The Walk

By Chad Galts / November / December 1999
November 5th, 2007
Two bodies lie side by side in a vacant dirt lot between the Hospice Care Thrift Shop and an abandoned Laundromat in the California town of Joshua Tree. Even though it's June in the Mojave Desert, the bodies shiver against the late-night chill. At 2:30 a.m. a waning moon is a few degrees over the horizon. One body is wrapped in what looks like tinfoil, the other in a sheet that glows white under the glare of a single streetlight. The man encased in foil lies flat on his back, hands crossed over his chest, an amused smirk playing over his sleeping face, from which he hasn't bothered to remove his eyeglasses. His companion, also male, is folded into a fetal position and encased from head to foot in the white sheet. He looks like a crooked burrito. If the edges of the thin cotton cloth weren't tucked in, you might think it covered a crime-scene corpse.

Half an hour later a steady electronic beep sounds from under the foil. The bodies stir slightly and the beeping stops. The two men - Ryan Firestone and Gidon Felsen - exchange grunts and sit up. Felsen '98 unrolls his long, lanky body from the white sheet. He retrieves his glasses from the ground behind him and pushes them up his nose. He neatly rolls up his sheet and stuffs it into a large backpack. The emergency blanket crunches and squeaks loudly as Firestone '98, who has tightly cropped blond hair and a square build, rolls it roughly into a ball and shoves it through the top of his own backpack. They sit in the rough, crushed-granite gravel for a few minutes, quietly sipping water and looking around.

"Ready?" Firestone asks.

"Hmmm," Felsen responds. He stands, stretches his long, thin legs. He adjusts two clear tubes that run from the water bottles in the backpack's side pockets to his mouth, allowing him to refresh himself without breaking his stride. After lifting the pack and strapping it tightly around his midsection, Felsen silently waits.

Firestone, meanwhile, throws his arms over his head and stretches, adjusts the plastic water tubes on his ragged pack, then throws his bag over his shoulders. Without a word they trudge to the side of State Route 62, facing the oncoming traffic. They walk.

Firestone and Felsen have been walking for 243 days. Although the two of them are Ivy League graduates, they look more like penniless transients. Their walk began 2,850 miles ago, at 12:30 p.m., Sunday, October 4, 1998, when they literally walked out of the Atlantic Ocean in Jacksonville, Florida, and headed west. They have since traversed the continental divide, three time zones, seven states, several major mountain ranges, and hundreds of rivers. Covering three miles an hour and twenty miles a day, they long ago ran out of small talk, so they trudge along in silence. Their destination, the Pacific Ocean, is somewhere over the horizon, an endless series of footsteps away. Each man is on his fourth pair of hiking boots.

Why are they doing this? You'd think that two smart, healthy, and ambitious alumni of a top-drawer university would be starting a biotechnology company, advising corporate managers, or calculating how to cash in on the next big Internet IPO.

Firestone and Felsen have had plenty of opportunity to ask themselves this question. The idea for The Walk, Felsen says, arose during their freshman year. "We'd finished finals," he explains, "it was really late at night, and we were drinking. Ryan and I were just sitting around talking about crazy things we'd like to do. The idea just kind of came up. I don't even remember whose idea it was."

"I think it was the tequila's idea," Firestone says.

Of course, taking the post-graduate Grand Tour is a noble tradition. Earlier this century, many men of good American breeding toured Europe after graduation to deepen their sense of high culture and taste. Farther back, Thoreau walked along Cape Cod in search of its natural and human history. Wordsworth composed much of his poetry while walking the Lake Country paths, and John Bunyan famously captured the physical and spiritual challenges of walking to save one's soul in The Pilgrim's Progress.

Closer to home, ambulation is at the heart of the Commencement experience: every year a river of twenty-somethings breeches the Van Wickle gates on its way to the world beyond. The ceremonial act is suffused with emotions of every stripe - from feelings of independence, self-sufficiency, and closure, to those of fear, escape, and flight. At the bottom of College Hill waits the big question: what next?

