It has already been more than two weeks since we walked into the Pacific Ocean. We have chosen to take the advice of many people and take our time heading home. We are in no rush. After a visit all-too-short with our parents and friends in Long Beach, Moms and Dads departed on planes, bound home for holidays in the soft east. With Rob and Slater now following in their own car, Kait and I had Rubie all to ourselves as we drove across and out of coastal L.A. and wound northwest along California 1, the Pacific Coast Highway.
For the first time in many months, I was at the wheel for a long drive. Cars move very fast, and they are terrifying. I don’t know why I wasn’t more terrified when I first learned to drive, but re-learning how to drive post-walk was most stressful. At any moment, I could have done a bad job and rocketed off a cliff, or scraped against the rocky faces. Thankfully, those things didn’t happen. The miles melted away at an astounding rate as we wound along the coast (“400 miles? That’s, like, four weeks of walking!”) The Pacific Ocean lay just to our left, churning its endless tidal churn in every shade of blue that the sky couldn’t muster.
We camped on the beach, and woke to the waves rolling up and down the coastline. The weight and scope of what it means to be looking out over the Pacific Ocean, with no more road to walk West, still hasn’t sunk in. It looks unreal – or hyper-real – as if there isn’t anything at all out beyond the horizon’s edge. Somehow, pressed against the vibrating edge of the endless ocean, our transcontinental crossing seems rather minute.
The Ocean has meaning for me for the first time in my life.
Beginning and End; Challenge and Accomplishment; Dream and Reality; Idea and Fruition.
Brackets for chapters in a life.
The Ocean is where the world ends and you turn back to face your life and all that is before and behind you.
-from Kait’s journal
For two weeks we hid out in San Francisco, sleeping on friends’ couches while we decompressed and adjusted to the Walk being over. After we graduated from Ohio University in 2009, many of our best friends from those years started gravitating out to the Bay area. Tony was the first one to move out, and then Mike and Evan and Brandon – and they just kept coming. There is a big magnet made of people that we love in the Bay, pulling at our minds and hearts. We had originally planned to end our Walk there, and walked with that purpose for many months and states and miles. Even though we ended the physical “walk ocean-to-ocean across the continent” portion of the Walk experience in Long Beach, the city of San Francisco was the true destination of this particular journey.
Oh, San Francisco! You are a strange and beautiful place. Here swirls the eye of a wild cultural storm, wrapped in fog and bursting with mystery and unapologetic creativity. We have walked to many places, and seen many cities in this vast and sprawling country, and loved very many of them; but San Francisco is Special. There is energy in the air. The city is alive and energetic at all hours of the day.
We took walking tours with Tony, soaking in the ambiance and searching for the pulse of the city. The last time we were here, he lived right on the corner of Haight and Ashbury – right in the thick of the hippie stronghold, sidewalks brimming with street artists and career bums. Now, he lives a little further from the Haight Street circus in a quiet neighborhood up the hill. We walked to the top of his street to Tank Hill, and the whole city lay spread out at our feet.
We walked the streets and rode the trains and saw the things to see. An afternoon in the Museum of Modern Art reaffirmed and encouraged our creative passions. We drove across the Bay to visit Mike in Alameda, and he and his girlfriend Lauren took us on a walking tour of their stomping grounds. After a wondrous food truck lunch, we found ourselves in a strange park known as the “Albany Bulb.”
Years ago after a large earthquake, all of the concrete rubble and steel was bulldozed together and piled up into a landmass that bulged out into the Bay. Because a pile of trash is ugly – and this is a particularly large pile – someone got the bright idea to bring in dirt and gravel and make some walking paths upon the pile, and thus the Bulb became a park. As time passed, nature reclaimed the Bulb with grasses, trees, birds, and insects. It’s still a trashpile – concrete and rebar jut out in great appendages along the strange little shore – but it has a very unique beauty: Art has taken over the Bulb.
