Journey turns into more than a hike for Ray Ford

Nikiski man conquers eastern trail

Posted: Monday, December 10, 2001

When Nikiski's Ray Ford announced he was going to hike from the southern tip of subtropical Florida to the frigid maritime shore of Canada, his family, friends, acquaintances and former classmates all doubted his sanity and his ability.

So did he.

"Definitely. I definitely doubted myself, especially in the first days," Ford said after returning home after completing his journey. "And then the never-ending trip seemed like it would never end."

The first days of the hike were the first days of the year. His group of six struck out from Key West, Fla., on New Year's Day, and 305 days later, on Nov. 2, he and his companions laid their hands on a lighthouse at Cape Gaspe, Quebec, ending a walk of 4,400 miles over the Eastern Continental Trail.

The group dubbed their trek the Hike for Hope 2001 and had plans to raise $1 million for Oxfam America, an international relief agency based in Boston. The hikers are not yet sure how much money they raised for Oxfam, but are sure it fell far short of their goal.

"If it weren't for the great people we met along the way, I would consider the hike a complete failure," Ford said. "The people were just wonderful."

The six -- Ford, brothers Mike and Jeff Smith, Dakota La Croix, Kim Jackson and John Gillette -- had several challenges along the way, even splitting up for three days.

Ford and Jackson, who became romantically involved on the trail, left the Hike for Hope in Philadelphia.

"But we decided we needed to get back and finish with the others," Ford said.

One of the reasons they broke off from the group was because he and Jackson wanted to get off streets and back to trails.

The group stuck to trails, mostly the Appalachian, until they reached Washington, D.C., but from then on into Canada, they road hiked. The group decided the media attention would be better if they were where the people were and not off in the woods. But the decision came at a physical cost to their backs, knees and feet.

"It turned from 90 percent woods to 100 percent roads," Ford said. "It's all cement, and the concrete had no give."

Jackson developed back problems partly from helping to push Jeff Smith, who was confined to a wheelchair for much of the trip due to tendinitis. Since the hikers were taking turns pushing Smith, they all had to walk at near the same pace, instead of walking at their own, and meeting up at the end of the day.

"We were all chained together; we all had to stay within a mile of each other because soon it would be our turn to push," Ford said.

Their plan to stay on the roads did not pay off in more media attention, however.

"We were shunned by all press except for the Boston Globe," he said.

He said a paper in Connecticut turned them down because they had recently done a story about two people who had driven there from Florida.

"It was very insulting," Ford said.

He said in many towns they hiked through, people wondered who they were and what they were doing, surprised the trip wasn't in their local papers.

The sextet met former first lady and current Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, and received a proclamation of support from Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, when they visited the nation's capital. Along the way, they met Jay North, who portrayed Dennis in the Dennis the Menace television shows of the 1950s. They also met a member of the British rock group Chumbawumba, who was an in-law of one of the hikers.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 took their toll on the hikers as they did the entire country. The group walked through Washington, D.C., and past the Pentagon, which was severely damaged by one attack. A month before the attacks, they walked right up to the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and caught the subway from Battery Park at their base. They were at a Taco Bell in Wiscasset, Maine, when they heard news of the attacks.

"We were very depressed. We felt (our walk) was all for naught," Ford said. "When your country goes to war, world hunger goes out the door."

He said people would ask them why they were walking to raise awareness of world hunger when America was having problems. Ford said he told them Oxfam America serves the United States, as well.

"We did start to wonder why we were doing it, but we kept going," he said.

Five scraggly-bearded men among the six prompted a number of calls of concern in the small towns they walked through after Sept. 11.

"But all the police we talked to were all very cool once we explained who we were and what we were doing," Ford said.

But the mayor of Port Daniel, Quebec, was not as understanding.

"He called me the son of bin Laden and accused us of spreading anthrax through Canada," Ford said. "It was just amazing. People were scared of our big beards."

Ford said the mayor asked for their identification and called the Canadian equivalent of the FBI.

The hikers got to meet a lot of police officers all along the way. One, who was called after a woman saw them enter the nearby woods to camp, brought them to the neighbor's home and explained to her what their mission was.

"She was so embarrassed that she let us camp in her back yard," Ford said.

The final stretch of the hike was delayed for 10 days as the Smith brothers flew home to New Mexico to attend the funeral of their sister. The other four waited for them in New Brunswick.

"It was really hard. We knew we couldn't finish without them. We pushed Jeff for months and there was no way were going to get there without him," Ford said.

But two weeks later, finish they did, all together, just as they had started 10 months earlier.

"It's nothing short of a miracle. We overcame a lot of problems," Ford said. "We had a couple tears."

The group got a ride from Gillette's father back to Boston, where they went their separate ways.

Ford took away from the ordeal an appreciation for the freedom he had on the trail and for the simple life.

"It's an amazing lifestyle, so simple," he said. "I took for granted being able to get up and go for a hike, and now I'm back here where it's 15 below and I can't hike or camp."

His mother, Susan Ford, is thrilled her son is home. His return was expected, but the date was unknown to her. He showed up at her Soldotna home and surprised her when she returned from shopping.

"I'm so very proud of him and what he did for Oxfam," she said.

"I cried when I saw my mom," Ray said. "It's been two years since I've seen her, and in that time I've been to 42 states and seen so many new people and new things."

"It's great to have him home for Christmas and Thanksgiving," Susan said. "And I'm glad to have him home, even if it's temporarily."

Ray Ford is not done walking. His next trip will be the Pacific Crest Trail, from Baja, Mexico, to Vancouver, British Columbia, via California, Oregon and Washington state. He and Jackson hope to hit the trail in the spring. He also wants to go coast-to-coast and would like to take another hike along the Eastern Continental Trail. But next time it will be just he and his companion, hiking on trails the whole way.

"I'm pretty sure by the time I get done long distance walking, I'll have 20,000 miles under my belt," he said.

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