Nancy Takes a Hike
My wife’s journey across America—on foot
Approaching the Pacific, South Beach State Park, Newport, Oregon
“Sweetie, I’ve decided to walk across America,” Nancy Fitzpatrick declared one night at dinner. “What do you think?”
“Sounds great. Pass the butter.”
Little did I know my wife was serious, or that after more than 500 days on the road, during the course of five years, Nancy would have walked coast to coast—3,365 miles from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
She decided to follow U.S. Route 20, America’s longest highway that passes through 12 states from Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Oregon—nearly as far as Gibraltar is from Jerusalem.
And so it came to pass that on a clear, cold February 10, 2011, Nancy set off from Boston Harbor, skirting snowbanks as she traversed the city. Persevering through all kinds of weather, she crossed our Commonwealth’s 167 miles in 19 days. For the last three miles of that segment, then-Governor Deval Patrick walked with her to the New York state line.
In 2012, Nancy hiked 632 miles across New York, Pennsylvania, and half of Ohio, where we attended the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra’s annual black-tie gala featuring our old friend and Berkshire County neighbor, Yo-Yo Ma. He rushed to hug Nancy, exclaiming: “She walked here from Boston, she walked here from Boston!”
Nancy reached the Missouri River in 2013, and in 2014, she walked across Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing the Rockies over the 8,524-foot-high Sylvan Pass. In 2015, only 280 miles were traveled. Nancy was busy with a management transition at her family-owned Country Curtains, a hotel opening in Pittsfield, and the death of her younger sister. In 2016, she was back on the road the first of April and vowed to reach the Pacific before year’s end.
Nancy walked across the continent into relentless west winds, through Hurricane Sandy, whiteout snowstorms, enervating heat, and 1,000 miles of high-desert sagebrush. She crossed the Appalachian, Rocky, and Cascade mountain ranges, and had close encounters with dogs, bears, buffalo, rattlers, weirdos, bad drivers, huge trucks—and a sometimes-whiny husband.
Many restaurant servers were unable to get around my well-worn remark, “My wife walked here from Boston.” Looking over their pads, the reply was often confused, like, “Uh, you want fries with that?” Or, “Is this her first time?” A Wyoming bartender snorted, “I don’t blame her!”
The most common question was, “What are you raising money for?” and most were perplexed when Nancy responded, “I’m just walking.” Their follow-up question was almost always something like, “Aren’t you afraid?”
Her answer: “My parents didn’t bring me up to be fearful.”
During her cross-country trek, Nancy and I made a few observations. Massachusetts has the most trash along the road. She thinks Ohio, where two cars intentionally swerved toward her, is the angriest state. For me, that award goes to Wyoming, where someone declared, “She’s got no right to walk along the road—and if I see her, I’ll run her off!”
New York has surprisingly big hills. The Mississippi River is just a dammed-up lake where I kayaked from Goleta, Illinois, to Iowa (for me, the friendliest state).
Nebraska was where we met the most interesting people. Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro in Boise, Idaho, has the best breakfast in America, although the Oasis Cafe in Juntura, Oregon, serves an 18-ounce breakfast steak. The endless sagebrush of Idaho and Wyoming was challenging, as was Oregon—where, unlike Lewis and Clark or the Oregon Trail, Nancy crossed the High Desert.
In Nebraska, a rancher remarked, “Better to fix your fence when you got the time than chase your cows when you don’t.” Another, describing different grasses cows eat, chuckled when Nancy asked him the name of the wildflowers at her feet. “No idea. ’Round here we got two kinda things growin’—eat ’ems and no-eat ’ems.”
Like the Rockies, New England attracts visitors from all over the world, and for a Bostonian like myself, the Midwest is a place to hurry across. Traveling through the heartland with its bland, fattening food devoid of spices and garlic, not to mention its archipelago of beat and broken cities and towns, was difficult.
Rust Belt cities like Gary, Indiana, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which have lost population in every census since 1960, are sad evidence that America has failed a lot of people. Gary was the low point for me, and by the time we reached the Mississippi, I was pretty depressed.
But I was looking forward to the Great Plains, the mountains, and the sagebrush desert, where we wolfed down cheeseburgers in ranch-country bars and noted every other guy was wearing spurs.
I met a cowboy, Salvadore Ramos, on the open range in the back country, high above a beautiful valley with a famous trout stream where Hemingway loved to fish. I was on my bike and he was on his horse, looking for three missing cows.
“How often do you count them?” I asked. “Every year,” he replied. “What’s your horse’s name?” He shrugged and said, “Dunno.”
Half an hour later, miles from our RV we named “Moby,” biking back down to the valley on a rough and rocky track, I fell and broke a rib.
For 500 years, America has attracted tough, industrious people like Salvadore—the son of a Mexican horse trainer, who has been in the saddle since he was two—who have come here from all over the world, seeking opportunities. Nancy’s hike gave me an extraordinary view of America and its diverse patchwork of people.
Although I actually walked only about 20 miles with Nancy, in supporting her I drove back and forth more than 50,000 miles, including through the Wapiti Valley between Cody, Wyoming, and Yellowstone’s east gate, a stretch of road that Teddy Roosevelt described as “the most beautiful 50 miles in America.”
Nancy walked across America seeking a physically active and spiritually reflective segue from middle age to older age. That transition became even more pronounced. “When I came up with this idea, my father wasn’t dead, my mother wasn’t dead, my younger sister wasn’t dead, business seemed easier, and my joints didn’t ache. But life goes on, and you walk through it.”
Nancy wasn’t looking for publicity or trying to inspire anyone, although she did. One woman exclaimed, “If she can do that, maybe I can get my husband to eat broccoli!”
An intrepid New Englander who never doubted she would reach her goal, Nancy just walked and walked and walked. She showed grit and determination, and how doing just a little bit every day can add up to something very special.
(Photos: tank and truck, Alden, New York; CD&J Cafe, Philomath, Oregon; happy grampa, Inman, Nebraska; the horse with no name and Salvadore Ramos, Picabo, Idaho; post office, Beaver, Oregon; and Beulah Reservoir, Castle Rock, Oregon.)