Walking across the United States isn’t exactly easy, but it’s something almost anyone can do, regardless of your skill or background. All you really need is the desire and lots of perseverance (oh, and the occasional king-sized candy bar).
When I first attempted to walk across the country several years ago, I proudly promoted my lack of hiking and camping experience to whomever I met, as if it was a badge of honor. I thought half the fun of taking on such a massive journey would be to go into it with very little preparation. However, this concept was to the dismay of many of my friends and family who would try to offer subtle advice like, “Why don’t you practice by going on a short weekend hike?” or “Why don’t you break-in your new shoes?” or “Have you even looked at a map today?” Which was always met with a resounding, “Nah,” on my part. Thus, they soon dubbed me “the Walking Fool.” And it felt right.
So if you think you have a hankering to go on a super long hike but don’t have much training/experience, never fear, it can be done. And to give you some insight, I thought I’d share with you a few things I learned along the way. I’m only going to offer up three things, because after all, if I revealed too many, that might constitute preparation on your part… of which I’m firm opposed.
A major thing to consider when walking across the country, unless you’re Richard Branson with your own army of assistants following you in an RV, is that you’ll have to carry everything you need on your back. Everything. So even though it’s important to find the perfect pair of shoes for a long trek, you definitely need to find a backpack that you can really fall in love with, because it’s gonna be firmly latched to your body like a wild dog in heat for months on end. But since I was a “fool,” I simply bought the first one the salesman showed me.
After purchasing my $250 65L-capacity I-Frame backpack, I kept true to my unspoken strategy of staying as ill-prepared as possible, and only tested out the pack once. And when I did the brief test-run, it was significantly underpacked, and I only walked around in it for about 20 blocks. Because the half-filled backpack was so light, I suddenly became filled with misguided confidence and truly believed my cross-continental adventure was going to be a piece of cake.
However, the night before I began my venture west, when I started loading my pack, I kept realizing that I was forgetting things. “Oh, I need that. And I should have an extra pair of these. Oh, and I totally forgot about this.” Before I knew it, I had an extra 30 pounds stuffed into my bag. And the next morning, as I stood on a beach in Sandy Hook, NJ with a giant suitcase on my back, I realized the walk was not going to be a piece of cake.
The first thing that took getting used to was simply getting the thing on my body. For a long time, every time I put it on, I would wobble back and forth with my arms flapping, like some cartoon character who got tricked onto a narrow construction beam. From afar, it probably looked like I was attempting to take flight. Eventually, I figured out how to slip on my pack without looking like a drunk trapeze artist, but it took a little longer to get used to the heavy mass persistently secured to my body. It truly felt like I was trudging a small NYC studio apartment on my spine.
I pulled all the straps and cords with the same confidence the willowy salesman had when he demonstrated the backpack to me in the camping store, but with no real results. I’d spend endless minutes tightening and compressing various crevices of my 80-pound nylon hump, hoping that I could strike the perfect combination and make my pack impeccably adjusted for my height and build. The outdoors-experts (who actually prepare for long hikes) sternly advise you on the importance of properly adjusting your backpack, implying that refusal to do so, will cause you nothing but unnecessary pain and anguish. I laughed at first, but by day two of my walk, I knew they were right.
The one thing I do like is maps. Old-fashioned paper maps. The kind you find buried-treasure with. In this modern age of smart phones, Google maps, and GPS devices, the idea of navigating with paper maps seems quaint to some, stupid to others. But when I first attempted my walk, it was back in 2001, and even though GPS technology was around, it wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is today, so what I did was carry along detailed state atlases. The only negative thing is: paper in mass quantity is heavy.
My solution was to only bring one state atlas with me at a time, and from that, I’d rip out all the pages I thought I needed and simply discarded the rest. (Only a couple times did I discard the wrong set of pages.)
Those state atlases were delightful. They usually were quite detailed, showing creaks, railroad beds, logging roads and even hiking trails. But what they didn’t show was how far it was to the next Taco Bell or where I could find the nearest post office. That’s when I had to either go to a library and try to find it on 2001’s version of the internet, or just ask a local for directions.
Now, the latter idea seems to be the more quick and efficient one – you don’t have to sign in on some clipboard to get info from a local resident– but surprisingly, it’s usually the least reliable one. Most people don’t really know how to give directions (and since the advent of GPS, it’s only gotten worse). They don’t think in terms of north or west, and everything they know is almost always in car miles, which they have difficulty translating into actual walking miles. Remember, “Five or ten” minutes in the car can be the difference of several hours when you’re on foot.
Unfortunately, this lack of directional accuracy doesn’t seem to sway people from offering up their guidance. And each person I met seemed to have a completely unique sense of distance which in no way corresponded to the conventional units of measurement. People tended to have a firm grasp on reality when dealing with feet and inches, but when you start reaching distances into the miles, it became a total crapshoot. And yet, they still delivered the directions with such unwavering confidence, you’d think they were reading it from a detailed atlas implanted in their brain. And I’ve noticed that the older they are, the less reliable they become.
