plantar fasciitis (PF) in early April, I went back to Oregon with Alanna (where I had been asked to give two speeches anyway), and tried every possible treatment for PF known to (modern) medical experts. I have to thank all of my Facebook friends for their offers of support and cures. I assure you, I tried every one of those (even the Australian magic oil … see item 13 below)! More on that later.After the last entry to this blog, I came to terms with the realization that this problem with my foot might mean the end of this walk. Now, that probably would have meant saving a lot of money, getting back to Oregon in time to work on our new house over the summer, and taking a fun, leisurely drive across the US. But it also would have meant the end of a long-planned adventure, and a sense of – at best – “incompleteness”, and at worst, failure. I prepared for this walk for nearly three years. To abort it only 14% of the way through would have been deeply disappointing. Alanna assured me that we could always try again next year, but I knew that personal circumstances and physical readiness had all converged to make this the optimal time for the walk. I resolved to do all that I could to fix my foot.
Alanna and I decided that rather than wait two weeks in Ohio and then fly back to Oregon, as originally planned, we’d go back to Oregon early, leaving the car parked at the Cleveland airport. So, after the obligatory visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (R&RHoF), we flew back to Redmond for a couple of weeks of the other kind of R&R. The recuperative period in Oregon was punctuated with a number of very rewarding experiences. I gave a keynote speech at the finals of the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, in Corvallis, and was the speaker for the March for Science in Newport. In Newport (where I will end the walk this fall), we were joined by 675 rabid supporters of science (incidentally, given Newport’s population of 9500, that would be the same as having 600,000 people march in New York City!). They all marched in spite of temperatures in the 40s, wind in the 30s, and rain by the buckets. I had a lot of fun speaking to the group, and then Alanna and I enjoyed the marvelous hospitality and generosity of my friend Michele Longo Eder, who put us up in her cottage, and provided us a wonderful dinner at Local Ocean, a Newport landmark. We also had a thoroughly enjoyable visit with Bob Cowen (Director of Hatfield Marine Science Center) and Su Sponaugle (a marine biologist at OSU) at their yak farm, where Alanna was able to get her critter fix, playing with the baby yaks (when I asked Bob what you call a baby yak, he said, “Cute!”). All during this time back on Oregon, I was applying the full spectrum of treatments for PF (again, see below). I was very encouraged that the pain had subsided considerably, and I found I could stay on my feet all day without any adverse consequences. I was confident that the treatments might have done their job, but I was also praying a lot for some higher authority to save my sole.
We got back to Cleveland on Tuesday, April 25, and I started walking again the next day. I hadn’t gone far (maybe two miles) when my left ankle rolled and I went crashing down. When I stood up my right plantar fascia was throbbing. I walked only another mile or two, convinced the pain would go away, but it didn’t. When Alanna picked me up, I was despondent beyond description. We drove over to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (a beautiful setting), and sat down for a beer in the quaint village of Peninsula, Ohio. Because of my mood, I think I could have been drinking the most exquisite Belgian brew, and it still would have tasted like a rejected lab test from a racehorse. I was all but convinced that the walk was over. We made plans for the drive home, and decided we could visit the Canadian Rockies along the way, and take several months if we wanted. But somewhere deep inside of me I felt I had to make another try at prevailing over this damned ailment. I had three last things to try: new boots, more aggressive massage, and ultrasound.
It’s at this point that I need to recognize three individuals for their contributions to this continuing saga of plantar fascism. One, of course, is Alanna (again!) who redoubled her efforts to massage away the pain. She was greatly aided by my new friend, and Bend-based physical therapist, Lisa Corrigan. Lisa is the second who deserves great thanks. She is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, and, even better, an Oregon State grad. She showed Alanna how to administer what I call the “knuckle drill” to exorcise the evil spirits of pain from my sole. I’m convinced that in her spare time Lisa should offer her services to remove dents from the bumpers on Mack Trucks. That woman knows how to apply pressure, and it works! Additionally, Lisa hooked me up with a company called JAS, who make a portable ultrasound unit. The unit is no bigger than an iPhone, and it provides a strong dose of focused high frequency sound, a proven therapy for treatment of PF. JAS was kind enough to provide me one of their devices, called the JAS Pulse, if I was willing to test it on the walk. Finally, a tip of the hat to my professional colleague, Steve Rumrill, who works at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and who wrote me “Rick – Sorry to hear that you developed PT at this point in your historic Walk Home to Oregon. I also have a bad case of PT. The solution for me was heavier, stiffer boots (3/4 shank) coupled with padded orthotics.” With nothing to lose, I went to REI and tried on about 857 different pairs of boots, finally settling on some nice Lowas (handcrafted in Slovakia by native maidens working under bear-oil lamps, in dark caves high in the mountains, I guess, judging by the price). These boots practically walk themselves.
