What I Learned Walking With a Friend

8 min read

True Story

Military service

Road walking, trail notes

AVAILABLE IN PODCAST – CLICK HERE

Not 30 miles as the crow flies, that’s how far I was from my childhood home. It was gray and threatening rain, the time in spring that’s cool, tree buds just coming in, when weather can drop to a freezing rain or the sun can force you to peel off your jacket.

Eric picked me up at Wall Alley parking lot in a white transit van from TriStar Carriers. He drove me out of Gettysburg towards the Maryland state line onto Old Frederick Road.

“There he is,” Eric said. Sure enough, Kenny was moving towards us in his neon road vest, yellow shoes, and ball cap. He’s grown a full beard since he left the Army. He had a pack cinched high on his back and pointed in warning to the drop-off of the gutter between the van and the cinder trail that ran along the field.

We hugged. It felt good to be outside after a five-hour ride and to jump into stride with an old friend. He pointed to his pack, offering to share a snack and we munched on red licorice as we headed north.

“I just got off an interview,” he said. Kenny is walking across the country and started at the Lincoln Memorial on April first. No fooling around. Folks want to know what he’s up to and a news reporter chatted with him on the phone. I joined him on his fifth day to share a bit of the road as he walks away from a thirty-year career in the Army into his new life, raising awareness and funds for charities important to him. His route ends in Encinitas California, his childhood home.

We met at West Point 35 years ago and spent four years learning to become leaders. Then our paths took us in different directions. I served in the Army and got out, raised a family, had a ‘normal’ life. Kenny dedicated himself to a lifetime of military service, a decorated infantry officer with multiple combat deployments. He raised a family too, but he was gone a lot. Raising a family is hard; doing that and being on deployment, that’s harder.

The gentle slope of the hills and the rolling terrain made for beautiful views and good walking. The air had a cool and damp freshness. We walked abreast when we could and Kenny is taller, broad in the chest. He said he couldn’t touch his elbows and I had to put my own elbows together to see if I could. He has the bearing of an officer and moves at a steady pace; he is serious about road safety.

The vehicles move fast on the back roads where we spent much of the time walking. The cinder trail ended and he wanted to be ready to jump in case of wild drivers. The fields were muddy and full of water, the road shoulders often non-existent, and I was reluctant to step into the mud. He leapt to the field and I stood close to the edge. He scolded me.

Road with no shoulder

Kenny said he wanted to keep me alive and that I needed to follow his lead. He was tracking the route, assessing risks, managing details. I was drafting on his lead, in single file when there was oncoming traffic, shifting across the road when we could not see beyond the rise.

We had to jog across Route 15 a couple times, playing a human version of Frogger, the first-gen video game of road crossing and splattered guts. There would be road kill enough.

Kenny talked about this journey for years before retirement and I said I’d join him. I wanted to walk the Appalachian Trail or cycle across the country. Just because. I have one parent from the East and one from the West, and I’ve inherited a nomadic outlook on my sense of home, that I am for the most part a child of the world. My high school senior leaves this year and it’s time to get moving. The Army life with its moves and rotations reinforced these ideas and I get antsy when I’ve been anywhere too long. Here was a chance that would let me hit the road, spend time with a friend, and raise awareness for a cause. I live in the Northeast, so joining him early made sense.

Trying to resist the safety rules was futile. I walked in the muck and fields, generally doing as I was told. Besides Kenny was bigger. If I had it out with him, he could likely take me.

Kenny pointed out Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge as we made our way into Gettysburg, telling me about the fight, pointing out terrain features and historic moments. The walk through the national military park was sobering. Decorated with monuments, it was once filled with bloodshed, bodies, the sound of cannon fire and gun shot.

Walking with Kenny into Gettysburg National Military Park

“Three things I want to tell you about this leader,” Mike said. He invited Kenny to speak to a Junior Reserve Officer Training class at Gettysburg Area High School. “I learned more from him as a leader in one year than anyone in my 24 years in the Army.” Mike shared a story he heard that when Kenny and his sergeant major were on the battlefield and in the proximity of loss, they personally carried the fallen. Up mountains and down ravines, whatever it took. Kenny chimed in, through canals. You take care of your fallen.

Mike talked about the remoteness of command at this level, for colonels and senior officers. Kenny wasn’t about that. Stay with the soldiers, the cadets. Visit. Talk to them. The third thing Mike talked about were the red pants. He put up a photo of a group wearing red pants. When Kenny was in the War College, he saw a French officer wearing red pants and admired his sense of boldness and style. Kenny encouraged colleagues to wear red pants. Mike did the same on a trip to Philadelphia, rocking the red pants at Freedom Hall. It made everyone feel like part of a tribe.

Kenny explains, “There is a definite pride and boldness in our service as leaders of soldiers in combat. We do what no one else does — we think and lead and fight through all manner of adversity for our mission and our soldiers. . . Wearing the red pants is an outward expression of our pride in our service and in each other.”

Mike was a former aviator with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment which I support in a volunteer role. He asked me as a woman veteran and West Point graduate to present awards to Rachel who was enlisting in the Air Force. Tall and quiet, she smiled shyly. Kenny told me to do the Grip and Grin as I shook her hand and smiled for the photo. The class took a photo with Kenny, who suggested the civil war pose he’s known for, hand on the chest, looking off in the distance.

I am on left and Kenny center with ball cap, Gettysburg Area H.S. Warrior Battalion

Eric drove us in the support van to Gettysburg after Kenny’s speech to start my second day’s walk. A young man from Edison, New Jersey, Eric managed the supply train for Kenny along the route the first week, providing support with gear and food and driving. Kenny had stopped to take a photo by a memorial bridge of one of his unit’s fallen, a first lieutenant and graduate from West Point.

