Episode 2 Below
Adventure Travel | Plans | The Long Journey Podcast
This is Jason Jamar and the Long Journey Podcast, detailing my travels across America as I share thrilling stories from my 16-month backpacking trek from California to Maine and my eight-month kayak voyage from Maine to Texas.
On September 20, 1999, I embarked on a two-and-a-half-year journey. A trek on foot over 4,000 miles from San Diego, CA, to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, Canada – just across the international bridge from Calais, ME.
Adventure Travel | Plans | The Long Journey Podcast
“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th U.S. President.
Two miles after the first cache drop, I was dying! People were scratching their heads, wondering why I crawled along the sidewalk like Eyegor from Young Frankenstein or is it Frankenstein. I had so much weight in my backpack that I thought, how am I going to get to Maine, much less get out of town? It was apparent that I needed to shed some weight, and it would have to be more than the handle of my toothbrush.
This is the Long Journey Podcast with Jason Jamar, detailing my travels across America as I share thrilling stories from my 16-month backpacking trek from California to Maine and my eight-month kayak voyage from Maine to Texas.
Four hundred thirty-eight days, 7 hours, 26 minutes, and 14 seconds until a “wake-up!”
The date was June 06, 1998, 16:33 hours and 46 seconds (or 4:33 pm), and the result of 438 days, 7 hours, 26 minutes, and 14 seconds resulted from the E.A.S. (End of Active Service) calculator I had just entered my E.A.S. date, September 10, 1999.
“A wake-up,” an idiom referring to the glorious day a Marine, a Marine who had determined that they were not a “lifer,” or a career Marine, transitioned back to 1st Civ Div, 1st Civilian Division, jargon for being a civilian!
I was a data communications Marine with Marine Wing Communications Squadron 38 within the 3rd Marine Air Wing; this meant that I knew that you color with crayons in addition to eating them!
Someone must have been or was about to get out of the Marine Corps; this moment generally led to speculation among the rest of us about what one would do after completing their obligation to Uncle Sam and trying to figure out how much time they still had.
Like Clarence getting his wings in It’s a Wonderful Life. “Every time a bell rings, a Marine gets their “wake up!”
This ritual was akin to fishing stories; instead of regaling everyone with the “one” that got away, it was dreams and plans about what one would do with their lives post-Marine Corps. We all delighted in hearing their plans and secretly envied the Marine “waking up!”
Do I go home, get an I.T. job, and do what I do now but make a lot more? Or go to school? Or what if I did something completely different? Maybe an adventure.
I was looking for an adventure. I have always had an adventurous streak that the Corps didn’t quite satiate. It probably intensified my appetite. I wanted to test my mettle to see if I had what it takes. I wanted to travel at leisure and see the nation I had served. I had found that those who are the guarantors of liberty usually don’t have a great deal themselves, and I wanted the freedom to go for a long adventure on my terms.
A couple of buddies and I were all to get out about six weeks of one another, and we had started dreaming up this idea to hobo/hike across the county. They were both from the Northeast, and I was from central Texas. So while this sounded cool, I didn’t see a reason to go on past Texas.
But the more I pondered it, the idea grew, and then my goal morphed into New York State. Eventually, I thought, if I go that far, I should go on to Maine, then I would have gone corner to corner. I would have bragging rights!
This was an adventure that I could get behind. It reminded me of reading Peter Jenkins’ book, A Walk Across America when I was in the 8th grade. I believed this experience would be an education unlike any other. I would experience and see the country in a way I would never get from a book. I was young and single, with no attachments. Why wait until I am retired to travel and see the world? Why not now. (I secretly hoped this adventure might have the added benefit of making me a better man for my future wife.) I wanted a tale that I could tell my grandkids about someday, and this was it.
More importantly, I became a Christian during my senior year in high school. I found that I related best to God in nature. And I hoped to find a deeper understanding of Him in the hard places, a monastic bent to my travels. Perhaps the best you can do is strive with your faith.
As a freshman in high school, I played trumpet in the band. Our section leader, Eric Abercrombie, took me under his wing and mentored me. He started calling me Percy, which I didn’t find flattering at all, and I asked him why. He told me to read the Scarlet Pimpernel. So I found a copy in the library and read the Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy.
