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Excerpt: Walking to Vermont

On the last day of his distinguished career, ex-New York Times foreign correspondent Christopher Wren left his Manhattan office and walked 400 miles to his home in Vermont. A new book traces his oddball journey into retirement.

By Christopher S. Wren - March 5, 2004

Call my walk, interrupted, a rite of passage. After 40 years as a working journalist, I had collided with the life change that is the stuff of which dreams and nightmares are fashioned. Once the fizz is gone from the goodbye champagne, how do you enter this next stage of your life with any semblance of style or self-respect? You can press ahead, or you can cling to the past while time keeps stomping on your fingers.

As a scared young paratrooper, I had it screamed over and over at me by foul-mouthed instructors that an exit from an aircraft in flight had to be vigorous to clear the propeller blast. Otherwise, the jumper risked being slammed back into the metal fuselage by the screaming wind with such hurricane force as to leave him unconscious—or dead.

My career at the New York Times, which took me to a half-dozen news bureaus in Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, Ottawa, Johannesburg, and the United Nations, was winding down after nearly three decades as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor. It was time to collect what I had paid into Social Security and claim the perquisites with which America honors its senior citizens—train and movie discounts and dinner bargains at hours early enough to get you home in bed before sundown.

The prospect left me restless and a little apprehensive. I no longer needed to chase deadline news, but there had to be better times ahead than falling back on golf and gated retirement communities. T. S. Eliot's observation that old men ought to be explorers was finally making sense.

As for exploring retirement at a brisk walk, the notion may have been planted by The Elements of Style, the gem of a stylebook compiled by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, which serious writers, and even newspaper reporters, rely upon to resolve questions of grammar. I had been sitting at my cluttered desk in the Times newsroom a year earlier, consulting the rules about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, when Strunk and White caught my eye with an example they cited for enclosing parenthetic expressions between commas:

"The best way to see a country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot."

I don't know whether Strunk and White reached their conclusion after setting out on foot themselves, I hope with a picnic lunch, to prove their theorem, which grappled with the eternal problem of when to bracket a phrase between a pair of commas. They did concede that "if the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the writer may safely omit the commas."

I grew less interested in the commas than in their advice. Were Strunk and White inviting the reader with a wink to interrupt the flow of an uneventful life by taking a hike? They did not write that the best way to see a country was from the window of an air-conditioned Elderhostel tour bus.

And since Strunk and White had brought it up, there was a country that I was curious to see on foot.

Journalism is a great way to perpetuate the curiosity you developed as a child. I had climbed the Great Wall of China, ridden on horseback past the Great Pyramids of Giza, waded through snowdrifts to view St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square, and gaped at the filigreed interiors of Samarkand's gilded domes on the Silk Road of Central Asia.

I had talked my way through encounters with guerrillas and their AK-47s in Lebanon and Somalia, met drug-thugs in Colombia and Burma. I roamed the backcountry of Tibet and Yemen, as close as you can get to the dark side of the moon without actually leaving earth. I interviewed presidents and prime ministers, and saints and scoundrels, on four continents. And at the risk of sounding immodest, I contrived to do it all on an expense account.

After seventeen years abroad as a foreign correspondent, it was time to fill in some blank spaces at home. I must have traveled through more than seventy countries, if you include all fifteen republics of the shattered Soviet Union, but had taken for granted the stretch of New England that separated our Manhattan apartment from the Vermont house where I wanted to retire. We usually drove there at night, more preoccupied with headlights of oncoming traffic than the darkened scenery. What I knew about the countryside amounted to fuel pumps, fast food restaurants, and takeaway coffee.

The email careening around the online listserv of the Dartmouth Class of 1957 swapped tips about retirement, beginning with how to plug in to Social Security and Medicare. I learned that I qualified for medical care at Veterans Administration hospitals if I could find my military discharge papers. There were tips about cheap flights for seniors and more than I cared to know about aching joints and balky prostates.

Some of the soundest advice was posted by my classmate Joel Mitchell. "As you are now in the house for the first time rather than the office, don't ever get into the habit of watching afternoon soaps," Joel wrote. "Always keep the TV off, unless you're watching the market channels.

"Lunch dates are important," he added. Gets you out of the house. Keeps the mind stimulated. It can be lunch with just about anyone (well almost).

"And get out of your chair, and go outside often," Joel concluded. "Walk, ride a bike, golf or whatever."

