It’s a funny place, this Pennsylvania is. A few days ago I was asking directions of a hunter (hopefully, a hunter) carrying a shotgun down the middle of a residential street. The orange vests blurred into Amish shirts with hook buttons (no zippers!), the buggy beards faded into urban chinstraps. There’s a new perspective having arrived in my native Philly via two feet and six months of methodical, bi-pedal transition. Sitting outside a Wawa, eating a hoagie and “tapping a MAC” machine seemed new, like a refreshing glass of black cherry wishniak. The eclectic names of towns and rivers owing their origins to Native Americans, Pennsylvania Dutch and the Welsh left a dyslexic mishmash of pronunciation-challenged, sign-stretching locales that must have had cartographers thinking they should have stayed in cobbler school. Worcester, Susquehanna, Schuylkill, Schwenksville, Nockamixon. Sitting with friends at dinner last night, I was struck by their accents in this funny place. You can home again, just like the first time.
I sat a spell and watched the lifeless house. My own reaction surprised me. I had none. It’d been stripped: blinds open, a backyard devoid of belongings, the driveway empty asphalt. A shell of a house, no longer a home. I’m not sure what I expected to find, but I soon stopped looking. There was no “there” there anymore. The life, the love that once filled that house … its walls no longer spoke. She wasn’t there. No, Deanna was just around the corner, where nephew Chris rolled up with lunch after high school. She was on Maple Drive, back in Harleysville, where Donna flagged me down. “My husband (Bob) called and said, ‘You’ll never believe who I just saw,'” she told me, a donation check and bottled water in hand. “We saw you yesterday in Phoenixville … You’re going the wrong way to New Jersey.” And she waits for me on the road tomorrow, to Northeast Philadelphia, where childhood friends and long-lost cousins are ready to take up the cause. She is on a beach in New Jersey, where my beautiful Brooke, my family and friends will celebrate life and recall one that inspires a decade beyond its own finish line. But she’s not at the modest townhouse in Telford we shared. There is nothing for me there anymore. As I walked away from 149 Thomas Drive, I put my hand to heart, and beneath the envelope of donation checks from friends old and new, I found what it was I came looking for.
Surreal is the word I come back to — sleeping at my parents house, a lunar eclipse doing its eclipsing out yonder. So many nights so far from home, I’d camp outside and stare up at that Man in the Moon (he and Coogs my only company), dreaming about an East Coast finish line filed under “some day.” Now that line has a date — Sunday, June 18. “You’re probably not taking days off now. You’re close enough to taste it,” said my cousin Steve, who emerged with daughter Taylor, just east of Coatesville. Taylor’s soccer team had raised donations for the Onny and Oboe Fund by doing what they do best — scoring goals — 36 of ‘em to be exact. The days are beginning to blur, the miles never easier as friends and family join me this final week of a six-month odyssey. There was Aunt Eileen, who steered me from York through Lancaster County with grace and dignity, even as I locked myself out of my room in my underwear at 2 a.m. There were cousins Steve and Taylor, and Michael and fiancee Theresa, the latter opening their home, baking me cookies and keeping their nibbling cat at bay.
By Sunday, I’d found myself east of Exton; Philadelphia a short jaunt away (or two days’ walk in my world). The scenery along Pickering Creek and Collegeville Road looked familiar, taking me back and taking me home. “Hey, where are you?” asked my buddy Brian. “We’re on our way.” Soon after the day began, three childhood buddies — Brian, Jason and Mark — were alongside me, hugging the Route 29 shoulder and pushing Coogs (they say I walk too fast with my cart, so they don’t let me push it) into Montgomery County. A few hours later, a familiar face on a motorcycle — brother-in-law Barry beeped from his Gold Wing while out for a Sunday cruise. By this time, the day was slipping away. We parted as I planned to shoot for Skippack, another 7 or 8 miles away. I made it 7 or 8 steps before my phone rang … brother Brian wanted to buy me dinner. Yeah, well. More miles tomorrow. Or not. It’s the road that dictates. I’m just along for the ride. As surreal as it all seems to be.
