On Monday, April 17, 2017, I began to walk across the United States. I had hoped to walk from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and complete the walk sometime in November, but that was not the case.
Phase 1 of my journey lasted 40 days. Yes, I realize the significance of this number, but I assure you it was not intentional that I ended on a significant number. It was more about having already almost succumbed to the heat once in the Mojave Desert, and the realization that I was again headed in a dangerous direction. Because of the late (mid-April) start, I encountered a “heat dome” in the southwest US, which caused me to have to cut the trip short. It was 120 degrees in Phoenix the week I stopped walking. It was time to end the quest, and I did.
After much consideration, I decided I’d give it another try. Phase 2 of my journey began on February 1, 2018. I knew a little more about what to expect, so I decided to see how I could do the second time around. My son Adam graciously agreed (with the consent of his wife and son) to provide me with up to one month of car support. During that time we would stay in motels together; he would drop me off in the morning and pick me up in the afternoon after I’d completed a day of walking. This worked fine, until it didn’t–a week after reaching my first goal (walking from Chambless, CA to Kingman, AZ to make up ground I was not able to walk the first time around) I developed severe blisters on my left foot at the base of my toes; the skin split, my foot became painful and swollen, and after seeking medical care in Mesa, Arizona I decided to abort the walk yet again. I dropped Adam off at the Phoenix airport and then drove myself home to Oakland, where I saw a podiatrist the next day. Basically, I needed to rest the foot and let it heal.
After two weeks of resting and healing at home, I decided, once again, to continue. I packed my gear and took a Greyhound bus from Oakland to Los Angeles, and then another to Las Cruces, New Mexico, a location closest to the spot (Duncan, AZ) where I’d first had to give up because of the excessive heat in the desert. This starting point would allow me to avoid walking on Interstate highways, which is not permitted.
On Sunday, June 24, 2018, after a total of 170 days on the road, I completed my journey at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where I walked into the surf of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a joyous moment! The following Tuesday I flew from Newark Airport to San Francisco, non-stop, on United. I was met at the top of the airport escalator by my wife, Sharon, and several friends. It was an incredible and welcome surprise! We returned to Oakland on BART, and I began recovering and reacclimating to “normal” life.
During my journey, many friends, family members, and strangers followed my progress on Instagram: @jazztonight or friended me on Facebook: Robert Schoen. All the posts may also be read on my website: notesalongthejourney.com
Below are the answers to questions people ask most about this journey.
FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions
- Why did you want to walk across the United States?
At age 70, I wanted to do something that most people do not do. Ever since reading Peter Jenkins’ 1979 book, A Walk Across America, I’d thought about this. I’ve read a number of accounts of men and women who’d walked across the US, and decided that if I was ever going to try, the time was “now.”
- Why was the time “now”?
At 70 years old I was not getting any younger. Although there were people older than I who had successfully walked from coast-to-coast, each year that went by decreased my own chances of success. Thus, “now” was the time.
My father, Michael W. Schoen, passed away on March 7, 2017 at age 96. He was a World War 2 veteran, and flew 44 missions as the flight engineer and top turret gunner in a B-24 bomber in the Army Air Corps. I did not consider starting the trek while he was alive. This journey was in his honor, and dedicated to his memory.
- Weren’t you afraid for your safety? Getting attacked? Being robbed?
Every account I’d read about walking across America was filled with people offering generous and kind assistance, food, money, shelter, and good wishes. Also, I’d lived more than half my life in Oakland, California. I love it here, but some people are afraid to drive through it, which is utterly ridiculous. People are generally good. The only time I’ve ever been mugged was in one of everyone’s favorite cities, Barcelona.
- Did you carry any weapons?
After seeing Jason Bourne kill a man using a ball-point pen, I carried a similar pen on this trip.
I also had a can of Bear Spray, which is just pepper spray. I didn’t expect (or want) to use it, but when people asked me this question and I told them I had pepper spray, they seemed to feel better about my being able to thwart evil-doers. (I eventually shipped the bear spray home, but kept the pen.)
- What route did you take?
I began my journey at the beach near the foot of the Santa Ana River Trail in Huntington Beach, California. I then walked to Flagstaff, Arizona. Originally I was going to head north towards Colorado. But I decided to avoid the snow (it turns out there were severe snowstorms in the area I would have been traveling through); so I decided to continue on Old/Historic Route 66 and Interstate I-40 for several more states. However, an Arizona highway patrol officer informed me along the way that pedestrians are not permitted on the Interstate systems in most or all states (although cyclists generally are). Thus “My Plan” changed once again.
Phase 2 of my journey began by “making up” the approximately 100 miles I avoided walking in the Mojave Desert during the heat dome and, after I recovered from my foot injury, I resumed in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
I learned early on that one needs to be flexible on a trip such as this, and I changed my projected route several times. I walked north from Oklahoma through Kansas to just south of Kansas City. Then east, mostly on Highway 50, to Cincinnati (where my son lives). From Cincinnati to the Atlantic Ocean was the final phase of my journey.
