Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Book

So I've just finished making a 100-page book about the trip, made up mostly of these blog posts and photos from the trip. Check it out here:

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Next Step

Should you ever find yourself at the T Stop[FN 1] in Cambridge's Porter Square you will likely notice two things. The first is a giant kinetic sculpture at the entrance, one that looks remarkably like a praying mantis in the act of, well, preying. Having walked past this giant metal doorman and through the station's outer doors you will almost immediately notice Porter's second feature of note: there is an unnerving number of steps leading from the street to the platform. A number like 198. I know because this past Monday I managed to drag myself up each and every one of them. I was going to Porter to pick up my car after four long weeks in the shop, the last of which I spent traversing the continental United States in an effort to walk a mile in all 48 lower states in 9 days. After disembarking from the subway car I approached the escalator and its neighboring stairway. But which to take? Normally this would be an easy choice. Option one is, while insanely steep and a bit dizzying, basically an un-glorified amusement park ride (and really, what amusement park ride is not a bit dizzying?). The other brings to mind not the stairway to heaven so much as some sort of cruel Kafka-esque joke. Ten days prior I would have simply stepped onto the escalator and thought nothing more of my ascent, perhaps aside from whether anybody had ever successfully rode the handrail the whole way up (or, if they're truly brave, down). Everybody else who got off the subway with me made that decision, but I'd give them something else to think about. Specifically, why is that crazy guy with the limp walking up the stairs right next to the escalator?

After taking the trip that has come to be known as 48 Country Miles, the decision was easy. One state at a time I had been trained to eschew any and all kinds of people movers. The pedometer does not tick away on an escalator, after all. While on our walks we would always take the longest way, the steepest way, and the most inconvenient way from point A to point B. Clearly this mindset had overflowed from the trip and into my daily life. The thing I don't know is if this new-found desire to get there on foot is due to a fundamental change in the way I view locomotion or simply an inability to let the 48 Country Mile effort go.
Since as far as I can remember plotting this trip I have had a secret hope that it would change my life. I know that sounds like something at the intersection of amateur, immature, and trite, but it's true. This was a big trip for me. There's a reason I tried to do something that arguably nobody has ever done before, regardless of physical ability. I know that's a bit deceiving--I could just as easily have walked exactly 11.61 miles while blindfolded on a Tuesday in Presque Isle, Maine and said that "arguably nobody has ever done [that] before." But this trip was more than that--it was more than just an accomplishment for accomplishment's sake.

In addition to the challenge, the 48 Country Miles trip was at least partially inspired by fear and intellectual curiosity. The two were strongly intertwined: I feared that my Multiple Sclerosis would prevent me from ever seeing the parts of America I've somehow missed over my first 29 years. I wanted to see the mountains in Idaho. I wanted to feel the breeze off the gulf coast, ramble through the tall grasses of the prairie, and back slowly away from a very large bug in the Nevada desert. But most of all I wanted to see how it all connects, how the deep south transitions to the midwest and how the midwest drifts into the great northwest. On paper our route was necessarily jagged-I never fully considered how many times we would have to cross time zones or the Missouri River--I just wanted to go from everywhere to everywhere within our time limitations.

And although it required a photo finish, we were able to do just that. We made it to each of our goal towns every night, even if it meant just a couple of hours of sleep at a motel and then back on the road. Making it to each stop in time to make it to the next stop became an obsession within the confines of our rented Toyota Sienna. Remarkably, though, we were able to shed that obsession when actually walking in each state and trade it for a new one: an obsession to figure out what the place we were in was all about (with a couple of exceptions--there was no need to linger and absorb the midnight culture in Needles, California).
Even more remarkable, though, is how these obsession almost completely blocked out any thoughts I would normally have about my MS. It didn't just become a secondary was not a concern at all. The most telling symptom of this is that I stopped bringing my cane on the state walks after 8 or 9 had passed. It's not that I couldn't benefit from using the cane--it's just that I could not easily keep my watch-pedometer going and also hold the camera if one arm was constantly occupied. And so by the end of the first weekend my cane found a semi-permanent place on the floor of the minivan, not to be moved until we returned the car in Denver. And it wasn't just the cane--I cared less about taking the drugs I had so carefully packed. Frankly it's amazing that I remembered to do my nightly Copaxone injections. I certainly felt the limitations that accompany my's just that I was too focused on other things to care. Aside from needing an occasional hand out of the back seat of the car or with my bags, I was just another one of the guys.