Playing chicken with Amish horse buggies (and sidestepping the road apples left behind) kept me on my toes through Lancaster County. “Just walk through it. They do,” said Michael, one of three Lancaster Bible College workers who brought me lunch — a Chick-Fil-A sandwich in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania. As I shook the fresh fertilizer from my Nikes, I mentioned that the woman I shot a picture of wasn’t having it. “Yeah, they’re against photographs,” said Steve. “You stole her soul by taking that picture.” Nice. These guys were having fun at my expense, but now I felt bad walking into the Amish world like a rookie, and well, stealing souls. I was getting the stink-eye before I even made it to Intercourse. (Who hasn’t said that on a Friday afternoon?) There are also Amish towns nearby called Paradise and Blue Ball, but I highly doubt there is a “Little Tits, PA,” as they were trying to sell me. When FOX 43’s Trang Do asked what I think about when walking all day, I replied “I think about the people — those I’m trying to help and all those who’ve helped me.” I’d also taken pride in leaving a light footprint and trying to ingratiate myself with the locals wherever I landed. I didn’t want to be stealing souls.
As the afternoon slipped away, I found myself on a series of quiet back roads along the Amish farmlands of Irishtown, where cars were outnumbered by buggies and scooter-bikes. It was dusk and local growers were closing shop and sweeping out their barns, putting the wraps on a long week as a full moon began to emerge in the sky. The deeper I walked, the more friendly the exchanges. Maybe I even earned some respect using my own two feet to travel these roads, pushing a non-mechanical cart. My camera stayed in my pocket. My favorite moment of the day was when a teenager approached from the opposite direction, pushing his little brother along in their scooter-bike (a bike with no chain, gears or pedals). We gave each other a smile and proceeded on, then both stopped to look back at the other, intrigued by the mode of transport and the divergent journey of the day. No words were spoken. No pictures taken. Just a moment in time somewhere short of Paradise.
I got the first rush of Christmas spirit near Jefferson City, Missouri. Walking along a ridgeline outside the capital city, I got caught in the dark on a chilly October night. One house had lights strung across its porch. But that wasn’t what did it. It was the smoke billowing out of chimneys as I propped up my fleece collar. The warmth inside, and the chill outside, made me long for Jimmy Stewart movies and wet boots at the door and a comfy chair by a fireplace somewhere in southeast Pennsylvania. The only glitch? It wasn’t even Hallowe’en yet. I still had well over a thousand miles to walk and anyone whistling a Christmas tune then could justifiably be beaten with a yule log. But it was a glimmer. While I hadn’t even crossed the MIssissippi, the finish line was closer than the start. Being home by Christmas had always been a goal. The lights and the fireplaces symbolized hitting the next ocean, parking Coogs in the garage and propping up my feet in some re-gifted slipper socks. It was still a month before we could officially pepper-spray each other in the face on Black Friday, but I was already feeling the love.
Marley’s Ghost never showed that night and by the next day the leaves and mild temps returned me to autumn. Now, it really is Christmastime. Crossing central Pennsylvania, it’s one Old World town after another, with preposterously old houses built too close to modern streets decked out like “Wonderful Life’s” Bedford Falls — Gettysburg, Chambersburg, New Oxford, Abbotstown and, of course, Bedford (PA). The decision to skip Harrisburg for this run of small towns was a no-brainer. I’ve always been a sucker for the schmaltz of Christmas culture, but never before Thanksgiving. And certainly not before Hallowe’en. But this year is different. Christmas = home = a reunion with those I love. So let the lights shine, the carols play ad nauseum and the fireplaces burn. Teacher says every time a bell rings, these shoes here get some springs.