So I decided to put on the new boots, zap my foot with ultrasound, do one more massage, and hit the road the next morning. Miraculously, after nearly 4 miles, I stopped and felt NO PAIN. Next day, 8 miles, then 9, then 10. Now, a week since the last bout of pain, I am cautiously (VERY CAUTIOUSLY) optimistic that I’m over the hump. I’m walking through Ohio, and while I’m not covering great distances yet, I’m confident that if I keep up the massage, the ultrasound, and the new boots, I might beat this thing.
So, for now, not a lot of great stories about the walk, but I’m pointed west and hoping to have a lot of good tales to tell soon.
Actions taken for plantar fasciitis
1. Cortisone shot
2. Night splint
3. Heel cups
4. Stretches several times a day
a. Heel drops on stairs
b. Toe presses against wall
c. Calf stretch from sitting or lying position
d. Pulled foot from cross-legged position
e. One-legged stand
5. Ice 2-3 times a day
6. Ibuprofen/Naproxen as needed
7. Full foot/calf massage daily
9. Ice/Heat alternate baths
10. Rolling a spiked ball under foot for 10 minutes daily
11. New boots with steel shank and ankle support
12. Never barefoot … used Doctor-recommended Oofos
13. Australian eucalyptus and tea tree oil (really!)
The 10% of readers of this blog who have experienced plantar fasciitis will understand completely. The other 90% will not. I know that because I was once part of that 90%, and when Alanna finally underwent surgery for her case many years ago, I was, quite simply, ignorant and consequently unsympathetic to her plight. Well, higher authorities have now decided to damn my soul … er, sole. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In preparation for this walk, I logged over 3400 miles of training walks, mostly in the DC area, between October 2014 and December 2016. I learned how to treat most typical ailments, from blisters, to sprains, to stone bruises. I visited a podiatrist, had my gait assessed and was fitted with a computer-designed set of orthotics. I pre-purchased 4 pairs of my favorite hiking boots, including one set that was half a size larger (specifically for walking down the back side of the Rockies). I couldn’t have been more prepared if NASA was overseeing my operation. I set a personal daily record of 31 miles, and completed many 20+ mile walks. But then something odd happened around November 2016 (no, not Trump being elected, although that certainly was unusual). After about 3000 miles of walking, I noticed an odd pain in the sole of my right foot, which was most severe when I started my walk each day. By the time February came around, I decided to see an orthopedic surgeon in Bend, who diagnosed this as plantar fasciitis (look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls!). Great! Now what??
“Never fear!” said the orthopod, and he fixed me up with all I would need. I was given clear instructions on how to stretch and massage the plantar fascia. I was told to ice my foot once a day. I was outfitted with a special night splint, used first in the Spanish Inquisition, and little rubber heel pads (those are great for your heels, but they also push your toes into the tip of your shoe, meaning you get a choice … heel pain or toe blisters …wonderful!). But wait, hiking friends, there’s more. The good doctor had one last surprise in his bag of tricks: a corticosteroid shot. This magic elixir would – he assured me – quench all pain for many months, and allow me to run faster and leap tall buildings in a single bound. “Sounds great, ” thought I. And the next thing I knew, Dr. Spikeneedle was stirring a syringe full of steroids around my heel, like a painter mixing a fresh gallon of wall paint. Yow! But sure enough, within 2-3 days, no more pain. Until 3 days ago, or roughly 4 weeks into the walk.
David and I finished a 13-mile day and after a 45 minute ride back to the hotel I was hobbled. My foot felt like someone had driven a railroad spike into it. Even though I’d been massaging and icing and splinting and ‘Aleve-ing’ for nearly 30 days, my plantar fascia finally caught up with me.
Hence the title; the tendon in my foot has dictated, with full authoritarian disregard for anything or anyone else, that this walking must pause for now. By any definition that is fascism: plantar fascism to be exact.
What to do? Well, it’s obvious. We’re in the Allegheny mountains, so the first thing I did was buy a jar of moonshine. No kidding.
A little white lightnin’ (okay, maybe more than just a little) was a start, but all it really did was fuel the fires of self-pity and denial. Why me? Why, after nearly 4000 miles total, and 400 miles into this walk? What do I do now? I know, I’ll just gut it out and walk through the pain (another shot is poured). Oh, hell, let’s just can it and drive home to Oregon and surprise everyone when we get there (another shot is poured). Maybe I’ll just sleep on it.
So that’s what I did. Alanna, David, Peg, and I talked about it, and we’ve decided that David will walk for another couple of days before he heads back home to Annapolis (as he had always planned). Alanna and I will take it easy for two weeks, when we’re supposed to fly from Cleveland back to Oregon, where I have a couple of speeches to give. Then we’ll return to Cleveland. That’ll be almost three weeks of recovery for my PF. If I take care of it in the interim, I might be okay for the rest of the walk. If it hasn’t recovered by then, well, I’ll just buy a bigger bottle of moonshine and decide what to do then. Stay tuned.
