Walk on, walk on with hope in your heart and you will never walk alone.
— Rodgers and Hammerstein
My Year in Review slideshow was shaping up to be kinda dull. Same Rangeley lake blues and forest greens but, comparatively speaking, the picture reel I’d play back in my mind when 2020 was finally over lacked the color and variety of a normal year. No aquamarine tropical getaways with my fuchsia-tipped toes in the sand. No tie-dyed roller coaster or concert adventures. No festive candids of cousins or college girlfriends coming together again.
Then Dwight came into the picture. A red-shirted, striped-socked ambassador of goodwill and goofiness, he burst into my bubble and took me on an amazing virtual race around New England.
“Dwighto!” I yelled into the phone last summer, his college nickname coming back naturally like we’d been strolling around campus just yesterday. But, aside from Christmas cards and Facebook messages that now joked about Medicare rather than keg parties, we’d lost touch. “Ummm…whatcha up to these days?”
Probably some fund raising thing, I thought. Probably involving Big Macs and little kids. Hopefully not something that would make me want to haul out the “Sorry, I’ve already chosen my charities” card and hand it to an old friend I hadn’t talked to in 20 years.
He was taking on a new summer retirement project, he said, supporting the Ronald McDonald House Charities of New England (RMHCNE). Its mission, providing housing near major hospitals so families could stay close to their critically ill children, was near and dear to him. So, after almost 40 years in the McDonald’s business, he was doing more than serving on the board of directors.
Oh, here it comes, I said to myself. The big pitch. He was excited, telling me about RMHCNE this and that. In much the same tone he’d get if we ever asked him things like “What’s really in a Chicken McNugget?” Calmly, convincingly, he’d explain about the “100 percent white meat chicken with no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”
But me being such a lousy listener, and him being such a smooth spokesman, at first all I heard during our phone call was “critical funds…blah…blah…blah” and “joining my mission.” Until he said something about “coming up to see you guys.”
“Looks like you and Tom are closest to Rumford,” he said, “and the McDonald’s on Route 2.” But he’d also be stopping by the Golden Arches in Farmington and then Bethel, if that was more convenient. “I plan to walk 20 to 25 miles per day.”
Wait…WHAT??? I perked right up. He was walking here. From Boston. And back again.
“Yup, walking,” Dwight confirmed as my investigative reporter instincts kicked into high gear. More than 1,000 miles in 58 days. To all seven Ronald McDonald Houses in New England, and 67 local McDonald’s restaurants in between. Starting at the Boston Harbor house in mid-August, then coming full circle by mid-October. If all went as planned, he’d be strolling toward Rumford around September 6.
Wow, I thought, not your average walk for charity! Or even your average walk, as in “I’m going out for a walk” where I’d be out and back in before Tom started to realize I’d left the house. And if he did, he’d know exactly where to come find me on my well-worn route.
“When I retired, I went from 60 miles per hour to zero overnight,” Dwight explained. “I got fat. And when I started doing something about it, I discovered I was really good at walking. A loooong ways without stopping.” In the process, he thought about the families he served as a long-time RMH fundraising volunteer. What was it like to need to stay by your critically ill child’s bedside as much as possible when you’re miles from home? What could he do to make a difference, to pay forward his gratitude for having five healthy grown children and six grandchildren? His walking meditation turned into a daydream, which then turned into a plan—an action plan for raising at least $100,000, for “keeping families close.”
“That’s SO cool!” I said. And so Dwighto.
Although he’d never admit it, Dwight had a flair for putting the extra on top of ordinary, for methodically and unpretentiously going above and beyond till he made everyday things better every day. He fairly strutted off the UNH graduation field into owning and operating one of the most successful fast food franchises in New Hampshire, then proceeded to give back wherever he could. And yet, apparently the managing, coaching, community-building guy still had a bit of a wild streak. The kind that prompted the rest of us to ask things like “You’re gonna do what?” and “Are you sure?” The kind that made me and my girlfriends once tell him he had “a Robert Redford thing goin’ on.” Blonde, blue-eyed with a sense of humor that easily tempered his serious side, Dwight had just enough Sundance Kid charisma to make you want to go his way.
About time I got to tease and compliment my friend in person, I thought as our phone call wound down. “We’d love to meet up with you,” I said. “Have a nice dinner when you…”
It took awhile for it to happen, crashing our conversation, crushing my enthusiasm. But suddenly my “aw crap COVID” consciousness came charging back, halting me at the brink of crazy talk territory. Dinner…inside? A couple drinks…like…in a bar? Sitting around reminiscing about 1977 as if it was still 2019? Shoot, no matter how our old friend managed to come close to our bubble, we all wanted to live out a long retirement, to keep walking toward new horizons, fishing favorite spots, doing whatever kept the gleam in our golden years.
“Dammit, Dwighto! Tom and I will see what’s happening by September. But we really are taking this Corona thing seriously.”
