December 28, 2021
It’s been an incredible year.
A year ago, I had no idea I was about to walk across the continent. But we’ve all had to react quickly, in our own ways, to changing circumstances during our pandemic of authoritarianism.
I walked into Washington, DC, on the morning of Sunday, December 19th, marched up the National Mall and visited the Capitol Building. This was where eight months of walking came to an end. There was no fanfare and the city was just strangely quiet as I sat on a marble slab next to my pack and felt nothing. I just put the pack back on and marched myself back toward the trail I’d come in on.
I’ve found myself stymied by simple questions about the walk; just people probing with instinctive general queries like “Well, how was it?”
Well, it was big. Too big to give even a hint even if you did have the time. And I don’t like to recount the snippet highlights of the super-long hauls I’ve done. This doesn’t do justice to the whole. I wrote a 538-page book on my earlier hikes and that still only touched on the highlights and rare meaningful moments. There’s just mile after mile of unremarkable and similar stuff, changing almost imperceptibly day by day and the nagging question that accompanies each sunrise: How long can I keep this up? The long hauls evolve; they don’t operate on a tour schedule.
That being said, there were highlights. Broadly speaking, I saw the part of America that lies west of the Mississippi and in the way I would have most wanted to see it for the first time. I saw the Pacific. I ate fresh morel mushrooms one spring morning along the Priest River in northern Idaho. I camped among the magpies and ground squirrels evening after evening across the hundreds of miles of the Montana plains. I slept under the broad belt of the Milky Way night after night. I found fossils like I’ve never seen before in the East. I enjoyed the hardwood forest along the Minnesota River. I ate wild mushrooms almost daily in Iowa. I slept on an island in the Mississippi. I rambled along through the Mississippi lowlands longer than planned, enjoying a unique old growth ecosystem. I cruised east one evening along a road closed to vehicles through the corn fields, a strangely quiet juncture in the populous Midwest. I visited the buffalo on an Ohio preserve. I walked most of West Virginia’s North Bend rail trail, another welcome break from traffic with fall in the air and the familiar Appalachian forest encroaching. In Pennsylvania I cruised south day after day along the incredibly quiet Allegheny Passage Trail and in Maryland I continued this easy walking along the C&O Canal Towpath trail until I reached tidewater at the mouth of the Potomac. I wouldn’t have seen any of it if I hadn’t pulled away from Western Pennsylvania last year and started taking the first steps back east six days later.
For me though, none of the sightseeing or encounters with rare and new creatures could have gotten me through the physical and especially mental difficulty of the eight-month undertaking. Without a higher purpose, I could also enumerate a page or so of moments at which I would have just quit and found the fastest way home.
At the end of it all, I did one more significant thing in Washington, DC, before heading home. Friends of mine had gotten involved and arranged a talk at a Washington think tank, plus a hotel to rest in while waiting for that. The time I was given was more than generous, but I certainly didn’t have enough time to recap a 3,500-mile walk and all that it entailed. Instead, on the appointed morning, I told the attendees that I was going to simply try to answer the most persistent, recurring question put to me throughout the walk:
Why? Why would you do it?!
And here’s a brief version of the answer I offered:
In answer, let’s jump ahead to the very end, to the downtown Washington hotel where I’ve spent the last few days. I lounged shamelessly and eventually turned on the television where I found two local DC government channels to alternate between. On one, a deliberative body known as the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole was discussing tax policy in reference to disparate impacts imposed on small minority landlords by the tax code itself. Tax policy remediation was suggested for last year’s remediation and the new multi-tiered appeals process for assessments was discussed. On the next channel, DC’s mayor and her staff were impaneled for discussion of the changing “Covid Omicron Variant” situation. Citizens were encouraged to stay abreast of sudden changes in city policy so that all could remain in compliance.
It struck me that this is the model—the vision of the left for America: flexible and discretionary rule, untethered to law or precedent. As the English Speaking Peoples, we’ve fought revolutions to stop this stuff; it’s called Arbitrary Rule. It’s the antithesis of the Rule of Law and it’s the end of freedom.
At the very beginning of what we can now call the “Covid Era,” this is what I saw taking shape—piecemeal mandates concerning even the minutiae of our lives. It frightened me, but what frightened me more was the compliance of everyday Americans to this, a lack of resistance en masse.
I waited for this resistance to take shape and, finally, when I didn’t see it happening, I decided to walk, to march from one side of the United States to the other with an American flag flying above the pack and another just below reading: Liberty First. It was just the most I could do.
Sitting before the austere and empty capital building a couple of Sundays ago, my gaze roved around the vast grayness; that of the edifice itself, the uniformly gray sky, and the cold gray marble courtyard. And I thought it a fitting end to a year in which we’ve seen this place drape its somber gray mantle across a formerly brilliant, diverse and colorful America, attempting to extinguish all that has made America a beacon to the world.