Within twenty miles of each other are two iconic sites, each a testimony to different elements of the American spirit. Both are very close to the walking route we’ve chosen on the GAP, so we took time to visit them.
The first is the memorial to Flight 93, near Shanksville, PA. This, of course, was the United flight that had been hijacked on September 11, 2001, and was on its way to DC – presumably to crash into the Capitol – when the passengers and crew resisted and gave their lives in sacrifice as the plane plummeted to the earth in an area that was an abandoned mine. The land was acquired by the National Park Service, and was made into an extraordinary memorial site. Pictures, of course, don’t do it justice, but here are some, anyway.
As you can see, the day was cold, grey, and wet. There were only a handful of other visitors, adding to the austere, yet somewhat serene feeling of the place. The visitors’ center was done as tastefully and respectfully as one could hope, given the context. The architecture is stark and stunning.
While every American can remember where they were on September 11, 2001, we each have a very personal and deeply compelling feeling about that day. At that time, I was the Technical Director to the Oceanographer of the Navy, with an office at the Naval Observatory in NW DC. I would typically spend 2 or 3 days at the Pentagon, and was usually taken there by my driver, Luke Adams. On 9/11, Luke and I were on our way toward the Pentagon at about 0845. As we approached the Potomac River we saw a black plume rising from the building. We knew the World Trade Center in New York had already been hit. We turned back toward the Observatory. The next day we learned that two sailors from our command, working at the Naval Ice Center detachment in the Pentagon, had been killed (Petty Officers Flocco and Earhardt). A couple of days later, CAPT Chris Gunderson and I attended a heart-wrenching memorial service at the Pentagon. The combined feelings of grief and camaraderie were like nothing I’d ever felt before. Shortly after that, while the Pentagon was still being cleaned up, I walked through the building to a meeting. I wrote a short essay on that day, and include it here as well. It follows:
I went back to the Pentagon today. I’m usually there a couple of times each week, but I had not been there since 11 SEP, and today’s meeting was something of a necessary catharsis. As some of you know, our command lost two petty officers in the attack. They were, in fact, the first two confirmed Navy dead … both of them young men. They’ll be buried this weekend, with full honors, in their respective home towns in New York and Kentucky.
You’ve all read of the heroics and stalwart professionalism of the people in the Pentagon, military and civilian alike. There’s a more personal side, which I had not fully appreciated until today. You need to know about that as well.
At our meeting a good friend of mine, a Navy Commander, broke down in tears as she remembered her lost sailors (those two young men reported directly to her) – it was obvious she’d spent most of the last week in duress. She described the scene of the attack in detail, her description made even more realistic by the lingering acrid aroma that still permeates the Pentagon – an awful smell, the origins of which one can’t even begin to imagine.
The quiet in the Pentagon was equally striking. Normally a bustling lively place, the dining room was empty. The halls and corridors had only scattered groups of people. Usually at 7:30 AM the building is a madhouse. The section of the building that housed the Navy Command Center is now cordoned off, and the void that was left from the attack creates an eerie darkness perceptible from the long views afforded in the outermost “E-ring”. The central courtyard has been cut in half with wire fencing, and temporary comfort stations have been set up where rescue/recovery workers can grab a cup of coffee. Military police guard many of the intersections inside the building. They all look somber but confident.
But there are some remarkable symbols of the enduring American spirit. As you exit the building you pass a table with patriotic bumper stickers, free for the taking … and people are taking them. In what was the parking lot beside the west side of the building – where the plane crashed – there’s a fleet of mobile McDonalds and Burger King vans, donating food for the rescue/recovery workers. And atop the Pentagon there’s a steady stream of flags being flown and removed, to be delivered to the families of those who perished in the attack.
So go back to work. Be proud. Think of that Navy Commander fighting off the tears, and remember that our American spirit is still strong.
We kept walking on the GAP, and within a day or two – with nearly freezing temperatures and persistent rain – we made it to Ohiopyle, PA, just a few miles from Fallingwater. This former home of the Kauffmans of Pittsburgh, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935. What an incredible place! The “organic” design integrates the home into the rocks and waters of the gorgeous Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands. It’s also a typical Wright design, in that beauty and elegance of form take priority over such elements of functionality as being leakproof. Little pails are strategically placed throughout the home, to catch the drips! Our guide said you can always tell a Wright design by the buckets. Nevertheless, it was a real treat to finally see Fallingwater, after having heard so much about it all of my life.
A couple of days later we treated ourselves to a tour of Wright’s other home in the area, Kentuck Knob (yes, Kentuck). This home was owned by the Hagans of ice cream and dairy fame. The home is truly unique in that there are only two right angles in the whole place. It’s built of Pennsylvania sandstone, Carolina cypress, and Maryland flagstone. The home sits on a scenic hilltop, and the current owners (from Britain) have sprinkled the property with massive modern sculptures, including one by Claes Oldenburg. Alanna and I finished the day by visiting the falls on the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle.