Upon our return, my girlfriend asked Philip whether the trip had changed his life. He said it hadn't (although in the same sentence reported that it was not a "little adventure" but a "big adventure)." When she asked me, I had a different answer. While each member of our travelling party could appreciate the thrill of the challenge and the wonder of discovering new places, I alone was given the gift of temporarily forgetting that I am afflicted by a terrible and progressive illness. I know that it may have been a bit of a smokescreen--there's a difference between simply being distracted and having a new outlook. But the moment I hit that first step in the Porter Square T stop opened up the distinct possibility that it was the latter.

This post will serve as my official wrap-up for the 48 Country Miles adventure. I will make occasional follow-up posts here, including a forthcoming link to a high-resolution photoset with all of the good pictures from the this trip (many of which I have not posted here to date), but for the most part this trip is becoming part of the past. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that I am already conceptualizing a new challenge, one that will probably be logistically more difficult than the 48 states. It's pretty obscure, so I doubt you'll be able to guess it. Just in case it never comes to fruition, however, I'm going to play things fairly close to the vest for the time being. You can be sure, however, that Dave, Dan, Philip, Brian, Nishant, and Walter (the Fifth--make that 7th--Beatle) will be hearing all about it in the coming months. Their loved ones are probably already worried. Thanks so much for reading this blog, sending me all your support, and donating to the Accelerated Cure Project. Until next time,


[FN 1] That's "subway stop," to non-Bostonians.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Our Lucky Stars

One of the more amazing aspects of our trip has been that everything has gone almost exactly as planned. We wanted to reach Billings on Thursday and we reached Billings on Thursday. We predicted our Atmore, AL to Memphis via Oklahoma trip to take 21 and a half hours and it took 21 and a half hours. On paper our trip looked exactly as it did on the paper itinerary.  It was and is a complete guide to how to take 48 engaging walks in an equal number of states in 9 plus days. And yet I'd be writing this from Colorado right now (as opposed to Cambridge) if it weren't for a remarkable stroke of luck. Yesterday, our last day of the trip, brought us both our first major snowstorm and traffic jam. The snowstorm hit right at dusk in a high Rocky Mountain pass, slowing traffic to a fishtailing-crawl. But that crawl was a Usain Boltesque sprint compared to the traffic jam we found ourselves in as we passed through Colorado Springs. Only 70 miles from the Denver airport, we suddenly were faced with our first major deviation from the schedule. We had completed more than 99% of our trip and we were about to be foiled at the finish-line. And yet we made it.

So thanks, Chicago. Thank you, New York. Delays at your airports apparently led Jet Blue to delay both
 of our group's flights, pushing each of them back to around 1:30 am (from 11:30 pm and 12:50 am, respectively). And we needed every minute. After returning our car and handing off boxes of supplies to Dan's girlfriend Helena (who, in another stroke of luck, happens to be from Denver) 
we had to rush through the check-in and security processes just to walk our last state mile in the airport terminal. We finished our walk not two minutes before boarding our plane--remember, our two-hour-late plane. 
Talk about taking things down to the wire. Luggage in hand, we walked past magazine stands and fast-food restaurants long shuttered for the evening, along with a smattering of people sleeping on or under the seats in empty gates. As we paced off our last few thousand feet a number of us commented on how lucky we had been--not just that evening but 
throughout the trip. While it is easy to point to our planes' fortuitous delays, we undoubtedly were lucky in many of the things that didn't happen throughout the rest of the trip. We didn't have a breakdown (although we did lose a hubcap...sorry, Hertz!). While it snowed a few times, it only affected us on the last day. Traffic was never a problem, again excluding only the last day. The walks we picked were almost universally as we expected them to be or better. With just a couple of exceptions, even the "busts" turned out to be good for one reason or another. 

Througout the week I couldn't help but notice two extraordinarily bright stars in the early night sky.  I'm not really into astronomy, but something seemed unusual about them. It turns out that they're planets...and I'm not really into astrology, but I took to looking superstitiously upon our celestial guides, even taking pictures of them on a number of occasions. Here were objects in the dark sky that I had never noticed before but now dominated our night walks all over the country, from a town park in Indiana to the ghost town of Uvada, Utah. I'm not saying that they brought us luck, but I don't mind pointing to them as a symbol of our good fortune. 

