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An article about my big birthday walk appeared in the June 3, 2009 issue of our local newspaper, the Cupertino Courier. You can view the newspaper article here.
In addition, staff reporter Matt Wilson was kind enough to send me the original “Director’s Cut” of his article before it was edited down. The full, unpublished version appears below.
As they say in Chinese restaurants, “Enjoy!”
Cupertino resident Russell Lee celebrated his 50th birthday by taking a hike. A 160 mile journey from the gold country back to Silicon Valley, to be exact. “On my 50th birthday I wanted to be somewhere far from home,” he said. “The original conception was to be on an island or a safari somewhere. As preparation started last year, the economy went in the toilet. This was a backup plan.”
The Lee family has a second home in the gold country and Russell used this as his starting point on May 15 for a long adventure back home that wrapped up on the Mary Avenue bridge on May 27. The family planned the adventure around Russell’s birthday and some time off from work. The whole trip had to take approximately two weeks and all walking had to end by nightfall and near proper lodging.
Russell had no plans to “rough it.” Sleeping on the side of the road or pitching a tent was out of the question, so the family meticulously mapped out a route that was sure to have lodging along the way. Russell and his wife Gail took no chances, and made reservations for every stop along the way.
“Hotels tend to come in clusters. Looking at different options would only have saved me a couple hundred feet,” he said. “I was afraid of coming into town and seeing lots of ‘No-Vacancy’ signs.” Certain areas along the route proved difficult for crossing without the aid of a car. So Gail and Russell had to scope out nooks and crannies that remain unknown even in the age of Mapquest and Google Earth. The two researched how to safely get around barriers like Interstate 5 and the San Joaquin River without wandering into a rancher’s private property. Gail even received help from the City Manager of Lathrop.
In one blog entry, Gail playfully refers to the trip as Russell’s “middle age defiance trip.” Gail’s concerns consisted of coyotes, mountain lions, foot blisters, cars and police chasing her husband out of certain areas.
Russell went through a full physical before doctors gave him the go-ahead to start walking. He trained for the adventure by walking to and from work, five times a week. “It was my New Year’s resolution. It’s 3.5 miles in and 3.5 miles out,” he said.
Russell spent about six hours a day walking in full stride. Extra time was taken for needed bathroom breaks, lunch breaks, and to guzzle some Gatorade. Most meals were eaten in restaurants. When a diner was not available or when hunger walked alongside him, he packed a lunch or used granola, dried fruit and water for a snack.
Russell traveled light and washed his few pairs of walking clothes each night with shampoo. He also packed travel-sized versions of necessities and a laptop for updating his online journal about the walk.
The journey got off to a rough start, however. The first few days featured an unseasonable heat wave, and Russell’s mind and body were still getting their bearings. May 18 alone saw him shuffle across 22 miles.
“The first half was pretty grueling, between the huge heat wave and getting all the kinks out of my gear and my body,” he said. “Inductive reasoning is no way to plan a trip. It’s quite different when you actually walk eight hours a day for 12 days in a row.”
“It was incredibly discouraging,” he said. “We planned for the second half of May because there was no chance of rain. Heat was not on my radar. I had never in my wildest dreams expected this.”
A medical issue unrelated to the walk added stress and diminished sleep for the family, but Russell kept on schedule despite sunburned legs, an aching body and shoulder, and an increasingly bloodshot eye.
Providing the soundtrack for the good times and the agonizing times was his Sandisk Sansa MP3 player. Music ranged from Sheryl Crow, Don McLean and the Beatles to the nearly eight-hour symphonic score to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
“What you hear for about eight hours is fanfare. I think it just added to my pain,” he said of putting up with Lord of the Rings during the heat wave. “I love the movies and the soundtrack, but not in 108 degree heat.”
Once the temperature dropped and Russell’s body got used to walking more than a dozen miles a day, he began to get into a groove. He had to keep on trucking, even if it meant staring down a flat stretch of road that went for miles and only served as a visual reminder of how many more steps were left in the day.
“It’s amazing, when you think about it, how fast a car goes from point A to point B. It takes you less than three minutes,” he said. “When you walk that three miles it’s an hour, and when it’s in the hot blazing heat it is unbearable. You get quite a different mentality of how important time is to you.”
Russell traveled early in the day to avoid heat and to assure arrival at a hotel before nightfall. Starting early allowed him to rest more often, write about the walk in detail and take naps.
“There’s nothing sweeter than checking into a hotel to take a nice shower, flop down and fall asleep for an hour,” he said.
Along the road, Russell took time to speak by phone with the Courier and KGO Radio.
“I feel like I got energy every day. Quite frankly, I feel great,” he told the Courier on May 22. “I don’t know if my body has given in and is waiting to get back at me later, but my body has been really nice to me.”
On his May 21 birthday trek from Lathrop to Tracy, Russell was joined by his sister Joanne. Along the path, Gail left a surprise message of “Hi Russell” in the dirt and a sign along on a fence for her husband to find. On the day off in Tracy, Gail arranged for him to get a massage.
The couple’s sons, Cameron, 18, and Joss, 16, joined their dad on May 23 for a 12 mile journey through the chilly and windy Altamont Pass under the backdrop of 6,000 windmills. Gail joined her husband on his Memorial Day trek from Pleasanton to Fremont.
Most of Russell’s concerns along the way were personal, and the biggest was dehydration in areas where there “wasn’t a Starbucks on every corner.”
“I worried about whether I could physically make the distance, my legs giving out, or if there were no motels or restaurants in between,” he said. “My only solution would be to call Gail and have her pick me up.”
Russell enjoyed the solitude and eating his Denny’s breakfasts while simply looking out the window. His career had him frequently travel when his sons were much younger.
“I have never had a problem being alone. ‘Table for one’ is nothing for new for me,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to be out there alone with nature. It’s almost an intrusion to see cars go by.”
Russell and his sister enjoyed the emptiness in certain areas and even took pictures of each other lying in the middle of the road.
Russell’s finale ended fittingly with a trip across the new Mary Avenue bicycle and pedestrian bridge, which was built as a symbol for encouraging alternative modes of transportation. He was greeted by friends, family, co-workers and the “Rocky” theme on a boom-box on the other side of the bridge.
Everyone walked one last block to the Lee’s home, where Gail had a surprise birthday party waiting.
The Lee family is familiar with ambitious trips. The family took a one-year trip around the world earlier in the decade. Russell said that the walk probably cost $1,500 when lodging and food bills are finally tallied.
To read about Russell’s walk in more detail, visit his web diary at the Lee Family Website: http://www.worldtrippers.com.
May 15 - Drive to home in gold country
May 16 - Walk to Mokelumne Hill - 9.25 miles
May 17 - Walk to Valley Springs - 13.23 miles
May 18 - Walk to Lockeford - 21.05 miles
May 19 - Walk to Stockton 15.25 miles
May 20 - Walk to Lathrop - 14.3 miles
May 21 - Walk to Tracy - 12.08 miles
May 22 - Rest in Tracy
May 23 - Walk to Livermore - 15.34 miles
May 24 - Walk to Pleasanton - 15.12 miles
May 25 - Walk to Fremont - 15.88 miles
May 26 - Walk to Milpitas - 12.61 miles
May 27 - Walk to Cupertino - 16.07 miles
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