I’d originally planned to walk to Coney Island (near where I was born in Brooklyn). Later, I considered Ocean City, Maryland, but eventually decided on Rehoboth Beach, Delaware for a number of logistical reasons. Regardless…Coast to Coast. Ocean to Ocean.
- What about shoes?
Everyone wants to know about shoes! My conclusion after a lot of research and trial pairs is that there is absolutely no perfect shoe for such a journey–you’ll probably get blisters no matter what you wear. I started with two pairs of Ecco BIOM Fjuel racer sneakers. I discarded those after buying a pair of North Face trail shoes. After a few hundred miles those wore out and I bought a pair of Merrell Moab Ventilators in Flagstaff. I loved the Merrell’s and later bought two new pairs (one pair was waterproof). In spite of my early success with these shoes, I eventually developed severe blisters. Long distance walking is a tricky thing.
I also wore a pair of Reef “slides,” which are great! For socks, I mostly wore Darn Tough Merino Wool/Nylon/Lycra hike/trek socks. Nothing but the best. I tried some Injinji socks–the ones that have individual spaces for your toes, but I wasn’t enamored. I also worn Smart Wool “liner socks” with my Darn Tough socks with mixed results. I came home with blisters.
- What about technology?
I carried an iPhone 7 Plus and a 12″ Macbook, as well as a Mophie XXL battery pack (a great unit!) and a small solar charger. I later shipped the MacBook and solar charger home.
- Did you stay in touch?
Yes. I posted pictures and text every night on Instagram and Facebook. These daily posts were also available on my website blog, Notes Along the Journey (notesalongthejourney.com). I kept in touch with several people on a regular basis by phone, text, email, and FaceTime.
- Were you afraid or apprehensive?
Not as much as you might think. I was as prepared as I could be, but you can’t anticipate everything. I tasted failure and defeat, but persevered. I tended to get anxious when I didn’t know where I’d be sleeping at night.
- Where did you sleep?
First choice was a motel room. When none was available I slept in my Kelty Salida 2 tent someplace on the roadside, in a park, or in someone’s backyard. I also slept behind a restaurant that was being renovated and behind construction sites, and abandoned buildings (and once in a shed). I slept in Best Westerns, often used the Wyndham Hotel Group (Super 8, Days Inn, etc.), Motel 6, Choice Hotels, and Marriotts, etc., and stayed many times in independent “mom & pop” motels. While I liked staying in motels, I also liked being in my tent. Each provided a different nighttime experience. Looking at the moon and stars through the tent in the desert was a glorious experience. Sitting in the Jacuzzi at a Best Western after a long day of walking was also pretty glorious. Rain, heat, and high winds sometimes spoiled an otherwise pleasant tent experience. (In Cincinnati, I replaced the tent with a “bivy” sleep sack; it was smaller and lighter, but not anywhere as roomy as my tent.)
- What were your greatest concerns?
Dogs. I had several encounters.
Heat. Extreme heat. 105°F and higher.
Cold. Extreme cold. Some snow.
Wind. High winds. Wild fires.
Getting sufficient nourishment on the road, where services were very often lacking, was an issue. While I generally don’t eat meat or poultry and rely on fish and vegetable protein, I made an exception because of this unusual situation, and added Progresso canned chicken & noodle soup to my diet. I ate it out of the can–2 portions in every can–when there was no microwave available, e.g. in the tent.
I added protein/meal bars to my daily consumption as required; they delivered 9-12 grams of protein in an easy-to-consume format. I found a few brands that I liked and were available at the Dollar stores I passed in many towns.
I don’t drink alcohol, and I was afraid if I said “no” to an offer to buy me a beer people might interpret this as an insult (especially offers by men who were already been drinking beer). The only time this ever happened to me was in a bar & grill where I bought a round of beer for everyone and ordered a soda for myself. I soon realized that no one cared, and I later wound up camping in the backyard of one of the friendly guys at the bar.
- What do you think was the most difficult part of your trip?
This walk was tough on my body, particularly my feet, legs, and back. Heat, cold, wind, the sun, precipitation–these elements are not always your friends.
Even more painful was seeing so much litter on the roadsides.
Dealing with the steep climbs in Arizona and New Mexico, and the excessive temperatures of the desert, the winds of Texas and Oklahoma, and the obstacles and barriers when trying to walk in a country that is not friendly to walkers–these were all challenges.
Social media was initially tricky, but after several weeks I was posting photos and text each day and making other edits to my site as needed. Occasionally there was poor cell signal that delayed the daily post.
But the biggest problem was trying to walk on highways and roads that did not have an adequate (or any) shoulder. It could sometimes make a grown man cry.
- How far did you walk per day?
About 15-22 miles per day. I walked 25-27 miles on several occasions. My speed was typically 2.5 to 3 miles/hour while pushing the kart. The actual distance traveled depended on the terrain and weather. Before this journey started I had never walked 18 miles in one day in my life. After several weeks of walking, I did it almost every day.
