Pssst. Pass it on....."Granny D", A Friend Who At 90 Walked Across the U.S. to Remind Us How to Fight and Why....

01/05/2018 04:36 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2018

Doris Haddock of New Hampshire, a tiny woman with the weathered skin of a lifelong hiker before people worried enough about sun, and fiercely intelligent eyes that easily sparkled with laughter, began walking from California to warn us in 1999. Doris was called “Granny D” by her eight grand-kids and 16 great-grandkids, and by all who heard about her in the next few years. For fourteen months, she walked ten miles a day through mountains, deserts and plains toward Washington D.C., pausing in villages, towns and cities to sound an alarm, to show the way out.

Hearing that yet another anti-corruption bill had failed in Washington D.C., Doris recognized what was occurring and what had to happen.

Doris Haddock “Granny D”
Doris Haddock “Granny D”

She had been born in 1910, during the first time that corporate "robber barons" and corrupt political party "bosses" had overthrown our representative government, as they have in our own era. Grassroots democracy had come to the rescue back then, people self-organizing into a great Progressive/Populist uprising at the polls that lasted decades. The ferociously independent U.S. press of the early 1900s had been on the people's side, keeping them them informed, giving them a means to communicate. Investigative journalists and crusading editors had led the charge.

Citizens called it the Second American Revolution.

We had done it before. We had to do it again.  

But how could she reach the nation? Forewarned by the titanic power of the press in that first fight, this time the global corporations, the modern robber barons, had bought up every print and broadcast outlet in the United States before they took over our government. Mainstream news media by the 1990s were increasingly ad platforms for iPhone releases and “anonymous sources say” mouthpieces for the global corporate view. Online social media did not yet exist. 

Doris was in California on New Year’s Day, 1999, watching the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena with her family, stewing. On deep impulse immediately after the parade, she suddenly took off across the continent on foot to warn the people from town to town and to eloquently tell off Congress....

The fact that she was alone on foot, 88, hunched by osteoporosis and plagued by painful arthritis and emphysema did not give her more than a moment's pause.

She was doing the right thing. The strength and help would come. By the time that she had walked across the United States, she had passed two birthdays, it was 2000 and she was 90. As she passed Louisville, going up into the winter mountains, my daughter went with her, eyewitness. After Washington, Doris and I were often in touch, as at age 94 she ran for Senate for example. She wrote books, I leave them to speak to you in her words. 

I want to zero in on what she gave, the legacy she leaves us. It was more than an epic journey, though it was certainly that....

Granny D

That first month past the Rockies had been the worst. "Granny" as people came to call her, understood mountains, had hiked them since girlhood, but endless sand, 105 degrees? Ten miles a day. Right after her 89th birthday, alone, Doris came close to dying while hiking across that Western desert, needed emergency care, and berated herself for her foolishness. As soon as she had recovered though, she was back on her walk. At first from curiosity, then in support, people began to walk with her a short distance as she passed their homes. They gave her water, invited her to meals. Truckers, relaying on CB radios to keep tabs on where she was on her journey, leaned out of their cabs when they spotted her and cheered.

An outgoing, unmistakably honorable person, Doris was an eloquent speaker with a musical voice. A young carpenter named Nick Columbo from Chicago walked with her in New Mexico. Moved by her courage, he took jobs to finance the journey then caught up with her in Memphis. He and another took turns trailing her in a dilapidated van.

She'd walk her ten miles every day, then rest in the van as he drove her to give a speech. Like Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- who was 30 years younger than Doris and already in office but not yet on the world stage -- Doris remembered democracy and representative government, was demonstrating them. The media pretended that they had never really existed, that political boss control was democracy? She knew better. On the trail, she was never too exhausted to speak to anyone who would listen....

Granny D on the trail, never too exhausted to stop and speak
Granny D on the trail, never too exhausted to stop and speak

Word sped ahead of her, relayed by local media reports and the civic organization Common Cause. Many people across the country opened their homes and dinner tables to Nick and Granny at night. 

Tips passed along that grapevine that for example she loved Earl Gray tea so we stocked up. Almost a year into her journey, Granny reached Louisville, Kentucky, staying five nights with my family, as she radiated outward farther and farther on her ten mile walks each day. Nick drove her back to us for food and sleep. Most importantly to her, Louisville was the home of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, “arch enemy of honest government”. In front of his office, Granny gave a speech answering his demand that someone name the federal politicians who were supposedly corrupt. Afraid of being sued or worse, everyone always ducked the question. Not Granny. She put Mitch at the top of the list.

Louisville is down in the broad Ohio River Valley. From there, her footpath toward Washington DC would lead into foothills and then rise into the jagged maze of the West Virginia mountains. 

Over dinner one night, Granny told my daughter Laura, who was then 19 and home on Christmas break from college, that she had feared nothing to that point. Granny was however realistically scared of walking West Virginia mountain roads and highways in the depth of a predicted fierce winter. Laura and her friend Mary briefly huddled in conversation, deciding to take a month off from college to hike with Granny through the mountains then to Washington D.C.

Laura marshaled her arguments. Deeply experienced, Granny would keep them safe on the trail, not the other way around, but in spite of that fluorescent orange safety vest she wore, she herself would be much safer on mountain roads with two taller women. Families would be expecting them for dinner every night. Laira’s college expected an independent project. This was it. No college course would teach more about active citizenship, grassroots democracy, and the individual and collective power to make change, about her own inner strength, than this trek. Besides Nick was driving the van, would watch over them as he watched over Granny....Always looking for ways to  raise self-sufficient, knowledgeable, courageous, free-range people, I totally agreed with her. Like Mary, Laura quickly had her family's blessing. 