With men, they become almost bullying with their directions, never taking a moment to consider the accuracy of the numbers they’re rattling off. “The MacDonald is three miles away,” would be blurted out with obstinate self-satisfaction. This would undoubtedly be followed by a firm nod and gruff, “Yup,” as if to say, “That’s the way it’s always been and always will be!”
The older women tend to be equally fatuous, but they put on more of a displayed effort, as if they’re actually trying to get the info correct. They do a lot of brow furrowing, eyes squinting and cheek rubbing, along with long gazes into the horizon as if they can somehow gauge the distance with their secret bionic vision. But in the end, I had to treat every “fact” as a mere “suggestion.”
Sometimes they were right on the money, but more often than not, they weren’t even in the ballpark. And when you’re trying to get to that next fast food restaurant so you can gorge on delicious high-fat products, a matter of a mile or two can be heartbreaking.
Aside from the voluptuous amounts of tasty fast food, one of the greatest things you can treat yourself to on a walk across America is taking a day or two off at a nice hotel. However, the trick is finding that right balance between price and quality. You don’t want to blow half of your month’s budget on a 2-day stay at the Hilton, but you also don’t want to end up in a room that looks like it could be an annex from the house in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
A general rule of thumb is that most name-brand hotels are safe, but most local motels are risky, especially if they have exceptionally cheery names like “The Sunshine Motel” or “Bassett Valley’s Pleasant Inn.” These inordinately welcoming monikers are usually just a ruse to lure you into their kitty-litter-smelling dungeons. In my many months of walking, I found that the Super 8 was usually my best bet. They often fell in the $39-$49 range per night and were usually equipped with decent accommodations.
After a long week of walking, whenever I’d enter my hotel room, I would become intensely giddy – getting that ping of excitement I always feel when I find myself suddenly surrounded by modern comforts. I’d immediately plop my sack onto the floor and go investigate all the amenities. Interestingly, hotel rooms offer examples of both excessively small and excessively large features. The complimentary toiletries are always insanely tiny. I sometimes feel like a giant when I’m in the shower and trying to wash myself with their complimentary bar of soap that’s only slightly larger than a stick of Trident.
The bed is often the opposite; an oversized plushy cradle with layers and layers of endless bedding. This offering of excessive comfort can be especially disconcerting when coming from a five- to seven-day stretch of sleeping outdoors on some rock-strewn ground, using a bag of socks and underwear as a pillow. The bed linens in these hotels are so plentiful, that when assuming the task of shedding the layers, I would seldom make it to the bottom sheet. Somewhere between the duvet and the 2nd stratum of blankets, I’d give up and just collapse into the sea of coverings.
During the summer months, one of the most valuable hotel amenities is air conditioning. This is where choosing the right lodgings comes into play. Like I said, most national brand hotels are safe bets for effective cooling services, but sometimes you find yourself in a small town where all that’s available is a local mom & pop motel. Even if the room is decent and clean, the chances of an efficient air conditioner are quite slim. On especially muggy days, this is the first thing you check when entering your room, and in most of the local motels, it’ll be a box a/c in the window that looks like a featured model from a 1974 Sears catalogue, but adorned with multiple patches of duct tape.
Still trying to remain optimistic, you’ll switch it on and listen to the hum, anticipating a flurry of arctic air. Unfortunately, many times in these motels, all that accompanies that hum is a solid stream of warm humidity. You adjust all the knobs and sliders, trying every combination possible, constantly waving your hand in front of the air vent to see if you can detect any change in temperature, but in the end, all you get is a lousy hum.
On my first attempt to walk across America, it took me three months before I finally decided that I couldn’t continue on. Bad hotels, incorrect directions, and heavy backpacks were just a few of the things that contributed to my downfall. However, even though it doesn’t sound like it, overall, it was great experience. I got to see America one step at a time and do something that was quite impressive: I made it all the way from New Jersey to South Dakota on foot. I was damn proud.
Years later, I mustered up the courage to try the walk all over again, mainly because even though I knew it wouldn’t be easy, I did know it could be done. All I needed was desire and perseverance to do it. The desire was still there, but I still didn’t know if I had the perseverance. And yet, I slapped on my pack again and blindly took off in hopes of making it to the other side of the country. I guess that’s why I still consider myself a “walking fool.”
Mark E. Phillips is an actor, writer, director and (obviously) an avid hiker. Mark is currently living in New York working on a feature-length documentary about his multiple attempts to walk across America, called "The Walking Fool." You can follow him on Twitter for quips, pics, and updates on the documentary.
6 Responses to “Walking across the United States with the Walking Fool”