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.