Hiker enjoys Walk of a Lifetime
By Elizabeth Cook
A year ago at this time, David Barlow was on “a walk of a lifetime,” as he calls it ó and that’s saying a lot.
A Landis firefighter and retired teacher, Barlow has hiked in Alaska, Yosemite and the Tetons, to name a few places. He has climbed almost half way up Mount Ranier and has hiked “rim to river and back” in the Grand Canyon in one day on nine different occasions, once in a blinding snowstorm in March.
But his 42-day trek down the original Blue Ridge Parkway last September and October ó raising awareness about Operation Christmas Child ó surpasses all other trips for Barlow.
He was about a quarter of the way through his journey at this time last year. “I can smell it in the air,” Barlow says. “I wish I could go back out there. … I would drop everything and go right now.”
When he planned the hike, he had just retired from teaching science at Mooresville High School and was facing his first fall without returning to the classroom.
So he sought out a different classroom ó the parkway where he had worked as a park ranger many, many summers ago. That’s where he got his first lessons about the Blue Ridge Parkway ó just enough to know he wanted more.
The hiking trip was an atypical solo outing. For years, Barlow has led teams of high school and college students on summer treks out West, in Alaska and other places through his nonprofit educational organization, American Odyssey.
This time, it was just Barlow, his walking stick and the trail.
“Actually, it was me, myself and I,” he says. “I just let everything else go.”
He had no lesson plans to follow or tests to grade. He wasn’t leading a group.
He just walked and camped along the roadway of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Walking, walking, walking.
“The Simple Life,” he noted in his journal. “No Cares. This is What I Do.”
There was plenty of time to take in his surroundings ó turkeys calling in the distance, the woofing of deer, salamanders, butterflies, bird songs in the day, night hawks’ calls after dark.
He even saw signs that some large bears had covered the same ground.
“All other travel is missing the mark,” he wrote in his journal. “Bicycles, Motorcycles, Cars, Buses, Trucks, are all ‘Time Machines.’ John Muir was right. ‘Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.’ ”
Along the way, Barlow met many Trail Angels ó people who offered food, shelter or other help along the way. Some had read of his adventure on his blog or in local newspapers; others just happened across his path ó or vice versa.
They ranged from “three unnamed guys from Waynesboro who offered me a Coke in an overlook early in the trip,” to Stewart Childress, pastor of Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian churches, who let Barlow stay in the church shelter adjacent to the parkway. “Great time talking about the walk and my walk with the Lord,” Barlow noted.
And the folks at home never forgot him. First United Methodist Church of Landis sent a care package he also mentions in his blog ó “I have Grape Juice and Brownies as well as written good wishes from my Church Family. Whoo Hooo!!”
There seems to be a spiritual element to everything Barlow does.
Along his 479-mile route, Barlow talked to people about one of his family’s favorite charities, Operation Christmas Child.
As he was planning his hike, he wanted to dedicate it to a greater cause than his own appreciation of nature. His mother, Emily Barlow of Middletown, R.I., suggested the Operation Christmas Child project run by Samaritan’s Purse, which gathers shoeboxes full of donated items to distribute to children around the world.
“My mother and dad coordinate their church’s OCC program, as well as serving as regional promoters of the Operation Christmas Child in southern New England,” Barlow says. “They have been to southern Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula to distribute Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes.”
Anytime Barlow met people along the way, they invariably asked what he was doing ó and that led to discussions about Operation Christmas Child. Hundreds of people who never heard of it or Samaritan’s Purse heard about it from him, standing beside the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Barlow started Aug. 30, 2008, at Jarman Gap, beginning at a section of the parkway that has been incorporated into the Shenandoah National Park, outside Waynesboro, Va. That may make him the only person to have hiked the full length of the original parkway.
He finished walking on Oct. 12, 2008, in Cherokee. But the experience goes on as he updates his blog (backpackingtheparkway.blogspot.com) and writes a book about the experience, tentatively titled “A Miracle at Every Step.”
He also has a new license plate on his car, a yellow-and-green state tag that supports the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. His tag says “THRU BP” ó signifying his backpacking trip “thru” the entire parkway. “Share the Journey,” the tag says at the top.
The journey is the destination, he likes to say. And David Barlow practices what he preaches.
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This year, Operation Christmas Child’s National Collection Week is Nov. 16-23. For more info, go to www.samaritanspurse.org.
Excerpts from David Barlow’s notes along the Blue Ridge Parkway:
Raptors … Soaring, Gliding, Hanging, Tilted, Veering, Hovering as the thermal lifts, holds. Feathers like hooks on the ends of their wings cling and hold as the mighty birds wheel in the azure blue, thin mountain air. “Because they Can”
Glorious Day!! Silence is loud. Not many cars. The click of Grasshoppers on the heated roadway, High Cirrus Clouds are signaling a weather change. Sundogs in the afternoon. The rustle of leaves ń the beginning color change. “The Fall of Summer”. Seasons changing on the Parkway. My walk is nearing its end.
Leaving the Mill’s River area. Looking back to the Asheville Airport watching a jet take off, it circles overhead and as the turbines whine, the sound disturbs a Pack of Coyotes just off of the Parkway. The chorus of yelps and howling that ensues can be heard for several miles. Only on foot is one treated to such pleasures of the Parkway.
Leaves, swirling, flying, making little tornadoes, crackling, crunching, there is a coolness to the air, golden, red, brown, green. These are the colors of Fall. …