Friendship and stories made the time go by. Seeing things together made the walk memorable: a bison farm, rusted cars, tractors and equipment, red barns, feed silos, rows on rows of orchards on the high ground to Idaville with views to rival Tuscan vineyards, no lie, I kid you not. We drove to the start on the second day and passed by what I would later walk through, the difference of walking versus driving was stark: the smell of the rain and nightcrawlers on the road, the breeze in my face, the rush of the cars, the horses tracking us as we walked, the spring calves in pasture with the cows. And, we met Donny Kuhn who offered us a soda.

With Donny Kuhn on Table Rock Road

Laughter was the best part of the trip. I bent over in stitches when Kenny told me we had to jog across a bridge or highway. Kenny, good leader that he is, asks if I had to go. No! I tell him I’m just trying not to wet my pants. He has this wry sensibility because things can be an issue on the road, in the heat and fog of battle, and he’s serious about it, whether it’s food or footwear or feeling the urge. That’s a big one, going to the bathroom, doing the purge. Runners and walkers know the deal of a light, well-fed system and these are the realities of the road. Keeping it simple.

At the end of the first night as Kenny stretched out on his Arab style seating to open a gift I brought, we started singing Favorite Things until we giggled into a well-deserved repose. He pulled out a blanket to tuck in. It’s my Cho Liner, he said, for poncho liner and the soldier’s government issue favorite. He laughed himself to sleep.

Asleep on Arab sofa with Cho Liner

We made our way through Pennsylvania hills and narrow roads, often shoulder-less, keeping us hugging the land. The farmer’s fields, rows of trees or windbreaks, as we walked towards Carlisle, past Mountain Liquor, the gutter littered with Jim Beam miniatures, beer cans, and human detritus. Road kill was pushed to the edges of the asphalt and we walked by a dead squirrel with eyes out of its sockets, half-eaten deer carcass, flattened fox. Saw a dead fox on both days I hiked. There’s no escape for the quick or the clever.

Kenny gave a lot to this country and his soldiers, to his family, and to the caring of his mother as she battled pancreatic cancer. The price was steep. The thing that comes to mind when I reflect on that walk, just two days ago, like the beautiful and the dead things we came across on the road–the orchards and the battlefields–there’s no escaping the journey or the end, which may be upon us earlier than we like.

Walking with my friend helped me see and learn new things. Beyond the stories and what I saw and felt as we both plodded forward, our shoes slapping the ground, I learned a little of what my friend saw and felt. Much of it is not spoken, because you’re moving and being. If you want to know someone, walk and travel together. Pay attention and you will see the world from a whole new perspective.

My friend Kenny told the students that being rich in life is about your experiences and your friends. That’s what it means to live. And, he is rich indeed and I am better for having walked a stretch of road with him.

Footnotes

*Learn more about the three charities and Kenny Walks Across America at this link.

*Route. Hiked Old Frederick Road in Emmitsburg Maryland to Gettysburg Pennsylvania, 12 miles first day. Gettysburg past the orchards on Old Carlisle Road and Upper Bermudian Road for 13.5 miles second day.

*Wool socks and Altra trail shoes were footwear Kenny and I both used. Altra Lone Peak has an extra wide toe box and zero drop, for flat and natural foot strike. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail with another classmate, he also wore Altra shoes.

*Pack. I have several and took my Osprey Tempest 20L lightweight day pack with hold for my 3-liter Platypus water bladder and soft support frame which keeps it off my back. Drank under half the water each day because it was cool, with temperatures in the 40s to 50s.

*Clothing and Food. Wore long hiking pants and wool base layer sweater over a wool tee.  Used water bladder, snack bars and change of wool socks. Ibuprofen on hand and took 400 mg second day near finish because my knees were sore.  Sun protection for me meant a good hat and put on SP 50 for face at start. Both days were overcast but I didn’t have to put on rain gear.

* Body Glide was essential part of the trail, keeping chafing to a minimum, using it on legs, feet, chest. Kenny is a convert and fan.

*Blister Care: I had a blood blister on my left ring toe the first day and sat on Kenny’s floor to drain it, reminding me of marching in the Army. I did a lot of hiking with a military team I took on the Nijmegen Four Day 100+ road march. I asked Kenny if he pricked his blisters or cut them. He pricked them to drain them. I cut them, just one slash to drain the blood; for larger blisters a small X works best for me because a prick just allows the blister to refill. I had a water blister on my right toe after the second day. Used Kenny’s Leukotape P which was a thin strip I wrapped around the toe. Worked awesome.

*Training and Fatigue. Blisters aside, I was tired. I hadn’t realized how much so until I got home. I soaked in the bath with epsom salt and collapsed into my bed. Didn’t bat an eye until the next morning. The road and the sidewalks are hard and the miles can wear on a body. It was good we walked in the fields some but that is like the beach or soft grass; your feet slosh down and walking requires more effort. I will think about Kenny and his daily miles, the toll it has on the body as well as the lift it brings to the soul. When I asked what he most feared, Kenny said the long stretches of lonesome road, the monotony and emptiness. I hope others will continue to join him all along his route. The two days of walking went by quickly for me, especially when we were sharing stories. But be warned, if you’re going to walk with him over 10 or 20 miles, it will help to train.

*Sacrifice and Service. Casualties in Kenny’s career, which includes his command of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment in the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, include 14 killed-in-action (KIA) with two to three times as many wounded. When we had met at the last Army-Navy football game, I asked about his bracelet and he said that his first sergeant had it made for him, with the names of a dozen of his soldiers who had died in battle. Sadly, the list on it was incomplete. I remember reading the names on the bracelet, but there was no more space to fit more.

Apr 9, 2022

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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