While Granny slept that last night in Louisville, carpenter Paul Martin stayed up working in his shop to hand-carve a slender unyielding oaken staff for the the diminutive woman. He tied iridescent streamers to it to reflect car lights in bad weather. 

Though she had received many gifts along the way, Granny almost never carried them with her. The feathered hat that she wore daily was for example a permutation of the gardening hat that had belonged to her best friend Elizabeth, who had died right before Granny started her journey. This was her way of taking her best friend on at least one last worthy adventure. The original of that hat had been ruined in the Mojave desert, “in a good cause, which is the way one should ruin things”. She traveled light.

Yet she loved the staff that Paul had made, including it in her kit. After she left, I imagined Granny using the stout oak pole to pull her sleight body up the steep mountains.... Laura soon reported from the trail however that far from leaning on the staff, Granny had attached her bright yellow banner to the multiple-purpose staff and was usually carrying it over her shoulder or waving it high with its banner and steamers, as drivers waved and honked back....

Then Hell froze over

As the three women climbed into the mountains, Laura and Mary at first tried to stay between Granny and the whizzing traffic, or to walk ahead to check the often icy paths beside highways.

Annoyed, Granny kept them behind her and to the inside. In a nationwide news media blackout, she was in effect going door to door across the country to spread the alert. Being seen walking every foot of that 3400 miles, talking to everyone she encountered, getting on local news, was kick-starting the awakening of an entire people. 

Unless older people who knew better spoke up, coming generations  wouldn't know that it had ever been any different. Politicians on the take had allowed the global rich to seize our representative government, siphoning our national treasury into their coffers. Now they were erasing our history. Propaganda masquerading as news outlets used the word "democracy" to mean "rule by political bosses", and corruption instead of representation was "politics as usual". For Granny, democracy was a vivid memory, a sacred trust, and something that she was doing daily to revive representative government.

Hiking the country, she was moreover in many ways in her element, smelling the rivers, ice and pines. She and her husband Max, whom she had just seen through the long death of Alzheimer's, had throughout their marriage loved climbing up New Hampshire's White Mountains and other ranges. She had been an executive secretary in a shoe factory; he an entrepreneur. Their lives had been simultaneously devoted to freedom and social justice, for her starting with giving one-woman feminist plays in the 1930s, from them as a couple starting with their helping to stop the nuclear testing of a hydrogen bomb near an Inuit village in Alaska in the 1960s. 

She wasn't going to stop now. 

At night, Laura said, Granny eased bleeding feet from frozen shoes but always walked another ten miles the next day.....  

Coming down the other side of the eastern mountain range, Granny, who had been 88 when she started her walk, paused, radiant with happiness, to celebrate her 90th birthday with her big family and well-wishers. She then though took off again toward Washington DC, which was near. Snow and ice covered the flats, so to speed her journey, although Granny was feeling the long trek in every atom and Nick was scared for her to do it, she cross-country skied...! 

Powerful Senator Mitch McConnell, that ferocious foe of campaign finance reform, had been quoted as saying that reform would pass “when hell freezes over.” Chuckling, Granny had a picture made of her skiing toward Washington, put it on a post card and sent it to Mitch with the message “Hell has frozen over and here comes Granny!”

Live free!

Granny marched into Washington D.C. on February 29, 2000, smiling, with that feathered permutation of her best friend's hat on, the oaken staff with its yellow banner and steamers over her shoulder, Laura and Mary right behind her, then a thousand who had gathered from across the country to be with Granny, plus me with my double need to hold and congratulate Laura. Fourteen months and two birthdays after Granny started walking from California, she mounted the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building in D.C. flanked by U.S. Senators. McCain-Feingold, which was a primitive campaign finance law, passed, to be overturned by a Supreme Court decision. It was a start.

Two months later she was arrested with others for reading the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution out loud on Congressional property. 

She then wrote books, putting her speeches and experiences in print. 

In 2004, Doris “Granny D” Haddock was 94 and still hiking daily to the post office to get what was always an armload of mail. We were in frequent touch. Close to an election, the Democratic candidate for a Senate seat from her native New Hampshire was nailed for campaign finance fraud. Remarking that walking across the continent at 90 had helped her arthritis, she decided to replace him, to run for the U.S. Senate.  

As a candidate, Doris was out to prove that ordinary citizens who are not millionaires can in fact run without taking money from global financiers and corporations. At rallies, she said, "There's a cancer, and it's killing our democracy. A poor man has to sell his soul to get elected. I cry for this country."  

On her bus, she had "Live Free or die!", the New Hampshire state motto, with two swooping blue cartoon birds, each wearing a copy of her best friend's hat. Financed entirely by small donations, she. at age 94 with zero time to prepare, got 34% of the vote. Was that a loss or did her message simply spread farther? 

On January 14, 2010, Doris turned 100, still popping up in magazine and online articles or on talk shows, working until the last four days of her fantastically well-lived life. 

She had no use for greed and hate. Those who acted from compassion, courage and responsibility were another matter. Inspired speaker for the unending revolution, respected mentor and treasured friend, she died March 9, 2010, not that she ever will. I see her eyes, pale and exhausted on the trail  sometimes, hard and dark with determination or disapproval, then in the sunlight, rested, an intense young intelligence burning with a century of earned power, wisdom and discernment. She'd be the first to tell you. "If you're doing something right, the strength will come. Don't stop...."  

No matter what it takes. Liberty. The Common Good. Pssssssst. There's always a way. Always a way. Pass them on....

Granny D running for Senate at age 94....
Granny D running for Senate at age 94....

Psssssssssst. Pass them on....

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