Walk This Way

Wouldn’t it be great if America had a cross-country trail where hikers could ramble from coast to coast, meeting locals and bonding over shared experiences? Actually, we already do. And it’s as close as your own backyard.

Illustration by Tavis Coburn

The trail crested nearly 5,000 feet at Cruz de Ferro, one of the highest points on Spain’s ancient trail, El Camino de Santiago. And true to its name, there was an iron cross. It topped a five-meter wooden pole that rose from a mound of stones left by thousands of travelers—stones that symbolized the tribulations they’d shed.

I paused to loosen my backpack’s waist strap and gaze over the rolling ridges below, my reward for the long pull from Rabanal del Camino through the Monte Irago pass. I was pumped to be here, walking 200 miles across Spain. I’d begun in the city of León, and I would end in Santiago de Compostela, where, Spanish tradition says, the bones of the apostle St. James the Greater are buried below the altar of a 12th century Romanesque cathedral. Some hikers around me had longer treks; some shorter. You can earn an official Camino certificate by walking just the last 100 kilometers. But the pilgrimage tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages encourages starting from your own front door.

I knew what El Camino de Santiago was before I started on my journey, of course. But it wasn’t until I’d spent some time on the path that I really learned what the Camino is. It’s a chance to travel solo by day, finding your own pace and peace. It’s meeting fellow wayfarers at rest stops, and joining lively social circles of international travelers at night. Whether I slipped off and camped alone or slept in one of the cheap, bunk bed-filled rooms along the way, I was having the time of my life—along with the more than 200,000 people who made the trek last year. That’s how well-traveled the Camino is.

I descended from Cruz de Ferro to my resting place for the night: Acebo, a small alpine village of stone buildings, where colorful blooms spilled from flower boxes on narrow, El Bierzo-style wooden balconies. It was there that I thought of America. Yes, Europe has antiquity, history, and more churches than we have television commercials. But the United States can match any country’s natural beauty and small town charm step for step. Sublime mountain ranges, pastoral landscapes, and salt-of-the-earth citizens—we have them in spades. If it were possible to walk across our own country on a continuous mapped course, it would be an epic experience—the kind that could draw thousands of non-motorized travelers from around the world to hike, cycle, laugh, converse, eat, sing, horseback-ride, and maybe even pray in the tradition of true pilgrims. I began to wonder why I couldn’t have such an outdoor party/cross-cultural journey in my own land.

I mulled this as I walked on to Santiago. And at some point it came to me: I should be able to. That trail does exist. It’s the American Discovery Trail. Unlike the Camino, it’s only been around since the 1990s. It doesn’t have the fame of the legendary Appalachian Trail, the celebrated wilderness route that stretches from Georgia to Maine, but it does cross this vast land of ours, traversing towns and cities and stretches of backcountry. Its very name—discovery—suggests a pilgrimage. And it passes right through Cincinnati. I could, in theory, begin the trek from my own front door. I decided that when Spain was behind me, I’d sample El Camino de Santiago’s American cousin.

The American Discovery Trail (ADT) was conceived in 1989 by Backpacker Magazine and the American Hiking Society. It is transcontinental, stretching all the way from Delaware to California. It enters Ohio at the old river town of Belpre and meanders across the southern tier of the state, splitting into two parallel routes northwest of Cincinnati. The founders mapped it out on public land, using existing east-to-west trails—for example, a portion of the ADT in Ohio follows a stretch of the Buckeye Trail; in southern Illinois, it hooks up with the popular River to River Trail—and linking them by directing travelers along the least busy back roads and city streets.

My first step in ADT research was to contact Krista Lenzmeier, the sole staffer at the American Discovery Trail Society in Washington, D.C., who said that most travelers take on individual sections. “Only a handful of people hike the entire ADT each year,” she said. It is, after all, 6,800 miles long.

Here’s how it comes together in our area. Out east in Clermont County, the ADT uses a piece of the 32-mile Steven Newman Trail in East Fork State Park. Emerging from the park, it heads on back roads to Milford, down the Little Miami Scenic Trail to the fringes of Mariemont, on to East Hyde Park, and eventually to Madison Road. From there it cuts through Eden Park and Mt. Adams to downtown, over the Ohio River into Covington, up into Devou Park, then west on Route 8 from Ludlow to cross the river back into Ohio (via the Anderson Ferry), and out to Sayler Park. All along there are markers: red, white, and blue medallion stickers, typically posted on the backsides of street signs. Maybe you’ve even seen them and given a quizzical shrug.