So, this week has been a unique walk through Americana, albeit not exactly baseball, hotdogs, and apple pie. The stark juxtaposition of the basest behavior of man (terrorism) with the selfless heroism of typical Americans (United Flight 93), placed only a few miles from emblems of American modern creativity (Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob), has made this week one that I will not soon forget.
We did it! We finished the C&O Canal Towpath. All 184.5 miles. It was a great walk, with every flavor of weather imaginable. As you can see, we were pretty happy with this particular milestone. The night before, we had prepared with dinner at a Cumberland Chinese restaurant, where David enjoyed the Moo Goo Guy Down, and I had the Chicken To Mein. Cumberland was probably once a thriving metropolis, but it’s clearly seen better days. The most evident commercial activity was the drug-dealing along the Canal and near the visitor’s center (“Hey kids, look, it’s an honest-to-goodness drug exchange. Not all of our guests get to see that!”). Alanna and Peg had discovered – I kid you not – a Bosnian restaurant, where we went to celebrate our milestone. In a moment of defiant victory, I decided my lunch would be baklava and cannoli – Dammit, I earned it!
No rest for the dedicated, we started out on the Great Allegheny Passage (or, as we hiking snobs call it, “the GAP”). So here’s where a little math comes in. Over the previous 24 days we had hiked about 350 miles, and our total elevation gain was about 700′. To put that in perspective, that’s the same slope you would get if you put a perfectly flat 10′ beam on a perfectly flat surface, and put a dime under one end. Pretty easy hiking. Well, our first day on the GAP we hiked 16 miles from Cumberland to Frostburg, and gained 1200′. That would be like taking that same beam and putting 34 more dimes under one end! We did it fine, even arriving in Frostburg half an hour earlier than planned. I guess we owe our sag-wagon drivers big time, as they were in the middle of enjoying a visit to a bookstore when they got our pickup call. We heard about that one! Onward we go.
That’s our average velocity over the last 3 weeks. Just about 4.1 feet per second. I like that number. It’s small, understandable, and respectable. It’s also memorable, in the literal sense; I won’t have trouble remembering that number. Not much happens at 4.1 fps, but then, when something does happen you tend to notice it. The red-tailed hawk who soars above you, then glides effortlessly over the ridge. The great blue heron, whose profile my then 8 year-old son once described as looking like a goose flying backwards, launches from the pond and moves to safety on the far shore. A stray cat, looking all the world like someone’s pet, stares with eyelids half-shut, from across the canal, but refuses to share its secret about where home might be. The flock of turkeys explodes from the river shore and roosts in the pines far from us. The gnarled tree trunk where beavers have worked for weeks. All of this is captured at 4.1 fps. You won’t see most of this at 88 fps (that is, 60 mph). And you certainly won’t hear it. You won’t hear the peepers in the pond, or the squirrels in the brush, or the pleasing “plunk” as a turtle slips off a log. You won’t catch the heckling cry of a woodpecker, or the sad cooing of a mourning dove. At highway speeds you won’t smell the energizing aroma of a small patch of mint along the trail, nor the wet, earthy scent of a beaver pond after a rain.
Having driven across the United States 14 times, I knew each time that I wasn’t getting the full story. I was too busy, and driven by schedules and deadlines to let my senses fill with the smells, sounds and sights of the world I was traversing. This is what I love about this walk. It’s not just the unique memories of people and places, but it’s the steady delivery of news provided by nature itself. Is it wrong to be out of touch with the goings on of society, but absorbed in your natural ambit? I think not…
We’re now almost finished with the C&O Canal towpath. Under any other circumstances, this, alone, would make me feel like I’ve accomplished a great deal. But these 185 miles are just Leg 4, with 47 more Legs to go. The walk along the canal has been terrific. In addition to the remarkable scenery, we were able to meet up with several old friends and colleagues. We got to see Jen and Ray, our old neighbors, who’d driven up from Richmond. In fact Alanna and Jen spent so much time in Berkeley Springs (“taking the waters” at the mineral spa), that I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d each gotten keys to the city. Ray and Jen also treated us all (Alanna, me, David and Peg) to breakfast at the iconic Potomac Grill in Hancock. The best part of that experience came when I asked the waitress (straight out of central casting in Hollywood) for the bill. She told me that Ray had picked it up already, and as Alanna and I were thanking Jen and Ray for their generosity, the waitress chimed in, “Ah, it really wasn’t that much.”
I also enjoyed a delightful dinner with my former colleagues, Lindsey and Marian (as well as Marian’s husband, Dave, and son, Jack) in Berkeley Springs. And as we said goodbye, I realized this was probably the last of the visits with friends, family, and colleagues for a long, long time. We really were about to enter the wilderness! Stay tuned.