Tonight’s forecast: 1-3 inches of snow. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire …”
By Abbey Keifman Ferenczy
(Dec. 1, 2011)
Ten years ago, Mike Tittinger lost his wife after a failed heart transplant. Today and for the last five months, Tittinger has been walking from Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco, heading for a final destination of Ocean City, N.J. The cross-country trek is to raise awareness of organ donation and to raise money for the Onny and Oboe Scholarship Fund, a non-profit created by Tittinger which benefits families directly affected by a heart transplant and helps them pursue post-secondary education. He hopes to complete the “long, tedious journey,” which he says is symbolic of the long road to recovery of heart transplant patients, by Christmas. On his seventh pair of sneakers — each only lasts between 400 and 500 miles — Tittinger said he’s realized on his trip “We’re a lot more similar than we are different. I think people lose sight of that.” His favorite part of the trip, he said, has been the people he has met and who have helped him along the way from his niece who let him stay in her dorm for a few nights and his brother-in-law who took vacation time to drive an RV to Tittinger getting him from Columbus, Ohio, to Pittsburgh, to strangers who invite him to stay with them. “A lot of people have definitely helped out on this journey,” Tittinger said. “I’ve never been alone.” To donate to the Onny and Oboe Scholarship Fund, named for his late wife’s two imaginary twin friends, visit mikeywalks.com.
Eight score and ten days ago, these sneakers brought forth on this continent, a walk across America, conceived in philanthropy, and dedicated to the proposition that all families deserve a second chance to dream.
Racing forward, into my past, I’ve been trying mightily to reclaim whatever I’d lost along the way. America’s history backpedals alongside me. Not only am I remembering where it is I come from, but claiming a unique perspective on where we come from. Two hundred-plus years isn’t so long.
Since Fisherman’s Wharf, I’ve walked “The Loneliest Road” through turn-of-the-century ghost mining towns, retraced the wagon wheel ruts left behind by pioneers on the Santa Fe Trail and followed in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark. I’ve crossed “S” bridges on the National Road, where runaway slaves hid along the Underground Railroad; barnstormed the hills and death turns of the Lincoln Highway, and felt the earth below my feet on the Appalachian Trail. Each time, I conjure up my countrymen of old and imagine what they felt when they stood on that very ground. What hopes did they carry? What dreams did they hold tight? What fears came to them in the dark night? Walking the Lincoln Highway (since named, I’m sure) past Lee’s headquarters and into Gettysburg, PA, I imagined myself a soldier marching toward the bloodiest of all U.S. battles. What was the weather that day — a foreboding wind rolling over the hills or an opportunistic sun o’er the fields, like today? The green expanses surrounding the small town made famous seven score and eight years ago remain just that, open fields, a living memorial unchanged by the hands of their offspring. It is a city both frozen in time and timeless.
As I proceed through colonial towns and settler villages — 51 miles’ worth in two days — that receding timeline has kickstarted a rewind, and once-suppressed memories come rushing back. Limping in to my hotel a mile outside of town on Sunday, Tom stopped me to ask about the walk (which is close to being history itself). “Well, if I didn’t just have my knees replaced, I would get out and walk with you,” he said, before buying me dinner. He and his family had been celebrating some history of their own, his parents’ 68-year wedding anniversary. “Now, don’t be walking in the dark.”
We live in the moment, but it’s worth remembering the road you took there.
