Days 83-87/ May 20th-24th – Columbia, MO: Fellow travellers

“Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.” – Steven Wright

Sally walking into Lincoln, Nebraska

Just following instructions

The last couple of blog posts will, I suspect, have put paid to any overly romantic ideas about walking across America.  The magnificence is leavened with regular sprinklings of misery.  So it may surprise you to learn that we are far from alone or original in our adventure; indeed, sometimes it seems that America’s roads are teeming with cross-country walkers.

“We had a German guy in here last week,” a museum guide in Vincennes, Indiana mentioned airily to us, “doing the same thing you guys are doing.”  He dashed away to start another tour before we could interrogate him further, but a look at the visitor’s book confirmed that a Roman Marechall from Germany had passed through a few days earlier.

At a B&B near the Missouri, our hostess reminisced about a German couple who had stayed with her a couple of years ago during a cross-country walk.

“They were camping, not staying in motels like you.  When they arrived here, they’d been out on the road for about four days straight.  I went to let them in, and I could smell them through the screen door.”

In Illinois, a fortnight ago, Richard, a local insurance salesman, pulled alongside us in his pick-up to ask where we were going.

“One of the things I love about living near Highway 50,” he said, “is that every summer I see a few people walking or biking across country.  You guys keeping a blog?  Yup, they always do.”

Nick Moffatt arrives in LA

Nick Moffatt finishes his walk in LA

We spent the rest of the day feeling decidedly unoriginal, but he was right – and the blogs of other walkers shed a lot of light on the sort of people who walk across the American continent.  There’s a fair sprinkling of somewhat rootless young men apparently in the grip of a quarter-life crisis, like Matt Green, currently walking from New York to Oregon, Nick Moffatt, who completed a walk from New York to LA in 2007, or Mark Phillips, who got halfway across the country in 2001, managed the full crossing in 2008, and then in 2009 cycled from LA to El Paso before retracing the route of his 2001 walk.  When we mailed Mark to seek advice about our own walk, he sent us a self-effacing reply:

“I was a walking fool, so you may not want to follow any advice based on my foolish and slapdash journey across the US.”  We never got the chance to evaluate the quality of Mark’s advice, however; we sent him a few questions, but never heard from him again.

There are those who walk to overcome genuine crises, like Phil Goddard, who crossed America in 2006-07 after the death of his wife Jayne (and who was a fount of helpful advice for our walk), or Steve Vaught, who walked from San Diego to New York (a rare west-to-east crossing) during 2005-06, in a desperate attempt “to lose weight and regain control of my life”.  (It was reading Steve’s blog that originally made me think that our own walk could be feasible, on the grounds that if a 400-pound man could walk across America, we certainly could).  Bill Glose, who we met early on in our walk, was doing something similar, walking entirely in the state of Virginia.

Not everyone chooses to cross the entire country in one go: Peter Jenkins, who wrote a well-known book about his walk, went from New York to Oregon via New Orleans over a five-year period, while Art Garfunkel made Jenkins seem impatient, walking across America in dozens of stages over a fourteen-year period from 1983-97 (this still doesn’t excuse Scarborough Fair, mind you).  At the other end of the speed scale from both of them is Bjorn Suneson, perhaps the most astonishing of all the cross-country walkers.  Not content to walk, Bjorn is currently running from Washington state to Georgia, covering as many as 40 miles in a day.  This is his third crossing of America, having jogged across the country north-to-south in 2005 and west-to-east in 2007.  Oh, yes – Bjorn is 62.

Bjorn Suneson enters Kansas

Bjorn Suneson enters Kansas

There is, surprisingly, a long tradition of running across America.  In 1928, a promoter called Charles Pyle organised a foot-race across the country, signing up an international field of competitors.  The runners set out from Los Angeles in March, travelling across the country in a series of daily stages.  Sunburn, blizzards, blisters, illness and injury thinned out the field, until the race was won in New York by an American, Andy Payne, in an astonishing 84 days.  The event was deemed so successful that it was held again the following year over the reverse route.  This time, the field arrived in Los Angeles after only 77 days, and the margin of victory, for another American, Johnny Salo, was only three minutes.  (The races inspired a bestselling novel, Flanagan’s Run, in the 1980s.)

Cabeza de Vaca expedition route

The route of the first walk across America

But even these feats pale in comparison to Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish nobleman who landed on the coast of Florida as part of the largely forgotten Narvaez Expedition of 1528.  Trying to reach the Spanish colonies in Mexico, the 300 members of the expedition foolishly decided to walk west overland; by the time they reached the Mississippi delta, only 40 survived.  These unfortunates were enslaved by local Indian tribes for several years; only four of them, including de Vaca, eventually survived to reach the Pacific, and thence Mexico City, before returning to Europe in 1537.  Along the way he therefore became the first European – and very likely the first human – to walk across the American continent.  And, having lost his clothes early in the journey, he covered most of the distance entirely naked.  However hot it may be getting here in the Midwest, we’re unlikely to have to resort to that.

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One Response to “Days 83-87/ May 20th-24th – Columbia, MO: Fellow travellers”

  1. Mark E. Phillips Says:

    Hello Richard. Sorry I never got back to you. But looks like any further advice from me was never needed… as you found the perfect literal and metaphorical path for you.

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