The C&O Canal Towpath joins the Appalachian Trail for a short section near Harper’s Ferry
Have you ever walked over a field of lard-covered billiard balls? Me neither, until this past week. The “BIGGEST SNOWSTORM OF THE YEAR” (yes, it’s only early March!) hit the DC area, and left a coating of snow, ice, rime, hoar, and every other form of frozen water for which the Eskimos have a word, over the whole Eastern Seaboard. David and I decided a rest day was in order, so we waited about 40 hours before starting our trek through DC. This time, we were joined by my former NOAA colleague, Dr. Marian Westley.
Marian had been a marathoner some 10 years ago, and was a superb “joiner”. With little training beforehand, she managed to keep up with us. She also helped arrange a very touching reunion with some former NOAA colleagues at the agency’s offices in Silver Spring.
I did notice that the next day, Marian wrote a Facebook post about how bad children’s ibuprofen tastes. Apparently, at 3AM, she started paying the painful price for trying to keep up with two old geezers, and the only pain relievers in the house belonged to her 8 year-old son, Jack.
The other remarkable development from our walk through Northern DC was an interview I did with a a reporter for the American Geophysical Union, Randy Showstack. I’d known Randy for a few years, and several weeks earlier he had asked to interview me about the NOAA budget. I told him I’d be walking for 7 months, but I was sure we could find a time for a phone interview. I didn’t hear any more until just a few days before we walked into DC. Randy asked again for an interview and I told him we could do a phone call late some afternoon. Then I jokingly added, “Or, you could join me for the walk and do the interview while we hike.” I was stunned when he asked where we would be on that Wednesday morning, and even more stunned when he jumped in a cab, rode down 16th Street in DC until he found us, just past Massachusetts Avenue. We walked and talked for a bit and finished the interview in a little coffee shop. While I don’t think the interview was particularly newsworthy, it was certainly one of the more memorable press engagements I’ve ever had. I’m dying to see what comes out of the interview, since we covered only about 137 different topics.
The interview went so late that I didn’t even go back to Nomi’s house to join Alanna, but instead, met her at the Metro, and we drove over to Arlington for a great paella dinner with our friends Tim and Karen. Having spent over 25 years working in DC, it’s hard to sneak back into town, without having lots of terrific friends invite you over. I really had no intention of inviting ourselves to Tim and Karen’s for dinner, but golly, gee, when they asked, how could we refuse. We had a great meal, and learned that Karen (a retired Naval Officer and Navy Diver) has been asked to interview for a Navy Federal Credit Union commercial. We’ll be watching.
The plan for the following day was simple: David and I would meet at the same Farragut West Metro station, and start walking from there. Simple, of course, until the bumble-fracking, mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging morons who run the DC Metro screwed up again. When I showed up at the Friendship Heights station, I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw over 500 commuters standing on the platform, while an empty train refused to open its doors, and left the station as an announcement was made that a broken train in the system was causing yet another delay. The DC Metro system is, without a doubt, the most inefficient, unreliable, poorly managed, over-priced subway in the world. The management team should be lined up, forced to eat bugs, and then have to ride the system while crammed elbow to butthole, for three hours. Then, when we’ve got their attention, they should be forced to try to translate some dictatorial directive that’s delivered by an illiterate and underpaid worker, who’s speaking through a soggy pillow. ‘Nuff said. I and my 2500 new-found and intimately connected new friends arrived at Farragut Square late and fed up. But as soon as I walked into the Square my spirits were lifted. There, chatting with David, was my friend DaNa Carlis, a meteorologist from NOAA who worked with me for several months last year. Apparently, Marian had provided the intel to DaNa on when and where David and I had planned on meeting.
DaNa immediately became a “joiner”, and he walked with us past the White House and downto the corner of 15th and Constitution, where the Commerce Building and NOAA HQ are. We were received by a small, but boisterous crowd of energetic civil servants, who, I am sure, had much better things to do than just cheer us on.
Lindsey Kraatz was the chief instigator, and she made sure all the signs were spelled right, and the whistles were fully deployed. It was a very touching welcome back to NOAA. I felt honored and flattered by the friendship and warmth that was conveyed. We needed a picture, so we asked a family of tourists from Texas (Mom, Dad, and Daughter) if they’d take some photos of us. Noticing that they were confused as to why two old guys in reflecting yellow work vests were being greeted by a gaggle of conservatively dressed DC bureaucrats, David volunteered to the Mom (as Daughter was taking the pictures) that he and I were actually escaped convicts who used to work for the Federal Government. At which point Dad grabbed Daughter and they ran across Constitution Avenue, never looking back.
We said our goodbyes, turned to the West and started out for the iconic Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal towpath, which starts in Georgetown and continues unbroken as one of America’s prettiest parks for almost 185 miles up to Cumberland, MD.