Sunday, November 30, 2008

And I Almost Forgot Our New Best Friend

The Home Stretch

As they say, all excruciatingly tiring things must come to an end. At least I think that's what they say...I'm too tired to remember, frankly. Yesterday was an absolute beast (as expected), starting in Boise, taking a two-lane road through all of eastern Nevada, and ending up in Flagstaff. Oh yeah, and there were brief dips into Utah and California, one of which was rewarding and one of which elicited the name "Texarkana" more than once. Nevada was incredibly humbling, and not only because I got a speeding ticket there (yeah, on a two-lane road in the absolute middle of nowhere, but hey). Regardless, we were travelling yesterday for the better part of 21 hours, which is quite a lot considering we were already working on less than 4 hours of sleep each.  And so in honor of my tremendous mental and physical fatigue, I thought I'd eschew the usual wordy story and just give you some of the highlights in pictures. As the week has wound on I've become more and more attached to the pictures as a record of our trip and more comfortable with letting them tell part of the story. Anyway, I've got  to jet. Two miles to our New Mexico walk. 

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Modest Proposition

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. For the last week you have been driving enormous distances, largely for the purpose of going on remarkably brisk walks that would seem to the outside observer only to punctuate the boring moments of driving. But you know that the walks are far more than half the battle (or, in the cases of Virginia and Tennessee, all of the battle). Although they average only a hair over half an hour, your walks have presented you with countless vistas, both of the beautiful and the bizarre. You have seen nature at its most pristine and civilization at its most basic levels. You have seen a cow drinking from an icy, white-watery river. You have been overwhelmed by the beauty of a sunrise over the gulf of Mexico and propositioned by a vagrant of questionable sobriety (and perhaps taste). You've been to the world's largest McDonalds and just another Taco John's. You have worried about the aligator warnings on the bayou just days before launching a ferocious bombardment of snowballs. You have attracted quite a lot of attention from domesticated animals of all shapes and sizes and nearly killed a similar distribution of wildlife. You have been forced to reconsider your position on the unholy union of gas stations and slot machines. You have lost a hubcap and upon returning your rental car will probably blame Texarkana. You have publicly urinated in some of the most beautiful spots on God's green earth. And yet you were not prepared for this.

You are walking in a state park just north of Spokane Washington. The sun has probably set, but you can't see through the dusk-grey blanket of snowfall to know for sure. The park is surely closed, either on account of the snow or the dark, but you are too busy fiddling with your camera's manual settings to think about that, in search of a decent photograph in spite of the conditions. You set out to walk your mile on a slippery ridge looming high above the Spokane River. Having reached the half-mile point you and your cohorts turn around. There is a person walking on the ridge-road in the opposite direction. Through the contrast-less evening you percieve that the person might be holding a large cardboard sign. Another whacko. Just look to the ground, you think. Out of the very extreme of your peripheral vision you just barely make out the largest word on the poster. Kyoto? Obama? War? No...Uvada.

If you have ever seen the original Ghostbusters you know all about crossing the streams. And at this moment, the streams have been crossed. Let me recap this for you in simple terms. Snowstorm. Wilderness. Dusk. Rural Washington State. Uvada? Uvada is a town on the Utah/Nevada border, one of countless towns across the country that have adoped a similar method of nomenclature. At this point we are all aware of Texarkana, but there is also Florala, a Marydel and, if you squint hard enough, a Calexico. The thing is that Uvada is a ghost town, at least according to the internet. You won't know for sure until later today when you walk there. While your brain is churning all this information at punch-card speeds the person drops the sign. It's Brian. The guy who started the trip with you, the one you had to drop off in Atlanta so he could go back to work. There he went, and here he was, back with the pack in a snowy state park on the Spokane River. Now that's a surprise.

You'll have to ask him, but it seems that Brian decided shortly after he returned to New York that he was missing too great an opportunity to abandon the effort and sit by the sidelines. Money and effort be damned, he would have to rejoin us as soon as he could, even if that would only win him back a few days of the trip. Actions like this should make the four of us, Philip, Dave, Dan, and myself, who have been on this adventure for the duration sit up and appreciate just what we're doing and just what kind of opportunity we've been presented. The evidence is all around us. Nishant asked to join us at the last second, if just for a couple of days. His penance would be having to fly the red-eye to New York for an important family gathering from the bustling Spokane airport. [FN 1] My Dutch friend Walter, was bound to join us until it became clear that if he did he would lose his job. And still he espouses regrets about not making it to be with us nearly every day. According to his math, Walter is the fifth Beatle, and I guess I can't argue that point with him. The six people I've mentioned were the only people "invited" on this trip, but literally dozens of otherse have remarked how they wish they could have taken a trip like this. Often these people are older and far more successful than us, but despite their successes they would gladly trade their places with us for this one week. I knew all that. I had even spent a reasonable part of the Idaho panhandle thinking about how badly I wish Walter had been able to come along. Here we four are, unanimously jaw dropped by our surroundings...and yet we're American and are at least familiar with much of what we're seeing. It would have been absolutely staggering for a foreigner.

