Hopping Rocks - following stepping stones that span the restless currents of one's life - can transform the simple act of walking. Suddenly you're not just wearing out rubber on a treadmill. Every step becomes an adventure.
On July 17, 2011, I finished a series of road walks that took me from my home about 20 miles west of Baltimore, Maryland to childhood homes in the Wilmington, Delaware area.
It was a small hike in terms of distance--a hundred miles or so--but it was huge in personal significance.
Not only did it expose me, unhindered by vehicular shell, to places full of deep memory, but it launched me into a long-term hiking project, the goal of which is to travel on foot to all the places I have ever called home.
The real goal, however, is the mindset. It gives purpose and direction to my favorite sport--walking, or "hopping rocks" as I like to think of it.
Walking is healthy. I'm convinced that there's no better exercise.
But doing "exercise" bores me to tears. I cannot and will not waste my time and energy just 'staying in shape'. People on exercise machines in gyms remind me of hamsters on spinning wheels. They seem so self-absorbed - fixated on their own bodies and oblivious to the stimulating outside world that they're missing. Even going out and walking the same circuit in a park quickly loses its appeal for the same reasons. I need fresh new vistas. I need a real sense of purpose and accomplishment.
My answer is to walk home.
Yes I know the old saying: "You can't go home again" - the place has changed and so have you.
It's true ... up to a point. But the poor blokes who say that are pessimists, brooding over the dreary bottom of their glass through its half-empty swill and entirely missing the wider view.
In 1959, at the home where I grew up (shown up top) I planted a tiny sprig of a tree--a few inches high with maybe three or four leaves. It was a fast growing Tulip Poplar. I had my picture taken with my tree in 1963, and it was already twice my height. The future seemed unlimited for both of us.
I have gone back to my tree many times. Tulip Poplars live hard and die young. This one is weakening from the inside. The upper branches are dying now. I may outlive my tree. And there's a lesson in that. Back then I and my tree were full of vigor and naïve enthusiasm. Today I go back and I marvel at the scars and storms we have both survived.
Look at the front door of the apartment building where I lived from 1951 to 1953. That's me on the right with Mom and my baby brother Jim.
And look at the same front door today - same trim, same light, same nine-panel window in the door. These apartments are remarkably well preserved, and they're still desirable places to live sixty-five years after I lived there.
Back then I learned how to swing on a swing and I found my first four-leaf clover. Now the swing is gone. The whole playground is a parking lot.
But even if the swing was still there and I could sit in it and pretend ... even if I sat down in the lawn and started searching the clover ... I wouldn't be trying to go back to capture some lost essence of my youth.
When I visit my tree in the Pennsylvania meadow, I do not come to lament the ravages of age. No, in both places I come to reinforce the fabric of the tapestry I wove back then.
I stand and nod and say "Yes, it happened right here. Now I see. This is how it goes because this is how real things go. The little boy built strength here. And he is still building it."
Then I smile and walk on, because there are many other places like this that I want to visit.
Sure as hell beats a treadmill.
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Below is a map, continuously updated as I hike, documenting my "Personal Continuous Footpath" project. Following that is a verbal summary of the destinations - the ones I've walked to and the ones still awaiting my arrival:
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The idea of a Personal Continuous Footpath project was hatched while I was living in Eldersburg, MD within sight of Liberty Reservoir--the big City of Baltimore Watershed lake that is surrounded by a publicly accessible buffer of woodland. I had just purchased a hiker's GPS - an obsolete model on close-out. But it was a good machine--a Garmin--and it faithfully recorded my mileage.
I began hiking the local trails and fire roads around the Reservoir and soon realized that I could, with just a little bushwhacking, circle the lake completely within the wooded buffer. Between June 16th and July 25th, 2010 I hiked that circuit - 81 miles of perimeter trail plus many more miles of side trails to viewpoints and other spur trails.
I liked it--the feeling of exploring new ground with every step--walking new places every day. I liked it so much that when I finished the Liberty Lake loop, I wanted more. I had been hiking the Catoctin Trail in the mountains thirty miles west of Eldersburg since 2007 and I had been falling in love with the Appalachian Trail--doing more and more day hikes along that. The Catoctin Trail doesn't connect to the Appalachian Trail, but the connection can be made at Raven Rocks Hollow with less than three miles of road walking. I hiked that connecting route on August 7, 2010 and went on down the AT for eight miles or so.
That's when it happened -- the Personal Continuous Footpath idea unfurled its petals and blossomed.
Between August 8th and August 16th 2010 I did the forty mile road walk between the Liberty Reservoir circuit trail and the Catoctin Trail, and knowing that I would want more, I decided to connect my current residence not just to the Appalachian Trail, but to other past places I've lived.
