Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth.
When I was a kid, family legend told that before they were married, my parents walked from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, partly to test their relationship. On a recent visit home, I got the whole story.
So how did this epic walk happen?
D: One of the things that attracted us to each other was our adventurousness. Your mother had rafted down the Mississippi, and I had knocked around East Africa, but we wanted an adventure together. We had thought for a while about taking a long walk. Your mother had friends in upstate Wisconsin, and from eastern Pennsylvania, where my uncle had a place, it was about 1200 miles. We would follow secondary roads and hiking trails when we could. We were delayed for a couple of days by a torrential rainstorm, and we left from Wrightstown, Pennsylvania, on May 3rd, 1976.
M: Which was the whole other reason.
D: It was the bicentennial year, and we thought we'd see the country at a moment when everyone was focusing on its history. We carried a tent, and asked people for permission to camp on their property.
Think you could still do that today?
M: It's interesting that you ask, because everyone was sure we couldn't do it then. People's fears are so disproportionate to the reality — not that there aren't dangers.
D: It is true that my uncle Carlton fired off a salute from his shotgun when we left, and half in earnest suggested that we put the shotgun into our baggage and carry it with us. But the reason I think you could do it again is I think people are still just as hungry for contact with strangers, and just as eager to unburden themselves of their own life stories, which is what we encountered repeatedly along the way.
M: We wanted to have conversations with people we weren't going to meet in our everyday lives. We wanted to see America for ourselves. That was huge.
So how long did the whole thing take?
M: It took three months, to the day almost.
What do you remember seeing along the way?
M: We walked through a ton of Amish farmland. The Amish we met were sympathetic and taken with what we were doing, and kind to us and welcoming in a way that goes against the reputation that they had with outsiders. The aesthetic beauty of their landscapes is something that I remember; these kind of hazy green fields, with men in white shirts and black pants urging on horses.
D: We spent a night with some people who ran a dairy farm. They took us around their farm, talked about what their life was like. People in general were extraordinarily hospitable and friendly.
M: Once they realized that we were genuinely doing what we said we were doing, they became interested and wanted to help us along.
D: We visited a lot of different industrial plants, a mushroom farm, an auto-parts foundry.
M: The people in the mushroom factory were worried that we were industrial spies.
How long had you known each other?
D: For three years. We were beginning to feel that we needed to make a decision of some kind. In fact, while walking, we did decide to get married.
M: Yeah, because we realized that we could do even something stressful — and it was stressful — like that and still want to be with each other most of the time, which is as good as it gets. We also got far enough away from home that it really felt like our decision. It didn't feel like anybody's parents peering over our shoulders.
D: Not that our parents were doing that.
M: Well, yours weren't, maybe! And even if your parents were being discreet, I know it was certainly on your mom's mind by then. You were no spring chicken, sweetie!
You were… thirty-two.
D: A big-boned lad of thirty-two!
And you were twenty-four. So you could easily have gotten rid of him and tried a number of other options!
M: I could have, but I was pretty attached. How could you not marry a man who could recite Hamlet on a road in Ohio when it was 110 degrees?
What else do you remember about what he was like then?
M: He was the person who absolutely had to cover a certain number of miles every day. If you don't have somebody who's doing that, you don't make it. And he was stronger than I was at that point and he was in better shape, and that was hard, but useful, because I had to keep pace with him.
Dad, what do you remember about Mom at that point?
D: She was a very passionate person.
M: That means I got angry on a dime.
D: Well, that's one kind of passion. But so open to different people, and so good at talking with them, learning about them. And really so courageous in pushing along through various kinds of pain, because there were definitely moments when it looked like we couldn't really go on. We started early to avoid the hot weather and then we got hammered by snowstorms in western Pennsylvania, in the mountains. And then we came down the mountains and we hit the hot weather, in Ohio, and it was torrid. We had big rainstorms. It was really hard going.
M: Neither of us wanted to live with having failed at this. I really wanted to prove to myself that I was tough enough to do it. But I don't know if you needed that yourself.
D: I don't think I really doubted that we could do it. It seemed very doable to me.
But you were older. A lot older. Scandalously older, really.
D: Now, that's putting it a little strongly… I just liked being with your mother!
M: I think we both discovered we really liked being with each other. We sort of knew that, but it proved that that wasn't just in the moment and that it would survive challenges.
How'd you spend the bicentennial?
D: We spent it in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
M: Watched fireworks.
D: We saw the fireworks on TV, right?
M: Did we? I thought we sat on the edge of the lake. And also, this was when we went into the photo booth and took all those pictures of ourselves to announce our wedding.
So Dad, did you propose?
D: We were walking on the road to Bucyrus, Ohio…
M: Miserably hot — 110, really.
D: And I looked down into the grass by the side of the road and there was a twenty-dollar bill lying there. That was a lot of money in 1976! It was more than enough to cover a night at the Holiday Inn in Bucyrus, where we had a view out the window of the earth-moving machines that are manufactured there, and where they had a Brown Derby restaurant right in the hotel. We decided the time was right.
M: I think it was sort of like a consensus of migrating birds. Your dad didn't get down on his knee and ask me. It was more like, "So, do you think we should just get married?" It was that understated. Probably because it embarrassed both of us a little bit, but also because, you know, it was the '70s. We had thought we would never get married. We thought we would live together. I wasn't sure I wanted to marry anybody.
So what was it like when you arrived?
D: It was certainly very satisfying. I think we walked thirty-five miles the day before we got there, and would have gone the last six if we hadn't wanted to make a sort of more planned entrance the next morning.
The author with his parents today.
M: I remember it as one of the happiest days of my life. I just remember feeling completely overjoyed when we finished. I was ecstatic, as we closed in on it.
And then you got married, and then you had me!
D: Well, that took a while to work up to also!
M: You were a bigger adventure than walking to Wisconsin, Petey.
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