Felsen, a neuroscience major, and Firestone, an engineering concentrator who had finished his degree a year early and was teaching English in Poland, answered the question in their senior year. Instead of plying their resumes at job fairs, Felsen and Firestone planned their trip in long letters back and forth.They researched their route, reading Peter Jenkins's A Walk Across America as well as talking with and e-mailing others who'd attempted the trek. Finally they settled on a Southern route, which would allow them to walk through the winter months. They debated what they should carry, each man paring down the other's list of essentials.

Money was an early concern. Felsen and Firestone worked extra jobs to save what they could. Thanks to their parents, neither had to worry about repaying student loans, so they could plan their trip according to the money they had on hand. Because they already owned camping gear, their only expenses would be food, entertainment - and those four pairs of shoes. They calculated a trip cost of roughly a dollar a mile. An ethic of simplicity, of traveling light, began to emerge, but like Thoreau tramping around Walden Pond, Felsen and Firestone couldn't quite get free of family. Realizing what their sons were actually going to do, the Felsen and Firestone parents bought them a year's worth of health insurance and a cell phone.

The question of purpose, though, was still unresolved. Neither man had any sort of political agenda to promote, so together they went in search of a cause. Their research had turned up previous cross-country walks dedicated to such things as the National Parks System, cancer research, child-abuse awareness, litter removal, and the struggles of Native Americans. One man, Fred Turner, pledged his 1992 trek to the idea that only one in 100 people is bad (ten days into his trip, Turner was robbed and pushed off a bridge by two thugs). Splitting up a long list of charitable organizations, Firestone and Felsen sent letter after letter to such groups as the American Cancer Society. They also mailed letters to local newspapers along their intended route, hoping to drum up coverage. Their sole response was from a Las Vegas newspaper, which sent them a good-luck note, two baseball caps, and some water bottles.

"So, basically, we ended up with a selfish cause," Firestone says. "We're doing it for ourselves."

The Atlantic Ocean behind them, Firestone and Felsen began a standard routine: walk all day and search for someplace to sleep at night. If the walkers couldn't find someone to put them up in their home, they camped near the road. The beginnings of all journeys are full of anticipation and excitement, and The Walk has been no exception. At first Firestone and Felsen chatted as they strolled, but as days gave way to weeks, and weeks to months, they communicated almost telepathically, seeming to anticipate each other's movements and thoughts, rendering speech almost superfluous. By the time they reached California, the most common utterance between them was probably the all-purpose "Hmmm." "I think," Firestone says, "that marriage is going to be a piece of cake after this."

Over the next eight months, their curiosity about each other was replaced by delight over the people they happened upon. They celebrated Thanksgiving with the family of Nita and Leonard Fuller in Mississippi; they attended the Rattlesnake Roundup, a snake wrestling and skinning festival in Sweetwater, Texas, with Ed Youngblood and Susan Newcomb; and they spent a night in a traditional Navajo hogan with Marshale Natonabah - all people they had never met before.

Along the way, Firestone and Felsen, who are Jewish, lit candles for each night of Chanukah. During Passover, while crossing the southern half of New Mexico, they snacked on matzos and cashew butter. In the town of Iowa, Louisiana, a man who offered them a place to stay told the walkers there were two kinds of people in the world: "Christians and the devil's people. If you're Christian, you can sleep at my house. If you're not, you'll have to sleep in the yard." After they told him they were Jewish, he apologized profusely and let them sleep in his house.

The purpose of The Walk finally began to take shape. "I feel like I've been in a mold my whole life," Firestone says one afternoon as he leans into some shade. "I've had a nice, middle-class life. I went to nice, private schools with other kids who had nice, middle-class lives." He adds: "There are all these other people in the country, in small towns; they're poor, rich, or whatever - and the only way you know about them is what you see on TV or read. I wanted to know what makes up the country besides my little group of people."

Felsen agrees. Born in New York City, he grew up in the New Jersey suburbs and has long felt that he doesn't know enough about his own country. The Walk, he says, "isn't some back-to-nature thing - it's about meeting people" and about appreciating such things as running water, shelter, and, he says, "temperature-variable food." "I've come to realize how much we take for granted - you'd be surprised, really."

Shuffling out of Joshua Tree, Firestone and Felsen have reversed their walking pattern. It began a week earlier in Kingman, Arizona, where, leery of the Mojave's blazing heat and the potentially hazardous distances between sources of fresh water, they checked into a hotel for only the second time since leaving Florida. They resolved to cross the arid Southwest by resting in whatever shade they could find during the day and walking after sundown.