And yet it wasn't until Brian showed up in the woods, in the snow, in the dark that our good fortune really hit home. Not just our good fortune in having the opportunity to partake in this adventure, but in the opportunity to do so with these kinds of friends. When reflecting back on our 48 State journey a long, long time from now, it's fairly obvious which we will remember the most.

[FN 1] And I should take this opportunity to note the tremendous thanks that I and the others want to extend to Nishant for making three days of our trip that much better.

Friday, November 28, 2008

"Where the Buffalo Roam," or "Four Feet From My Hurtling Minivan"

Every day of this trip has provided a different challenge. We've had walks in the pitch-black mountains of Georgia, the howling dogs of Oklahoma, and the questionably demilitarized zone that is the Texas-Arkansas border. Last night we faced a new challenge, one as difficult and more realistically threatening than any to date: not slamming into large cloven-hooved mammals at high speed. This sounds like a non-story, or at least an old one. We all face the challenge of avoiding an accident with deer, after all. I've even had the misfortune of taking out a fawn not three months after first obtaining my driver's license. But let me assure you that what we encountered last night was an order of magnitude more difficult. The problems started on a 200-mile long stretch of completely uninhabited backroads in the Dakotas that we had to take deep into the night. We had so many encounters with deer that I can't possibly remember the number. But the highlight of the evening is when we noticed large hulking masses of black fur gnawing on grass growing out of the shoulder of our narrow lane. Yes, our little minivan had careened through the stark, desolate night right past a small herd of buffalo. Our short glance of these American icons indicated no concern on their part for our Toyota. No, these were no "deer in the headlights," perhaps because they knew they would get the best out of any collision.

Various members of our party made a number of metaphors throughout our five-hour trip through the mammalian gauntlet: it was the battle road at Lexington and Concord where the Red Coat machine was slowly and meticulously dismantled by minute-men in the woods. The airport road in Bahgdad. But perhaps my favorite metaphor is the one that wasn't mentioned: the "Wind Done Gone" version of Frogger, that is, Frogger from the car's perspective.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Like a Beacon in the Great Plains

Somewhere in the twenty minutes between our missed Illinois exit and first opportunity to turn around we passed an rest-stop called "the Oasis." I'm pretty sure we ignored the significance of that name the first time we saw it, but on the back side of our u-turn its meaning became abundantly clear. Yet even that rest-stop was just an oasis for a 20-mile stretch of uninterrupted interstate. If you're in the heart of a 9000-mile journey you're going to need an oasis on a completely different order of magnitude. We found that sanctuary last night in Gresham, Nebraska. 

ItAdd Image is convenient that just past the midpoint of our trip we would find ourselves in Nebraska, a state whose conventional reputation is that of the classic flyover state. We know it better, however, as Philip's home. Having met Philip's family a number of times before, I was completely expecting our visit to be greeted with not just open arms but an abundance of com-
fort food and a peaceful, relaxing place to spend the evening. It helps that this was the first night where any of us got more than four hours of sleep, but I think it's fair to say that we're all both rejuvenated and extremely grateful to the Romohr family for taking us in.
 Now it is on to the northern great plains. 

P.S. Updates may be fewer and farther between, because out here the cell towers are definitely fewer and farther between. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving Break

Only a three hour drive separates us from Thanksgiving Dinner. Till then...

International Efficiency Day

Today has been all about the time crunch. We have long planned to stop for thanksgiving dinner in Philip's hometown of Gresham, Nebraska and now that people other than ourselves are counting on our schedule, it was imperative that we follow through with efficiency and celerity. We got our usual late start, which didn't help, but our real problem today came as a result of a missed turn in Illinois, quite possibly our first of the the whole trip. A simple missed turn is usually not a problem, but in this case the next exit wasn't for another...18 miles. I honestly don't know if I've ever seen a longer gap between exits. And of course we didn't actually notice the missed turn until the brink of that exit, forcing us to turn around one stop further down the road. It would be another 9 miles. So, in order to get back to where we started we had to drive a total of 54 extra miles (remember, that's two exits), with an accompanying time penalty that was and is almost impossible to make up. After all, we can't really drive any faster, and it's not like we can sprint those miles. As such, we've adopted a temporal austerity plan, meticulously going through every step of our process and shaving our time down minute by minute. We had one particularly impressive gas stop this morning that would have looked to an outside observer like a NASCAR pit crew on vacation. It still looks questionable as to whether we will get to Nebraska at a traditional Thanksgiving dinner hour, but we're doing our best. 

