Jun. 26—Erin Dietrich said she and her husband, Chris Rea, have experienced plenty of what she calls “divine appointments” in the past four months.
“It’s like, when sometimes we meet people, and they just blow our minds,” Dietrich said.
Rea and Dietrich are walking the width of the United States along highway shoulders and smaller paved roads heading to California on a trek of about 3,500 miles. The Mercury met up with them at a four-room motel in the small town of Downs in Osborne County. The Minnesota couple began their adventure in Delaware in February, averaging about 20 miles a day while pushing specialized strollers full of water, food, clothes and camping gear.
Dietrich, 42, said an example of one of those divine appointments occurred one night in Missouri. With a band of coyotes yipping close by, she said the netting on her stroller broke one evening. She used superglue to repair the net, but when she opened the bottle glue spilled onto her hand. She said she wasn’t thinking about her fingers but was instead focused on fixing her stroller. Then, she noticed two of her fingers were stuck together.
“My fingers, they weren’t lightly glued together, but were like, cemented from tip to knuckle,” Dietrich said.
After a dribble of alcohol — which the couple uses to fuel their camping stove — had no effect, Rea, 49, said he suggested that his wife go knock on the door of a house about 100 yards away from their camp site.
“We were sleeping in a graveyard that night,” Dietrich said. “So, I went over to the house, and it’s like, ‘Uh, where do I even start this story?'”
Rea said dusk was settling in as Dietrich walked up to the home. Dietrich said she relayed the story to the home’s residents: “I’m walking across the country, sleeping in the graveyard, and I superglued my fingers together.”
Dietrich said they, along with the people in the house, looked up the best remedies and found that finger nail polish remover works well to disintegrate superglue.
“We ended up pouring some in a cup, and I had to soak my fingers for 45 minutes to break (the glue) down, and then we took dental floss (to separate them),” Dietrich said.
After ungluing her fingers, Dietrich said the family in the house packaged up a hot meal and cold beers for her to take back to Rea, who waited at their campsite. She said the family delivered hot coffee to them the next morning.
“The kindness is just vomit-worthy, and we’ve done nothing to deserve any of that,” Dietrich said.
Rea said the compassion they have experienced on their journey “is just unbelievable” with all kinds of people in the eight states they’ve crossed stopping to share whatever they could, from bottles of water and snacks to free motel rooms and even a massage in Cawker City. He said while walking near Perry, a man rode up to them on an ATV and invited the couple to stay with him. As it turns out, the friendly stranger is a renowned tie-dye artist whose clothes sell globally for $100 or more.
“We ended up spending the whole day with that guy, making our own tie-dye shirts,” Rea said. “They’re pretty sweet.”
Rea said he heard warnings from the small community of people who have crossed the United States on foot that Kansas would be “desolate.” However, he said their impressions of the Sunflower State have so far been the opposite of barren.
“I’m telling you what, we’ve had a great time here,” Rea said. “We’re only halfway through, so I can only speak to the first half, but it’s been wonderful here in Kansas.”
Rea said he and his wife both left their good-paying jobs in “the corporate hamster wheel” to embark on this walk. Dietrich said she was inspired to take on the difficult journey about 16 years ago.
“The idea just came to me, like boom,” Dietrich said. “I’m not really a ‘God person,’ but if I was, I’d say ‘God told me to do it.’ … That’s not really the world that I live in, but I got a clear message that I have to walk across the country.”
Dietrich said she was a single mother with a 4-year old daughter at the time, so she shelved the idea. The thought never faded from her consciousness, and 10 years ago, she began saving money for the trip. Six years ago, Dietrich married Rea, and originally he was going to be the breadwinner and stay at home while his wife walked across America.
“I really had a hard time deciding whether to quit my good job and go on this walk, with no job when you come back,” Rea said. “That’s heavy … but I made the right choice. I’m having a ball.”
Early in the route planning process, the couple decided to walk along portions of the American Discovery Trail (ADT). Established in 1991, the trans-continental non-motorized trail system is composed of existing off-road tracks and other mostly rural connector routes. The American Discovery Trail Society, a nonprofit organization, manages the 6,800-mile trail network and is overseen by a board of directors. There are coordinators for the trail in each state it passes through, and development of the trail is sponsored by several businesses and organizations, including I Bike Kansas and The Herbal Emporium in Herington.
The American Discovery Trail officially begins in a state park in Delaware and finishes on the seashore in California. Dietrich said after following the trail from the East Coast into Illinois, they began forging their own path.
“We decided to go on the ADT because it at least was an established trail, so we wouldn’t have to take on like, the whole world,” Dietrich said.
The ADT is supported by memberships, partnering organizations, and donations. The website for the trail, discoverytrail.org, features an online store, trail routes by state, and contact information for board members. Rea and Dietrich said they met another man who is currently hiking the length of the ADT who goes by the trail name of “Shasta.” They said Shasta, whose real name is Michael Jones, is averaging almost 50 miles a day so that he crosses the Rocky Mountains in clear conditions.
Dietrich and Rea said their slower pace allows them to take in the scenery and to appreciate the kind gestures from people along their path.
“There’s still good people out there,” Rea said. “I’ll tell you what, Kansas has been pretty remarkable.”