It’s 7 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 8. The temperature is 16 degrees Fahrenheit.
A Post-it tacked to my coffee maker reminds me to meet Larry Berz at 8 a.m., at Pat’s Shell station in downtown Caribou. This is where he plans to begin the last in a series of hikes he initiated in 2013 as founder of the New Frontier Expeditionary Corps.
Fueled by energy generated on a one-day 50-mile hike on Aug. 31, honoring the legacy of the late president John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, Berz has logged an additional 100 hours of formal hiking.
“I considered it unworthy to simply drop the ball after the 50-mile effort, first pioneered by Robert ‘Bobby’ Kennedy in 1963,” Berz says. “I sought to sustain the walk rather than throttle back to just talk.”
Berz hiked 40 miles on Oct. 3, 30 miles on Nov. 2 and 20 miles on Nov. 17.
On Dec. 8, I find him and Dr. Narayana Prasana bundled up to their eyes against the chill. Berz and Prasana became acquainted on the 50-mile, 17.5-hour hike from Houlton to Limestone last August. Their effort duplicated that of Robert Kennedy who walked 50 miles in one day in 1963, inspired by the words of his brother challenging the nation to new goals for physical fitness. Prasana joined Berz again on Nov. 17 for the 20-mile hike from Caribou to Fort Fairfield to Limestone.
On site at Pat’s to see them off and wish them well for the December hike is faithful supporter Luke Shorty, executive director of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone, where Berz teaches astronomy.
In a car with the license plate MENTA, Nagamani Prasana, wife of the Presque Isle ear, eye, nose and throat doctor, waits to serve as “wagon mistress,” driving the support vehicle for the 10-mile hike to Limestone where she will meet the hikers for brunch.
“Are you going to join us?” Larry asks me.
“I’d love to, but I have work to do today.” My typical response.
The hikers pose for a few photos and head down the hill into Caribou.
By the time I get home, however, I’m reconsidering participating. I did put on warm leggings, a heavy sweater and thick socks this morning. I would only have to add wind pants and a headband to be warm enough.
It’s a beautiful bright sunny day, even though the breeze makes it feel colder than 16 degrees. I live near enough to their route that I could meet the hikers on foot and walk with them.
I race into the house. When my dog Lucy sees me adding layers, I know I have made a commitment. Of course she wants to go for a walk. Of course I snap on her leash and say, “Let’s go.”
We intercept the hikers as they approach Route 89, the main road from Caribou to Limestone, where Nani awaits in the support vehicle. The two men keep walking as I pause to ask Nani for a ride home when I get cold. She agrees and hands me a blaze orange vest from a pile in the back seat of the car. Lucy and I sprint to catch up with Prasana and Berz on their northerly trek to Limestone.
The two are deep in conversation about the worldwide disparity between rich and poor when we reach them. I realize these hikes have become more than exercise.
Berz queries the doctor on a variety of topics: how many hours he walks on a treadmill to maintain fitness, what movies best portray India and why education at an elite university does not necessarily mean one is smart.
“Conversation and verbal stimulation within all expeditions maintain high energy and deep lasting visionary value, respecting the historical legacy which birthed the entire project,” Berz said later of the nine hikes he has undertaken since beginning to train for the August event.
“I walk as a tribute to my roots. The voice of John F. Kennedy lives again in the footsteps of each walk. I envision now a permanent culture of expeditionary hiking in Aroostook County.” MSSM students are part of Berz’s vision, and he has created a new student club, the MSSM Dream Society, to give impetus to more hikes and related service activities and events.
“We adults owe it to the next generations to model the bold experiment as a challenge for future possibilities, even greatness,” Berz says. “Expeditionary walking is available to any of us. This most democratic of exercise disciplines requires relatively limited resources and maximizes the range of participants.
“By hiking extraordinary distances in ordinary County venues, we see our own neighborhoods as planetary settlements and begin to enlarge our conscience and consciousness to make tomorrow our tomorrow.”
As an initiate, however, my destination this chilly December day is DoDo’s Market, two miles out on Route 89. Nani is waiting when we arrive.
After another photo, the men head north, while Lucy and I pile into MENTA. It was a great way to start the day, but when we get home, Lucy won’t come inside. She has just gotten warmed up.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.