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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Walking across America

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Walking across America

Chris Dyson is walking from Georgia to Washington state. (Baker City Herald/Jessica Robinson).
Chris Dyson is walking from Georgia to Washington state. (Baker City Herald/Jessica Robinson).

By JESSICA ROBINSON

Of the Baker City Herald

There are about 8 miles, 4,300 feet in the continental United States that will probably always irritate Chris Dyson.

Those are where, because of a Wyoming construction zone, two narrow Midwest bridges and a regrettable detour through Atlanta, Dyson had to get a ride.

But the rest of the 3,000 miles since Savannah, Ga. — Dyson has walked those.

The sun-bleached 28-year-old is about to finish his diagonal trudge across the country, expecting to reach Seattle and the conclusion of a lifelong goal three weeks from now.

"I'd always wanted to do this since I was a kid," he said.

Dyson sits in the conference room of Coughlin Leuenberger & Moon, eating Hershey's chocolate and drinking from a can of A&W root beer. The 22 miles per day he's been averaging lately have given Dyson something of a sugar craving. His lean physique shows the stored calories will not last long on the road, though.

Shirking the massive interstates, Dyson explains, he takes to the state highways and back roads that traverse rural America. He says the route has made him a connoisseur of small towns and their culture. Over the course of the trip, Dyson has also been the benefactor of much small town hospitality, which frequently provides him with a free meal and a place to sleep.

So it wasn't unusual that, when Highway 7 brought him to Baker City last Friday morning, it also brought him to David Coughlin. Coughlin, a local attorney, saw Dyson walking along the road and offered him a ride.

"The guy looked like a pretty clean-cut guy and had an American flag," Coughlin said. "I thought I'd just ask him. It seemed like a nice thing to do."

Dyson refused the ride of course, but he ended up meeting with Coughlin and his family after walking to the law offices in downtown Baker City.

The Coughlins said they would put him up for the night. Ordinarily, Dyson would keep moving until evening, but the Miners Jubilee and the added lure of the Coughlins' extra rodeo ticket piqued his curiosity.

This time, Dyson accepted the offer.

"I'm a day ahead of schedule anyway," Dyson said.

Dyson's affable demeanor and propensity toward conversation has often served him well. Much in the way the Coughlins extended their aid to him, others have helped him throughout his walk after a brief chat.

Local diners, where Dyson says the best conversation is, have become beacons along the road. Many times he has tried to pay his bill, only to find it paid already, and offered tips in vain to waitresses.

When Dyson started out a year and a half ago with his map, a knapsack full of camping gear and socks, and carefully budgeted savings, he didn't plan on receiving help, much less needing it, but that became one of many lessons he learned on the road.

"That's something I've been able to do is learn how to accept help along the way," he said.

A walk across the United States was an unlikely venture for a New York film school graduate who had never been backpacking before. But since a failed attempt at age 12 to walk across Massachusetts with his father — who in his own inexperience packed arduous canned food —Dyson has wanted to complete that expedition.

It remained a dormant daydream for a long time. Then, a couple years ago, after Dyson had left the film industry, he said found he had become stagnant.

"I was sitting in my apartment in New York," Dyson said, "working at a coffee shop at a job that wasn't going anywhere."

And Dyson decided he'd go somewhere.

Of course, by that time, the original Massachusetts endeavor had grown significantly in magnitude.

He set a route, estimating his expenditures at $1 per mile, and as his coworkers in the New York coffee shop took bets on how far he would make it, Dyson headed to Georgia in the spring of 2003.

Dyson said he started with company — his girlfriend and his cat. However, he left his cat with a friend after he saw its health deteriorating in the Southern sun. Dyson's girlfriend made it to Tennessee before a knee injury made her give up the trek. Dyson continued on alone, though his website, which he updates at city libraries along the way, still bears the farewell message of three travelers, "dontforgetus.net".

The cross-country walk is quite a change of pace from New York City. For the most part, Dyson finds he is immersed in solitude and cut off from the world's events.

The little he's aware of doesn't come from television or newspapers, but from conversation on the road.

"I knew when Reagan died because people would talk about it in the gas stations and diners," he said.

Dyson hasn't been completely removed, however. His journey has been interrupted three times with flights back to the East Coast for weddings and graduations. Each time, though, Dyson flies back and resumes his footsteps from the exact location he stopped.

In addition, there was an eight-month hiatus he took in Denver that may have changed Dyson's life.

Fearing winter in the Rocky Mountains and in need of more money, Dyson segued his New York experience into another coffee shop job and rented an apartment. It was that bout of stability and a developing relationship in Denver that almost ended his trip there.

But he said he didn't want to come up short of his goal again. Using the will power that had gotten him that far, Dyson pushed on.

"You're always learning how far you can go," he said.

Dyson will go as far as Seattle, where he set the ending point 17 months ago.

After all that time to think, Dyson says he finally knows what he wants to do.

He wants to return to Denver, and open a diner.

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