But, alas, there would be no smooth going for us. The snow and ice that had fallen two days before had morphed into a godforsaken lunar landscape of gnarly ice clots and snow mounds.
Looking like the last survivors of Scott’s South Pole Expedition, David and I tried our best to navigate over this unearthly terrain, without breaking our ankles or shattering our knees. That’s when it really felt like we were walking over lard-covered billiard balls. We only made about 11 miles that day, and as soon as we quit, I drove over to REI (where my paycheck had been direct-deposited for the last two years) and purchased a pair of YakTraks. Now, if you’ve never used these most wonderful of man’s creations, let me tell you that they are heaven-sent. They’re like tire chains for your feet. You strap them onto your shoes and now the ice-covered trail is no more difficult to traverse than a gravel road. And sure enough, the next day (still very cold) we virtually tripped the light fantastic down the C&O Canal, at our normal pace of about 15 miles per day. God bless YakTraks!
David puts on his YakTraks
Our next stop was with a good friend of David’s named Mary Lou. Mary Lou retired after over forty years working at a private girls’ boarding school in Northern Virginia, the last several years as the Head of School. She is a wonderful host, fascinating story-teller, and a nonpareil conversationalist. We stayed in Mary Lou’s beautiful home in Purcellville, VA, for three days, while we walked the C&O Canal from Carderock to Brunswick (about 45 miles).
We also were treated to several more joiners over the next several days. First, we met up with Bryan and Jennifer, two new friends who will retire to Bend, OR next year.
She’s a lawyer, he’s a chemist, and both are great hiking partners. We talked and hiked and the mileposts flew by. Before we knew it, we’d hiked 5.5 miles, and Jennifer and Bryan, realizing they needed to go back to get their car, decided that 11 miles was plenty for the day. I look forward to reconnecting with them when they move to Bend. We ended that day near Dickerson, where there’s a huge coal-fired power plant, fed several times a day by long coal trains coming down the tracks from the west. You can’t really get a sense of how important coal is to the American energy economy, until you see a train with 100 cars hauling nothing but coal, to fire up just one medium-sized power plant that powers only one relatively small area of the country. I firmly believe that every member of Congress and student in America should spend one hour just watching that train rattle down the tracks, to get some sense of how much coal is being used in this country. Our next joiners were Phil and Carroll and their wives Bryn and Ginnie.
Recall Phil and Carroll had joined us back around Annapolis. They also brought Luca, the German Shepherd, so my daily need for a doggy fix was accommodated.
The 7 of us walked about 3 miles together, then they all decided it was time to head over to the local brewpubs, so we said our goodbyes.
We also met David’s daughter, Nicky, and her kids, Sam, Ella and Emma (and pup, Lola) at Point of Rocks, for a quick lunch break.
In subsequent days the sun came out and David and I made great progress. When we passed Harper’s Ferry, I was delighted to see that Alanna had rounded up our old friends, Steve and Betsy. Steve and I worked together at the Office of Naval Research 30 years ago. Now they are both retired, and are raising hell in the Harper’s Ferry city council, where Betsy is an elected member. I think they officially qualified as joiners, but Steve clearly defined the lower limits of what is required to meet the minimum distance to be called a joiner; he walked about 100 yards with us. Betsy at least had the decency to dress for the role, bringing a pair of walking sticks. We agreed to meet for dinner that night, and had a great time at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, where we are now firmly ensconced in the first hotel of our walk. It’s pretty amazing that we’ve gone for over two weeks, already, and have stayed with friends and family every night until now. Our hotel is perfectly adequate. It’s got the minimum required elements: clean bed, bathtub, free wifi, and free breakfast. It even comes with a standard-issue grouchy old lady at the front desk. What could be better?
So, we’re about 225 miles into the walk, and we’re doing okay. We’ve still got almost 3000 miles to go, but I’m beginning to think this might work! We’ll see …
Here are a few random shots from the last week.
A coal train entering the tunnel at Point of Rocks
Peg giving David a “hands on” career guidance session.
The Inn at White’s Ferry … note the flood levels, especially from Hurricane Agnes in 1972
Warm and cozy in my sister Naomi’s comfortable home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, I’m sitting out a snow/sleet/rain storm that has put most of the east coast under a white blanket. My walking buddy, David, is a card-carrying meteorologist, so we used his weather-guessing expertise as our key to deciding yesterday that today would be a good day to rest. Good decision. And the last 4 or 5 days have been a veritable smorgasbord of weather. I don’t know what we did to annoy the Weather Gods, but they’ve clearly chosen to open their full bag of goodies and throw everything at us.
