Small Town, USA

Day 8–July 11, 2009 (rest in McConnellsburg, PA, 0.0 miles)

JLG Industries is one of the largest employers in McConnellsburg. The company recently gained a government contract to build armored vehicles, which will mean more jobs in a region that sorely needs them. But while it may bring jobs, it will do nothing towards creating a vibrant downtown. It will not give residents a sense of pride in their town or help create a self-sustaining local economy.

While millions of dollars are thrown at large corporations, to in turn produce large numbers of jobs, more attention should be paid to the small businesses–it is small businesses that can make or break a small town. I remember my hometown springing to life when a Stewart’s shop moved in when I was in elementary school. And I remember the difference it made when a local family reopened the town’s sole grocery store.

Similarly, the little struggling businesses that line the main street in McConnellsburg are what makes all the difference in quality of life. According to the Small Business Administration, roughly half of the nation’s private sector jobs come from small businesses. And thriving small business means an increased tax base, better schools and better local services–and of course jobs that are close to where people live.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

They Work Hard for Their Money

Day 7–July 10, 2009 (Mercersburg, PA-McConnellsburg, PA, 9.9 miles)

More than a few times I have heard comments suggesting that poor people, homeless people, are lazy; that they don’t want to accept a job at McDonalds or take some other minimum wage job; and that they don’t want to work. I don’t know where those people are. I certainly have not met them. I have, however, met a great many people who work incredibly hard to make a living and struggle to make ends meet.

There are many across the country who, having worked hard their whole life, are finding themselves suddenly falling off the edge of the middle class. Many have lost their homes and their jobs. But many others never had a good job or could even dream of having a home to lose. In 2007 some 37.3 million Americans were living in poverty ($21,203 for a family of four.) I cannot say I have met a great many people living in poverty. But I have seen those living on the edge. They work hard–and they have been the first to offer me a hand or to pull $5 from their wallet to help me on my way. It would do no good for me to tell them, “but I am walking for you.” They are proud of their hard work, glad to offer me any assistance I require. One man had tears in his eyes. It made me proud of my journey, proud to be among people inspired to make things better and to readily willing to help those more in need.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

The Kindness of Strangers

Hagerstown, MD-Mercersburg, PA, 19.6 miles

Today I realized for the first time just how many people my trip has touched, and how much the support, encouragement and well wishes from those I’ve met along the way has helped propel me forward. While walking through Hagerstown many people recognized me from a brief story on the local NBC station, WHAG. Several cars honked and waved, and one woman told me that after hearing about my trip on TV last night she learned there is a tent city in Hagerstown. She now plans to work with her church to see what can be done to help her neighbors in need. If I help only one person in my travels, I will call it a success.

Thanks to all this encouragement, I was able to push on through farms and fields, past prancing cows and over hills–right on into my first new state: Pennsylvania. My feet ached and I was hungry (but then I am always hungry) but I pushed on to Mercersburg, my highest mileage day so far (almost 20 miles.)

As I arrived in town it was just starting to get dark and the cemetery glowed with eerie fluorescent crosses. (It is apparently a popular trend in cemeteries.) But if my entrance into town was eerie, my arrival in the small town square could not have been more warm and welcoming. I asked for suggestions as to where to eat. I ended up with the owner of Rue’s insisting on paying for my dinner; monetary donations as residents pulled money from their wallet to help me on my way; and a complete stranger invited me into her home and gave me a safe place to sleep.

I cannot help but wonder if I would be so generous to a complete stranger–would I trust someone on their word that they are walking for homelessness and poverty? Or does it make a difference why someone is walking? Is it in our nature to help those who are in need? Surely it cannot be or we would not allow our fellow man to suffer in poverty.

Regardless of why complete strangers have offered me a hand, I will be content to accept their generosity, and to one day return the favor.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

Reality

Day 5–July 8, 2009 (Greenbriar State Park-Hagerstown, 13.6 miles)

This morning began cold and miserable in a tent. It ended exhausted but with a renewed energy to push on. Today, I met a man named Fred in Wagners Crossroads just as I was feeling the reality of my trip sinking in and having doubts about my ability to continue. Fred (at least I think that was his name) gave me some advice on what to bring and what to toss: “anything you haven’t used in a week,” he told me. He has walked the full length of the Appalachian Trail and walked cross-country as far as Denver before a knee injury stopped him from continuing. While he walked the AT at first he felt a constant pull back to his home in Georgia. Eventually, he said, the pull switched to Maine. I can only hope the same holds true for me.

After my talk with Fred I knew he was right. I shed another 6 pounds from my backpack today. I no longer have any non-exercise clothing and I dumped my extra sneakers. “Are they difficult to come by?” he’d asked me of the extra sneakers I was lugging around? As the answer is no, and I have a box of items that can be shipped ahead to me, I knew it was time to unload all but the basics. Funny it only took me four days and 60 miles to accept this reality.

By the end of the day I was excited to have finally reached Hagerstown. And was even more excited to be featured in the local NBC news station, WHAG. (Woman walking across America makes local stop.) Later that day it was strange to be recognized as “the woman who’s walking to San Francisco” by someone as I stood outside a shopping center in Hagerstown.

By Jennifer E. Cooper

The Himalayas are that way

Day 4–July 7, 2009 (Frederick-Greenbrier State Park, 16.5 miles)

As I was leaving Frederick today, I passed someone, clearly surprised to see a woman walking through town with a backpack, who shouted out “the Himalayas are that way” and pointed in the direction from which I’d come. Fortunately I am not crossing such a formidable mountain range. Walking today was much easier than it has been thanks to a lighter backpack, but the Appalachians loomed ahead.