Sir Percy Blakeney is soon introduced as a buffoon; I thought, why would I think it cool to be nicknamed after him? My friend must be having a laugh at my expense. But further into the story, this is just a rouse for who Percy really is. The Scarlet Pimpernel was an 18th Century proto-batman who had a secret identity and relied on quick wit and disguises to save the day as he rescued those to be executed during the French Revolution. In the book, the characters travel between Dover, England, and Calais, France; as I was surveying the map of Maine, near the Easternmost corner lay Calais, ME.
Ah Ha! Perfect! I will finish my daring exploits in Calais, ME. (Only, I would find many miles later that Down East Mainers don’t pronounce it Calais, they pronounce it Calais, like I have been chopping firewood all day and now have a callous on my hand.) I would start in San Diego and travel to Calais.
Now I had a location to start and finish. I am going to backpack across the nation! Whoa! You don’t just wake up one day, yawn, and say, “I think I will walk across the country today.” Now I had to plan. I had to take the significant goal of hiking from San Diego to Maine and break it down into much more manageable bits. So, I started researching everything I could; I read and searched for maps about Pacific Crest Trail (P.C.T.), Continental Divide Trail, The North Country Trail, The Finger Lakes Trail, The Appalachian Trail, The Natchez Trace, you get the picture.
I created a reading list to prepare myself to accomplish my goal: A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins, Undaunted Courage by Steven E. Ambrose, and every issue that I could get my hands on of Backpacker magazine.
I studied different backpacking philosophies – such as ultra-light backpacking vs. traditional. Hiking poles, boots, hats, breathable shirts, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, tents, hammocks, tarps, rain gear, knives, hatchets, stoves, etc. I examined lengthy debates on the merits of an external vs. an internal frame pack—iodine pills vs. water filter kits or both.
I even researched alternatives to dial-up internet, like using portable ham radio to connect to the internet, which was doable but not entirely practical back then.
I began to study the weather patterns and the projected time of year I would be in each region of the country. Since I would be leaving Southern California in the fall, it made sense to stay in the south until springtime and start making my way north to Maine.
Then I began working out the two biggest challenges I saw before me; budget and water. I mapped the distances between towns and the rest stops I could find on the maps.
Then I drove as much of the planned route between San Diego, CA, and Marble Falls, TX, as I could, taking careful notes. Notes included mileage between each city, town, village, or rest stop I would encounter along my way. (I paid particular attention to anywhere that I could find water. For instance, at mile marker 380 on highway 60 in Arizona, 3/4 of a mile north, there is a cattle trough and a windmill, worst case scenario – water.)
About six months before my projected start date, I started preparing food. I found a local Schlotzky’s over in Lake Forest, CA. Sidenote: I love Schlotzky’s; the bread makes it irresistible. Back then, it was just fantastic, and today it makes me twice the man I was! They used to give away their 1-gallon pickle and sauerkraut jars (that’s right, glass jars, not the plastic numbers) to anyone that would ask for them. I gathered as many as I could and stored my food supplies in them until it was time to pack for the trip.
I had started saving M.R.E.s (Meal Ready to Eat) from my deployments, and several friends also started giving me their extra meals. I purchased a food dehydrator and began making banana and apple chips. I would marinate meat overnight and let it transform into beef jerky during the workday. Every payday, I bought granola bars and instant oatmeal. Every spare moment became consumed with studying maps, preparing food, and making plans.
My roommate, Todd Goldstein, and I split an early morning paper route that was on base. I also took a night job at Subway. Anything and everything to get out of debt, purchase equipment, and tuck away savings in preparation for the trip of a lifetime.
