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Before You Were Born
Stories from our parents' surprisingly romantic youth.
By Peter Malamud Smith
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?