Anyone that’s walked a mile with me knows I don’t like to know what’s ahead. Let the road unfurl before me, I wax philosophical. See it with Beginner’s Mind. But my Zen-itude changed this week when curiosity got the better of me, and I looked to speed through the mountains of Western PA before the weather turned fickle. (Snow is one thing, but fickle quite another). “How many more mountains?” I asked my friend Chuck in Santa Monica (He’s originally from Johnstown). “The land should flatten out around Bedford.” Sweet. I can be there in three days, I thought, setting out from Latrobe (home of Arnold Palmer and Fred Rogers). Stopping at McDonald’s for a quick drink before taking on Laurel Mtn., I met Andrea and Phil, who broke the bad news. “Breezewood is where you’ll see the land change.” Hmm, Breezewood. OK, that’s another 20 miles — one more day of climbing. No worries. On Thursday, Jean was waiting for me at the corner of a convenience store. She had read an article in the paper and wanted to buy me a cup of coffee. “It’s pretty flat ahead … except that big hill at Breezewood.” The three-mile climb into Breezewood wasn’t half of it. Friday morning’s climb out of it, east on the 30, left me sweating and panting like it was summertime in Colorado. I found respite on the lawn of the Sharon Mennonite Bible Institute, where Clifford asked about the walk. “That Blue Ridge hill was tough, huh?” Nodding, face deep in my water bottle, he added: “You only have two more to climb before McConnelsburg. One small, one big. Then it should be a nice downhill walk into Cumberland.” Clifford refilled my water bottle and he and his daughter waved good-bye. The little one, not so little, but in hindsight it was a mere tuneup for the vertical Appalachian waltz just west of McConnelsburg.
Finally, I turned a mountain corner and there was a cell phone tower (which I’ve grown to love; they’re always at the summits). I sat on the guardrail exhausted as a chained dog scowled at me to keep moving. It was all downhill from there into town, where a shower and motel room awaited. Walking the Lincoln Highway into the late 18th Century town was a victory lap. Here comes the flat. Only McConnelsburg sits in the shadow of a mountain, in every direction. I guess I have another one to tackle in the morning, I reasoned. Bang it out after breakfast and it’s happy trails, Appalachia. Checking in at Johnnie’s Motel, the clerk asked about my day. “Congratulations on the hills. You’re halfway through ‘em.” Oh, forget it.
Today, I wept for the road I walked. Where the ground once blistered me, its surface has seemingly softened. I realized as I walked among the cell towers and windmills atop Bald Knob, that an unanticipated sadness had enveloped me. Natural hurdles along this continental road are falling, one by one, and I find myself holding onto the pain. To struggle is to be alive; life’s sharpest edges its greatest tests. The alternative is to forget, slowly and gradually, until all that is left is a numbness … to die a slow death. Tough days lie ahead, but the threats will come from weather, from traffic, from unforeseen circumstance. Not the road I walk. The mountains are relenting. The bull is lowering its horns. I want to remember all of this. My heart raced as I approached that last great summit. For weeks, I would take a hill to find three more in wait. I tackled them without hesitation, quieting nerves with action. It can only hurt for a little while. Now, I fear the absence of mountains to tackle, no descents to batten me back down. The mountains rose behind me and there a sadness remained. Today, I wept for the road I walked.
– Bald Knob Summit, Somerset County (11/29/11)
Hard to express how thankful I am this day, one removed from Thanksgiving weekend. In Pittsburgh, a city I’d never visited, we made our makeshift home; “we” being this walker and the eight family members who spent their holiday driving to Pennsylvania and joining the walk across America. We soldiered on together, a rolling reunion, a gathering with purpose. For two weeks, there was Barry and the Jamb Van. But this weekend, he was joined by son, Barry, 20, my wingman for a 15-mile journey over the hills and across the bridges into Pittsburgh. We landed at Primanti Bros., hungry enough for a sandwich with fries shoved inside, and a table of 9 awaiting us at the renowned Steel City eatery.
On Saturday, there was a ten-mile walk along Penn Ave. through the city’s northern neighborhoods with sister-in-law Renee, followed by an afternoon session with brother Jim, nephews Jimmy and Shane, and niece Kylie (7 and a HALF!) as we headed for Turtle Creek. When they all ultimately departed for the east coast, it was hard to forge ahead, to regain my gameface. However, it’s not time to let up. Ahead are more than 300 miles and a chain of mountains to cross before the Atlantic. There’s still work to be done. Celebrations are premature. But for three days in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I was home.