Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Walking Man walks, from coast to coast

By John Greenfield

Recently, my old roommate Sherry forwarded an e-mail from a law school friend, saying that his buddy Matt Green was walking across the United States from Rockaway Beach, NY, to Rockaway Beach, OR. Matt was looking for a place to stay in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.

I sent out the Bat Signal, and with incredible spontaneity Joe, another friend of a friend of mine, offered to host Matt, despite having a wife and two young daughters. They treated him to great hospitality, treating him to grilled sardines, peach cobbler and a cello recital.

The next morning I pedaled down to Hyde Park and had breakfast with Matt at Hyde Park’s legendary Valois Cafeteria, President Obama’s favorite local breakfast spot. Over pancakes Matt told me about his travels so far, why he’s walking and what he has learned so far on his trip. As I type this, he’s in Minnesota, a bit northwest of La Crosse, WI.

You can follow Matt’s progress at his blog,

So is there a raison d’etre, a reason to exist, for this trip?

Well, it started from an idea I first had a couple years ago that stuck it’s claws in my brain and kept hanging around. At first it didn’t seem like it was something I could really do. But I started reading about other people who did it and looking into the logistics of it all. Eventually all those reasons to not do it kind of faded away and I thought, “This is something I really could do.”

I was thinking about doing it last year and I didn’t really get everything in order in time. That was probably for the best – it was good to have a full extra year to get it together and make it reality in my head.

At the time I had the idea I’d started doing these long walks around New York and I really started to appreciate all that you can see from traveling at such a slow pace. When you’re moving at three miles an hour you see a lot more of what’s around you. And unlike being in a car you can actually hear and smell things – your more immersed in an area.

When I go on vacation, I never really feel at home in the place that I am, I’m always a visitor. It feels a little different when you’ve walked to a place – it feels like you must be at home. If it’s somewhere that you can walk from where you started, it must be in your neighborhood. And walking is such a natural way to get around. It makes me feel a little bit of ownership of the route that I’ve taken. Each of those roads and those area I pass through, I feel like I own a little bit of. I have a richer sense of what those places are like than someone who just drove there and got out of the car and looked around and left.

How old are you?

29. I’m turning 30 in a few weeks.

And where are you from?

I used to live in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, but I actually moved out of my apartment about six months before I left on my walk. I just kind of bumped around New York and other places on the East Coast, kind of in preparation for leaving on this trip – not having to move out of my apartment at the last minute and figure out what to do with my stuff. I used it as an opportunity to see people I hadn’t seen in a while.

What were you doing in New York before you left?

I used to be a civil engineer – I designed roads. I did that for about five years. It was a fine job but I wasn’t really satisfied doing it. I didn’t really like being in the office all the time. So I don’t really know what I want to do next, other than be a walking mail carrier. But I don’t think the Post Office is going to be hiring any time soon.

Is there any connection between designing roads and your idea to walk across the country?

There’s just an underlying thing, that interest in the infrastructure and how things work. I didn’t particularly like doing that for my job but I’m still kind of interested in the field. But it all springs from that same underlying curiosity.

So you’re following Google walking directions. How’s that working out?

It’s been really great because I’m not really thinking about my route at all and I’m not really trying to go through certain points to see certain sights. I’m just blindly following this route that Google gives me. And it’s really showed me how there’s so much beauty and so many things to see on any arbitrary road you wind up on in this country, and probably the world, if you’re just looking for it.

Even in the most nondescript places there’s things to see, even if it’s just something in someone’s yard or a really nice tree, or you might get a really nice sunset. You don’t need to be somewhere spectacular to be seeing all these great things and having new experiences. Those things can happen wherever you are.

Can you outline your route for me?

Sure. It’s kind of like three legs, more or less. Kimd of due west from New York to Chicago, northwest from Chicago up to Fargo…

You know someone in Fargo?

I don’t. I decided I wanted to walk across North Dakota, though.

I’m guessing that North Dakota is one of the worst places to walk across in the United States.

Well maybe, but who would have suspected I would have enjoyed walking across Indiana so much. For me that was really the make-or-break state. I asked myself, do I really like walking for the sake of walking, even if I’m seeing the same things every day? If I’m in that area that seems in my head to be the bleakest place in the Lower 48 states, is that still something I can enjoy? A big part of this for me was learning to enjoy the experience of walking and not just always looking forward to a destination.

When you’re on a vacation or a road trip where you’re going to certain sights, you’re always focused on getting to that place and you’re not really enjoying the trip itself. So I wanted to subtract that idea of destinations from this walk. So I guess North Dakota is a destination because it’s a lack of one. And other than seeing my brother in Chicago and walking across North Dakota, I’ve just been kind of following Google’s directions and walking blindly.

After Chicago you’re staying in Buffalo Grove. Do you know someone there?

I don’t. That just kind of happens to be where I’ll be the first night. And then the night after that it looks like I’ll be out where there’s some farms again so I should be able to find a place to camp there. So if I don’t have any luck finding a place in Buffalo Grove I’ll probably try to contact a couple of churches out there and see if I have any luck. There’s a forest preserve there – if nothing else I can wait until it gets dark and then duck in there and sleep there.

Are you carrying anything with you that might surprise us?