I decided to load my pack and get acquainted. Despite the fact that it was winter, I would hit the ADT from Milford to Sayler Park. I wanted to sample the route and compare the experience to the Camino, to see if it, too, had the potential to draw masses of worldwide travelers. My brothers Jerry and Jim had joined me for the last 65 miles of my hike in Spain, so they’d had a Camino adventure, too. Since Jerry spent his career in advertising and marketing, I pressed him for a concrete idea to help the ADT catch on.

“Unity,” he said. “Right now Americans are so divided politically. What if the American Discovery Trail became the place where the Tea Party and progressives hiked together showing they can agree at least on America’s beauty?”

I thought he might be on to something. The trail passes through the nation’s capital, through red and blue states, into small towns and big cities, over farms, plains, and deserts. Maybe travelers could see what binds us together rather than the differences that drive us apart.

I started my trek on Main Street in Milford by walking into Roads Rivers and Trails, an adventure outfitter shop. The store sits right on the ADT. When I told Emily White, one of the owners, that I was scouting the trail and comparing it to the Camino, she said she and her husband, Joe, were planning to do the Camino in the future. She’d be happy if the ADT grew—hikers spend money—and she quickly proposed her own idea. “Maybe what would make the ADT more popular would be for people to realize how much fun it could be,” she said, “including experiencing some trail magic.”

As a lifelong backpacker, I knew exactly what she was talking about: those wonderful moments of unexpected delight. Like when I walked into tiny O Cebreiro, a mountain village in the Celtic region of Galicia. I met a young couple from Lithuania—she was a dentist, he was a military officer—who asked me to join them on a hill above the village where an international group had pitched their tents. I trekked to their rogue encampment in a city park and spent the evening around a large picnic table. First a young Irishman played the fiddle he’d tied to his backpack. Next a Polish-born opera singer talked about how each August she returns home to Warsaw to participate in the city’s silent memorial to the uprising against the Nazis in 1944. She finished by singing a chilling Polish hymn. I pointed to the Big Dipper in the clear sky and explained how the North Star guided American slaves to freedom in the 1800s. And then the Lithuanian officer placed his cell phone on the table and cued up a national song he always carried with him. For a moment we sat quietly and pondered our common value of freedom. That’s trail magic, and it happened because the Camino mixed our cultural salad on a grassy mountaintop.

Emily and I began spinning ideas about organizing a group to do a local section of the ADT. Could we find a critical mass of hikers to replicate that kind of high point? “I play in a band,” she said. “What if our hiking group includes some people I know who play music? We’ll carry some instruments and do music at night.”

That sounded perfect. All along the Camino I saw hikers sitting in circles playing guitars they’d carried on their packs. I heard lyrics in languages I couldn’t speak, but I also heard Elvis, the Beatles, and James Taylor. Once an Italian handed me his guitar and I sang an old Jimmy Reed blues song while a guy from Philadelphia played backup on an acoustic six-string. Another time, as I rested in the late-day shade, a middle-aged Spaniard sat down and started playing a Fender five-string banjo. Since he spoke no English, my eyebrows raised when I heard him strum the chords for “Tom Dooley.” I said in Spanish that I knew that song and within seconds I was doing all the verses as he plucked out the tune.

I know it sounds cliché, but if there was one thing that walking the Camino drove home, it’s that music is an international language spoken by young and old. We carry songs from home to provide a soundtrack for our adventures out in the world. So Emily’s instinct that music might help lift the ADT was intuitive. And maybe the songs, fun, and magic are compatible with my brother’s notion of America’s beautiful core.

I left Emily’s store full of ideas, and for three days I traveled the ADT. I found the logistics easy and inexpensive. I ate a dinner at McDonald’s on Wooster Pike and camped in a friend’s yard in Mariemont. I indulged in a hearty breakfast at the National Exemplar in Mariemont, lunch at Skyline in Walnut Hills, a dinner of sandwiches and high calorie junk snacks at a gas station in Covington, and a breakfast at Smitty’s in Ludlow. After camping on a piece of private land near my condo in Ludlow—I’d gotten permission ahead of time—I pulled my bike out of the garage and cycled the final section: west on Kentucky Route 8, taking the ferry over the river to Route 50 in Ohio, and on to Sayler Park.

I was alone for the trip; I certainly never came across a band of friendly guitar-strumming international hikers. Still, there were memorable moments. Like the frosty but sunny morning outside of Mariemont. I headed down a section of the ADT that overlays the .8 mile bike trail from Fairfax to East Hyde Park, pausing near an old Catholic church on Murray Road in Madisonville. The sight of it set off an almost electric emotional reaction that I couldn’t understand. I knew this place meant something very personal, but what?