Just Like They Drew it Up

Expectations are a funny thing. Yesterday two of our stops far exceded anything we had hoped for. The remaining three stops were not quite a disaster but certainly not quite what we had in mind when sitting at home last month browsing through atlases and Google Earth. It was a day with such stark extremes that the morning seemed like some vacation taken in 8th grade by nightfall. And then there are days like today, when pretty much everything we did exactly met our expectations. Aside from a single GPS issue in Tennessee everything operated like clockwork. Deadlines were met, destinations were interesting and easy to access, and my pictures came out (for the most part). Even our one blip, where our GPS led us astray in search of a TN state park, was easily rectified when we stumbled onto a civil war battlefield on our way back to the highway. The trail at Mammoth Cave, while not totally earth-shattering, was peaceful and enjoyable. 

I found the William Henry Harrison Gravesite
 particularly rewarding. The approach the site was exactly like it had been drawn up, to the point that I probably could have found the obelisk from the highway even without a map. We even got in just under the wire, beating the sunset by mere minutes. Once walking around the site we found not only an ornate grave to perhaps our most obscure president (he only served for a month before dying of pneumonia) but also a perfect vantage-point to take in the sunset over the Ohio River. Across the street, I was taken by the grave yard for a long forgotten city, the last remnant of a failed attempt to make "the capitol of the Great Northwest." Our trip is all about seeing America. Part of seeing America requires an appreciation of the starts and stops that were necessary to get us to where we are today. And I cannot think of a better way to appreciate them--the stops in particular--than by going to the beautiful tomb of a 30-day U.S. president and the graveyard for a city upon a hill that never quite took hold. 

Next up was a town park in Batesville, IN. Again, it was nothing out of the ordinary (aside from a large above-ground resevoir), but it's hard to argue with the inherant Americana of a town park gazebo. 
Our Niles, Michigan walk was similarly peaceful, as we walked along the shores of an icey river and again were greeted by near-perfect conditions for our standard walk-site's typical requirements for quick access, public parking, safety, and some level of memorability. 

Finally, we were able to pick up Nishant, the newest member of our travelling band. After carefully coordinating a place and time to meet, we decided on a whim to walk around Chicago. It was again not anything out of the ordinary, but part of me felt like we needed to walk in at least ONE "big" city. That's America too, after all, and we were not going to lose a lot of variety in abandoning tomorrow's plans for South Beloit, IL. We will still be walking in Beloit, WI, after all. How different can they be? That's my expectation, anyway. Yesterday's experiences told me that perhaps my expectations are not the most accurate predictors of future endeavors. But today told me that on some days, some charmed days, they hit the nail on the head. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

We Don't Make the States, We Just Walk in Them (and yes, they are different pictures)

Well, it couldn't last forever. To this point all of our state walk experiences have been a net positive. True to their states' reputed spirit, last night's walks in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma appear to have rebelled from this trend. Our excellent experience in Fonatinebleau State Park energized us enough to try to make Texarkana, our destination for both Texas and Arkansas, by sundown. Unfortunately Louisianna's motorists did not cooperate. In fact they seem to have planned a coordinated effort to block our path just enough to guide us into the city limits at dark.
When we got there it was immediately apparent that this would not be a friendly nighttime stroll through a quaint town, as had been our experience in the New England states. It would not even be a depressing stroll through a town far past its prime, as had been our experience in Martinsburg, WV. No, it was readily apparent that the primary emotion we would connect with this particular stroll would be fear. Perhaps there are better, shinier parts of town, but the area around Stateline Road and its famous dual-state post office was dull, decrepit, and just populated enough to make it thorougly dodgy, to borrow a term from our British friends.

And dodge we did. After taking our two state pictures in record time ("switch!") at the bisected post office we decided to haul oursoulves AQAP--As Quickly As Possible. So we marched past one liquor store, two check cashing places (including a quaint abandonded drive-through called "Check Mate," complete with Knight logo), another three liquor stores, and then a few bombed out buildings for good measure. The street was far from abandoned--in fact it was well-seasoned with a cross-section of the dodgy demographic.[FN 1] We were approached a number of times, including a particularly memorable experience with a man making kissing sounds at Dan. To make matters worse, our extroardinarily brisk pace and its lengthened stride threw off our trusty but antiquated pedometers. It is also worth pointing out that the pace was brisk enough to cause my neurologically impaired left leg to seize up. I considered this a partial positive, because the exagerated limp probably made me look .0001 % more badass to the distant observer.