It wasn't easy. At first Felsen had hallucinations, and Firestone felt as if he was in a losing battle with his body's desire for sleep. What little shade they found during the day offered scant protection against the heat. Late-night naps such as the one in Joshua Tree are now brief, but extremely restful.

As roads go, SR 62 isn't bad for night walking. There are few lights, so the walkers' eyes can adjust to the darkness. Out of town, the road widens to four lanes with a wide, sandy shoulder. Felsen, leading, walks in slow, steady strides with his arms barely moving at his sides. His pack is high on his back; from the rear you can't see his head. Firestone, picking his way between hardened sections of the roadside, carries his pack lower, suspended mostly from his shoulders. Felsen keeps to the narrow strip of asphalt between the outside yellow line and the road edge. When cars approach, he wades onto the loose sand and trudges along until they pass. Then he returns to the asphalt.

Cars complicate The Walk, which has one, simple commandment: "No Advantageous Advancement by Use of the Wheel." When the walkers have taken a side trip on a Greyhound bus or an airplane, they've always returned to the point where they left The Walk to resume it. Drive-by strangers who offer them shelter are told they will have to return Firestone and Felsen to the same spot the next morning.

The purity of The Walk also requires a corollary principle: Felsen and Firestone cannot accept anything that has been driven out to them. "It's okay if we use water from a spigot like this," Felsen explains while filling up his water bottles at a gas station. "We walk everywhere and carry our stuff. We try, as much as possible, to be as self-sufficient as we can."

Over the next few hours, the two men make their way up a long, slow incline into the town of Yucca Valley. At either side of the highway, the desert extends in Joshua-tree studded nothingness for miles. As Felsen and Firestone amble along, there is something feral about their movements. Like Gila monsters, they try to keep their body temperatures down by expending as little energy as possible. Even speech is too costly; they have become very comfortable with extended periods of silence. They are, simply, walking machines.

Cresting the last part of the rise, Felsen and Firestone spot a large, faded sign for Yucca Bowl. A few months ago, the promise of a bowling alley would have been cause for jubilation, but as time has gone by, their mania for ten-pin has faded. Walking, eating, and sleeping - in that order - are now their main preoccupations. They make time to talk to people, to read, and to write in their journals. But that's it.

The chill of the pre-dawn desert slowly retreats as the road comes to life with traffic. Doves begin to coo, and the high yip of coyotes starts up from somewhere on the opposite side of the road. The huge, waxy-white blossoms on the jimson weed lining the highway sway with the passing vehicles. The slow retreat of these nocturnal blossoms warn that the day's unbearable heat is near. "It's nice to walk through the dawn," Firestone says, picking his way through the ditch on SR 62. "You feel like you survived." For the walkers, one more night and another twenty-three miles have ticked by, but like the jimson weed, they are less concerned about the miles than about protection. They need to find shade. Fast.

The two men split up to scout for shade. The Yucca Bowl is the first of a long line of strip-mall buildings, and a few hundred yards beyond it they find a small plot of trees shading a patch of dirt near a Wal-Mart. A few feet away, sitting on the curb next to a dumpster, sits a large man in an army fatigue jacket and camouflage pants. His head, wreathed in cigarette smoke, is a gnarled mash of unwashed hair. He mumbles loudly to himself.

Hardly seeming to notice, the walkers set up camp in the shade. Felsen unrolls a thin bedroll, sits down, and begins unlacing his shoes. He talks quietly to himself, smiling occasionally and staring off into space. He unfurls his sheet, removes his glasses, and rolls himself up in his customary sheet-burrito. Firestone opts for a few minutes of scribbling in his journal, then unpacks his crinkled blanket, puts his shoes under his head as a pillow, and is asleep instantly. Soon the man in the fatigue jacket wanders away.

Over the course of the day several cars stop near the camp. One driver offers them money, which they politely decline. A large woman holds out a half-empty box of Popsicles. "I saw you sitting out here earlier in the day, and I just felt so sorry for you," she tells them. "Thank you," Felsen replies. Finally, a car pulls up, and a short Mexican man emerges from the driver's seat in search of the man in the fatigue jacket, who, the driver says, is his friend. The walkers point to the direction in which the man has gone. The Mexican thanks them, offers homemade incense, which they politely refuse, and drives off.

