I first met "Dan the Walking Man" in New York. We were both hiking on the Appalachian Trail and I was on the last mile of a 25-mile effort to get into town. I was hiking fast to get the day over with, so I had the chance to watch him for a few minutes as I slowly overtook him.
Often, he would he reach up to pull a leaf from a low-hanging branch and twirl it between his fingers as he walked. When I finally did catch up, I let out an exhausted "Hi. How are you?"
He just looked at me, and I walked on.
That night, we both trudged into Unionville, N.Y. and I was looking forward to a large pizza for dinner and hot coffee with breakfast the next morning. Dan arrived after me, located the grocery store and walked out with a large sack of flour and a small sack of sugar.
He headed back to the trail without a word.
I didn't know it then, but I was going to have an eye-opening experience getting to know Dan the Walking Man.
During my five months on the Appalachian Trail I ran into quite a few eccentrics -- the trail attracts the unusual and welcomes the outlandish -- but Dan remains one of a very small number of people I've met who I simply could not understand. He was too different, unlike anyone I've met before.
As it happened, I averaged a few more miles every day than Dan did, so I caught up to him again at one of the three-sided shelters that dot the trail, as he was preparing lunch. He scooped first flour, and then sugar into an empty Gatorade bottle. He filled it with water, shook it vigorously for five minutes.
And that was lunch.
I had to find out what the hell this guy was doing.
Once I introduced myself and got him talking, he didn't stop. His voice was measured and quiet and a higher pitch than I expected. And he had stories.
One from almost every state, since according to his own calculations he had visited all 48 in the continental United States.
And true to his name, he got each story by walking there. By his own account, he had walked nearly 100,000 miles when I met him.
I didn't want to believe him at first. Here I was on a 2,200 mile walk that I considered an enormous undertaking. I was bored to tears at some points and that was with the distractions that the Appalachian Trail -- the most "social" of the long-distance footpaths -- provided. Trail towns, people to meet, shelters for protection, pizza delivered to the trailheads. If I were to believe him, this life goal of mine was just another day in the life to him. Easy. Commonplace.
But as our conversation lengthened, it became clear he was telling the truth. He knew the name of every mountain range in California and could rattle off the names of tiny towns in the heart of Mexico. He said he hiked north in the summer and south in the winter. The similarity to migrating birds -- another subject on which he could deliver an hours-long discourse -- didn't escape either of us.
He was a bum of magnificent proportions. Forget about Alex McCandless, I was talking to a real supertramp, who had seen and experienced more courtesy his own two feet than I had by any method, ever.
Many serious hikers spend as much on their backpacking gear as they do on their first car. But Dan was decked out in leather dress shoes he found in the trash. His voice was tinged with pride when I asked him about his pack, a relic from a past decade that he repaired with a needle and dental floss.
He told me he started hiking as a teenager, when he quit school, and hasn't stopped since -- a length of time I estimated at 25 years or more.
He never had a job. But he also didn't seem to want for money. He said he liked Michelle Bachmann as a presidential candidate and hated the idea of welfare.
We hiked together all afternoon. When night came, I set up my tent and he slept in the shelter. I left early the next morning, and he didn't catch up to me that day, or the next.
A week later, I heard from another hiker that he had fallen on a slick, rocky section of trail and broken his ankle. Someone dialed 911. He got off the trail. Stopped hiking.
I moved on and never saw him again.
I wondered about health insurance, family and friends, and whether he had any of those things to help him out. I was curious whether an injury would make him rethink his lifestyle, and whether he could find a place in society again. But mostly I thought about the slick soles on his dress shoes, and whether he would have worn a new pair of hiking boots if I bought them for him.
This article was by Nathan Pipenberg, a junior majoring in journalism and international politics. He is The Daily Collegian's Wednesday columnist.
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