After Texarkana we drove as fast as possible to Oklahoma, where we had picked Tom, a tiny town at the extreme southeastern corner of the state for our walk. We had anticipated that this would be another questionable walk, but we didn't anticipate exactly why. Even when we reached Tom's single intersection--possibly the junction of the town's only two streets--and got out nothing seemed overly overwhelming. And then came the barking. First one dog, then another, then what seemed like dozens. The barks seemed to increase in violence with each passing moment. We decided to make this "a fast one" and picked the segment of the intersection's cross that had the most light. Not 100 yards in, however, we were faced with the blood-curdling snarls of a particularly ferocious canine. He seemed to enjoy playing a game where he would sprint, fangs barely gleaming in the nighttime light, directly at us, stopping at the extreme edge of his owner's property. He would then run back a few yards and repeat the process. What made this particularly intimidating is that given the darkness we could not really get a good look at the dog other than a sillouette that indicated he may have been a product of the Michael Vick puppy farm. We quickly turned around and chose instead to walk up the darkest segment of the cross, a completely uninhabited stretch with essentially no light of its own. This didn't really help, as we could still hear enraged dogs chargingat us through the surprisingly dense trees (who knew that Oklahoma has a national forest?). Just to make the experience perfect I twisted my ankle in a pothole filled with freezing cold water at the very apex of our distance from the minivan, aka the sanctuary from cerberus and his 18 closest allies. [FN 2]

Oh and then we had to drive six hours, well into the wee hours of the morning, to make Memphis. We were all a tad grumpy when we finally got in, perhaps in anticipation of our projected three hours of sleep. The beautiful beaches and bayous we had seen earlier that day seemed like a distant memory. But it is the quality of that memory that keeps us going. With an equally long day ahead of us today we will undoubtedly encounter something--anything--to renew our elation with the great 48-state adventure. As I said on our way out of Texarkana, "Hey, we don't make the states, we just walk in 'em." [FN 3]

[FN 1] It should be noted that we intentionally chose the street populated by a Whitman's Sampler of questionable characters--the side streets, while quieter, were even more sinister.
[FN 2] Although the twisted ankle had the interesting side effect of temporarily balancing out the exagerated limp I developed traipsing across Texarkana.
[FN 3] BTW this probably goes without saying but we don't hold our thrilling-for-the-wrong-reasons trips in TexArHoma against the states. We know it is largely a factor of our extremely tight schedule and demanding route. Still, little solace when faced with a hellhound or questionably-amorous drunk man.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fontainebleau Ramblings

As I've indicated before, different people have different reactions when they hear about our trip. We just encountered someone at Fontainebleau State Park with a good reaction. After walking around the ruins of the former sugar plantation and a swamp boardwalk overlooking Lake Pontchartrain, we all headed for the restroom at the visitor's center. When we got there, though, we found the restroom locked and everything else shuttered. As some of us were about to explode, it was an unfortunate situation. All those acres of thick vegetation offered a tempting option, but we had just seen warning signs about cotton mouth snakes...stay on the path, they said. And while I don't know a lot about cotton mouth snakes, I know enough to know that's not something you want sneaking up on you while you answer the call. 

Frustrated, we were about to leave when we saw some motion inside the darkened visitor's center. We knocked, and out came a young park ranger. He graciously unlocked the bathroom for us, and while we went in one by one the others talked to him about our trip. He seemed truly fascinated, and in turn he told us to follow him into the 
visitor's center. It turns out that it was a brand new building and they were just putting the finishing touches on the exhibits and store inside. Excitedly he showed us a 600 year old 18-foot long dugout canoe that somebody had just found. It was still in its packing box, and as the son of a museum curator (who has had a long professional interest in Native American art and archaeology), I was very impressed. Not just by the amazing quality of the artifact, but by the way the ranger opened up to us when he heard our story. 

The Pack Loses a Top Dog and Other Notes

Sadly, last night we had to drop Brian off at the Atlanta airport, as he needed to go back to New York for work. To say that we and I in particular appreciate his efforts in joining us up till that point would be a massive understatement. So, Brian, <-- this one's for you.