Technicolor paint covers every viable object – rocks, trees, even the dirt. Everywhere you turn, those who came before have moved and shifted the concrete rubble to make new paths, paved overlooks, benches. Just off the well-worn “official” recreation trail, footpaths branch out into the underbrush in every direction. Figures sculpted out of driftwood and scrap metal tower on the shore, sentinels looking out at San Francisco across the Bay.
Over the years, wanderers and vagrants have slowly populated the Bulb. They have carved out places to live in the nooks and crannies, assembling ramshackle homes of all shapes and sizesout of tarps, tents, old hot air balloons – anything at hand. Rob made the quiet observation that even in this public place, he felt the unmistakable sensation of being in someone else’s home. We tread lightly, trying to move with respect and reverence for the space and its inhabitants while we explored. Everywhere we go in this life, we are guests.
Thanksgiving was a particularly special day this year. Normally, we take turns celebrating holidays with my family in Kentucky and Kait’s family in New York. This year, we got to spend Thanksgiving with our family of friends who have been moving out to the West one-by-one. We celebrated this holiday with our fellow strange young Americans, old friends from college and their new friends here in the Bay. It was kind of an orphan’s Thanksgiving – not that we don’t have families, but most moved from too far east to make it home for every holiday.
In between the breaks we took to drink and jabber on the roof, we absolutely wailed on the kitchen, concocting turkey and sausage stuffing and candied bourbon sweet potatoes and all manner of festive dishes. We put our energy together and infused the great feast with our creative passions and zesty essence, and then we ate it all. Over food and libations, we caught up with our old friends. Years can pass without a word, and we always seamlessly pick right back up where we left off.
Kait and I have a great deal to be thankful for. Our thoughts are on the Walk, and how grateful we are for the experience, the lessons that we learned about ourselves and each other, and the astounding people that we met. We came to the Walk on good faith that people would support and contribute to our journey with their kindness – and they didn’t let us down. Kind souls all across the country welcomed us, opened their homes and communities, looked after us, called friends and relatives, fed us, helped us, and cheered us on. We met people who dedicate their lives to enriching their communities, to looking out for each other, to helping animals in need. The world is full of conscious, considerate, community-minded people, all working for a brighter future.
We have said it before, and we mean it: We could not have done this alone. We owe a great deal of thanks to many, many people. We are thankful for each and every person that smiled or waved, slowed down or drove around us on the road, took us in, brought us lunch, told their friends about our story…the list goes on and on.
First, we have to thank our parents. Moms and Dads, you raised us from pups and gave us the opportunity to BE. Thank you for bringing us into this world, for raising us right, for always being there for us. Thank you for your love, patience, support, and encouragement throughout this walk and our lives. Thank you for raising us to be the kind of people who can do something like this.
Thanks to Stephanie of Camelot Puppy Sanctuary for bringing Grace and Max into our lives. It is because of your work and dedication that they are with us today and able to do the work that they do. And we really love them and love taking them places and showing them the world. Also, thanks for being our best cheerleader on the road. Your pep talks always kept us thinking and walking in a positive direction.
Thank you Linny, Walter, and Sojourner for walking into our lives at exactly the right moment and leaving a piece of your dream with us. You amazing people inspired us to take the First Step. In no small way, you completely changed our lives and gave us the gift of this Walk.
We owe the Conner family of Lewes, Delaware, a huge hug and Thank You for taking us in on the first day of the walk, and starting us off on the right foot. Your generosity and willingness to welcome so many strangers (and their dogs) into your home really set the tone for our entire trip. You set the bar very high, and we are happy to report that America is full of kind and wonderful souls like yourselves.
Thank you to everyone who hosted us on our journey. There are far too many to list here, which says a lot about how wonderful people were to us. Never underestimate the value of a hot meal, a shower and laundry, a cup of tea, or a pull-out sofa bed.
Thank you Pawsibilities Unleashed for your support, encouragement, and help throughout this project from conception to completion. Thank you for all the work you do to help train rescued animals to help people of all needs.
Thanks to our friends and extended family who hosted us, visited on the road, called, donated, and supported this project from it’s creation. Thank you for never doubting us; for knowing that not only was this possible, but that we would do it.
