HOW TO WALK ACROSS AMERICA
A beginner’s guide
(C) Phil Goddard 2007
As I've been walking I have learned many things about what it takes to complete such an adventure, so I thought other people might benefit from my experiences.
Most importantly, if you’re even thinking about a coast-to-coast walk, or any long-distance trek, just go ahead and do it. It will change your life – and maybe other people’s – and all those nagging little worries will take care of themselves.
If you’re from outside the US, this is an especially good time. With the dollar at its lowest since 1992, meals and hotel rooms cost me half what they would have done at home in the UK.
American Discovery Trail
I didn’t use this, but it’s a combination of back roads and hiking trails running from California to Delaware. For details, see www.discoverytrail.org.
My most valuable possession was the plastic banner on my backpack, which sparked innumerable conversations, acts of generosity and, perhaps most importantly, donations. I had to undo it every time I opened my backpack, so I attached it with twists of plastic-covered wire rather than knotted string.
These were a problem for the first few weeks, and then again each time I wore a new pair of boots. I found it was best to dispatch them as quickly and cleanly as possible rather than leaving them to get better of their own accord.
Hand out cards with your name and website address to people who give you money or are otherwise especially nice. These also act as a reassurance to donors that you’re not a con artist or fantasist, and they can see their donations on your website.
Charity, walking for
You must raise money for a good cause, so your walk isn’t just a self-indulgent jaunt and actually makes the world a very slightly better place. It doesn’t matter if you only have $50 to show for it at the end; walking for charity gives you a real sense of purpose and direction.
Mine basically consisted of four t-shirts and a sweatshirt with my ‘Coast to coast’ logo, a pair of long pants with unzippable legs that converted into shorts, and a lightweight but warm jacket during the winter.
Don’t buy cotton t-shirts – they quickly get soaked in sweat and show the dirt. Use synthetics instead, which you can hand-wash with a bar of soap and are dry in an hour. If you start in summer, save weight by buying your winter clothing when it starts getting cold, and vice versa.
Most good motels have guest laundries.
I averaged about 15 to 20 miles a day, and my record was 32. My overall daily average for the whole trip was much less, because I treated myself to several two- to three-week breaks, taking ten months to walk 3,000 miles.
Some charities will allow you to set up your own specific fund on their websites so that people can donate online. Alternatively, use Firstgiving.com or, in the UK, Justgiving.com. They take five percent of everything they collect, but charities like them because they do all the administration and send them regular payments. Their websites also have lots of useful hints on publicizing your cause.
When people gave cash donations, I kept the money for my day-to-day expenses and made regular equivalent donations via my Justgiving.com page.
I brought a little stove with me, but jettisoned it because I decided cooking food was too much trouble. However, I was able to afford motels and restaurants and travel in relative comfort; if you’re traveling on a lower budget and camping a lot, cooked food may be more important.
Wear whatever feels right for you, but make sure it’s waterproof. I wore an expensive pair of walking boots and then, when these eventually expired, two pairs of ordinary workboots – so that was about a thousand miles per pair.
In the deserts of the southwest – New Mexico and Arizona, principally – you may decide that following the interstate is the only option. Other routes are either non-existent or more circuitous, presenting a logistical challenge because they offer limited access to food and water supplies. Interstates have rest areas and truckstops every fifteen or twenty miles.
The police seem to be fairly relaxed about walking on the interstate, though you should face oncoming traffic and avoid walking after dark. I only used the interstate for a total of about 25 miles. I walked alongside the Union Pacific railroad for a couple of hundred miles; this follows I-10 closely, rarely at a distance of more than a mile, and has a path alongside it. Alternatively, you’ll usually find there’s often a frontage road, a path through the desert, or a wide strip of grass beside the shoulder where you can walk almost unnoticed.
Keep one: you’ll have far too many extraordinary experiences to carry around in your head for the rest of your life. And who knows, it could be the basis for a bestselling book. Same applies to blogs.
My ultra-portable IBM Thinkpad was another of my most precious possessions. Updating my blog and answering emails made the time fly during all those long evenings in motels, and helped me to share the experience with hundreds of friends and strangers – which, if you’re fortunate enough to embark on such an epic journey, you have a duty to do. It was well worth the extra few pounds, and I left the battery at home to save weight.
Yes, you will feel lonely sometimes, but it never lasts for very long, and the experience of solitude can be life-changing. I found it more difficult at the beginning, but by the end I was almost dreading going back to a normal life surrounded by fellow humans.
I had a small-scale Michelin road atlas of the whole country, and tore out all the pages covering areas like Hawaii and Alaska which were unlikely to feature on my route. I also tore out the other pages as I finished with them.
As I entered each state, I bought a DeLorme atlas – sold everywhere, expensive at around $20, but very detailed and worth every penny. Again, I threw away all the pages I wouldn’t be using.
In Texas, New Mexico and Arizona I didn’t bother buying a DeLorme atlas because there were so few towns that everything worth knowing was marked in the small-scale Michelin.
And of course there’s Mapquest, one of the greatest inventions of the early 21st century. I spent hours poring over this and planning every little detail of my next few days – in fact sometimes I found myself becoming overdependent on it, and thought just get out there and walk.
Always ask for a discount. My standard spiel when I checked in was ‘I’d appreciate any discount you can give me, because I’m walking coast to coast for charity’. Nine times out of ten, the receptionist showed no interest at all, but still knocked ten dollars or more off the rack rate simply because I asked. On a few occasions, they gave me discounts ranging from 30% to 100%.
And sign up for every loyalty scheme you can lay your hands on. On average, twelve paid-for nights will earn you one free night. The best is Trip Rewards, because it covers about half the motel brands in America.
Milk your walk for every iota of free advertising you can get: newspapers, radio, TV. You won’t get many donations direct (in Memphis, TN, a city of 1.2 million people, I was on the 6 pm and 10 pm TV news and received precisely one donation as a result), but you will get recognition when you’re out on the street the next day, and then people will give you money. It’s also great for your morale when people ask: ‘Are you the guy that was in the paper?’
Usually, my sister would send out a press release to all the local media just before I arrived, and then I followed these up with phone calls if there was no response. At first I thought the TV stations wouldn’t be interested, but I ended up getting quite a lot of coverage.
If you don’t know how to write a press release, get a friendly journalist to help.
I walked from New York to Los Angeles, but not by the most direct route. I started in June, so I caught the hot weather on the east coast and in the midwest, but I figured this was better than being in the deserts of the southwest during summer.
I also went a long way south, through Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, to avoid the really cold weather in winter. I had half a day of heavy snow and a couple of ice storms, but that was about all.
Before I set off, I spent hours poring over piles of maps and planning a route, but then I decided this was all pointless. It was much more satisfying to have an overall idea of where I wanted to go, but to make most of it up as I went along.
I’d never heard of this painful inflammatory condition, but everyone else knew straight away what it was when I described the symptoms. I had it three or four times during the walk, and each time a couple of days’ rest cured it.
Because I stayed close to major roads for much of the way, water was rarely a problem. Depending on the temperature and the distance between water supplies, I carried between one and eight liters in bottles. These included my two much-derided but very useful lightweight aluminum thermoses, which kept the water cool all day – most motels have ice machines, so I usually put a couple of inches in the top. I used plastic mineral-water bottles for the rest.
If you’re venturing further away from civilization, you may need to bury water supplies along the way beforehand and record their location using GPS. I managed to avoid doing this.
Mine weighed about 40lb. It was rarely comfortable, but I got used to it.
I can think of easier ways to shed unwanted inches, but I lost around 15lb.