I don’t think so. I have clothing, tent, sleeping bag, first aid stuff, a couple little good luck charms people gave me, food, water. I decided not to bring a stove, just to save weight. I tried just to be as minimalist as possible in my packing, so if it’s not something that I really needed I didn’t want to bring it.

So you’re “free” camping every night or staying at people’s houses, cooking food and not eating out much, so I figure it’s a pretty cheap way to travel.

Yeah, it’s really inexpensive. I spend money on groceries or occasionally I’ll eat at a restaurant but other than the initial cost of the equipment, I think food’s the only thing I’ve paid for on the whole trip. So it’s really quite a cheap way to live. A lot of people have this question of how am I affording to do this because in they’re mind they’re thinking about a seven-month vacation and how much it would cost to do that in terms of how much a vacation usually costs. But this is extremely cheap – a couple thousand bucks to spend the majority of the year on vacation.

And you’re not paying rent.

Right. I pay for health insurance. But that’s about it.

Have you had any dangerous or sketchy situations on the trip?

Not really. I never felt personally in danger from other people. I had one car in Pennsylvania kind of come up onto the shoulder and it would have hit me if I hadn’t moved out of the way. But when you’re walking you keep an eye on the cars coming towards you so I saw it coming from a ways away.

You walk on the left side of the road?

Yeah, I walk against traffic. And I’ve had a couple dogs kind of run out in the street at me but never tried to bite me or anything. So it’s been pretty free of scariness.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you?

I don’t think I’ve had anything particularly crazy happen or wild in any way. I did stay with an Amish family once – that was kind of cool and unusual. But the big thing has just been how friendly so many people have been, in a way that you wouldn’t expect. I constant met people on the trip who would say, “The way the world is today you have to be really careful,” like the world has been in decline in the last 50 years.

But my experience has been that’s not even remotely true. Person after person has been so kind to me and helpful and friendly. Some people say that I can’t stay on their property at night but the majority of people say yes. And it’s just been so interesting how friendly people are – people off all different political stripes, religions. None of that matters. People generally want to help other people no matter who they are.

And I think a think that keeps a lot of people from showing that side is fear. There have been a handful of people who’ve been really suspicious of me and because of that haven’t been willing to reach out to me. And I think that kind of suspicion against the world is the only thing keeping a lot of kindness from happening. I don’t think they’re bad people at heart, they’re just afraid to put themselves out there.

So I really’ve come to understand the idea of fear and how dangerous playing it safe can be. People look it that there’s no risk in not interacting with people, that you’re insulating yourself from the risk of those people possibly doing something bad to you. But what they don’t take into account is there is a real risk of all the great encounters and situations you miss out on, being afraif to go out and mix with other people.

What was it like staying with the Amish people. Did they appreciate your low-tech way of getting around?

It’s funny, I don’t think they did in the way I thought at first. I think the reason is that to them that way of life is very much dictated by religion. And so to them I think it’s the specifics of that life is what’s important. And even though it seems that my life is very similar, that it’s a simple way of life, taking it one step at a time, to them it’s totally different. Because I still have modern stuff like my cell phone and my cart. And I did learn that the Amish are not a homogenous group of people. The different orders vary greatly in their acceptance of different technologies.

But to them it’s kind of a superficial similarity between our two things, because I’m not doing it out of this religious belief. They were definitely interested in what I’m doing but I don’t think it really struck that chord with them that I thought it would.

But they were extremely welcoming to me. They took me in, made me meals. There was a mother and father in there seventies or eighties who lived in one house, and their son and his family who lived next door. So I started out at the son’s house. I asked his wife if I could stay there – she was working out in the yard. And then she made me dinner. They’re pretty much self-sufficient agriculturally. They gave me goat’s milk from their goats and they had steak from their own cattle that they canned to be able to have year-round, instead of keeping it in the freezer. And they had eggs from their chickens. I ended up staying in a little workshop building owned by the parents. And I had breakfast with them the next morning and that’s when I really had the chance to sit down and ask them about Amish culture and they were very open.

Where was this?

This was in Nappanee, Indiana.

Oh, I’ve ridden through there on a bike trip.

You see a lot of bikes there. I saw more bikes in Nappanee than I have the rest of my trip because I lot of the Amish there ride bikes. The son was thinking of letting me stay in his garage but it was kind of crowded because they had so many bikes packed in there.

So you’re you’re going to walk up the Lakefront Trail to the Loop and then up to your brother’s in Andersonville. Are you going to do anything special while you’re in Chicago or just relax?

I think just relax. My brother’s birthday was the day that I left on my trip and he turned 25 then and I’m turning 30 in a couple weeks so I think we’ll do some kind of birthday celebration. We might go see a show at the Lookingglass Theater where he works and he probably has a few other things planned. But mostly I just want to hang out with him and stay off my feet, let some blisters heal, that kind of thing.

What’s your favorite place been so far?

Every place has been good in it’s own way. Pennsylvania maybe was the most scenic and I was walking up and down mountains a lot. Indiana was super-friendly. It’s funny because you wouldn’t think that a state line has anything to do with that.

Any concluding remarks about your trip?

The big conclusion that I’m coming to is how friendly people are and they’re really not out to get you for the most part despite what the news tells you.


T.C. O'Rourke said...

Do I see a walking across America trip in your future?

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