December 15, 2018

Bill Fairbanks’ long, long walk across the USA

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — Five years ago I was still living here six months a year over what I call our winter months and in Connecticut six months over the summer months there.

It was time to go home again. I still had my one-person camper van. If I drove 300 miles on the big Interstates, I’d get home in 11 days. Nice and easy.

Bill and Carole show their route from California to Massachusetts. He walked for a grand total of 4887 days! She was his 4-wheel escort and daily rooter.

But I drove the slow roads on which you see so much more, and so much of it is so interesting. Many a time I stopped here and there for two or three days. You know, to see this wonderful thing and that wonderful thing.

So that’s why  I was on the road for s 101 days and drove 5,300 miles. I’ve taken many long and varied road trips. I’ve loved every one. But this was the best. A real adventure.

Well, I just met Bill Fairbanks. He’s William L. Fairbanks II, a retired Ph.D. anthropology professor residing in nearby little Los Osos.

He crossed the country, too. But he walked it! In his 70’s! And it took him six years to do it. I whistled when I heard that. Plus his wife Carole accompanied him all the way. When I heard that, I whistled double loud.

He’s 81. He’s a big guy, 6 foot 2, hefty and fit and doesn’t give the impression of having held down a desk job during his working years. He is outgoing, likes to talk, enjoys being with people — just what it takes for anyone who is going to be a teacher.

He was born in San Francisco. His dad was a PBX expert for AT&T. And he founded and was first president of a credit union for its employees. Bill was a little kid when his dad resigned and took his family back to the farm Bill’s mother had been reared on.

“Dad loved farming. I grew up on the farm. As a farm boy I walked and walked. Every day my brother and I would walk two miles to school, then back. I enjoyed walking. Always have. Still do.  It’s a natural for me.”

He and Carole met in high school. ”She wowed me. Such a cute girl and very smart. Plus her wonderful sense of adventure!”

They got married while students at what is now San Jose State University, where they earned their bachelor’s and Bill went on for a master’s.

“We planned to be high school teachers and did that. She became a home economics teacher. I taught history and geography.

“I got hired at Cuesta Community College. It was just its second year. It offered a two-year curriculum. Some graduates went on to four-year colleges, some went to work. While teaching at Cuesta I went and got my Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara.”

“I taught sociology and anthropology. Most of my students went on to further study. They learned from me and it’s surprising how much I learned from them. I truly mean that. I put in 41 years at Cuesta and loved it. I also taught occasionally at Cal Poly University here. Enjoyed that, too.”

Bill became active in anthropology circles, and over the years served on committees and boards and became president of both the Southwest Anthropological Association and California Mission Studies Association.

He’s a family man. They have a son and two daughters all living within 11 miles with frequent get-togethers, and three grandchildren. For 40 years he and Carole have been members of the Los Osos Methodist Church.

How did he develop the idea of walking across the country?

“Well, as you know, I love to walk. And as you know, rites of passage in life involve challenges. But retirement provides no traditional challenge. Some of my great-grandparents crossed the nation in the 1840s and 1850s. That inspired me. I decided to give it a try. That became my challenge.”

Yes, he planned to walk all the way to the Atlantic.  Maybe to Washington D.C., maybe to New York, specifically Wall Street.. But as his target destination he settled on the small city of Dedham, Massachusetts. Why?

“The Fairbanks Family House is there. It was built in 1636, mind you. It would be exciting to walk in the very door one of my ancestors walked out of several centuries ago.”

It’s interesting that all Fairbanks in the U.S. can call Dedham their ancestral home.

Just like me, on the way he wanted to enjoy the astounding variety of sights and scenes of our great big USA.

“But in all this I had a special focus,” he told me. “Anthropology is my field, yes. But cultural anthropology has been my specialty.”

I asked him to tell me about that. He said that anthropology is the study of man, which wasn’t news to me.

But cultural anthropology, he explained, studies how we organize ourselves in so many ways to live our lives. In governmental bodies and political parties- and churches and corporations and societies and clubs on and on. Large and small and good and not-so-good. And that has all kinds of consequences, positive and sometimes less so.

So in effect, for him our country as he walked it step by step became a huge and wonderful laboratory, so to speak,  just as he knew it would.

Now why Dedham? Well, a good reason. There’s an old, old house there that all people named Fairbanks in the US can call their ancestral home.

Today the Fairbanks House, as it’s called, is a museum and rightfully so. In fact it is considered the oldest frame house in the country.  Even furnished with period antiques.  It’s operated by the National Fairbanks Family Association of America.

“So it’s easy to see why Dedham would be perfect as my final destination. We became excited about it.”

In fact, it’s from there way back in the 1840s and 1850s that his great-grandfathers on both sides of his family crossed the country to  California to start a good new life.

Well, as you know now, he made it, covering 5,605 miles at an average pace of 11.53 miles a day. Of course, on some days he took far more footsteps than on others. For one thing, weather could be a big factor.

Typically he’d start from February on to May and return home in November.  He had other obligations at home he had to keep in mind.

This is how he and Carole worked it. They would set the destination for the day and the quitting time. He’d start walking. He carried a small backpack. Carole would drive ahead to their motel for the night. She would sightsee, shop, return to the motel to read or quilt. She loves to quilt. She’d always hope to locate a quilt store.

They’d eat in interesting restaurants and coffee shops. And would try to get to as many museums, historic sites, and unique shops as possible. Which was exactly my goal when I drove home to Connecticut.

If he ran into a problem, he’d call her and she’d come pick him up, but that was rare.

