About 75 miles, on foot, over seven days and six nights through 18 towns.
Charlton, Oxford and Sutton on the first. Northbridge, Uxbridge and Mendon the second. Bellingham, Franklin, sleeping in Wrentham on the third. The fourth took me to South Foxboro, Mansfield, Easton and West Bridgewater. The fifth East Bridgewater, Halifax and Plympton. And after all that walking all that was left was Kingston and Plymouth.
“This,” the reassuring voice on television says, “was a test.”
A test not of the emergency broadcast network but of boots and socks and tent and bag, and of strategy and philosophy.
I felt the need to test my theories and myself before I began WalkingHome, my 3,650 mile cross-country walk next year.
I learned a lot.
My boots are too stiff, I concluded after 20 miles or so of pavement pounding.
My tent is just fine, it springs up in a minute, breaks down in the darkness.
My bag, though mummy-shaped and down-filled, was not warm enough to keep me from shivering in 20 degree weather.
My plan for the big walk has always been to walk 10-12 miles a day and to depend on the kindness of strangers for a place to sleep.
I assumed the distance would be easy and that, if I made the right connections perhaps as many as half of my nights would be spent under a roof.
The hilly towns of Charlton, Oxford and Sutton took more effort that I had anticipated but, as I moved southeast a dozen miles or more were easily traversed in the available daylight.
The only roof I saw though was the star-filled sky.
On the first night it couldn’t be helped. I saw no one as I walked, spoke with no one, and ended up in the middle of nowhere.
I slept in Sutton State Forest, far enough off the road to be hidden from view, close enough to be concerned with discovery.
I slept fitfully that first night – aware of every slap of leaf and snap of branch, woke at first light and ate a cold breakfast of trail mix and was walking again by 7 a.m.
At its most basic my philosophy is that if you reach out someone will always be there. If you fall someone will catch you. And if all else fails, what the hell, you tried.
My most valuable lesson was probably that I need to find new ways to reach out as I walk.
Near noon on the second day, in West Sutton, I heard music and saw that it came from a plain, white church off what they call the Central Turnpike.
I sat on an elevated deck that encircled the church and got out my trail mix but was interrupted by the greeting of a young man who turned out to be the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Sutton.
After a short rest I walked on and in the early afternoon I came up a mild rise through the woods on Hartford Avenue West and found myself staring at an immense expanse of trucks and cars.
I had reached Mendon, and Imperial Cars.
It was getting late so I scoured the map for a safe, forested spot and found a campsite in a dollop of woods between the massive auto mall and a youth baseball field.
The season was against me.
Before it was dark – not much later than 4 – I had to have my tent up and, often asleep soon after the sun set, would often awaken after several hours of sleep to discover it was only 9 p.m.
Those were long, long nights.
The kindness of strangers? There were few to meet on the street. Over the entire week – apart from pedestrians in urban areas – I came across no walkers, just a few bicyclists, and no place where I saw people congregating, save for churches and coffee shops.
It seemed a kind of engineered conspiracy.
Our byways are by design empty of walkers. I walked miles and miles of tar and concrete with oftentimes only a foot-wide space between the traffic and the guardrail.
The metaphor of roads as veins and arteries, pumping the blood of civilization doesn’t hold true. Seen on foot most roads are hard and inflexible like scar tissue, interrupting other, natural flows – cutting off groves of trees, strangling streams, isolating neighborhoods.
I was in search of community and, though I tried to shield my eyes with my heart I saw instead how commerce and development are so often indifferent to the needs of people.
It is often safer to travel a hundred miles by car than to walk across the street to visit a neighbor.
You’re willing to allow your children to get on a bus that stops in front of your house, but would you let them cross the street on their own?
It seemed almost an embarrassment to be on foot in this world. .
Many of the roads I walked had been recently improved, with new pavement, concrete abutments, guard rails and the like.
If those improvements included a major intersection it was required that sidewalks and other pedestrian friendly amenities be included.
I call them landing spots: concrete and steel intersections with talking crosswalks and black tar sidewalks that reach out in all directions for a hundred yards or so and then just stop, stranding any humanoids that might have been teleported there directly.
In this environment pedestrians are obstacles to be avoided, like potholes or porcupines.
Only once during the week did someone actually stop and inquire about the old man trudging along, and who could blame them.
On the third day just east of Mendon a van pulled over and a voice asked me if I was alright.
It was a young Mennonite woman, Noemi, transporting a basket of eggs, heading to her church in Bellingham.
Noemi praised my ambition and prayed for my soul and let me take her picture.
I trudged on.
After two days of walking and sleeping where opportunity – or exhaustion – presented itself I realized I could be calling ahead, calling to Town Halls, churches, the Rotary and Lions Clubs.
I was also anticipating that dusk would fall with me well within the more urban section of Franklin so I called their town hall and was referred to the zoning department (was there a zone where transients could sleep?)