After walking through some gorgeous weather in Denton and Ridgely, Maryland (on the Eastern Shore),
we started on what I thought would be one of the prettier parts of the walk … Kent Island, just east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. NOT! Biblical rain, freezing temperatures and horizontal sleet (the kind that blows up into your raincoat!) were our special treat. But wait, trek-fans, there’s more!! As we walked up to the Kent Narrows Bridge – our only way over a rather large inlet of the Chesapeake Bay – we ran into a set of increasingly dire warnings about the bridge being closed. Sure enough, a long-term construction project had shut down our route. We took refuge in a Best Western hotel, and unintentionally provided great entertainment to the otherwise exceedingly bored desk help. I suspect that a pair of drenched, freezing old geezers, walking in from the storm, was the last thing they expected to see. And our next step was to call our lifeline – that is to say, Alanna – and ask her to come pick us up and drive us over the water, using the main highway. Of course she did (I’ve lost count of how many brownie points she’s earned by now).
Once again on our way, but now on the relatively pleasant Kent Island Trail, we did have an unexpected surprise. After we’d walked about a mile, with no other living souls to be seen on the trail (we were, after all, still being assaulted by the wrath of the Weather Gods), we turned a corner, and saw a fellow with a big dog walking toward us. As we approached, he looked at me and said, “Are you Rick?” It was Carroll Hood, who’d been following my blog and tracking me on the web site. Carroll, and his buddy, Luca, had wanted to walk a mile or so with us, and timed their walk that morning to meet us. So we walked together and really had a very nice conversation, which ended much too soon, when we arrived at the parking area where Carroll and Luca had started their search for us two crazy walkers. What motivates someone to do that? To take time off work, venture out into the cold and wet, just to share a trail for an hour or so? I was so very touched by Carroll’s joining us, and learned a few days later, that he was not alone in that desire. Thanks, Carroll!
We spent the next two nights at David and Peg Smith’s house in Arnold, MD. David’s a great walking partner, and his home was so nice to return to each day. Peg invited her mom, Lynn, to dinner the first night, and their neighbors, Sandy and Brant, the next. We all enjoyed great meals and a lot of good discussion.
On the morning of the second day, Saturday, March 11, David and I arose early and put in 10 miles by 10:30AM. We walked past the US Naval Academy, where David had been Chair of the Department of Oceanography. I asked why the full brigade wasn’t out cheering us as we walked by, and David clarified that the midshipmen were on spring break, leading me to believe that David had timed this whole thing just to avoid the embarrassment of his newfound notoriety. We ended our day early, because this was the day of Mom’s inurnment at Arlington National Cemetery, and Alanna and I needed to drive into Northern Virginia from Annapolis.
The ceremony for Mom was short and quiet. My brother, Alan, had flown in from Oregon. My sister, Naomi, and her son, Luke were there, so there just five of us. We said a few words of remembrance, shared some reminiscences, and headed back to Nomi’s place. A great dinner of mussels and fries, at one of our favorite restaurants in DuPont Circle, and that was really all the time we got to spend together. Alan got up at zero dark early on Sunday morning and flew home. I met David back in Annapolis, where we’d finished the day before, and we began the walk once again.
This time, we had another ‘joiner’ (I can’t think of a term that’s more respectful, but in recognition of the fact that we’ll probably have more of these folks, I’ll give more consideration to what to call the people who voluntarily meet up and walk with us for small portions of the trek). Phil Ardanuy – a colleague who’s worked at the intersection of meteorology, engineering and remote sensing for years – met us at our starting point and asked to walk for a few miles. Once again, we had a nice time chatting and walking, and after about 2 or 3 miles, Phil said he’d try to join us later in the walk, and he went back to his car. And, once again, I was struck by the fact that he’d taken time from his Sunday morning, driven all the way from Silver Spring and wanted to be part of our adventure.
We had decided that we’d try to get to Bowie, MD that day, and the weather gods were smiling on us. But I guess it was the Bridge Gods whom we’d offended, once again. Just 3 miles from our stopping point, as we approached the Patuxent River, we hit the daunting roadblock announcing that the Governor Bridge was closed. From the looks of the sign, it had been erected by a former Soviet bloc construction company. These guys weren’t joking. David and I weighed the odds, concluded that the flooding last spring had been the culprit, and that, while multi-ton vehicles were certainly not safe to use the bridge, a couple of feather-weight hikers like ourselves should have no problem. So, we decided to sally forth. We got to the bridge, crossed it one at a time, and made it without so much as a single creak (of the bridge, or our bones). It’s great to beat the man!
Once in Prince Georges County, we continued our hike all the way to the outskirts of DC. Quite honestly, I was stunned at the beauty of the scenery and especially many of the homes that we passed, in this county which most residents of the DC area consider to be a high-crime and dangerous region. The walk from Bowie to Greenbelt was quite scenic and enjoyable. In fact, the only annoying part of the walk was through the USDA research facility in Greenbelt. This expansive center is mostly open fields, with occasional large labs and offices. Powder Mill Road runs right through the complex, and over its three-mile run, some genius has decided to put roughly 40 or 50 sections of rumble strips on the road. These things are annoying enough when you’re driving over them, but just try walking along the margin of the road as all those cars are “rumbling” by. For an hour we heard this steady stream of what could only be described as a continuing chorus of basso profundo fart noises.
