rest in Latrobe, PA, 0.0 miles

For the second day since I injured my ankle I decided it was too painful to walk. Yet, while I have the luxury to stay and rest, many people do not. One woman I met a few days ago told me of her battle with Crohn’s disease, for which she cannot afford the health care costs. She works more than 80 hours a week at minimum wage to make ends meet.

Today, while I was hobbling down the hall to my hotel room, I chatted with the woman who cleaned the rooms. She said she wakes up every morning with intense pain in her ankles and feet, and sympathized with my injury. But, while my injury is likely only temporary, hers is chronic–she told me she could barely crawl out of bed each morning.  And, for her, resting is not an option. She is a single mother with three young children to care for.

I cannot comprehend the chronic pain these women endure on a daily basis. And I am in awe of their inner strength as they work in low-paying jobs that keep them on their feet all day and exacerbate their health problems. We do not allow animals to suffer such indignities, to live in constant pain. Surely as Congress finally addresses the massive mess that is health care in this country something can be done to improve the health and well-being of the nation’s poorest.

We waste money on procedures that are not medically necessary; take antibiotics for viral infections simply because we believe a pill will make us better; and fail to take even the smallest steps to improve our diet and exercise. We need to take charge of our health, be responsible for preventative measures. And, just as we must be responsible for our own health, we also have the right to expect our government will ensure access to affordable health care.

This country is vast and varied and there are no simple solutions. But we must demand politicians find a way to ensure everyone in this country, no matter how poor, has access to quality health care without interference by lobbyists or those who would seek to put profit above our health.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper


Ligonier, PA-Latrobe, PA, 9.2 miles

Five years ago tomorrow my father-in-law died after after bravely battling repeated strokes that robbed him of his mobility but not of his humor and wit. I did not have the good fortune of spending much time with Martin before he became ill, but I always admired his colorful nature and his  spirited defense of the working man. Many will speak loudly of the causes they hold dear. Martin was one of the brave few who took action to right the wrongs of this world. As I walk I wear for good luck a small pin that once belonged to Martin. I hope that he would think it fitting for my journey.

After his death my husband noted that his father’s “illness never robbed him of the power of his wit, and the ability to speak as he always had done for a United Ireland, against racism, war, U.S. Imperialism and the betrayals of “New Labour.” His passing will not silence a voice of passionate protest.”

I am walking for many reasons: to draw attention to the millions living in poverty in this country; the growing problem of homelessness; and to inspire people to stand up to injustice. And it is my hope that I am somehow making Martin proud.

– by Jennifer E. Cooper

Don’t feed the animals

Laurel Mountain, PA-Ligonier, PA, 7.7 miles

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain

caption=”Joe’s bar in Ligonier, Pa. has hundreds of taxidermy specimens including lions, zebra, ostrich and blowfish.”

Only an estimated 25-30 percent of the population of the United States owns a passport. But even more worrying than our low rate of international travel (though to be fair until recently Americans could travel a great distance without needing a passport) is the fact that many in this country have not traveled more than 10 miles from their place of birth. Now surely many people do not have the means, or more importantly the vacation time, to travel far and wide. But even venturing a little outside your comfort zone can have an enormous impact. In just a couple weeks I have walked nearly 200 miles and pushed myself right out of my comfort zone.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

The shaggy dog

Day 15–July 18 (Kantner, PA-Laurel Mountain, PA, 12.1 miles)

Little did I know when I got up this morning that I was about to become a Shaggy Dog. Pushing through the pain of my throbbing ankle I climbed Laurel Mountain on Route 30 and, when I reached the top, walked into Walat’s bar looking for a coffee. Instead I met Bill H.

Having embarked on numerous adventures of his own–including canoeing several hundred miles on the Susquehanna River with his dog–Bill felt obligated to return the favors of food and housing so many had offered him while on the road. He invited me to have dinner and crash for the night with him and his girlfriend Chris who was given just a few minutes warning that he was bringing me to their house, saying he was “bringing home a shaggy dog.”

Many people have asked me how I manage my personal safety on this trip. (For the record this is a solo walking trip without a support crew. All I have I carry in my 35-pound backpack.) I have on more than one occasion accepted the generosity of strangers who have taken me into their homes. Thus far there are many more people looking out for me than those who seek to do me harm. That said, after I saw Bill’s van filled with odds and ends and painting paraphernalia, it did cross my mind that perhaps there was a 10 percent chance he was a serial killer–but nothing in life is without risk. So here I am still alive and now with two wonderful new friends, Bill and Chris.

I feel fortunate to have met so many amazing people who have helped me along my way. So cheers and thanks to those who have offered me a hand and the wonderful new friends I have made. And cheers to the friends I have yet to meet.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Out of business

Day 14–July 17 (Indian Lake, PA-Kantner, PA, 7.9 miles)

The small downtown of Stoystown, Pa., has no restaurants or grocery stores. Even the vending machine in the center of town is out of order. At one time the town supported numerous shops including the small Stoystown Market. Now just a few businesses remain. When I asked an old man, who had paused with his bike at the top of the hill, where I could get a bite to eat, he told me that there had once been some restaurants but they had long since closed. If I wanted something to eat for dinner I wouldn’t find it in Stoystown. I got a similar story from another resident who suggested I head to the neighboring town of Kantner.

caption=”Few businesses are thriving in Stoystown. Many, like the Stoystown Market, have gone out of business.”

Kantner did have a small restaurant/bar but the town wasn’t in much better shape economically than its neighbor. Roughly 10 percent of those living in Somerset County Pa., are living in poverty. The county’s per capita income for 2007 hovered around $22,000. In Stoystown it is just above $18,000.

It is hard for a community to thrive when its businesses are all struggling or closed. Yet how can its residents be expected to support those businesses when they are making just above the minimum wage? It is a pattern being repeated in small towns and cities across the country. And it is a pattern that must be broken if communities are to thrive.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Stopping to smell the flowers

Day 13–July 16 (Reels Corner, PA-Indian Lake, PA, 3 miles)

For more than an hour I sat at the Subway shop at the intersection of Routes 30 and 160 in Reels Corner debating whether to rest a day or push on. At some point during my walk yesterday I injured my ankle. But despite the pain I was anxious to continue walking. My ankle won. Why push ahead through intense pain, particularly when I was just three miles from beautiful Indian Lake?

I may be walking for a cause, but it is equally important to take the time to enjoy the beautiful places and interesting people I encounter along the way. As I was walking to the lake I decided to accept a ride for the first time since I began walking–I was injured after all. As we drove around the lake, I talked with the guy who had offered me a lift about jobs and life and it was revealed that he had just gotten married. I congratulated him but was disheartened by the fact that he and his new bride couldn’t afford an inexpensive part for his car let alone a honeymoon. Having been in a similar situation a decade ago I passed along to him some money I’d been given in my travels. It wasn’t a lot of money and I doubt it will make much of a difference in his meager budget but I hope it means he and his wife can at least take a few minutes of their own to enjoy the small pleasures in life.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Community service

Bedford, PA-Reels Corner, PA, 18.3 miles

If there is one thing I hope to accomplish on my walk, it is to inspire people to look within their own community and make it a better place to live.

In Reels Corner I met Central City resident Craig Shaw, who is working to make college more affordable for his neighbors. Shaw organizes a fund-raising golf tournament at the Northwinds Golf Course on Indian Lake. Money raised benefits a scholarship program at the high school. In just a few years Shaw told me they had raised as much as $40,000, enough to give $1,000 to every student in the school who is planning to go to college.