After resting as best they can, morning blends into afternoon, and the sun begins to sink. Firestone lies against a tree reading a book. His feet are bare and pale, the skin around the edges of his heels cracked and hardened. Felsen sits down and removes his shoes and socks, revealing long thin feet that look like polished stones. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a roll of duct tape. Tearing off several small pieces, he flips his feet over in his lap and begins applying the tape to the blister-prone areas.

Then it's time to get back into their shoes. As an evening redness spreads in the western sky, Firestone and Felsen settle in for a staple of The Walk. "The butt," as they call it, is peanut butter and jelly spread and then rolled into a flour tortilla. Food is a highlight of most days. After his nap, Felsen earlier wandered to a nearby Pizza Hut in time for the all-you-can-eat buffet, managing a trip to the salad bar after ten slices of pizza. (Together the two have managed, on more than one occasion, to hit the twenty-slice mark.) Firestone, meanwhile, who spent most of the day looking for a place to check his and Felsen's joint e-mail account, filled up with the contents of an entire box of cereal soaked in another Walk staple, powdered milk. For the first half of the trip Firestone and Felsen toted along a camp stove, but for the second half they decided to carry more water instead.

With the sun just below the horizon, Scorpio just beginning to arc into the southern sky, and Venus brightly pointing the way to their next stop - somewhere beyond Big Morongo Valley - Firestone and Felsen again heave on their bags and set out. Over the next twelve hours they walk another twenty-five miles. Felsen ponders, as he sometimes does, the meaning of consciousness and free will and daydreams about his next all-you-can-eat buffet. Firestone, nearby, mulls over his life, the kind of person he wants to be. When he is hungry, he begins to think about cereal. Dawn comes a few miles northwest of Palm Springs, and the two men find their shady spot in a sandy drainage culvert beneath SR 62 near the intersection with Interstate 10.

"There is something about all this walking that is really, really boring," Felsen says.

A few weeks later, on a sunny, sparkling July 10, Felsen, Firestone, and twenty relatives and friends walk the last mile from the mission at Santa Barbara down the hill to the Pacific Ocean. After a ceremonial dip in the ocean, the party, which includes classmates Dan Margalit '98 and Michael Strode '98, drives back to the Firestone home in Camarillo for a lunch of Walk-inspired food, including an hors d'oeuvre-version of the butt, small portions of burrito held together by toothpicks.

With The Walk over, for the first time in ten months Firestone and Felsen turn their thoughts toward the future. For Felsen this will mean preparing for the neuroscience graduate program at the University of California at Berkeley, while ahead for Firestone lies the prospect of looking for engineering work on solar or other renewable-energy projects.

At midnight a few days later, the two men finally part ways in a Greyhound bus station in downtown Los Angeles. "It was hard to know how to feel," Felsen says. "I think both of us thought there was no good way to say good-bye. We just had to do it."

"More than anything that signaled the end for me," Firestone says. "It was tough. But also, especially at the end, there were these things dangling in our faces - what we were going to be doing after The Walk? It seemed like a refreshing change to finally be doing the things we'd been thinking about all year."

When Gidon Felsen arrives at his parents' house in Tenafly, New Jersey, a week later, he puts the key his mother has mailed him in the lock and turns. The key snaps clean off inside the lock. He has to call a locksmith to get into the only place he has left to call home. Ryan Firestone, meanwhile, settles into what he calls the "you-just-have-to-get-things-done mentality." This southern California walker soon finds himself slipping back into a car-dominated culture. "I feel like it was a trap," he says later, "and I just fell right into it, driving everywhere."

On some days, though, you might see Firestone walking around the neighborhood. His gait is a curious, sideways lope: his arms jut outwards and swing in short, uneven arcs, while his upper torso seems, inexplicably, at an angle slightly left of his lower body. "When we were walking through the Navajo reservation," he recalls, "an old woman asked me why I walk this way. 'What way?' I asked her. She just kind of looked at me and said, 'There's something that just isn't right about it.' " He smiles broadly at the memory. "'I don't know,' I told her, 'it seems to be working just fine for me.'"

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November / December 1999