“Yeah, I hear ya,” he said. He was, too. Which was why, despite everything, he had to move forward with his mission. Not being able to host its usual annual fundraising events, RMHCNE had lost a huge source of funding for current operations. He was their hope, their crazy, brave inspiration for reaching out and coming together in a farther than arm’s length new world. COVID could put a few bumps in the road, but couldn’t stop him. So all spring and early summer, Dwight continued to train, walking up to 25 miles a day—mapping out his route, his stops and overnights—and driving it with his wife, Audrey. He practiced washing his clothes in hotel sinks, gleaned safety and health tips from his family, from athletes and Appalachian Trail hikers and from anyone who knew anything about backpacks, footwear, and hoofing it solo through the countryside.
“Let’s sneak up on it,” we agreed. We’d make a plan for how we could get together and how I might be able donate my social media skills to help spread his story. Full of early summer optimism, I flipped to September 6 on my desk calendar and scribbled “Dwight…dinner in Rumford?”
Then I did just that…snuck up on it. Like a sloth rather than the energizer bunny Dwight really deserved. When I should’ve been mentally chomping at the bit behind the starting block, high-stepping in warm up mode, the first time I saw his ginormous “Join the Journey Home” spreadsheet detailing all 10 legs of his route, all I could muster was a tepid “huh…” If so much simple, everyday living had to be re-routed around the damn pandemic, I wondered if a one-man marathon based on faith, trust and who knows how many hurdles along the way could possibly stay on track.
Went to college with this guy, isn’t he cool? For July and half of August, that was my angle, how I’d give a shout out about my one degree of separation from someone fearless and fascinating. From there, I wasn’t sure how I’d remain rooted in Rangeley and stay in step with Dwight’s story.
Then he took off. And brought me with him.
“Yippee! Dwighto’s off and running…or, I mean walking!” I yelled to Tom as I replayed the live video from outside the Boston Ronald McDonald House. It was August 17th—Departure Day—just like it said on the ginormous spreadsheet. And I’d been “sneaking up on it” still, out riding my bike over dirt roads and logging bridges, about as far away from Mile 1 down in Boston Harbor as I could be. “Wow. I guess he’s really doing this!” Tom marveled, leaning into the screen to watch his college “roomie” wave to the camera and start his long trek north. Clad in Ronald McDonald red and white striped socks, a bright red t-shirt showing Ronald reaching out to help, and long, baggy shorts—carrying a big backpack with flashing safety lights—he was one heck of a roadside sideshow.
Ready, set…GO! I’ve never been one to spring into action at the sound of a starting pistol. Ever since I had to sit on the bleachers for school field day, the only time I even try to beat feet is when I see a snake or want to gain ground at Six Flags or a U2 concert. But one look at my colorful friend becoming a blip on the horizon and I was scrambling for a way to walk a thousand miles in his shoes and bring others along, too. Fast. I finally opened the spreadsheet and my tool box and became Dwight’s walking buddy in the best way I knew how.
“Went to college with this guy, isn’t he cool?” I said a few days later when I shared a link to My Journey Home—Journey of 1,000 Smiles, a blog I ghost wrote from Dwight’s frequent updates. I maxed out the Google Maps walking route feature with my visual translations of his loop around New England. Then I almost went color blind to anything not red or yellow selecting the day’s shots from all the Happy Meal hued photos stacked in my inbox. McD’s welcoming crews, all thumbs up upon Dwight’s arrival, a myriad of golden arched meets and greets up the NH coast into Maine, friends joining him for a few miles and passersby handing him money and cheering him on—town by town, the pictures were like a slideshow set on fast forward. And keeping pace with a story line was exhilarating. Virtual or not, I hadn’t felt that much like a real roving reporter since back when I jogged an entire parade route covering a Ronald Regan campaign stop!
By the time I talked to Dwight from his hotel near the Portland Ronald McDonald House, I think he was getting used to me tagging along. What’s up? Where are you? Whatcha eating for dinner? Who’d you see today? How many McD’s have you visited so far? How much money is coming in? How’s the weather been? He’d barely get his sneakers off and sink into his hotel bed before I’d call and start playing nightly news anchor.
When Dwight actually came walking toward me outside the Boardwalk Inn in Rumford, it felt surreal to be three dimensional with him. Like we were in our own blog, simulating the next exciting episode for real. It was one of those sunny late summer days we locals love to brag about, and I was sitting at a picnic table that seemed like it was sent straight from Heaven. COVID restrictions aside, I’d forewarned our friend that dinner + Rumford wasn’t typically part of a memorable night on the town. So being able to “dine out” on the deck right outside his room was a dream come true.
Dwighto was so stoked to stop, sit and eat all at the same time he sat right down in his clown duds and devoured the sandwich, chips, ice cream, cookies, and whoopie pies we brought from the Oquossoc Grocery. Between bites, he entertained us with travel stories, about how more and more supporters were recognizing “the clown on the side of the road” and boosting his running tally with online pledges and drive-by handouts. He was digging down to the bottom of his quart of Giffords Chocolate Lovers when I posed the one burning question I’d been holding onto till I could get an up close (as possible) and personal answer: “How in the heck have you not tripped yet?”