- What about your wife?
We missed each other a lot! But she made the best she could of the situation. She has seven grandchildren, good friends, two book clubs, mah jongg games, and had many, many books to read. We FaceTimed almost every night.
While I’m sure she was not happy about me being away, I do think she understood this journey was important to me. She knew I’d done everything I could to prepare. I did not ask for permission, and she never raised an objection. She encouraged me to continue when others did not.
- Are you crazy?
One of my friends told her doctor about my trip and he asked if I’d “been evaluated.”
When I told my own primary care doctor about my planned journey during a pre-walk checkup, he thought it was a cool idea and made a few suggestions. That’s why I go to my own doctor instead of my friend’s doctor.
- Are you carrying a backpack?
No. Then, Yes,
For 2,000 miles I pushed a Runabout kart designed by Roger Berg, who lives in Oregon (“kart” is his preferred spelling). For more information, go to: www.runabouts.net
This kart is fast becoming the preferred walking cart used by long distance walkers. It was originally designed as a baby stroller, custom built by Rog to accommodate as many babies as needed to be put in the vehicle. My model was adapted, with a plywood base to which is bolted a 27 gallon plastic container. The kart itself is a thing of beauty. I dubbed it “Walker” and posted many photos of it. I wanted a walking vehicle that would not get flat tires and was built for optimum storage and technical superiority. This was it. It also served as a “walker” when I could barely walk.
In Cincinnati I disassembled the container from my kart, shipped the container home, and gifted the kart to my friend Ben (he covered the shipping cost). I purchased a basic backpack and a “bivy” bag (to replace my tent). This new gear gave me more flexibility in walking the final phase of my journey, but also presented new challenges.
Coast-to-Coast means Ocean-to-Ocean. I started from Southern California so as to avoid the Rockies, Lake Tahoe, and the Sierras in the winter.
I continued to re-evaluate my route as I walked, and chose Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, as my final destination.
- How did you prepare (physically) for this trip?
My normal workout includes pull-ups, pushups, squats, and planks. I walked 3 miles around Lake Merritt 3-6 times a week. (I got blisters anyway.)
- Weren’t you afraid you’d look like a homeless person, and people would treat you as one?
Frankly, I don’t think most people made this mistake, even though in a way I was homeless. I don’t smoke, I have all of my teeth, and I was wearing a reflective vest and an $80 Tilley hat. After what I saw along the Santa Ana River Trail, however, I’d consider myself in the company of a large and growing segment of the American population.
- Will you write a book when this journey is over?
Yes. The book is in the process of being written now.
- What first-world problems did you face?
Scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables. Bad-tasting tap water in some regions. Mosquitoes. Flies. Sleeping in some very strange places.
- You had serious problems in the Mojave Desert.
Yes, I almost died, but was rescued by angels. The alternative was dire, so I made the right decision. Having to be rescued is a humbling experience.
- Did you accept rides along the way?
In the beginning, I did not anticipate accepting even one ride. But this was a very long journey. I found that I, as well as other long-distance walkers, have accepted rides for a variety of reasons: personal safety, severe weather conditions, health issues, and roads that are difficult or next-to-impossible to negotiate, especially with a cart or stroller.
After being rescued, I was given a ride to Kingman, AZ, where I recovered and continued my journey. In Superior, CA, I took a ride through a tunnel that was too narrow to walk through. When I was in Flagstaff, I could not find a viable route out of town, so I hopped on a Greyhound bus to Phoenix, 150 miles south, where I continued my journey east (I made up those miles when I later walked north). In Oklahoma, the winds were so strong my kart and I were almost blown off the road! I was given a short ride to the next town. Another time I accepted a ride to get out of the path of a wildfire. Thus, I accepted rides when I needed to.
- Were you ever arrested by the police?
My first encounter with the tribal police turned into an incredibly positive experience. (I’m still in touch with that officer.)
My second encounter, with an Arizona Highway Patrol officer, impacted my planned route and resulted in a written warning and the relocation of my walk south to Phoenix.
I met other law enforcement officers along the way, but none gave me a hard time. Some offered me rides, and told me to call if I needed help. Two others, a sheriff’s deputy and a police officer did give me rides. In Maryland I accepted a ride during a thunderstorm from a Sheriff’s deputy. And a police officer, politely informing me that pedestrians were not permitted on the bridge I was walking on, gave me a ride across part of the Choptank River.
- Did you take any days off from walking? Did you do any sightseeing?
I occasionally took a day off for rest and recovery, but not on a scheduled basis. Although I didn’t plan to visit any special sights, I wound up seeing some.
A high school friend met me in Washington, DC and took me on a tour of his alma mater, the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. That was a highlight.
(I applaud every person who has ever attempted this trip, and continue to applaud those few who succeed. I hope my writing about this my walk helped to document the hazards, barriers, impediments, and road-blocks that prevent walkers from completing this remarkable journey across a wonderful country.)