As we finished the last miles of West Virginia, we were hosted by Kait’s uncle John and aunt Barbara in Marietta, just outside of Parkersburg. John rescued us on the day that I was throwing up and feverish, and their home and hospitality got me back on my feet in no time. The morning before they dropped us back off on our trail, John told us that we had made him feel 10 years younger. I wouldn’t be surprised if he packs a backpack and joins us on the trail…
We entered Ohio with our heads held high. Although I spent the first 17 years of my life in Kentucky, southeast Ohio always feels like home when I return. Kait and I met in Athens, Ohio nearly 8 years ago in our first days at Ohio University. Kait is an Ohio native, and also has a strong connection to this place and its people. From the state line, we had about 40 miles to cover before arriving in Athens – the city of my rebirth. It was good to be home.
Thanks to some spots on the local news the night before, Ohio greeted us with a fanfare of friendly honks, waves, and shout-outs. The people of Belpre truly warmed our hearts.
Unfortunately, just 10 miles into Ohio we hit a serious technical snag. One of our pushcart’s wheels looked a bit…off, to say the least. Upon further inspection, we found that the axle was cracked, and it was a simple matter of time before it snapped. We called ahead to get a replacement part moving to meet us in Athens, and crossed our fingers that we would make it that far before the axle gave out.
The breakdown came as we started down a rough gravel road. With one wrong move, I lost the iffy wheel to a ditch, where the axle snapped clean. We could push no further, and couldn’t abandon our stuff to go ahead. Lucky for us, we broke down in front of a house with a friendly-looking yard. As we sat at the edge of the road trying to plan our next move, Larry happened home with his two kids.
Larry loaded me in the truck with the busted wheel, and we left Kait babysitting while we drove back to town. He took me to every workshop he could think of, trying to find someone to weld this goofy axle back together. When that didn’t work, we went to a hardware store and bought nuts and bolts to fashion a temporary axle. Larry got us rolling again, and recommended we head back out to the main roads instead of digging ourselves deeper down the nasty gravel that had already claimed one wheel. We took his advice.
We made it to Coolville, and our friend Charlie drove from Athens to pick us up. We left the crippled cart in Athens and hitchhiked back to the Cool Spot the next morning. We had to finish the last miles to Athens in two days (don’t ask) which meant hitching another ride. A nice guy named Terry offered us a lift, and as we explained that we would be coming back to walk the rest of the miles the next day, he looked at us hard and asked, “Who makes these rules?” “We do,” was our reply. He looked at us a bit longer, and finally told us that we must have grit to do what we are doing. That was not a compliment that I ever expected to get, and it meant a lot coming from a man who clearly knew what it means to have grit.
Thanks to a student named Chris who drove us back the next morning, we didn’t have to hitch a third time. It took us a lot longer than we had hoped, but we finally walked into Athens county. Back in Philippi, West Virginia we had met Denice Reese who put us in touch with her friends Mark and Hilarie Burhan in Athens. They offered to put us up for a few days, and we graciously accepted. They own Salaam restaurant in uptown Athens – seriously, do yourself a favor and eat there if you ever have the chance.
Our time in Athens was whirlwind -hence the lack of updates. We had friends to see, people to meet, media to coordinate, favorite restaurants to visit…it was very tiring. We were invited to speak to two classes at the School of Art, and we relished the opportunity to pass on some inspiration to our fellow artists. We had an especially interesting discussion with Duane McDiarmid‘s “Art in the Public Sphere” class. Did you know that this entire walk is a work of social sculpture? Look it up.
When we talked about our goals and challenges, Kait mentioned that her boots were destroying her feet, and we couldn’t leave Athens until we went and bought a new pair that fit her correctly. Immediately, Duane told her he would meet her later and buy her a new pair of boots. It was unexpected and impossibly appreciated.
After class, we went uptown to visit the Passion Works studio and gallery. Passion Works Studio gives people with mental and developmental disabilities a chance to practice their artistic expression. Their mission is “to inspire and liberate the human spirit through the arts.” They bring artists together, give them space to work, and help them sell their craft in galleries and venues in the area. Their claim to fame is the multicolored metal Passion Flower, which is the official flower of Athens. When I think of Athens and all of the amazing ideas that take root there, I always think of Passion Works.
Finally, we started our walk out of Athens. On our way through The Plains, we stopped in at Sycamore Run Early Childhood Center to visit with the kids. I worked there the summer that I graduated, and I really loved the focus they put on getting kids gardening and growing their own food. I want my kids to go there someday.
There is so much more to write, to remember…so much detail and nuance nestled into those strange and beautiful hills. But it is way past my bedtime.
Athens, you will always have my heart. We will be back.