I hiked in nearby MD first--to two other former homes west of Baltimore. Then on July 11, 2011, as reported in detail above, I hiked to my childhood homes in Wilmington Delaware - all the places I lived between 1951 and 1966. Also in 2011 I hiked 250 more miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland and northern Virginia.
There were three more Maryland hikes to do, and they're now done—to Blue February Way in Columbia, where I lived from 1986 to 1989, to Savage, MD (1980 to 1981) and on to Calvert County (two days of hiking or more – where I lived from 1981 to 1986) with a spur going to Takoma Park where I lived for two months at the end of 1979 while visiting Goddard Space Flight as a post-doc.
Still in the works, as of late 2015 is the moderately long hike north and west of the AT via the C&O Canal towpath, the Tuscarora Trail, the Standing Stone Trail, and a spur and short section of Pennsylvania's Mid-State Trail that will connect me with Penn State University where I went to college 1966 to 1970.
I prefer to hike on 'foot travel only' trails to get to my destinations. I did not do that when I connected to Wilmington, DE, although there are continuous Trails connecting the AT in Pennsylvania with Wilmington (The Horseshoe Trail, the Mason-Dixon Trail, and the Brandywine Trail). I may go back and hike those some day, as a more satisfying 'hopping rocks' route.
Also on the 'to do' list is the long hike on the American Discovery Trail (ADT) from Maryland to Fort Collins, CO (where I lived in four places between 1970 and 1980 except for the two months in 1979 and the summer of 1977 when I rented a house in Limon, Colorado during a field project – not an insignificant side spur hike south from the ADT).
An even more significant side trip from the ADT will be a detour on the northern loop of the Grand Illinois Trail and a spur off of that north on the Jane Addams Trail to the Wisconsin line, which becomes the Badger Trail from the Illinois-Wisconsin border to Madison to touch the Meriter Hospital where I was born (but never actually set down footprints) then a road walk to Jefferson St. in Sauk City, WI where I did take my first steps. That's where I lived from my birth in 1948 to 1951.
It’s delightful to find so many established trails that take me to, or close to, all these old homes.
In 2012 I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail. That was a goal in its own right, but it became the 'backbone' of the Personal Continuous Footpath hiking project when, in 2011, I bought a condo on Topsail Island, NC and moved there. So of course I had to hike there. It was five hundred miles as the crow flies from the nearest point on the AT.
I became aware of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) across North Carolina. It connects the Appalachian Trail with the ocean at the Outer Banks. At the time, the eastern part of the MST came as close as New Bern--about sixty miles from my new place in Topsail. It wasn't a very appealing route. All of the 'trail' between Raleigh and the outer banks followed state bicycle routes, so it was on paved roads.
But the MST authorities were considering a new route with more off-road potential that would come much closer to Topsail. I called Kate Dixon, Executive Director of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and got involved. That new route is now open, and it comes to Topsail Island, within four miles of my condo. It's called the Coastal Crescent route, and it connects with the old original route near Raleigh. The MST had become an ideal set of new stepping stones for me to hop!
I hiked 900 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in early 2014--everything from the eastern terminus at Jockey's Ridge State Park in Kitty Hawk to Linn Cove viaduct visitor center and the nearby Beacon Heights trailhead. But from there, rather than hiking on to the MST's western terminus at Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I hiked a 20 mile short cut through Linville to the AT at Yellow Mountain Gap and Hump Mountain. I'm still working on full completion of the MST. As of the end of 2015 I still have about 100 miles to do.
Do you remember what I said above, about not wanting to walk the same trail over and over? Well, I've learned that that's true for me no matter how wonderful the trail is. Between 2011 when I moved to Topsail, and 2015 I hiked the 26 mile beach strand of Topsail Island end-to-end at least four dozen times. At first I thought I'd never get tired of walking that beach, but I did get tired of walking the *same beach*. Although my Topsail Condo is directly on the ocean, by early 2015, I no longer felt like I was living a continuous vacation.
And so I'm moving on. In late 2015 I bought a place along the Florida Trail in Keystone Heights -- about half way between Gainesville and Jacksonville. I have other reasons for moving to Florida besides wanting to hike there, but there is no question that my Keystone Heights home is the first one I bought *in order to hike there*.
And so, as of this writing (the end of November, 2015) I've been on the trail south. I've hiked from the southern Terminus of the AT to the Florida Panhandle via the Benton MacKaye Trail, the Pinhoti Trail, and the Great Eastern Trail's Alabama road walk, and now I'm working my way eastward (trail-south) on the 1100 mile-long Florida Trail.
When I reach my home in Keystone Heights, about half-way along the trail, I'm not likely to stop. It will still be winter. The trail continues south into the warm sun. Key West is calling. Stay tuned.