Henry, a.k.a. the “Climate Walker,” began his journey in Boston in June, with the intention to end up in Los Angeles by December. Although he didn’t quite make it to the west coast – last month he decided to cut his walk short following a couple close calls with traffic – he was still able to cover over 1,000 miles by himself on foot and get dozens of people talking about climate change.
It’s an issue Henry has been following for years, and he has become frustrated that “there hasn’t been much done.”
“I think that 2012 was a big motivation for me too,” he said. He called that year a “climate Pearl Harbor in a way,” referencing the extensive drought and heat wave in this country, historic melting of Arctic ice, and Hurricane Sandy. “I just felt I had to get out there and do something, something unusual,” Henry said.
The idea of walking across the country was something he had considered years ago. He had already started a nonprofit in St. Louis to improve the walkability of the city and encourage kids to walk to school. “I’ve been a walking advocate for awhile,” Henry explained.
At the time he had two young kids at home, but with his daughters now college-age – one just graduated from Oberlin and the other is starting at St. Olaf – Henry revisited the idea.
He did some research and looked into people who had crossed the country on foot before. But instead of following what would be the quickest route east to west, starting in Georgia, he opted for a more populated route starting in the northeast.
“I really wanted to follow along places where it would be populations in order to get from one end to the other because I wanted to have these conversations,” he explained. “So that’s why I chose a starting point in Boston.” In retrospect, he realizes that wasn’t the best route for walking.
Still, he walked, across Massachusetts west into New York and on and on into Pennsylvania and Ohio. He averaged 17.2 miles a day, though most days he would cover 20 miles or more. If he pushed it too hard (doing over 25 miles in a day) he would get worn out and would have to take the next day off to give his feet a rest.
Henry would sleep wherever he could find a place to crash. He tried to use the resource couchsurfing.org as much as he could, but often he would not know where he’d be at the end of the day. Some folks he met along the road were kind enough to open their homes to him for the night. He stayed at motels on a few occasions; otherwise he camped, pitching a tent in a state or town park and even sleeping in his cart some nights when he didn’t have a tent.
The cart, weighing about 85 pounds, resembled a giant mailbox. Henry built it based on a design for a homeless shelter. It contained all of his supplies and equipment, and he would push it in front of him as we walked along the road. It certainly drew attention from curious passerby. “The cart was always a good conversation starter,” Henry said.
Engaging people in conversation on the climate issue was the primary purpose of Henry’s walk. When he started his journey in Boston, the first person Henry encountered he described as “very negative,” but most people, he found, were not like that. “Most of the time people were real civil and they were kind, even when they disagreed with me,” Henry said.
Of the couple dozen conversations he had throughout his journey, only a small percentage of those he talked with seemed to share in his level of concern about climate change. He estimates about 10 percent of the people he encountered were at the level of feeling ‘very concerned’ about the issue. “I was hoping for a higher level of concern among the people I talked to,” Henry said.
Most of the people he talked to had heard of the issue, but felt no personal responsibility to do anything about it and were under the impression that climate scientists are not in consensus on the issue.
Henry was surprised he actually had to explain what climate change is to some of the people he encountered. “There actually was a segment of people I talked to who seemed to know nothing about the issue,” he said.
There were also people he talked to who accept climate change as a serious problem but seemed to have given up their own resolve to do anything about it.
David Henry is not one of those people. He is certainly not giving up. He may have given up his ambitious cross-country walk, but he is still in the fight big time.
After having walked a total of 1,042 miles over 60 days, Henry made the difficult decision to cut his climate walk short just east of Dayton, OH on August 7. He cited concern about his safety on the road and the need to return to his job at the Missouri History Museum as the main reasons behind his decision. Henry returned home to St. Louis and plans on keeping up his blog (www.climate-walker.org) and getting more active on the climate issue in his area. “I’m going to work with the local Sierra club on direct action here,” Henry said.
Reflecting upon his on-foot journey, Henry acknowledged he had some degree of impact as a climate messenger. “I’ve been able to raise awareness among the 200 or so people I’ve had contact with,” he said. “My hope is that of those 200, there’s a couple dozen of them who go out and they start talking with their friends, their family and they spread the message.”