Franklin’s Building Inspector Gus Brown, a former Lions Club member made a heroic effort but in the end could not find a patch of lawn that I could sleep on in the city limits.
But Brown went beyond city government and contacted the President of the local Lions Club and she sent out an email to all her members alerting them to my need.
Night was coming fast by then and I couldn’t wait so I walked on.
I walked until seven that night, took refuge for an hour in a Dunkin Donuts and around eight found myself shivering outside the grand, white spire of the Original Congregational Church in Wrentham.
The pastor let me sit in the warm church while bell ringers practiced for an upcoming holiday concert.
When the small hand bells went silent though I was told I couldn’t stay within the warm church overnight though I could use their back lawn.
I was thankful for a legal place to sleep but just as I zipped myself into my mummy bag and closed my eyes the Original Congregational Churches’ massive bell began to toll the hour: gong, gong, gong… ten times it rang.
It was a very cold, very loud night.
The next morning I roused myself from a frosty stupor and walked on and, hours later, crossing under Route 495 saw a sign for the Rotary Club of Mansfield which met “every Tuesday at 12:15 at Jimmy’s Pub.”
A warm room, an open face steak sandwich and a chance to tell the story of WalkingHome but when that interlude was over I walked on without a legal place to sleep.
I found instead a grassy knoll, just a few feet from Route 106 where a few strategically placed pine trees made me invisible to the passing traffic.
The last of Mansfield was walked in the dark, I had Easton for breakfast as the sun rose, then moved over Route 24 and into West Bridgewater where there was again just enough hospitality to sustain me.
Sitting in a cemetery on the town’s western edge I called the Town Hall where Town Administrator David Gagne took it upon himself to find a legal place where I could sleep without fear of being ousted or arrested or eaten by wolves.
Hoping for the best I walked on, into West Bridgewater, and stopped at a HoneyDew Donuts to see if they had an open outlet where I could recharge my phone, then down to 5 percent.
I walked in and slowly scanned the walls for an outlet and seeing none went right back to the road then heard, I thought, someone calling out to me.
A woman who had seen me surveying the room, thinking that I was looking for uneaten donuts, came down to the street and offered me a box of the same.
“You think I’m homeless, don’t you” I asked her, smiling.
“We’re nursing students,” she answered, not wanting to embarrass me and thrusting the donuts my way.
I walked on, encouraged, and as I reached the center of town got a call from Gagne: they had a spot for me, a conservation site, where there was a fire ring and wood and perhaps a chance to relax for the first time in four days, if just for an hour or so.
I had my first and only hot meal of the week in the woods of West Bridgewater: chicken noodle soup with chunks of sausage.
The next morning I began to feel I was getting the hang of this.
A short distance from the East Bridgewater line I found myself literally on the corner of Route 106 and “God’s Way.”
I would be on Route 106 the rest of the way, the terrain was flattening out, becoming easier to walk and more familiar at the same time.
Halifax, which I once covered for the local paper I, had an extensive network of sidewalks and benches all about town. I warmed and charged up inside their historic town hall.
I only passed through a corner of Plympton which I also once covered (they have a single polling place and an old wooden ballot counter that chimes when a vote is cast) and noted that they are now a “Green Community.”
I had covered Kingston for the Patriot Ledger long ago, later becoming the associate editor of the town’s famous ‘fish wrapper,’ The Independent Voice, so I noted the many new developments and changes in this charming village.
I stopped in and spoke with the Director of the Kingston Public Library about the role of libraries in maintaining a sense of community and then, a quarter mile later, dawdled at the marvelous little homes and landscapes at the corner of 3A and Landing Road.
I had a few hours of walking left by then but I already felt that I was home so my step was light, my eyes free to wander.
Charlton, Oxford, Sutton, Northbridge, Uxbridge, Mendon, Bellingham, Franklin, Wrentham, Foxboro, Mansfield, Easton, West Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, Halifax, Plympton, Kingston… seven days, seventy-five miles, 500 photographs, 50 tweets.
The official destination was Plymouth Town Square which I reached just after noon on that Friday but before leaving that area I enjoyed a green tea chai soy latter – and a muffin – at the Kiskadee coffee house.
Leaving Kiskadee I noticed activity in front of the nearby Post Office building and, out of curiosity, I crossed the street and realized they were just about to cut the ribbon marking the completion of several years of extensive renovations to that beautiful building.
State Rep. Matt Muratore and Selectman Ken Tavares were there on the steps and Muratore called out to me, “just get back?”
Yes, I just got back. I could have driven the entire route I two hours but, walking, it took seven days.
That night was the Kiwanis’ annual lighting of the CommuniTree, decorated with more than a hundred hand-made ornaments representing some of the community organizations and non-profits that inspired me to walk the walk.
This was not that walk. This was just a test. I learned a lot.
I will need different boots, and a warmer sleeping bag, and to remember to lift my head up off the pavement and look at the sky from time to time.