I posted my own email explaining that I planned to walk into retirement to Vermont and soliciting suggestions about bed-and-breakfast places, campgrounds, or backyards to pitch my tent.

"I also welcome any '57 who wants to hike a mile or two or three with me," I added, "though I'm doing this alone and don't plan to linger anywhere longer than overnight."

I made clear there was no hidden agenda, such as extorting money from friends for a worthy cause according to the miles covered.

"I'm not marching on behalf of anything, just celebrating my new freedom," I wrote. "Let me know if you want to come along for an hour or two, bearing in mind that my whereabouts will depend on how well my knees and ankles hold out under the weight of a 45-pound pack."

Several classmates, Joel among them, emailed back promises to join me for a day when I hit Massachusetts. I also heard from Harry, who had graduated from Dartmouth a year before me.

"Big mistake," he warned.

Harry had done marathons and other vigorous activities, he wrote, "but if 1) you think that the total distance will be as you estimate, you are way off, it will be much more, as you can't walk a straight line on your intended track, and 2) if you indeed will carry a 45-pound pack, you will wear out your no-longer-youthful body early on.

"Don't let your ego get in the way of making you feel that you are less than a man if you don't make this odyssey by foot. Rather you could make a slow trip by pickup truck, or an old VW bus with your wife, and really enjoy your passage into retirement, instead of beating yourself up while trying to prove that 'I know that I can do it, dammit!' No one will care about a change in plans; in fact most will admire that you chose a wiser approach.

"Just a suggestion," Harry concluded, "from one who doesn't have to prove as much as he used to think he had to."

Harry was probably right. I wanted to prove that retirement did not mean retiring my dreams.

The truth was that my walk to Vermont was about more than just walking to Vermont. I had reached the age when regrets set in. My own were blissfully few, involving mostly sins of omission rather than commission. We are likelier to rue what we failed to do than what we did.

If I didn't walk from Times Square to Vermont now, when would I get around to doing it? "Live the life you've imagined," exhorted Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth-century contrarian whose account of life alone in the woods, Walden, I admired, even if I did discard it in his native Massachusetts.

I decided not to take a companion, though my twin sister, Ginny, volunteered. Since we were kids, Ginny has had an enthusiasm for what she calls "fun things," like bounding up the mountains of Wyoming on a month-long outdoor leadership course prior to retirement from her own career as a special education teacher in Lake Forest, Illinois. My son, Chris, also spoke wistfully of joining me, but his workload as a new lawyer in New York would not spare him time off.

I thanked Chris as well as his Aunt Ginny, but it seemed important to walk this one alone. I had taken chances for a living; why stop just because I hit the milestone of 65 years? I had survived in less hospitable neighborhoods than I expected to visit on this trip.

But I would not be rushed into retirement. There should be time to saunter on unpaved roads. For as Thoreau pointed out in his essay on walking in 1862, "The saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea."

In journeying to Vermont on my terms, I could picture myself, having cooked a simple but satisfying supper, lounging beside a small river, reading Walden by the flicker of an evening campfire, falling asleep under a canopy of bright stars.

Well, as a Russian proverb reminds us, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

Still, I was not to be disappointed by the people I encountered in the five states through which I walked, and sometimes limped. Yes, there were mean-spirited locals who pointed speeding vehicles at me, or balked at letting me use a toilet without buying something, or wished I would go away before they dialed 911.

But there were others. A nun at a convent in New York shared old folk songs while she fed me supper. In Connecticut, a shopkeeper had me watch her cash register while she rummaged in the basement for the raisins I wanted. A woman I didn't know in Massachusetts baked me chocolate chip cookies; another stranger let me sleep in his yard and invited me for ice cream on his porch. In Vermont, trail angels left cold drinks and fresh fruit by the wayside. In New Hampshire, a store manager whipped up a frosty milkshake on a hot day and refused to take my money.

I also failed to anticipate the extent to which my experiences as a foreign correspondent would resonate on this journey, evoking memories of memories as I trudged northward at the rate of something over 4000 paces per hour. For better or worse, reminiscences constitute the only acquisitions in this life that remain uniquely our own.

This is excerpted from Walking to Vermont, by Christopher S. Wren. Copyright © 2004 by Christopher S. Wren and published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Walking to Vermont at Amazon.com.



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