We are currently driving from Biloxi, MS to Fontainebleau State Park in LA. Although we got a late start, this morning has gone swimmingly. The cross-border walk in Atmore, AL and an unincorporated area near Bratt, FLA was excellent. We found a sm-
all side road with virtually no traffic, beautiful skies, and even our white whale, public parking half a mile from the border. It was simultaneously a peaceful and invigorating way to start the day. Except for the dogs. All along the Alabama portion of our walk (where, unlike the Florida portion, there were houses) dogs of all shapes and sizes took a keen interest in our journey, or at least an interest that we stay as far away from their little kingdoms as possible. Most of dogs were not overly threatening, although on our return we encountered a--I almost want to call them a pack--of big, snarling dogs. Needless to say, the dog photographed here was not one of those dogs. 

Also, wanted to mention the context of last night's "ghost" picture. Our plan had been to take a nice leisurely stroll in the Georgia woods during the late afternoon. Unfortunately, mother nature didn't play along. When we got to Tugaloo State Park it had just closed for the evening. But, intrepid trespassers that we are, we found a trail starting near some lit tennis courts and heading up into the hills. Armed with a few flashlights we cheerily marched into the woods. We only had to walk a half mile, right? Ah, but what a dark, creepy, and strenuous half mile. After a few hundred yards everything was pitch-black. To make matters worse, the steep path was completely obscured and made slippery by the thick cover of fallen leaves. The important thing to take away from this: the Blair Witch Project is coming off my Netflix queue. 

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Yeah, We Own the Night

Georgia was...interesting. More TK. 

Satiated and Conversated in the Tar Heel State

Among the mid-South states we hit up today, perhaps none was more gratifying than North Carolina. As a graduate of both Duke's undergrad and law programs, I've spent a lot of time in Carolina, and I've got
 to admit I've missed the First In Flight license plates. Our time in the state was defined by two stops.The first was Cumberland Nob in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The park is technically closed for the season, but we went in anyway. The area closest to the road was largely "civilized," with numerous spots for campers to park and enjoy a good barbecue. Wandering around a bit we found a large field with an excellent view of the misty Blue Ridge. Perhaps inspired by the suddenly temperate weather, we decided to go back and grab Philip's football. For the next 20 minutes or so we put aside all thoughts of our stately marches and had a good, simple time in the sun. After all the stress of the first few days it was a welcome break.

Inspired and hungry, we decided to look not to fast food restaurants for lunch but good old fashioned barbecue. For the uninitiated, I don't mean the burgers and hot dogs kind of barbecue. I mean pulled pork in a vinegar-based sauce, collard greens, hush puppies, sweet tea, the works. Figuring any good town in North Carolina would have its fair share of appropriate establishments, we stopped in the first town we crossed, Statesville. Ultimately we found a Greg's Famous Barbecue, which apparently is, well, famous. The food was ok, but the people were great. "You wanna watch the game?" the waitress asked, pointing to a tv. We politely declined. "I see," she said, "you guys are happy just conversatin'." Moments later she returned to demonstrate to our New Yorkers the greatest of southern institutions, free refills. For those of us with North Carolina roots this was all a great culinary trip down memory lane, and for those new to the world of pork butt...well, let's just say this was Dan's first hushpuppy and he liked it.

While not nearly as adventurous as some of our earlier or later state adventures, North Carolina deserves its own post for the way it relaxed us and helped us back on a straight path through the 48 lower states.

Retracing Confederate Steps, or "Why it Pays to Have a Bathroom at Your Gas Station."

It is time to broach a very sensitive subject: my bladder. I'll wait for you to stop giggling. Done? Sure? Ok good. So here's the deal. One of the functions I've lost as a result of my MS is normal bladder control. Sometimes I can't go at all, sometimes I have to go immediately. And by "sometimes" I mean constantly. All day, every day. I have basically surrendered my ability to decide the wheres and whens of the world's most regular bodily function.

And so it was that I had to surrender this morning on our way to the New River [FN 1] in Virginia. I first gave a warning.

"Uh, guys, might have to stop to use the restroom soon."

"How soon," someone asked.

"Half an hour?" Not five minutes later I was hopping up and down on my seat. "Let's take the next exit...I could also use the urinal, I guess." Yes, I brought a urinal. A selection of them, in fact. The thing is, occasionally nature calls me EXTREMELY loudly and completely out of nowhere. Sort of like that alarm clock that completely obliterated my world yesterday. But anyway, in this instance I was not quite ready to cross that bridge...I just wanted to impart on my fellow travelers the urgency of the situation. Either that or I was gently threatening them with the prospect of hearing that plastic tinkle that few twenty-somethings have heard, though most recognize. Minutes later we pulled into a shiny new gas station in Hanging Rock, VA.