Then in the few fleeting moments that I wasn’t on duty, throwing newspapers, or making sandwiches, I slipped away to the mountains to hike. I was up in the hills with a couple of friends. We had gone hiking for the day in the foothills not too far from Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. (MCAS El Toro is now closed, we were some of the last Marines there. At its closure, we were relocated to our new home at MCAS Miramar.) While hiking in a dry creek bed, I found a large stick or staff about the diameter of a Louisville Slugger near the handle end. It hardly weighed anything at all and was also nicely balanced. So I picked up the stick and picked up a rock. I pitched the stone in the air like a baseball coach smacking balls at his infield players. I swung my “bat,” made contact, and split the rock in two! “Interesting,” I thought to myself. Well, it wasn’t the toughest of stones, I decided. So I picked up another rock about the same size and swung away. “Crack!” Into the air, two individual pieces of the rock went flying. At that moment, I found my walking stick.
That stick became a part of my equipment that I carried the entire trip across the U.S. I even lashed it to the deck of my kayak for the return trek home, and now it is here in my office next to my desk.
I had even sorted through my baseball card collection and decided the trip was worth parting with my most valuable trading cards. My Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie cards, Topps, Upperdeck, Fleer, Donruss. My Topps Cal Ripken, Jr. rookie cards. My Nolan Ryans, Don Mattingly, Bo Jackson, and many more. I raised about $800 in trip funds, which wasn’t too shabby in 1999.
I had written to Camelbak, Schlotzsky’s, and Wesco Boots for sponsorship. Camelbak sent a H.A.W.G. (No, not that kind of hog! Or that kind either, though that would’ve been really cool!)(acronym means Holds A lotta Water and Gear) in which I put two 2.2 liter water pouches. Schlotzky’s is mostly franchisee-owned; they sent a copy of their yearly corporate report with all the addresses for every location worldwide. This proved valuable to me later, as I tried to visit all the locations on or near my route to get my fix! (I’m telling you, the bread is addictive!) Wesco Boots provided my custom-made all-leather boots. I was very thankful. I made many plans, many worked out great, and others I had to overcome and adapt.
In my last few months in San Diego, I was a Marine by day and a sandwich artist by night. The gentleman I worked for owned 9 Subways in the San Diego area. I worked in three of them. Back then, you could earn free sandwiches if you filled in a little card with eight stamps. (The Sub Club program.) When I was about to start my trip, he gave me a giant roll of those stamps and a huge stack of cards, over 300 feet of free sandwiches!
Then in the last week of August of ’99, my days consisted of the gauntlet of required separation procedures from the Marine Corps, and my nights were filled with packing supply boxes based on the mileage between each proposed cache site.
I scheduled my last day of active duty in the United States Marine Corps to coincide with my birthday, September 02, 1999. There I was with my little white Nissan pickup, its bed loaded with boxes of supplies. Each box labeled with a different city—Twenty-five cities along a predetermined route between San Diego and Marble Falls. Each box represented a supply drop I had planned along my course as I traveled back to Marble Falls, the halfway point. The plan was to use supply drops from the west coast to Texas; then mail drops from Marble Falls to Maine.
On this night, in the middle of the Southern Californian Mountains, I drove up to a U. S. Border Patrol checkpoint. My first thought was, “Great, 12:30 at night, and I have 25 boxes labeled with cities across the Southwest! I must look like an amateur drug runner.” I mean, this is how would-be drug runners do it, right, with 5-gallon buckets and boxes with cities labeled on the outside crammed in a tiny truck in the middle of the night!
As the border patrol officer motioned me up to the checkpoint, and I answered questions and showed my i.d., I hastily explained what I was doing and that today was my last day in the Marine Corps. To my surprise, he told me to go on. Oh, I was worried for nothing! Then just as I got a few yards from the checkpoint, he motioned me to stop.
Another officer came out with a dog and decided they wanted to search my vehicle. “What a joke!” I thought. Then I began to worry if the pounds and pounds of homemade beef jerky would make the dog act funny, causing them to want to open and search every box of supplies I carried. Then I would be on the side of the road in the middle of the night repacking all of my supplies, and I didn’t have any packing tape!
I was starting to get angry; I worried about driving down the road with my boxes unsealed and my supplies blowing out. I asked what the problem was, reminding them that I had just been cleared to go. This other officer was a little less than cordial, to put it mildly. He ordered me out of my truck with all the social graces of a wood chipper with language that would make a sailor blush! Then yelled, umm, instructed me to sit on a bench and wait. I was furious, and they could tell. I also mentioned that if they opened my stuff, they had better have some more tape so I could reseal my boxes of supplies – more yelling from the kindly Border Patrol officer. I sat down. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, so if I could bide my time, I would be on my way again shortly. I passed the time stewing. I stew a lot.