They started out on July 2, 2009, and finished on August 20, 2014. He was 72. She was 69. When they finally got to the Fairbanks House, he was 77 and she was 74. That certainly was a record.

Look at their route and you’ll see that it cut across our country’s mid-level right to the East Coast at Virginia. Then it took a 90-degree turn north and went way up to Vermont, then turned down toward Boston and finally Dedham.

The hardest part was making it through California, right at the beginning. It took time to work out the kinks. Calluses on his feet!  After walking 22 miles over the Santa Lucia Mountains he had to take two week off to recover from blisters. But that didn’t daunt him.

The first year they made it to Carson City. The second year from Carson City to Oberlin, Kansas. The third from Oberlin to Cane Ridge, Kentucky. The fourth from Cane Ridge to Richmond, Virginia. The fifth from Richmond to Catskill, New York. And the sixth from there to Boston and finally Dedham. Hallelujah!

“But bad luck. it turned out to be one year more than we planned. In 2012, while at home for the holiday season, I fell through a wood deck. I was bare-footed. Gashed my right foot. It required surgery and I had to stay put for weeks. But I just couldn’t wait to get going again. So it was late, in August, when we got started.

“But one result is that it took us an extra year to finish.”

He  chuckled. “I wore out eight pairs of shoes!  I don’t remember how many dogs barked at me.  It was amazing how many folks would hand me a bottle of water. Lots of good people out there!

“And got to tell you I walked through some rough neighborhoods. But never ran into a bad person. Not anywhere!””

As an anthropologist did he learn something new?

“Indeed I did. I had a lot of time to think. And reflect.

“There’s a lot of fear out there. People are worried. You can see it. Bars on windows of houses. Locked cars. Gated communities. On and on.

“Oh, one more thing. I should tell you I ran into a lot of Afro-American neighborhoods.” He uses that because it conforms to other ethnic groups, such as Italian-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and so on.

He got to talk to some, mostly middle-aged and older. Enjoyed their chats.

“I found Americans very nice people. Invariably they’d tell me to be careful. Would say, ‘Watch out for gang bangers!’ Or ‘Take care!’ Or ‘I’ll pray for you!’ Nice things like that. It impressed me.”

On the road he was cautious. One example. He walked not with the flow of traffic but against it. “I wanted to see what was coming.”

Now talking about myself for a moment, On my long ride across the country in my camping van, I had used the best-selling AAA atlas. Excellent atlas. But Bill used one I never heard of, “The DeLorme Atlas.”  He showed it to me and right away I understood why. It had all the usual good info plus a great big plus – all the geographical elevations and in fine detail! Every up and down just about.

“On the road Carole and I would study it every morning. We would choose the easiest route to walk that day. And there could be terrific differences depending on the time of day.”

Think of this. In Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, his path took him way up to 12,183 feet. That’s more than two miles up. And then down.  Now remember his age.  It made me wonder. Did he ever think of quitting and returning home for keeps?

“No, no. When I walked 12 miles on my very first day, I knew I could do it.”

A real challenge, he said, was getting across some rivers. Many bridges, major ones such as across the Mississippi, or the Missouri, or the Ohio, do not permit pedestrians.

“I crossed the Mississippi on the Mark Twain Memorial Bridge. It’s on I-72 at Hannibal, Missouri.’

“A sign said bicyclists could use it, and pedestrians have the same rights, but walking facing the traffic instead of going with traffic. Which was my practice, as you know.”

Hannibal is where Mark Twain grew up. Where he got the ideas for “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

In all those miles he didn’t have a single accident, which I found remarkable.

Along the way several times he got checked out by police. “I’d tell them what I was up to and they’d wish me good luck.”

Several times he got written up in local papers. One time he got interviewed by TV Station WVVA in Lewisburg, West Virginia. People told him they had seen it.

I was surprised that time and again he had a walking companion. A high school classmate. Or a former student. Or a cousin. For a day or two or even longer.

His final day after six years was from Boston down to Dedham. Exactly 9.42 miles.

He knew a delegation of Fairbanks members would be waiting for him and Carole at the Fairbanks Museum. Walking with him would be his son Bill from San Luis Obispo, the city next door to his home in  the Morro Bay Area. And Kathy Butterfield, one of his son’s high school classmates living in the Boston Area. And Tom Potter, another of Bill’s classmates, who flew in from Los Angeles.

They had 10 miles to go. Bill expected it would take about five hours.

Bill chuckled. “Wrong. Very slow getting out of Boston. Took seven hours! But the folks at the Fairbanks House were still there, which was wonderful.”

It was a beautiful day. “We were worried about that. Carole got there ahead of him, of course. And she made sure to have everything for a nice party, including a sit-down celebration repast. It turned out a celebration not to be forgotten.”

Remember, he had walked 5,606 miles! How many zillion footsteps would that be? He told me he finished in better health than when he took the first step. How wonderful.

Bill took hundreds of photos. “I wish I had taken more. They keep the memories alive.” They’re still enjoying the glow of it all.

He wrote daily updates and emailed them to people who requested them. The updates became his  daily journal of the adventure.

No wonder he’s being invited to give talks at churches and clubs. He always says yes. In fact, it’s at our Senior Club here in Morro Bay that I became aware of him. It turned out to be a full house and some had to be turned down at the door. How about that?!

And he’s writing a book. An excellent idea, I believe. The tentative title is “Across the USA one step at a time. By a septuagenerian walker.” I’m eager to see it.

And he is still walking, would you believe?

Well, I thought I had an adventure driving across the USA in 101 days. Indeed I did. But Bill’s turned out to be a super-duper adventure.

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