I jumped out of the still-moving minivan, ran inside, and asked for the restroom. The attendant, a fairly scrawny guy (pot, kettle) grumpily told me that it was out of order. That explains why the gas is 10 cents a gallon cheaper than the place across the street, I thought as I ran right back out the door at an even faster pace. I stopped Dave from getting gas and we darted across the street to a much older looking service station. The attendant there, a genial older fellow, told me with a strong southern accent where to go. And go I did. Relief was at hand.

Afterwards, I mulled around the store. I felt almost guilty--not because I used their bathroom and hadn't bought anything but because my first inclination had been to go to the shiny new gas station across the street and not what likely a venerable \refueling institution. The guy behind the counter was so nice that I found myself adopting the trace Southern diction that I picked up during my 7 years at Duke. I'm not ashamed to tell you that a "y'all" might have been dropped.

After picking up a few unnecessary items I went back outside, where I noticed what appeared to be...a trailhead. Yes, at the far corner of the parking lot was the trailhead for the Hanging Rock Battlefield Trail. Some quick cell phone research informed us that this trail and its environs were the site of a Confederate victory in the Civil War. We had to walk it, plans be damned. The trail itself was a very pleasant and roughly-hewn path along a ravine carved out by an icy stream. A number of us noted how much faster and easier the walk seemed than some of our earlier efforts, which often entailed dodging hurtling pickup trucks. It's a lesson to keep in mind when pursuing our future routes.

All in all, a very good experience. I guess I owe my bladder an apology.

[FN 1] An interesting name, given that it is reportedly the second oldest river in the world, behind only the Nile.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thoughts on Our First Full Day

After a 17 hour day where we walked 8 states, I'm now resting comfortably in a Motel 6 in Harrisonburg, VA. Those of you keeping score at home will know that we've already detoured from our meticulous schedule, shifting things around in a way that will help minimize the impact of our early "long" days. To give you an idea, today's 17 hour schedule is not a "long" day.

And still, I'm extremely tired. My legs hurt, my throat is killing me, and I've got some major-league fatigue. [FN 1] Yeah, already. That's what a couple hours of sleep will do when combined with fairly substantial physical strain. I'm sure everybody's going through this--but I also suspect it's hitting me a little harder. But this is what I signed up for, and I've got to take measures necessary to mitigate such problems in the future. The first thing's first: I need to sleep more tonight (which necessarily means I'm going to have to limit this blog post.

Before I cut things off, however, I want to relay a conversation I overheard the others having when we were finally pulling into Harrisonburg. Philip was asking around the minivan what was everybody's favorite state. There were different answers, and each represented a different facet of why this trip has been so great. Dave liked the tiny island in Maine best. There's just something great about struggling to find a mile to walk on a 1000 foot island, all while the pizza we ordered at the island's sole business is being cooked to perfection. Philip preferred our walk in New Jersey, which was located at a town park (Davidson Mill Pond Park) devastatingly off the tourist path. In fact, if it were on a tourist path it would surely disappoint. But being off that well-worn path, it was a revelation. I must be a sucker for sentiment, because my favorite walk so far was the trek across the fields and brambles of the nursery. On one hand it was a little depressing, because in recent years the terrain has changed--dramatically in places--from what I remember in my youth. At the same time, I felt a connection to land I haven't really rambled across in years. I've been talking a lot about how important the concept of "local" is to this trip, and, well, this is my local. It's not just my town, it's my childhood. In a trip of exploration and experimentation, this was my control.

Ok, I really need to hit the switch. A thousand miles of road await tomorrow. Atmore, Alabama, here we come.

[FN 1] BTW that was a completely unintentional use of two consecutive rhyming words ending in "gue." If it was intentional I'd have probably crafted a line decrying "major league intrigue fatigue."

Our Henge is Also Stone

Three of us--myself, Dan, and Dave--were fortunate enough to have members of our family join us on our New York walk. This time our mile was across the back fields at Poundridge Nurseries, my family's business for the last 80 years. It would have been great walk regardless, but it was doubly so considering the familial company. We've also taken care of CT and NJ since the last post. On to the Small Wonder, Delaware. 

From a Reader

"Seeing last night's post reminded me of the following:

'And so it came to pass that word went out the length and breadth of Greece that Jason was looking for shipmates to embark upon a perilous but glamorous adventure. And in spite of the miniscule chances of anyone surviving to lay eyes upon the Fleece let alone get past the guarding dragon and return with the prize, large numbers of heroes were ready to run the risk. These were known as the Argonauts, after their ship, the Argo.'

Henceforth, then, you and the gang shall be nicknamed 'Jason and the Argonauts.' Godspeed."

Given how great everybody's been so far, it's a hard point to argue.