Thank you to everyone who donated through the website and IndieGoGo. Together, you all made this possible. Thanks to the generosity of so many, not only were we able to finish the walk, but we have a surplus of approximately $1,000 that will be donated to Camelot Puppy Sanctuary, a very special no-kill shelter in McArthur, Ohio.
Thanks to Dames and Dogs of Louisville, Kentucky for supporting us and believing in us from the beginning, for helping us with fundraising, and for cheering us on the whole time. You are wonderful and we can’t wait to hike with you when we get home!
Thanks to Tracy White, who donated Jenny’s vet care when we picked her up in Iowa. Also, thanks to Dr. Carrie Byerly who looked after Jenny when we brought her in.
Thanks to our friend Kate who spent 5 days as our support driver for the final leg of Illinois, and got our car delivered to us so that we could get home for a wedding.
Thank you to Best Friends Animal Society for all of the work you do to help animals in need, and for inspiring others to do the same. And an extra-special thanks to Sherry Woodard for taking such a vested interest in our project, and for spending an entire day showing us around the Sanctuary.
Thanks to Randy Wheat of R.A.I.N. of Central Illinois for the hard, often thankless work that you do as a small animal rescue. You are a man of great passion, and it was truly inspiring and serendipitous to meet you.
Thanks to Liz Black and the rest of the staff at The Honest Kitchen for providing your amazing dog food during our walk. You were very helpful and patient with our finicky mail-drops and difficult timing. The dogs thrived – their coats are healthy, they love the food, and they are in amazing shape. You’re awesome.
Thank you to Bil-Jac for providing a high-quality dry dog food as we got further West and had to manage our water carefully.
Thanks to Ruff Wear for donating backpacks, boots, and collapsible dishes for the dogs, and for your phenomenal customer service.
Thank you David McHolland for your company and patience as we cut our teeth in Delaware and Maryland during the first week of the walk. And David, we took your advice and didn’t rush to finish – we took our time with the last miles. It was a good call.
Thank you Tyler Coulson and Nate Damm for sharing your own cross-country treks and hard-learned lessons with us as we planned, then walked – and now rejoin society. We seriously need to start a transcontinental support group.
Thank you various Law Enforcement agencies across the country for letting us sleep in city parks, checking in on us, answering questions, and generally being helpful and supportive.
Thanks to all of the facilities that welcomed our Pet therapy visits. Scheduling and coordinating our visits was a difficult task on the road, and we are grateful to the amazing people who helped us plan our visits and share our therapy dogs with those in need across the country.
Thank you State Parks, National Parks, and the Bureau of Land Management for working to protect America’s great outdoors, and to make those wondrous places accessible to the public. Our natural resources – and I don’t mean the combustible kinds – are the true treasures of this country. They are a uniquely American idea – Yellowstone National Park was the first park of its kind in the world. Thanks to the people that work in fields like forestry and conservation, the raw and beautiful savagery of nature is protected and accessible.
Thank you to all of the volunteers who build and maintain our network of Rails to Trails, The American Discovery Trail, The C & O Canal Towpath, The Appalachian Trail, The Continental Divide Trail, The Pacific Crest Trail, bike paths, hiking trails, and other pedestrian routes throughout America. These and many more like them are American treasures for all of us to enjoy.
Thanks to the US Route 6 Historical Society for your advice and assistance. We picked up Route 6 in Nebraska, and followed it all the way to Utah. It really is a great road.
Thank you to our long-lost friend Jay, who told us that this whole idea was stupid and that we would never make it over the Rockies.
Thank you Daniel, our friend and owner of the store Songs for Seba in Louisville, Kentucky, for making us a big stack of inspiring little works of art to give as gifts to our hosts on the road. Daniel, we left a little line of your positivity from the Mississippi to the Pacific. You’re a transcontinental artist now!
Thank you Rob “Over-extracted Coffee” Germanator, for everything you shared with us about trail food, hiking, olive oil, and life. You walked more miles with us than anybody, and put up with our shenanigans for a very long time. You’re a smart cat, Rob. We are proud to call you Family, and hope to see you again soon. Godspeed.
