Day 29/ Mar 27th – Abingdon, VA to Bristol, TN: The Incredible Shrinking Bill

About three weeks ago, we were walking along a busy highway outside Appomattox, having a fairly grim afternoon, when a car pulled off the road and screeched to a halt next to us.  This had only happened once before, when a rail-thin, cross-eyed, twitching junkie who apparently cut his own hair pulled up in his pick-up and offered us a lift.  We both decided that he was odds-on to have a small collection of hikers’ skeletons manacled to the wall of his basement, so we politely declined his offer.

Fortunately, the man who got out this time was none of these things – a shade over six feet, a shade under three hundred pounds and resplendent in a Virginia Tech sweatshirt.

“Hi there,” he said.  “You hiking a long distance?”

We said that we were, and told him about our walk.

“Wow!  Well, I stopped because I’m doing something kinda similar.  I’m Bill, by the way.”

He handed us a card that read ‘The Incredible Shrinking Bill’.

“I’m walking all over Virginia, to lose weight and see my home state.”

He suggested that we try to walk together for a day later on in our route, and so today I met up with Bill in Abingdon to walk 15 miles or so to the Virginia state line at Bristol.

I met him outside his motel.  It was a pleasant novelty walking with someone again after a week without Sally, and we set off at a brisk trot, taking it in turns to interview one another for our respective blogs.  Bill had grown up in an Air Force family, living in England, Japan and several states before settling in Virginia thirty years ago.  He had wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a pilot, but his eyesight prevented it, so he enlisted instead in the Airborne Division.

“I figured, well, if I can’t fly them, I’m gonna jump out of them.”

He commanded a platoon in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield, and left the army after five years, first becoming a factory manager before moving into journalism.  Overlaid on these bare facts, though, was an equally important narrative – the story of Bill’s weight gain.

“When I came out of the military, I no longer had the forced physical training, PT every morning…  I worked long hours, I overate… the weight just skyrocketed.  I gave up on getting into any sort of shape other than round.”

Bill’s weight eventually touched 400 pounds (28 stone/ 180kg for those who think that way), and he made a resolution to change his life.

“My first walk, I didn’t even make it a half-mile, and I was a shambling wreck by the time I got home.  But after a while, I started losing weight, and the miles added up.  I decided that if I just straightened these miles out, I could really go somewhere.”

Bill set himself a bold and inspiring goal – to lose half of his body weight, in large part by walking all over Virginia, a programme of hikes that will cover 1,350 miles over two years.  He’s already over halfway to his target.  It was impossible to be anything other than very impressed.

“By the way,” Bill said, “I’m gonna start limping pretty badly halfway through the day, but don’t be alarmed.  It’s plantar fasciitis.”

So not only had Bill been walking hundreds of miles, mostly on his own, over the last year, but he’d also been doing so in considerable pain.

We stopped in at a Comfort Inn to get out of the sun and use their loo.  The receptionist was sprawled under a blanket on a sofa in the lobby, watching television.  She was absolutely gripped by a film in which Tim Allen had been turned into an Old English sheepdog.  The nub of the plot was that he was trying to communicate this predicament to his daughter.  In a moving final scene, he knocked over a shelf and spelt it out in Scrabble tiles.  We asked if we could sit down for a while.  “Nnnhh,” she said, which we took as assent.

Country music mural in Bristol

Country music mural in Bristol

We crossed under the interstate, over a railway line and came into Bristol.  State Street, a handsome stretch of restaurants, theatres and antique shops, runs through the centre of town, and marks the border between Virginia and Tennessee.  There are, technically, two separate towns; Bristol, Virginia and Bristol, Tennessee, with separate school systems but a shared police force and public transport (this being America, the ‘public transport’ is a bus to the mall a few times a day).  The town began life, yet again, as a fort in the 18th century, though its modern claim to fame is that the first ever country music recordings were made here in a marathon 12-day production session in 1927.

Border sign in Bristol Tennessee

Bill steps into Tennessee

I stepped gingerly across the double yellow line in the middle of the street and into Tennessee.  Bill and I took it in turns to take pictures of each other under a large sign suspended over the road, reading ‘Bristol: A Good Place to Live: VA – Tenn’.  We celebrated our arrival with lunch at the State Line Bar & Grille (sic), on the Tennessee side of the street.  Inside, college basketball was playing on several large screens, and I was surprised to see several people smoking and a noticeable cigarette fug in the air.  I asked the waiter about this.

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “We can choose to allow patrons to smoke in Tennessee.  But over there in Virginia” – and he gestured through the window and across the street – “it’s just been banned.”

I noticed that there were several bars on the Virginia side that had clearly recently closed down.

Street signs in Bristol, Tennessee

Street signs in Bristol, Tennessee

I said goodbye to Bill at the end of State Street and walked the last couple of miles through car dealerships, abandoned malls and thrift stores to my motel.  I thought a lot about him that evening; he epitomised in many ways the toll that the modern American lifestyle is taking on many of its citizens, but also offered inspiring proof that in America recovery and self-improvement is always possible.

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One Response to “Day 29/ Mar 27th – Abingdon, VA to Bristol, TN: The Incredible Shrinking Bill”

  1. Day 45/ Apr 12th – Mount Vernon, KY to Berea, KY: Be careful out there « The Walkover States Says:

    […] It’s one of a number of towns that styles itself as ‘the birthplace of country music’ (Bristol, Tennessee, which we passed through a fortnight ago, is another).  In 1937, a pioneering country music […]

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