When we ended the day in Greenbelt, the forecasts for “the worst storm of the year” (come on, guys, it’s only March) were already blaring from the rooftops. Assuming the forecasts were accurate, David and I decided to stand by for a day and let the craziness of a snowstorm in DC pass, before we set out once again. So today, I’ll enjoy another comfortable day in Nomi’s home, and make every effort to appease the Weather Gods (you think they like bagels?).
Day four, 62 miles into the walk. We’ve passed through the width of Delaware, and enjoyed the fresh fragrance of the state’s finest chicken farms for the better part of one day. There’s nothing quite like the delicate aroma of 50,000 mothercluckers wafting over you for hours on end. But what made up for the smell was the friendship of the locals. Twice within the first hour of Tuesday’s walk, farmers from the area stopped on the road just to chat and ask how we were doing. They were well aware that the road we were on was part of the American Discovery Trail, and they were curious about how far we were going. One of them did seem a bit eager to invite us to stay at his place. Images of the Bates Motel notwithstanding, we thanked him and went on our way. At about 2 in the afternoon, my GPS showed that we were crossing the border from Delaware into Maryland. But the only way we could tell that we’d passed from one state to the next was by the fact that the road changed from pavement to dirt. Maryland taxpayers apparently have better uses for their money than to pave these back roads. But that certainly didn’t slow us down at all.
Later in the afternoon, on Tuesday, March 7 we arrived at the country farm of Tom and Sharon, not far from the small town of Denton, Maryland. Tom and Sharon are two friends I’ve known since my days at the Office of Naval Research, nearly 30 years ago. Sharon had to stay back in Arlington because of work, but Tom couldn’t have been a more perfect host. His home is right on the banks of the Tuckahoe Creek, feeding into the Choptank River. When we arrived, he had cold beers at hand, crab soup in the crockpot, pork loins and turkey breasts on the smoker, and new bottles of Knob Creek and Jameson’s ready to open. We ate like kings, and drank like fish … it was wonderful. Tom and I had a great conversation after Alanna and David hit the sack. The last time Tom and I had a long talk was probably when he stayed in our cabin back in Oregon about five years ago. I’d forgotten what a unique and fascinating person Tom is. He’s lived in Southeast Asia and Italy, been in the Peace Corps, raises bees, is a licensed pilot, and he ran the US Navy’s research program in Arctic Sciences (that’s where we first met). His farm in Maryland is a second home where he gets to raise blueberries and garlic to sell at the farmers’ market in Alexandria, Virginia. His easygoing manner and deep knowledge of so many subjects make him a wonderful conversationalist. After we finished the better part of the bottle of bourbon, having addressed most of the world’s problems (and solved at least half of them), we, too, hit the sack, and I declared Tuesday a victory.
Wednesday, we woke up to the smell of sausages and a huge pan of eggs florentine. Seriously! Tom’s spoiling us, and nobody’s complaining one bit! David and I did another 14 miles and passed through several small towns.
All in all a pretty good couple of days! Tomorrow we will get to within about 10 miles of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Your sense of distance is completely out of whack when you walk like this. You don’t think that you’re getting very far, but then you realize you’ve covered a long ways over 4 or 5 days. In my case, however, the perception that my brain develops is in complete disagreement with that of the rest of my body. The brain’s saying, “Wow, I didn’t think we’ve covered that much ground.” The feet respond with, “Of course not, you haven’t done any of the work.” And the knees and ankles just plead pathetically for sympathy and ice packs.
Well, gotta get some rest.
I certainly don’t want to miss out on tomorrows breakfast!
We started. David and I walked 15.25 miles today, from Cape Henlopen State Park to Milton, DE. That’s just about one half of one percent of the full 3164 mile walk. And it was everything we wanted it to be: forgettable. No detours, no crazy drivers, nothing unexpected. I’m sure the whole rest of the walk will be exactly like that.
We were met by three die-hard friends at our starting point. Who else but dear buddies would show up at 8:30 on a Sunday morning, when it’s 23 degrees outside and blowing 1000 mph? Craig and Jo Ann McLean, as well as Rita Salisbury showed up to send us off. Craig, in truest form – as either a good Scotsman, or a crazy Jerseyite – even provided finely distilled liquid courage for the toasts.
Then the moment of truth came. We marched to the sea, dipped our heels in the icy Atlantic and headed West.
With blessings from Peg and Alanna we wiped the silly smirks off our faces and made like Lewis and Clark.
Tomorrow we’ll get back on the road, keep putting one foot in front of the other, and add another 0.48% to the tally. Stay tuned!