“Not sure,” Dwight laughed. “But I think about it a lot, catching a toe on the pavement or rolling off the sidewalk.” Then he got serious again—Chicken McNugget serious. “Off the record” he said, “I do have really bad blisters on my feet, which never happened before in training. I’m toughing it out, though.” Later, he’d tell me that the almost 30-mile stretch from Farmington to Rumford he covered that day was one of the toughest of the entire journey. All he’d had for fuel since his early morning McMuffin was a couple small bags of peanuts and a granola bar. “Not densely populated with places to stop in for a snack along that section of Route 2, never mind a sneaker store, if you know what I mean,” he said.
Certainly did. That’s why I gave him the extra whoopie pies and cookies, compliments of the Oquossoc Grocery staff who wanted “to help him on his way” the next morning. And I relayed a tip from a seasoned hiking source. “Duck ’em,” I said. “Cover your bandages in duck tape so there’s no friction over your feet. It’s how Mainahs make do till they get down country again.”
Promising to stay in touch and get closer—crowded together and rowdy closer—as soon as safely possible, we called it a night and walked to our truck. Dwight was doing his “end of the day limp” and I was doing my everyday slow shuffle, hanging onto my hiking poles for stability and trying not to trip. “Good thing I’m a much better virtual walking buddy than an actual one,” I joked. If Dwight was surprised, he concealed it with a brotherly grin and a pat on the back. All night, I’d been hiding my hiking poles under the picnic table like I’d hid my cerebral palsy most of my adult life. Until recently, when the “mild” birth condition I’d always overpowered with bullish determination began pushing back harder than ever in its attempts to sideline my 64-year-old body. Now there was no more staying “off the record” with my loss of mobility.
More days than not, I was able to do 13-mile trips on my beloved e-trike. But my three to five mile jaunts—where people saw me as “the up and down the road lady”—were a thing of the past. And I was afraid that soon I’d just be writing about walking. Sitting at my desk moving my fingers instead of my legs.
Dwight’s story was on a whole different scale, but how did he do it? With everything at stake, how did he keep pushing forward without getting overwhelmed? “Hour by hour and, sometimes, step by step,” he confided. He always knew where he was on his 1,000 mile, 58-day, town by town spreadsheet, but didn’t drag the enormity of it down the road with him. “Some mornings it seems like 20 miles might as well be 200. Like I know I did it yesterday but today who am I trying to kid. And other times, I get on a roll and surprise myself. I look ahead and, wow, there’s my next stop already. I’ve done what I set out to do.”
Driving away from Dwight, I started seeing the topography of my everyday travels in a whole new light. No longer blurred in the periphery outside the truck tires, I imagined Dwight negotiating each twist and turn, rise and dip with sure, steady feet. “Dwight walked here,” I thought the next time I rode the maze of roundabouts and river crossings along Route 2 outside Rumford. I saw him laughing on his way past the giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Blue I promised he couldn’t miss, then heading on his way southwest.
Over to New Hampshire and Vermont, down into Western Massachusetts, across Connecticut and Rhode Island. Each state’s place markers in the long red chain on my Google Maps route came to life with daily pictures and running commentary as Dwight circumnavigated New England till the blog was one scrolling collage of “Go, Dwight, Go! You Got This!” signs and fan photos. Still animated from his visit, I could now see myself vividly in the journey. And the more I remembered Dwight’s words about not losing ground to fear and doubt, the more I left my editor’s chair and felt him walking with me.
“C’mon Joy, you got this!” I could hear him, along with my family, cheering me on as I put one foot in front of the other, back and forth, till I’d done a mini marathon out in the driveway. Day after day.
“You gotta do one other thing for me,” Dwight said the last time we spoke. He was nearing the home stretch and we were sorting through the pictures of his sixth Ronald McDonald House visit for an update to my “look where our hero Dwight is now” links on the RMHCNE Facebook page. “Please don’t call me a hero. There are plenty of real heroes out there. I’m not one of them.”
No one likes to argue with a clown, especially a clown with duck taped feet who is all “off the record” serious and “100 percent white meat” defensive. So I did what he asked and kept the title to myself. It was moot, anyways. Because by the time he strolled back to the finish line on a rainy October afternoon in Boston, he didn’t need my words of distinction. We all knew—the friends, families, and everyone who joined in along the way. Dwight had walked over 1,000 miles in 58 days, stopping at 67 McDonald’s restaurants and all seven New England Ronald McDonald Houses. Raising more than $125,000, he helped pay for over 840 nights worth of lodging for loved ones who needed to stay close to their child’s bedside.
Around Christmas, Dwight sent a thank you note—for the “amazing” blog, and the special summer picnic he said helped him recover and kept him on track. It was followed by a hard-bound photo book commemorating the Journey Home. I don’t need to flip through it often to jog my memory. But when I do, I’m thankful. For the bright red blip on my horizon who shifted my focus beyond the limits of 2020, the sorry situation, and the state of my shrinking world. For my old friend and walking buddy, Dwighto, my reluctant hero.
For Dwight’s blog, see My Journey Home
For more “Corona Bright Spots,” see: