"Anywhere is within walking distance if you have the time."
-- Comedian Steven Wright
At a roadside country store in rural Georgia not long ago, former Nikiski resident Ray Ford asked a woman behind the counter for directions to the town's post office.
"Head on down the main road here," the clerk said in a thick southern drawl. "But stay in the left lane, or y'all be cut off."
"Oh, but we're walking," Ford replied.
"Y'all fixin' on walkin' to the post office?" the woman asked, thinking the couple miles was too far away for anyone to get to on foot.
Little did she know Ford and his five companions had just walked to her store from the very southern tip of Florida.
After explaining that to the clerk, and telling her why they're walking, the group took off down the road, 60-pound packs on their backs and determination on their minds. They knew the few miles to the post office would be no more strenuous than the thousand miles they already had walked since setting out New Year's Day.
Ford, 24 next week, is a 1995 graduate of Nikiski Middle-Senior High School. He and his friends have a mission: To walk from Key West, Fla., to Cape Gaspe, Quebec, Canada -- 4,400 miles in all -- to heighten awareness of world hunger and social injustice.
They call their trek "Hike For Hope 2001."
"We're trying to make a statement that normal people can do extraordinary things," Ford said from a pay-phone near Damascus, Va., on the Tennessee border Thursday. "We just want to show people that they can make a difference."
In a society where many people would rather fire up an 8-cylinder SUV than walk the half-mile to the convenience store for a beer and a microwave burrito, Ford and company have undertaken the 11-month walk across 16 states and two Canadian provinces in hopes of raising $1 million for Oxfam America, an international relief agency based in Boston.
"Oxfam is a great organization that goes unrecognized," said Mike Smith, one of Ford's trail mates, who lived in the central Kenai Peninsula for almost two years. "People don't know they're out there, or what they're doing."
Smith and Ford met in college in Arizona, and together with Smith's younger brother Jeff, Dakota La Croix, Kim Jackson and John Gillette, they hatched the idea to walk the Eastern Continental Trail for Oxfam.
The route from the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the St. Lawrence Seaway was dubbed the Eastern Continental Trail by long-distance hiker Eb "Nimblewill Nomad" Eberhart, who, in 1998, walked the route and wrote a book called "Ten Million Steps" about his adventure.
According to their World Wide Web site, the hikers stayed at Eberhart's home before hitting the Appalachian Trail in Georgia.
Besides the length and breadth of Florida, the route includes the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama, the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine and what has become known as the International Appalachian Trail from Fort Fairfield, New Brunswick, to Cape Gaspe.
Ford said his mother, Sue, inspired him to take up the fight against hunger when she worked at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank.
"She's a perfect role model," Ford said, adding, "My mom thinks I'm crazy, but I think she's proud of me."
He's right on both counts.
"He's always been one to do things a little different," Sue Ford said. "He's a big boy and has done his own thing for quite a while, but I worry about him. He's my only son, and it's kind of hard when you don't know who he's going to come up across."
Sue, who lives in Soldotna, said she would like Ray to "calm down and be a normal kid," but admits he could be doing worse things than hiking for hunger.
She said she only talks to Ray when he calls her, since the group doesn't carry cell phones.
She keeps track of his progress from the group's Web site, and leaves notes there, one telling him he became a new uncle when one of his sisters recently had a baby.
One of Ray's other sisters, 16-year-old Carrie, also considered her brother nuts before he started.
"I thought he was crazy," she said. "But now I'm like wow, I definitely think he's putting in the effort and will finish it. I think it's great he's doing it for charity."
Would she like to follow in her brother's footsteps?
"That would be crazy," she said. "I don't really like to hike."
Sue Ford is planning a fund-raising car wash outside her store, D-and-S Bargains, at the Red Diamond Center, to send money to Hike For Hope, but the date has not been set.
"I want people to become aware of what they're doing," she said.
She also has brochures in her store for people interested in the trek.
The trek hasn't been without its tough times. Alligators, poisonous snakes, rain, waist-deep swamps, thunderstorms, injuries, sickness and infighting have all been encountered, but overcome.
The Florida Panhandle lived up to its reputation as the lightning capital of the world when the trekkers walked through.
"The thunder and lightning was so close, the hair stood up on our arms and the ground shook when it hit," Ford said.
Another obstacle was when Jeff Smith, the youngest on the journey at 18, developed tendinitis in both feet, Ford said. He has been pushed in a succession of wheelchairs for the last 500 miles.
"We've had some rough times, but the good outweighs the bad," said Mike Smith.
"Our goal is not to have four or five, but all six finish," he added. "I would consider it a failure if we all didn't finish. We're going to finish, no matter what.
"But the hardest part is mentally. Everyone gets tired and goes through rough times, but on the other side, we're happy to be here. It's so rewarding."
Both Ford and Smith say the best thing about the hike is the people they meet along the way. Other hikers, townsfolk, even a stray dog they named Stinky, who followed them for 100 miles, have entered their lives and enriched their journey, they said.
"There is so much to see and so many people who are doing so many crazy things in their lives," Smith said. "We are rewarded many times over."
The group has been invited into many homes along the way, offered meals, showers and a bed, Ford said.
"People stop and ask us what we're doing and where we're going," he said. "And these strangers invite us into their homes. It's been an amazing, positive experience."
While the hikers have sponsorship from companies like Golden Temple organic granola, Lowe Alpine backpacks, Eureka tents and Kelty sleeping bags in exchange for publicity, they still have many expenses.
The group has an office in Boston, which mails supplies to post offices along the route. The supplies and mail are major expenses for the group. As the walkers continue, they should mark the halfway point -- 2,200 miles -- somewhere in Virginia, and hope to meet President George W. Bush when they reach Washington, D.C.
They will be six months into the hike by then, and at their 13-mile a day pace, they still must face the oppressive humidity of late summer before the chill of early winter in Canada's maritime provinces.
"If you take it one day at a time, distances are nothing," Ford said. Calling them the words he lives by, he added, quoting comedian Steven Wright, "Anywhere is within walking distance if you have the time."
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