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

A second life for your backpack

As I was trying out different backpacks the other day, it occurred to me that organizations that work with the homeless should team up with hikers. Certainly there must be a lot of unused backpacks out there. How many hikers buy a backpack and then never take the trip, or get a new one and leave their perfectly good old one to sit in the back of a closet collecting dust. Instead, that backpack could be given to someone in urgent need of a way to carry all of their belongings safely on their person.

Though I have never been homeless, and cannot understand how it must feel to have no where to call home, certainly I can appreciate the unnecessary loss of privacy and personal belongings. I know that at the end of my trip I will be donating my backpack to someone in need. I hope other hikers can join me in doing the same.

Robin Williams

Earlier today I met Robin Williams. No, not the comedian. I met a smart and funny woman of the same name who just happens to be homeless. I’ve seen her around Alexandria before and said hello, but today was the first day I had a conversation with Robin. While I was on my way to pick up a few items at the grocery store I saw her napping in the sun on the sidewalk. So, as I picked up lunch and snacks for me at the store, I decided to pick some up something for her as well.

When I walked by her on my return trip home she was awake. I told her I had a gift for her and gave her lemonade and some chocolate. She seemed to appreciate the gesture. I have no idea if she even likes chocolate and lemonade–I hope she does. We chatted briefly and she told me she was a writer and would perhaps one day write some poetry for me. I was deeply touched and promised to bring her a notepad and pen the next time I saw her. I intend to keep this promise.

As I walked the rest of the way home I was a little teary and realized that if I am ever going to make it from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco I am going to have to realize that people are inherently tough and resourceful. She is not looking for a handout, just a kind gesture and a friendly chat. Yes, her life is probably hard. But she was the one sitting on the sidewalk smiling while I was the one walking away feeling sad.

Can you spare a dime?

A dime may seem like an insignificant amount of money but little things can add up to something important. Earlier this week someone picked up a dime off the ground and told me it could be my first donation. (And he kindly didn’t appear concerned that he couldn’t get a tax write-off for his generous contribution.) Initially I considered brushing aside the single dime. But, over time, a dime, joined by another and another, could be a significant sum. If I was given a dime for each mile in my nearly 3,000 mile trip, I would have $300. If someone could only spare a nickel for each mile, that would be $150. Though still not a large sum of money, for some people that could be the difference between making rent, paying utilities, and retaining dignity.

Rain, rain, rain

Was intending to walk 12 miles today but packed it in after just 6 when the skies opened up and unleased a severe thunderstorm. I actually didn’t mind the rain. It was nice to tromp along in a nice summer rain. It became a different story when the thunder and lightning started and it seemed unwise to continue. Of course this will not be an option for me once I am on route. And it is not an option when you don’t have anywhere dry to go. That said, there is being tough and there is being foolish.

First major day of training

Yesterday I walked 23 miles! A major accomplishment and the first day I realized I am actually going to walk across the United States. It was a psychological and a physical victory. Though I know it will certainly be a challenge, I couldn’t help but think of how exhausting it must be to spend day after day wondering where your will rest that night.