Thank you Lacie and Travis, for everything you did to put together the “The Final Mile” and for hosting the whole team during the last few days. Also Lacie, thank you for believing in us and being so patient and helpful while we planned and talked about the walk non-stop way back in 2010. You were one of the first people that we told about this idea, and you were never anything less than encouraging and supportive.
Thanks to the Recreation Dog Park of Long Beach, California for hosting us at the end of our walk, and Rosie’s Dog Beach of Long Beach, California, for being at the ocean and allowing us to finish our walk there. And Justin Rudd, thank you for taking some beautiful photos of us at our big finish.
Thank you to our parents, family, and friends old and new who attended the “The Final Mile” event and walked the last two miles to the beach with us. It was a very special day in our lives and it means the world to us that so many were there to share it. A special thank you to my Uncle Rick and cousin Sarah for representing the Whistler clan. Parents, thank you for flying all the way from New York and Kentucky to be there with us. Speechless.
Thank you to our dear friends Tony, Alex, Evan, Brandon, and Ben for hosting us in San Francisco during our initial post-walk recuperation. We know we were a lot of person and dog to have around, and we were in a pretty weird headspace. You were all patient and wonderful with our weirdness, and we love you.
Thanks Adam Moore for hosting our website, fixing it when it was broken, and being a generally awesome-chill guy and a fine, upstanding gentleman and a good friend.
Last – but certainly most – we thank you, Jon A. Slater III, for your dedication to your friends. You were supportive and enthusiastic the first time we told you about our plan. Thank you for offering to drive a support car for us before we ever took a step. Thank you for calling us every week and asking if we needed help. Thank you for promising that when the day came and we called on you to help, you would buy a plane ticket and be there.
Thank you for keeping your word.
Thank you for quitting your job and giving up your apartment and your cushy California life to live out of a car for five months. Thank you for being our friend, lifeline, one-man support team, dog wrangler, and Grace’s personal limousine driver. You sacrificed a lot to help us, and we know that this trip was a challenge for everyone. Relationships have been thoroughly tested, and it’s safe to say that we made it to the Pacific with a stronger friendship because of it. You are Family. You always have been. We love you. So we got you this to remember us by:
A gift you can never lose, because it’s all up in your skin. Dusty Rhodes: Deer. Hood ornament. Mascot. Wayfarer.
Jon, It takes a true friend to do what you did for us. It also takes a true friend to accept a tattoo that I drew as a gift. We have said it many times, but Jon: Nobody else could have done what you did. Truly, deeply, humbly: Thank You.
This Walk was many things – a charitable project, a wild and reckless dream, a personal challenge, a vision quest – but perhaps most importantly, this Walk was a work of Art. This was a performance, meant to uplift and inspire and illuminate you, us – We. Everyone that we met along the way, and everyone who followed from afar, helped to make this project a success. Each person who treated us well has become a point of inspiration to people who hear our story. We have all been working together on this collaborative work of Social Sculpture. Every day, we all leave our marks on the world around us in they way we treat others, the ideas and innovations that we create, the things that we give and the things that we take. We are all artists, creating society together.
I still feel that I am at a loss for words, or thoughts, really, to adequately express how I feel about the Walk coming to an end. I am happy, but I am a lot more sad than I expected to be. My physical body is here, tired, hungry, strangely energetic; my mind is elsewhere, scouring the deep folds of my brain for details and clues from my memories of the walk, trying to make sense of this whole deal and categorize the experience into smaller, orderly bits of information that are more easily processed.
Before the Walk, there was great anticipation of the Walk. That anticipation built to a beginning – the moment where we stood out on the Atlantic coast, feeling small and overwhelmed and panicked. And we just fell into it, and started walking, and it seemed impossible but I’ll be damned if we didn’t get a little further west with every step. Those first few hundred miles seemed to take forever – a lifetime and continent ago – and we dragged and ached and had very little time to question the Walk. We were fully immersed in the process of learning a new way to live, and figuring out what the new priorities in our days were, and popping blisters – and it was all just so new.
