Day 56/ Apr 23rd – Greenville, IN to Marengo, IN: On the effects of walking long distances


“Walking is the best possible exercise.  Habituate yourself to walk very far…  There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue.” – Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, 1785

The road surface this morning was covered with tiny thread-like worms, impelled in their thousands by an inexplicable instinct to escape the soaking rain by wriggling out from the soil and onto the tarmac, where they were promptly crushed into a pale paste by commuters, impelled by their own inexplicable instinct, driving into Louisville to work.  It’s been wet thus far for us in Indiana, and today we walked for 23 miles through sodden farmland and dripping woods, serenaded by the croak of tiny frogs at the bottom of the fields.

Water tower of Central Barrens, Indiana

Approaching the metropolis of Central Barrens, Indiana

There was almost nothing to look at except red barns, cow-sheds and feed silos, which occasionally mustered themselves into tiny villages with names like Central Barren and Totten Ford.  The highlight of our morning was passing a popcorn factory, twenty-odd metal vats arranged in a circle in the mist and emitting a plaintive clanking across the pastures.  Around lunchtime we were adopted by a little black-and-white terrier that we named ‘Indiana Bones’, and which led us down the road for two miles, tearing off periodically into the fields to worry cows, chase cats and, once, to shake a rabbit to death in its jaws.  Our happy little fellowship was broken up when two tough farm dogs leapt out from a driveway and sent him flashing back down the road for home.

Sally and terrier in southern Indiana

Indiana Bones escorts Sally along Route 66

Just after lunch the rain stopped, the sun came out and the fields and verges began lightly steaming.  Rounding a corner through Churchill Farms, we were hailed by an ancient man, Mr. Churchill himself, coming out of a barn.  Like most Americans we’ve met so far, he was disarmingly frank and open, and soon we were chatting about his service in the Korean War and his career as a science teacher.  Now he ran this 400-acre cattle farm – apparently single-handedly.

“I been divorced too many times from hard work and all that… I’m a dedicated workaholic, and that’s been hard on marriages.”

He asked us about our walk, and advised us not to worry about being out on our own every day.

“We’re not afraid of anybody out here in the country.  I don’t worry about people coming and going…  I do carry a loaded pistol, because I’m forty minutes from the local sheriff’s office, and if people consume too much alcohol on weekends, well, I have to be able to take care of that.”

We were taken with this approach, and curious to see how it might work in, say, central Leeds on a Friday night, but we were too distracted by the sight of two of Mr. Churchill’s cats listlessly copulating by the barn door behind him to suggest this to him.

Route 66 in southern Indiana

The damp pastures of southern Indiana

We walked along Route 66 (Indiana State Route 66, rather than the transcontinental highway of song and legend) into Marengo.  It was a nondescript little town of clapboard houses and trailers, notable mainly for its cave, which was advertised on billboards so enormous we felt they must be targeted chiefly at passing airline passengers.

The first time we covered more than 20 miles in a day, back in late February, we hobbled and hopped around our hotel room like middle managers recovering from a company fire-walking retreat in the New Forest.  Today we stepped off the road after 23 miles feeling little more than mild relief to be out of the rain.  Unlike Sally, who sprang from the egg more or less perfectly formed, my body has changed a great deal over the last two months and 800 miles.  The soles of my feet have thickened into pads that help absorb the worst of the impact of 50,000 steps each day, my calves have doubled in width, and friction has rendered the insides of my thighs as hairless as a professional cyclist’s.  My belly has shrunk (although, thanks to the eating-contest portions still served up by many American restaurants, there is still some way to go), my shoulders have broadened from lugging a pack each day, and my arms and legs are striped with tan-lines so ridiculous that passing farmers stop and laugh.

More dramatic, though, is the mental impact of spending almost every day just walking.  We have no social engagements and no work commitments: the only goal we have each day is to walk west to the next small town, and accomplishing that daily fuels a powerful and unfolding sense of achievement as the distance we’ve covered increases.  Our life has become very simple, with basic, infinitely repeating needs – food, drink, rest and sleep – which fill our thoughts and conversation.  With nothing to do but walk, our trains of thought have grown longer, just as our physical stamina has increased.  It’s become unremarkable to walk 20, 25 or even 30 miles in a day, and we’ve developed a pleasant sense of our bodies as vehicles – reliable, albeit slow – steadily propelling us across the continent.

Restaurant signs in Kentucky

A long-distance walker has very basic needs

Our sense of space has changed: a mile is now a meaningful distance, meriting careful consideration of whether the shop, or sight, or restaurant is really worth the effort to get to, while a walk of two miles (and thus two miles back) isn’t worth it for any but the most sensational distractions.  Our maximum daily range – the world we can think about visiting today or tomorrow – is about 25 miles; 50 miles is close to the limit of our imagination, places beyond that for the time being theoretical. 

We’re told so often how small the world has become, how connected we all are, how being able to cross it in a day on a plane has somehow shrunk it, that to discover that it remains almost impossibly huge is rather a shock.  Our 20-mile sliver today of farms and towns, cats and dogs, worms and frogs took us all day to traverse, but is only one of hundreds that we’ll cross on our walk, which will in turn cover only a fraction of the landscape of America.  Most surprising and pleasing of all has been our induction into this secret – hidden from those who don’t travel, or who travel too fast – of the almost inconceivable vastness of the planet.

Ice-cream and frogs' legs at Hap's in Marengo, Indiana

Be careful of the ice-cream at Hap's

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