The walk, by numbers
In his quest to walk from the Canadian border to the southernmost landmark in the U.S. Phil Woods has racked up some interesting numbers:
■ He’s gone through six pairs of shoes.
■ He’s traveled about nearly 5,600 miles, including this walk and an east-west walk he did in 2006.
■ Spoke to impressive audiences about his journey, with the biggest one a Boys and Girls Club in Sarasota for 400 people, mostly children)
Wood’s smallest audience was in Atlanta, where a friend met him and walked for a while with him.
NAPLES — A little before 8 a.m. Monday morning, Phil Woods walked over the Edison Bridge into downtown Fort Myers. The view, he said, was “so pretty.”
Phil Woods, 72, of Naples, came to that view on a North-to-South walk that began in International Falls, Minn., on April 23. He plans to be at the finish line in Key West this October. The Naples man is scheduled to walk through his home city today, wearing his favorite orange baseball hat, a white golf shirt and slacks. He will stop at the corner of U.S. 41 and 5th Avenue South and will be taking a break so he can see his one of his granddaughters get married on the beach this Friday, and speak at a walk and talk on Sept. 29.
To finish in Key West on time, he aims to walk about 25 miles day.
By 10 a.m. Monday, he was walking along the busy intersection of Crystal Drive and US 41, about 10 miles south of the Edison Bridge. Cars, motorcycles and trucks drove past him, their engines rumbling between stops and starts at the traffic light.
“There’s some noise. I put up with that all the time,” he said.
Woods is actually on his second such walk; he completed a two-year, 3,100-mile walk from Maryland to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in 2006.
He hopes his ambitious traversals will inspire others to take an active role in their communities and with their own health.
“I started off trying to get people active, and that’s still my story,” he said.
He and his wife, Carol, 74, have been traveling together and chronicling their experiences on a blog. Carol Woods is the trip photographer, while Phil Woods writes posts at night after his walks.
He wants people to understand that service requires groups to “see the needs of the community.”
“For example, if they see litter along the road, they can be active in seeing some of those problems,” Phil Woods said.
A few feet from where he stood on the intersection, Woods spotted bottles and empty plastic cups that littered the grass beside the sidewalk.
“How attractive is that to the city of Fort Myers? They don’t want to be known as the city of litter,” he said.
He admits community needs are getting more complex. The effects of the financial crisis are “obvious” across America, he said.
“(There are) a lot of empty buildings. A lot of people unemployed,” he said.
Along the roads he’s walked, businesses that used to employ 70 to 100 employees when the economy was stronger, are now vacant. Some communities are divided between socioeconomic lines: on one side of town it’s “nice and bright,” while on the other side, the littered grass is “waist-high.”
“I’ve seen the seedy side of the country. I’ve seen the affluent side. I’ve seen all of it,” he said.
Still, he thinks a bit of adversity makes people stronger.
“After some time passes, you realize it was a godsend,” Woods said. For example, he explained, people who have lost their jobs and are forced to retrain may be better off in the future because of their new skills, according to Woods.
“If you’re hungry and trying to feed your family, then that’s not much of a consolation. I sympathize,” he said. “(These) problems are real.”
Wherever he goes, Woods stops to talk to people along the way to spread his messages of hope, service and wellness.
In Georgia, Woods was invited to speak to students at a charter school after the owner’s son read an article about him in a local newspaper.
When he walked up to the school, all the students were outside, leaning over a white picket fence and looking at him, Phil Woods said. When he saw the crowd, he said he became energized.
“This nut starts running past them, slapping their hands like a football player,” his wife recalls.
It’s those moments with people that motivate him during his long walks, according to Phil Woods.
“It’ll last me the rest of the day. I never get tired,” he said.
There are dangers on the American highways, byways and bridges, but Phil Woods said has picked up a few skills to stay safe. He thinks about what direction the wind is blowing to determine what the air quality is going to be like on his walk, something he never thought to consider before.
When he’s lucky there are sidewalks, but beside highways there usually aren’t. Either way, he learned to obey the childhood rule: Always walk facing traffic.
“You never know what’s coming at you,” he said.
One day, Woods watched as pieces of rubber came off a dump truck’s tire.
“Then, here comes the whole darn tire right at me,” he said.
Because he was able to see it happen, he stepped off to the side before the tire hit him.
Another morning, the Woods decided to get an early start crossing a narrow bridge over Nickajack Lake in Tennessee. After the two made it to the other side, Carol Woods stopped the truck at a service station, but her husband decided to keep walking.
It was still dark, but he saw two pairs of glowing eyes looking at him.
“I (saw) two coyotes,” Phil Woods said. “They were working me over (with their eyes).”
Although he tried to “motivate” them to leave him alone, he recalled, the coyotes remained ominous and focused on him. So he waited in stillness, hoping a car would pass by and scare them off.
A few minutes later, a driver in a yellow Jeep stopped, picked him up and drove him back to the service station.
After that ordeal, Woods bought a hatchet in Missouri.
“I know a coyote will stalk you for several miles, so I’ve got my hatchet,” he said.
Despite those instances, Woods said he’s been relatively safe. But he doesn’t want to encourage anyone to try a similar walk.
“It’s not safe,” he conceded. “I don’t want to promote walking on highways in any way.”
Now that the final celebration in Key West is nigh, Woods is reflecting on the effects of his journey. He’s unsure about what the outcome will be in the lives of others, but he hopes people will keep dreaming.
“I’m afraid I’ve inspired (people) to do something for two weeks, and then they fall off the wagon,” he said.
What he really wants is for people to change their lifestyles permanently.
“I really can’t make a difference with everyone. I don’t know how many people I have to impress to make it worthwhile. It’s been worthwhile to me,” he said.