Long Walkers Let Thousands Tag Along — Online

Edward Champion stashes his microphone in his backpack and resumes walking, having just departed a women’s undergarment store in downtown Bayonne, N.J.

He recounts, excitedly, the memorable moments of the first seven miles of his trip. “First we had a discussion about poultry, then we got in trouble with the cops,” he says. ”Then we’re talking about lady’s underthings.”

The poultry discussion happened across the Bayonne Bridge, in Staten Island, with a part-time butcher whose job at a live market is to kill chickens every day. Later, Port Authority police acted on a tip from a tollbooth operator who noticed Champion shooting photos as he crossed the bridge.

Champion, 38, calmly explained his project to the friendly officer and provided the web address to his blog. He shared the encounter immediately afterwards with his 6,000 followers, as he live-tweeted his 23-mile trial walk, a warm-up for a 3,000-mile journey from Brooklyn to San Francisco he hopes to attempt. A freelance writer and multiplatform blogger, he envisions himself on the planned six-month walk as a Studs Terkel for the digital age.

“We need to know our country,” he says. “We need to know our people. We need to know our land.”

Dozens of people complete long-distance walking challenges every year, many wanting to attract attention to a particular cause; the rights of indigenous people is one recent example. These campaigns depend on the kindness of strangers who follow the journeys through blogs and social media accounts, and provide financial support and a constant stream of prayers and well wishes.

Champion differs from most in that he is not promoting a cause, other than a deeper understanding of the towns and people he hopes to encounter. He will carry audio equipment to record interviews and his smartphone and netbook to post photos and dispatches from the road. The plan is to start next month, but only if his crowd-funded campaign on IndieGoGo nets $25,000 in contributions.

His trial walks serve to give potential donors a preview of the observations and oral histories he will compile on his journey. In three trial walks completed earlier this month, he covered approximately 65 miles and posted more than 12,000 words, along with photos and audio, to his blog.

Other long-distance walkers, like Dave Brown, 61, a retired IT professional from Philadelphia, find themselves thrust into the role of the travel writer out of a desire to share their experiences. Brown is currently making his way across Ohio on his way to California. “I never dreamed of myself as a writer,” he says.

In his blog posts, he mixes accounts of what he sees with memories stirred up by those images. In Ohio, a bridge reminds him of the road trip he undertook to see his late wife, Joan, then his girlfriend, who was on family vacation at the Jersey Shore.

In Joan’s memory, Brown walks to raise money and awareness for ovarian cancer. He wants women to be aware of the symptoms of the disease, which can be subtle, he says. “Because if you catch it in stage 1 or stage 2, you’ve got a 92 percent survival rate.”

Almost two months into his trip, Brown has raised more than $13,000 for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Along with supportive messages, he also receives offers for lodging, allowing him to skip hotel rooms for all but two nights of his trip.

A former aircraft carrier pilot in the Navy and fitness enthusiast, he trained for seven months for the trek and currently averages 14 miles walked per day, expecting to reach San Francisco in October.

Dr. Michael Nirenberg, a podiatrist and president of the American Volkssport Association, a group that promotes walking, hiking and other outdoor sports, says walking long distance is not something to be done without preparation.  “You must build up your walking strength for your whole body, but also your feet before you take on one of these epic walks,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of years before us, we walked 20 to 30 miles a day routinely foraging for food, and now in the last couple thousand years we don’t walk enough.”

Travel writer Peter Jenkins, 61, completed his first long walk in 1979, traveling from New York to Oregon over six years. His book, “A Walk Across America,” went on to become a New York Times best-seller, kick-starting the trend of cross-country walking chronicles. “I wasn’t doing it to try to become a writer, or be well known,” he says. “I was fervently searching for something.”

Without a specific cause, schedule, or strict direction, and lacking the benefit of an online following, Jenkins picked up odd jobs to survive. He developed a sensitivity to danger, aware of his vulnerability as a lone traveler on the road. A weekly call from a pay phone to his parents let them know he was still alive.

Likewise, Champion wants to compile his encounters with people in his oral history project. In Bayonne, he discovered a 90-year-old lingerie store and walked inside, retrieving from his backpack a handheld microphone and audio mixer. In a 10-minute conversation with two employees, he learned that mastectomy bras are big sellers, along with the compression hosiery brand Spanx. He also got a sense of how Bayonne has changed, as the mall that opened up across the bridge has driven downtown shops out of business.He is currently writing an account of his most recent journey, driving this time, for two years in a 1957 Chevy station wagon. Despite all the high-tech gadgets that bring people along the journey virtually, what Jenkins and others relish most is direct contact with people on the road. “I learned that you have to listen to people and be curious about them,” Jenkins says.

“If you find people who live in the places, they will tell you about their lives and the city,” he says. “I love having conversations like that.”