Then it hit me. In 1955, as I was going into the sixth grade, my family uprooted from Oakley to Anderson Township, where the new Immaculate Heart of Mary School wouldn’t be ready for a year. So we Catholic kids were bused a half-hour each way—from the farm fields of what was then called Forestville to a school in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Now I recognized this place. This was the school: St. Margaret of Cortona.

I looked around and saw street signs with names our teacher called out in exact order each afternoon—Islington, Watterson, Whetzel—dismissing kids with the kind of rigid protocol typical of the nuns of my youth. Other memories flooded over me: recess football games; the times my classmate Bill Boeh played his chromatic harmonica to a crowded circle of kids; a black-robed sister ringing the brass bell to call us in; and that dark-haired 6th grade girl I was always eyeing.

As an adult, I’d driven through Madisonville hundreds of times. And often I thought about taking a minute to duck off the main drag and wander around until I found that old school building—just to look at it and remember that one odd year of “traveling” elementary school. But there was always someplace else I had to be. It took the ADT’s trail magic to finally make it happen.

When I added previous backpacking trips in East Fork State Park and Shawnee State Park near Portsmouth, Ohio—both part of the ADT—my total travel approached 50 miles, enough to draw some meaningful comparisons to my Camino walk.

For one, whether you’re walking across the rolling hills of northern Spain or the hamlets and knolls of Greater Cincinnati, seeing the land in slow motion beats zooming past at 3,000 RPM with the windows up. For another, there’s the route’s architectural excellence: St. Francis de Sales in East Walnut Hills, a fine middle German/French Gothic church built in 1879 with a 35,000 pound bell, and the more intimate Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington, finished in 1844 using the Gothic Revival style, both hold their own against Spanish cathedrals. And finally, the view of Bellevue from the Donald Spencer overlook in Eden Park was as satisfying as seeing Triacastela from the high ground of Biduedo, Spain.

I asked some past Camino travelers if they thought the ADT could speak to them as Spain’s trail did. Some sounded ready. Lindsay Rae Clarke, from Boise, Idaho, gave reasons for doing it that were familiar to me: “To see who I would meet, and to enjoy the small things that you notice when you slow down and take in your environment one step at a time.”

Another Camino friend, George Bahrin, a native of Romania currently living in France, tempered his enthusiasm with a bit of politics. “I would love to do the American Discovery Trail one day. Maybe when the U.S. government decides to eliminate the tourist visas for Romanian citizens.” Yes, completing a 6,000-mile transit in the visa’s six-month time limit would be a monumental undertaking.

But not everyone was buying it. “When I saw Rick Steves’s program on the Camino, I said to myself, ‘I just have to do this,’ ” said Patty Goldschmidt, my cousin’s wife, who hiked the Camino last summer with her daughter Rachel and friend Cindy Neuhaus. But when I asked Patty and Cindy if they were similarly pulled to the ADT, they both said probably not. Cindy recalled that the constant crowds had helped her feel secure on the Camino. “I’m not sure I would feel safe solo on the ADT,” she said.

And that speaks to the issue of critical mass. Having people journeying alongside you helps you feel safe, and it raises the odds of experiencing the kind of camaraderie one hopes for. It also helps ensure that there will be services along the way. If a critical mass of people used the ADT, American entrepreneurs would certainly see business opportunities in housing and feeding them, just as the municipalities have done along the Camino in Spain. But the ADT can’t promise that kind of companionship—or customer base—yet.

The National Discovery Trails Act is a bipartisan effort to make the ADT the first trail in a new federal category—a designation that could give it the kind of publicity and legitimacy needed to build participation. And it’s good to remember that no trail’s evolution has happened overnight. The now-popular Appalachian Trial (which runs primarily through forests) had only 14 people complete it during the 1950s; in the first three years of this decade alone, more than 3,000 have made the journey.

So, possibly, like the Camino and the Appalachian Trail, it’ll just take the passage of time to catch on. Maybe it’ll be music and serendipity that makes a name for the ADT; or maybe it will become a trek that people join just to see if it’s the one place we can all get along. Or maybe the National Discovery Trails Act will, finally, help people grasp what the ADT really is: A narrow ribbon shooting straight through our country’s soul from edge to edge; a 6,000-mile slither that shows off our colorful people, diverse topography, rowdy political subdivisions, and wonderful way of life. And offers, for good measure, all sorts of trail magic.

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