Two Brown graduates start walk across U.S.

By Shannon Tan


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (U-WIRE) - It was their last day as freshman roommates together, so Ryan Firestone and Gidon Felsen decided to stay up the whole night talking. As the conversation progressed, they came up with the idea of walking across America together.

"Towards the end of our freshmen year, we vaguely mentioned walking across America. I think alcohol was involved," Felsen said, laughing. "It was only until December last year that we decided to really do it."

Monday, the whimsical suggestion became a reality as the two began their walk across America from Jacksonville, Fla. They hope to reach San Francisco by August 1999.

"Our trip is just about walking," Felsen said. "College went by in a blink for me, so I'd like to slow things down. And this is the time to do it, since it's right after school and I have no serious responsibilities. I also wanted to do something that would take a while, opposed to driving or cycling across the country.

"My original plan was to live on a small island and sell juice, but since two guys already did that, I wanted to walk across America," Felsen joked.

Firestone, who graduated with a degree in engineering, shares similar feelings: "Right now, I'm not tied down to friends or family, and I'm willing to put up with uncomfortable situations.

"Having to simplify my life by limiting the clothes, accessories, and entertainment I'll be bringing really appealed to me," Firestone continued. "Growing up in Southern California, things get to be complex and overwhelming. It would be interesting to try a different lifestyle for a while."

Firestone was inspired about a book he read about a cross country walk.

"America is so big that you can't know the whole country well. But by walking, you get to meet people and get to know the whole country."

Planning proved to be more difficult than they expected.

"Ryan was in Poland all year; he didn't really have a phone and his e-mail worked sporadically, so we had to communicate by regular mail," Felsen said. "Now, we get more done in an hour than we did in a year."

In preparation for the journey, they talked to people who have done long-distance walking before.

"We needed to plan the route we would take, how long it would take," Felsen said.

They decided to start from Florida because of the good weather conditions there. They will start walking 10 miles a day, before gradually building up to 25 miles a day.

While their plans are still tentative, they will most probably be passing through Panama City, Alabama, New Orleans, Houston, Austin, and Dallas, their mid-way goal.

Once they make it to Dallas, they plan to stay with Firestone's relatives there and plan the Western part of the trip, which will be harder because of the desert, Felsen said.

Although their only previous experience with long-distance walking a 130-mile trek from Providence to Stockbridge, Mass. during Spring Break of their sophomore year, it proved to be a valuable learning experience.

"We had packed too much and our bags were really heavy. Jeans became even heavier when they got wet," Felsen said. "Now we're a lot smarter about what we're carrying."

They will be bringing tents, sleeping bags, a compact stove, cooking utensils, clothes, a tiny Scrabble set, a book or two, a camera, and food. Each bag weighs about 40 to 45 pounds.

"We'll be doing lots of cooking and eating peanut butter and jelly," Felsen said.

They will be camping out for most of the time, except in cities, where they will stay with friends or family, or in motels.

Armed with a list of Brown alumni, they hope to contact them as they pass through different places to ask for accommodation - or just to meet with them. In the recent issue of the Brown alumni magazine, they also requested for help from alumni in providing accommodation.

"We estimated that it would cost about a dollar a mile, which adds up to $3,000 per person," Felsen said. "We will be bringing a little more than that, but if we run out, we might just stop and work somewhere."

Except for a camera from Olympus, their attempts to obtain sponsors for the walk were unsuccessful.

"Basically, we were two guys wanting to walk across America. They didn't want to invest money in us since they weren't sure that we would go through with it," Felsen explained.

In order to pay for the trip, Felsen worked at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies over the summer. He also used his graduation gift money. Firestone will be using his salary from his teaching job in Poland to pay for the trip.

For the most part, friends have been encouraging of the journey. "My family were concerned for safety reasons," Firestone said. "They're eager to see me start a career or get more degrees ... but they weren't too surprised. My friends were very excited, and thought it would be a neat thing to do."

"Most people ask a whole barrage of questions, like where we're going to go, how we're going to raise money ... before deciding that we're crazy," Felsen said. "My parents were supportive, and at the same time, nervous."

But they won't be walking forever. Felsen has applied to graduate school, hoping to get into UCLA, UCSD, Stanford or Berkeley to study neuroscience. Firestone hopes to get a job as a solar engineer.

"It will be a drastic change for me to settle down from visiting a different city every day; maybe I'll want to or maybe not. I'm not too concerned about the future right now," he said.

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