I was finally cleared; they had the dog go through my truck and behind the seat and only opened a few of the 5-gallon buckets. Thankfully, they left my taped boxes alone. The first officer sent me on my way while the “heavy” went back inside his office without so much as a glance in my direction, just pretending I wasn’t there. I hoped that this experience wasn’t an omen of events to come.
It took me a while to calm down, and on the plus side, fuming helped me stay awake for the many miles left ahead. I decided this wasn’t an omen; I had been worried over something that never even happened, how much of our lives are wasted with worries that never come to pass.
One of the more random and least planned parts of my preparation was that as I drove the route back to Texas, I would stop at churches, police stations, and places of business and introduce myself and explain what I was about to undertake. I would then ask if I could leave a box of supplies with them. I even staged my winter gear with the local police dept in Prescott, AZ.
I got the contact information for each place that allowed me to leave supplies so that I could put an itinerary together for my father. Once the trip was underway, If he hadn’t heard from me in a while, he could at least check in with whoever might be next on the list corresponding to where I had last checked in. I buried enough water for two people in all the places where I thought I would need water and wouldn’t be able to get it otherwise.
I had a little green notebook, The Green Military Memorandum Book, a small 3.25″ x 5.5 ” notebook with all of my most important trip details, locations, and points of contact for all my food, water, and supply cache drops. My notes also contained the local dial-up numbers for Prodigy Internet for each city across the country along my path so I could log in with my laptop. (I had to carry a laptop and a digital camera in a weatherproof case; now, I could do all that and more with a smartphone.) My childhood friend Aaron Haley, whose dad, Robert, paid for my internet while I traveled as a way to sponsor the trip. He felt it was important to document as much of the journey as I could. You could say he supported this show with his generous donation then.
I mentioned water for two, which wasn’t so to have extra water; this was to have been for my friend who had planned to do this trek with me. Earlier I had mentioned that three of us had planned this trip. One of my friends reluctantly bowed out about six months before we began because he knew his financial obligations wouldn’t allow it. My other would-be partner finished his time in the Corps one month before me. He bought a 30-day Greyhound pass and just traveled for a month, waiting for me to get out. We planned to meet in San Diego to begin our trip in late September. I noticed that I was putting a bit more time and effort into preparing for this than he was, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt that all was fine and we would be adventuring across the country together. In my mind, I had imagined that this trek would be similar to the adventures of Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae of Lonesome Dove Lore; only no one would lose a leg and die, and the other – be tasked with carrying his corpse home. We had been friends for a couple of years, but after this voyage, we would have a friendship and bond like that of the Lonesome Dove Texas Rangers or Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee of Lord of the Rings. But as it turned out, the closer we got to the trip, the more I think he started to have reservations if this was really for him, especially after having time to ponder while riding on a greyhound bus across the desert.
Two weeks before we were supposed to meet, while I was still back in Texas, having just finished leaving water and supplies across the route from San Diego to Marble Falls, he called me and broke the news he would not be going on the trip. I was disappointed, but I was not deterred. I had put too much into preparing for this to turn back now. Ego is powerful; I had told too many people of my plans! I just wished he would have told me sooner. I would have started two weeks sooner.
The Greyhound bus from Central Texas to San Diego through the desert southwest gave me a serious reality check that I would be doing this alone.
September 22, 1999.
Elevation: 477ft above Sea Level
Sunrise: 6:36am Sunset: 6:45pm
Moon Phase: Waxing Gibbous
Location: Poway, CA
The morning started with a ride from my old barracks room at Miramar to a Subway restaurant ten miles away in Poway that I had hiked to the day before. This had been one of the Subways that I “moonlighted.” I had good reason to stop at this Subway besides just getting a foot long. My first cache of supplies was waiting for me there—a food and snack cache.
The funny thing, I never really weighed my backpack. Now you can read about long-distance backpacking and become wholly inundated in a litany of the necessary gear, specifications, ratings, advice, etc. Trust me; I spent months researching what every expert had to say. Plus, having four years of experience hiking as a Marine didn’t make me a complete novice. In my research, there is a school of thought that you should make your pack and gear as light as possible, ultralight backpacking. We are talking about cutting the handle off your toothbrush to save a part of an ounce kind of backpacking. Not a bad way to go; the idea has great merit. However, sometimes ultralight backpackers will cut necessary equipment for the sake of a lighter pack.
Yeah, that wasn’t me. I tended to fall into a whole other school of thought! I wanted to be prepared for anything and have a few luxuries. In boot camp, there was a great deal of physical conditioning and a great deal of material that you had to learn in a short amount of time. We were routinely tested on how well we were learning. Plus, how our platoon did on the “academic” portion of boot camp mattered in our overall standings compared to the other platoons. So to properly motivate the studies, you were rigorously exercised if you missed any answers. Our Drill Instructors would tell us, “if you can’t be smart – you will be strong.” I suppose some of that mentality stuck with me. I was determined to be strong by the time the trip was finished.
All this to say that about two miles after the first cache drop, I was dying! People were scratching their heads, wondering why I crawled along the sidewalk like Eyegor from Young Frankenstein. I had so much weight in my backpack that I thought, how am I going to get to Maine, much less get out of town? It was apparent that I needed to shed some weight, and it would have to be more than the handle of my toothbrush.
I spied a United States Marine Recruiting office nearby. I stepped in and introduced myself. Inside the O.I.C. was Major McCadden. I explained what I was doing and asked if I could have a box and mail some items home. He gave me a box, and I cut the weight from my pack.
Gone were my awesome lantern, several extra books, shirts, blanket and pillow, and other sundry items. I cut everything that I thought I could live without. Major McCadden wouldn’t allow me to pay him for the shipping. I was very appreciative and continued on my way with a little bit more spring in my step.
My final gear list included the following:
A large Internal frame backpack
crafted by MEI
A Coleman two-occupant tent
With a purple rainfly
One Sleeping bag with fleece liner
And very thin sleeping mat
A full-size poncho and rain gear
One brown fedora hat
100ft of parachute cord
e-tool (folding shovel)
extra tarp, hatchet, and buck knife
matches, maps for travel
Flashlight, flare gun, candles, compass
16″ leather boots
Gerber tool, Walking shoes, and stick
a laptop that computes
Car shammy-looking camp towel
first aid kit with moleskin
Sierra backpack wood cookstove
cookware/bowl and cup tin
Camelbak H.A.W.G with two bladders
Eight water bottles, thus
Nearly 3 gallons of water
Pur water filter, plus
Iodine water treatment pills
Six days of food and snacks
one clip-on pack thermometer
Coat, when winter attacks
Laundry bag, Shower shoes/sandals
Seven pairs underwear
Nine pairs socks and one bandana
One bible added prayer
One long sleeve shirt and four t-shirts
One digital camera
two pairs shorts and pants, one dress shirt
Book: Green Memoranda
Inflatable laptop case
Robinson Crusoe, the first
everything else forsook
This book was essential. All of my trip info was in there. That, a copy of Robinson Crusoe and my Bible were the only books I now carried.
Now that my load was lighter, my outlook on life greatly improved!
On my first night out from Poway, CA, I camped by a small creek in a stand of bulrushes. It was the perfect campsite. I stayed all night, and no one was the wiser. I had a small supper, treated blisters, and read for a short spell. A nearly full moon softly illuminated my tent, where I enjoyed a well-earned night of rest.
I reach the Pacific Crest Trail. Very exciting!
Then – I could already see the headline: “Former Marine attempts hike across America only to be air rescued off a Southern California mountain for stupidity less than two weeks into the trip. More tonight at 10pm” ( I know, really wordy, who writes these headlines?) Until next time.
You can find more details about The Long Journey Podcast at journeylong.com, and subscribe, rate, and review the podcast on your platform of choice. Thank you. May you journey long.