Halfway over the mountains between Frederick and Hagerstown I found myself walking up to the Orioles Club in Hawbottom. I had no idea what I was about to encounter. I spent the next several hours talking with Ed, John and Kathy at the bar. They each gave me their own advice on my trip and were all very nice and told me it was an impressive to walk across the country. I thought it was more impressive the way everyone in their little community seemed to take care of each other.

By Jennifer E. Cooper

It’s a car world

Day 3–July 6, 2009 (Germantown-Frederick, 13.3 miles)

After a painful purge of 15 pounds from my backpack (including the first two-thirds of a book I had been reading that I ripped out and threw away) I began to make some real progress. A lighter backpack made a huge difference and I was actually enjoying walking. And then the sun beat down.

In a moment of brilliance I figured I could get out of the sun and take public transportation to my destination in Frederick and then backtrack to where I left off the next day. But, after an hour online looking at bus and train schedules, I realized the truth: this is a country of cars. To get from point A to point B, the car is really a much better mode of transportation than walking.

Certainly public transportation trumps both, but even in heavily urban areas it can be sparse. I may have still been in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., but that didn’t mean there was public transportation beyond a few commuter routes. And it certainly didn’t cross county lines. It is no surprise that in areas where the middle class commute there are numerous routes, but where it is the poor who rely on public transit there are fewer options.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

The Long Uphill

Day 2–July 5, 2009 (Rockville-Germantown, 9.5 miles)

I don’t know how I failed to notice, but Maryland is just one long uphill. And this morning I found out the cold hard truth about just how much weight I am lugging around. When I purchased a tent from the nice guys at Hudson Trail Outfitters in Rockville they weighed my backpack. I actually didn’t want to know but they insisted. With the addition of my recently purchased two-pound tent I am lugging around a whopping 54 pounds. I am slowly making progress but am behind my initial goal of 25 miles a day. I guess it is just not reasonable to walk 25 miles a day, uphill in the sun while carrying half my body weight. Still, I worry if I cannot pick up my pace I will run into trouble later in the trip.

Not long after I added a tent to my enormous backpack, I passed a guy who commented on its size–it is a little unexpected to see someone backpacking through Montgomery County, Maryland. When I told him why I was walking he told me that he was actually living in a local shelter. But, when I expressed my sympathy for his homelessness, he told me that his current situation was entirely the result of his actions and bad decisions. He had a job as a cartographer and had a home but when his mother died he turned to alcohol and lost everything. No one forced him to drink, he told me. Though I agree with his holding himself responsible for his actions, I have to disagree in part. There is just not enough support for our mental and emotional well-being in this country.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper

The Journey Begins

Day 1–July 4, 2009 (Washington, D.C.-Rockville, 12.5 miles)

As I began my 3,000 mile journey from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco it was hard not to notice the difference between the haves and the have-nots in this country. I started my walk at the Lincoln Memorial among those who are celebrating the nation’s independence, people who have worked hard and deserve a day off. But just a couple miles away in Georgetown, I walked among those who have nothing but the clothes on their back. Those who call Georgetown home are among this nations richest. Those who line its streets begging for a buck are among its most poor.

The way we treat others says something about who we are as human beings. That so many in the United States are allowed to live in poverty says we think it is OK for our fellow man to live without basic needs and rights. As I walked past the shops in Georgetown, I was a little sad about the things I will be giving up while I am walking, and felt a certain pang of guilt that I don’t want to have to give up all my stuff even if it means others can get out of poverty. Certainly there must be a way to achieve balance.

The start of my journey was both thrilling and scary. Going onto the Mall the park police initially told me that I couldn’t take anything larger than a napsack. Eventually one guy volunteered to search my backpack for possible contraband fireworks and alcohol. He said someone else earlier had to check a bag belonging to a homeless person so it was his turn–whatever that meant.

A few miles into my trek I met up with my parents in Georgetown. My dad walked with me for a few miles before we met up with my mother and had a quick lunch. They plan to meet up with me again later on in the trip. I am truly lucky to have such supportive parents, people to catch you when you fall. I would hate to think of the struggles I would have encountered as a poorly-paid recent college graduate (and even well after) without a helping hand. I like to think I would not have ended up homeless but I know it would have been a constant struggle to pay rent.

As I walked I certainly got some strange looks. People do not expect to see a single woman backpacking through Montgomery County. Just as I was on a roll, I encountered the infamous Beltway. Google maps seemed to suggest all I needed do was follow Wisconsin Avenue, which became Rockville Pike, but it briefly became a divided highway with minuscule shoulders. I was trapped inside the Beltway. It was nearly 45 minutes before I gathered the courage to walk along the highway. Then, suddenly, halfway across there was a sidewalk. I will never understand the random starts and stops of suburban sidewalks. Perhaps if more people got out of their cars there would be more sidewalks. Certainly there are sidewalks in heavily populated urban areas, but in the suburbs it is only the poor and the newly immigrated who walk–people unlikely to complain if the sidewalk suddenly drops off along a busy and dangerous highway.

At the end of my first day I was only able to walk about 13 miles. Though I would have liked to have gone further, I decided from the start that I will not walk in the dark. By the time I arrived at the Hilton hotel in Rockville I was exhausted. The guy at the desk who checked me in said he knew somene doing a long walk as well and wished me luck. When I got into the room and took off my shoes a carpet has never felt so good. Exhausted, I crashed on the very, very comfortable bed.

– By Jennifer E. Cooper