Though there is no simple solution to poverty in this country, education is a start. And with the average cost of tuition at a public four year college at $6,585 (up 6.4 percent from last year) every little bit counts. Of course college will still be out of reach for many potential students. Others will find they cannot raise enough funds to finish their eduction. But even finishing just a year or two is an accomplishment.

Central City should be proud to have residents who not only want to see their neighbors succeed in life, but who actually take the time to make it happen.

–By Jennifer E. Cooper

Are you homeless?

Day 11–July 14 (Everett, PA-Bedford, PA 10.3 miles)

It should be a simple question: Do you consider yourself to be homeless? But it is a question that I find I cannot easily answer. I have a post office box. I have an apartment in Virginia that is being subleased. I have the means to provide a roof over my head. But I do know where my head will rest at the end of the day. So when a reporter from the Bedford Gazette asked me today if I consider myself to be homeless I decided my answer was yes.

The morning began with me brushing my teeth and changing into clean clothes in the bathroom of a Sheetz gas station in Everett, Pa. The bathroom was clean and I had showered the day before, so it should not have been a major issue. Instead, I was angry. My trip may be by choice–and with it comes the occasional lack of a shower–but for lots of people resorting to public restrooms for hygiene is not a choice. And I found myself very angry–angry that while many in Everett were in their homes getting ready for the day, I, and the millions in this country who struggle with homelessness and poverty, did what we could to get by. Standing in the bathroom putting on deodorant I felt like an outsider, ignored by those in this country with economic means.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Humidity, sunscreen and air pollution

Day 10–July 13 (Breezewood, PA-Everett, PA, 8.2 miles)

Route 30 as it heads east from Breezewood is no place to be walking. Large trucks whiz by; the shoulder of the road is miniscule; and in the heat of the sun it is miserable. Slathered in sunscreen and breathing in car exhaust I couldn’t help but think of the long-term damage this was surely doing to my body.

Environmental Working Group tested 1,723 sunscreens for a special report earlier this year and found that three out of five offer inadequate protection from the sun or actually contain toxic ingredients. As someone with fair skin I do not want to be put in the position of having to decide between putting harmful chemicals on my body or putting myself at risk of skin cancer–or possibly both.

And the air I am breathing is not much better. In a new study by environmental health researchers from UCLA, USC and the California Air Resources Board, it was found that air pollutants traveled farther and lingered longer than previously believed. This is not good for myself and others who find themselves breathing the air alongside highways.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Water, sweet water

Day 9–July 12 (McConnellsburg, PA-Breezewood, PA, 18 miles)

I would not have thought it was possible to be worried about water while still walking on the east coast. The day started with three water bottles, plenty to last the day. But it was hot outside, and I drank most of one water bottle before I sat down sometime late in the afternoon to take a short break from the punishing sun. Then, in a greedy act to drink faster than the built-in straw would allow, I unscrewed the top. Suddenly I spilled an entire bottle of water.

I still managed to push ahead and climb Sideling Hill, elevation 2,195 feet. But I was uncomfortable not having surplus water. What if I really needed it? What if there was nowhere to get a refill? The park at the summit of Sideling Hill had water but it was non-potable and the drinking fountain was dry.  I didn’t like to even think about the possibility of running out of water. Of course this is a luxury few in the world can afford. Some one billion people worldwide lack access to clean water according to the United Nations. In the United States, data collected by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows one third of the country in drought. And a report in the Encyclopedia of Earth, The Myth of Universal Access to Water and Sanitation in the US, suggests that despite the perception of 100 percent access to clean water and sanitation in the United States, thousands of families are without working toilets or clean water or face service shut-offs as a result of nonpayment.

While working as a reporter in central New York I was told about the many families living with no indoor plumbing–those who had a straight pipe directly into the Susquehanna River, which in turn flows into the Chesapeake Bay. The most recently published American Housing Survey in 2005 estimates that approximately 2 percent of all housing units lack some indoor plumbing. In a nation as wealthy as the United States no one should be without access to clean water and indoor plumbing.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper