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Walking the American West To Explore Transit Development Walking the American West To Explore Transit Development

Walking the American West To Explore Transit Development

by Owen Martel
May 25, 2013

This summer, my plan is to walk 2,400 miles from Galveston Bay to Seattle, exploring transit development at the local level and producing a 50-minute video at journey’s end. I'm calling the project Walk the West.

In May 2011, I was in the midst of a 4,000-mile walk from Turkey to Scotland. On the evening I crossed the border from Serbia into Croatia, I met an elderly Serbian villager who had lived most of her life in Chicago. She was walking home along the roadside because there was no longer a local bus service – after the breakup of Yugoslavia, the only nearby bridge across the Danube was in Croatia. By the time I had passed the border checkpoint and reached the nearest town, night had fallen and I was desperately searching for a guesthouse. Suddenly a car swerved to a stop across the street, and the driver jumped out waving his wallet. It was the border police. He called in backup, and when his colleagues confirmed that my newly-stamped passport was genuine, he apologized for detaining me. Seeing my backpack in the dark, he’d thought I was an illegal immigrant from Afghanistan or Tunisia.

The next morning, I got to talking with a local woman whose family had lived in the area for six hundred years. I told her I was from Hawaii, and she looked at me pityingly. “In America,” she told me, “you play cards—freedom, democracy—but you are not free. You are always moving.”

Walking across a continent, you learn surprising things about the ways people get around and think about home. The world is supposedly getting smaller, but the changes brought on by accelerating transportation and communication are often disorienting. They affect our sense of place, from our sense of the world to our sense of the neighborhoods where we live; and because transit technology is constantly evolving, it can be hard for individuals and communities to keep up. The very ease and ubiquity of transit between distant places makes it easier to overlook the people and places in between, as well as the enormous amount of work it actually takes to keep modern transportation and communication systems running.

This summer, I want to explore these issues in the American West, where long-distance transit is the stuff of legend and an essential part of daily life. In the video I'm making, I’ll combine my own traveling experiences with tales from Western transit history and conversations with Westerners who help to move people, goods, and ideas across the region – from airport staff to radio technicians, and from car mechanics to horse packers.

Along the way, I’ll face fundamental challenges of terrain and weather that continue to influence transit across the West. I’ll use a handcart to carry water, and contend with scorching mid-day temperatures. Every day will end with a race to find a place to sleep. I want to measure the work it takes to keep the West moving against the raw, basic experience of traveling on foot, and it’s going to be tough.

If the project sounds interesting, I’ve put up a preliminary site with more information here.  If you’d like to help set my journey in motion, please consider checking out the project on Kickstarter

I look forward to being in touch with you down the road.

This project will be featured in GOOD's Saturday series Push For Good—our guide to crowdfunding creative progress.




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