And somehow…here we stand. Walk completed. We have walked across a continent. Transcontinental. A journey that seemed impossibly long, like it would take years of our lives or longer, now behind us. The whole experience passed so quickly, slipping through our lives like a daydream. Even now, so fresh from the end of the road, remembering the Walk is like trying to hold onto fine sand. The details just slip through my grasp, the timeline becomes transient and confused, and the whole thing could have easily been a dream. It is already filed away in the neural strands of memory, fading fast in the rearview, rocketing away on the road to Time Passed.
It is hard enough to believe that we – two little out of shape humans – were capable of doing this; then I look at our dogs. All we asked Max and Grace back in Delaware was “Do you want to go for a walk?” and like any self-respecting dog, they did. So we walked. And walked. And walked. 8 months later, we were still walking.They didn’t protest – they actually seemed excited, alert and aware of everything around us. We fed them and watered them and bent over backwards to make sure that they were healthy and happy. On hot days before the support car, we didn’t cover much ground after morning. On cold days, they were energetic and frosty.
And then we met Jenny. Jenny ran out of a cornfield like she had been waiting for us, and ran up to Max and Grace like they were old friends. She was a part of the family from that very first moment. And she bounced back from the brink of death to become the most energetic dog in the pack. After Jon joined us with the support car, old Grace got to ride along while Jenny and Max became our go-to walkers. When it wasn’t too hot, they could walk 25 miles with us and still be ready for more. At night around the campfire, they listened intently to rustlings and far-off sounds in the dark. They slept well at every break and every night, but they were always ready to go the moment we started to put on our boots.
These dogs are so happy all the time. In many ways, this nomadic lifestyle is more natural to a dog than staying in the same place day after day. Every day was a new adventure, with new people to meet and new smells to smell. Our pack peed on everything available, and left a wonderful little trail of their scents across the continent. For a dog, the opportunity to pee on new things and smell new things every day is probably like winning some kind of dog lottery. It’s a jackpot. And all three of them are in excellent shape. Their coats are shiny, their eyes are bright and alert, they are wrapped in muscle and ready for anything at any moment.
For Kait and I, this eight months was a significant chunk of our time on this planet. Nearly an entire year, spent in the best of ways. But it was also such a brief and fleeting adventure. Even now, just a few weeks after finishing, the whole journey is far off in a haze of memory, leaving us wondering if it really happened at all. But for the dogs, this adventure was of another scale entirely.
It is said that for every year a human lives, a dog lives seven. I don’t think it’s a very scientific measurement, but the idea is simple: A dog’s life is short. Their timeline is compressed. They age faster than we do. Biologically speaking, they have aged on this trip much more than Kait and I have. What was a fleeting eight month adventure for Kait and I was more like a five year expedition for Max and Grace. Five years on the road. In dog years, this was no small passage of time. My dog is my hero. His unfailing loyalty and enthusiasm for life and doing any old thing is inspiring. If only we could find such simplicity within ourselves.
When things are quiet, and I’m sitting on a couch as I am right now, typing and not going anywhere or doing anything, Max gives me a look. His eyebrows raise in subdued anticipation, searching my face for any signal of what the next THING will be. Where will we go? What will we see and smell? Who will we meet? Is it time for a new adventure? I don’t know how a dog’s memory works, but I have to believe that somewhere in his little fluffy brain, he remembers that long time when we walked forever and lived outside, and every day was new and fresh and exciting. Maybe he dreams of the mountains, or the desert, or swimming in a pond in southern Iowa on a hot day. Remember that one time?
And so we are heading home. We drove south through California, stopped in with Lacie and Travis one last time, and with much difficulty turned the wheel east toward Arizona and New Mexico. The miles melt away in the car. We are getting places so much quicker. From 20 miles a day, to 400 miles a day. Before we know it, we will be home and unpacking our lives once again.
Oh, and by the way, we’re keeping Jenny.
Pingback: the vision | Dog Walk Across America