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Walking to Get America Moving

Phil Woods is on a 2,700-mile mission to inspire older adults to exercise

Health fitness

Phil Woods is joined on his walk by locals in Columbus, Ind. — Courtesy Phil Woods

Phil Woods’ goal is simple: Walk 2,700 miles in six months.

The 72-year-old retired businessman started walking from International Falls, Minn., on April 23 and has his sights set on reaching Key West, Fla., by October. His purpose: to encourage older Americans to get out and exercise. “If a 72-year-old man can walk 25 miles a day, surely some of these people can walk a little bit, too,” he says.

This isn’t Woods’ first trek across the country. Three years ago, he walked 3,100 miles from Londontowne, Md., to San Francisco, traveling through the fall and winter. He says he was inspired by a young man who walked the Appalachian Trail four years ago.

For this trip, the summer heat is a concern, so the Naples, Fla., resident gets started early each day, usually around dawn. He normally eats a big breakfast of cereal, scrambled eggs and bacon or sausage, drinks three cups of black coffee, and tops it all off with a cinnamon roll. He wears a golf shirt, long pants and his trademark orange baseball cap. And he swears by his New Balance 993 running shoes, which will take him 420 miles before they wear out.

A man of persistence

Woods walks primarily along U.S. highways, facing traffic. His wife of 51 years, Carole, follows along in a Dodge pickup truck stocked with the 10 bottles of water her husband drinks every day. She’s also there to bandage his sore feet and watch for his signal—a raised hand—in case of an emergency.

“He likes a challenge,” Carole says. It’s her husband’s determination—the kind that took him from a mailroom job to working in the insurance business to owning a small airline—that keeps him going.

Don Franceschini, a neighbor in Naples, says Woods is all about overcoming obstacles and the cross-country hike is his way of influencing people not to give up, even during tough times. “He wants to use it as an example to say if you put your mind to it, you can deal with any problem,” Franceschini says.

Woods tracks his progress each day on a blog and on his Facebook page, which has helped him meet people all along his route. Just south of Lacrosse, Wis., a man darted out of a building after recognizing Woods from television. “Hey, hey, are you the guy walking across America?” Woods recalls the man asking. Pretty soon others gathered around and Woods quickly added to his collection of friends.

One man was so inspired so much by Woods that he ran back home and brought Woods a piece of cake. Another guy in Osseo, Wis., gave him $50. Woods says he doesn’t accept donations, but the man refused to take back the money, so Woods reluctantly accepted it.

From weather to blisters

The seven-days-a-week trek is not without its challenges. Because Woods is traveling from north to south, he is always facing the sun. He’s suffered a heat rash on his upper thighs, and extreme heat sometimes has caused him to cut his walk short. “The asphalt was soft, it was so hot,” he says.

He and his wife once spent hours in their pickup waiting out a storm in Wisconsin. Recently, he’s had foot problems. “My little toe is almost a solid blister right now,” Woods says. The pain almost made him scrap his journey altogether, but he says his persistence keeps him going. “I must have a high tolerance for pain.”

As Woods walks along the roadside, he sees cars and tractor-trailers racing by, but he tries to keep his concentration. “There are some truck drivers out there that’ll brush you off or get a big kick out of throwing sand or dirt on you,” he says. But some truckers acknowledge his efforts. “After they pass me a time or two and I wave, they’ll honk.”

Support of friends and family

While out on the road, the father of three and grandfather of five keeps in touch with family and friends through phone calls, Facebook exchanges and Woods’ website. News of illnesses and death comes his way—he recently took a break to attend the funeral of a longtime friend. While he knows he is vulnerable to certain health risks on the road, he doesn’t let it deter him. “I don’t dwell on anything like that at all, Woods says. “I guess I’m an optimist.”

Woods will be thrilled when he finally reaches Florida in September, arriving just in time for the wedding of his eldest grandchild. He recently took a detour to attend Walk With Woods Day in his hometown, Columbus, Ind., where he was saluted.

Woods is still making his way to Florida. While he understands walking requires good physical conditioning, he occasionally gets a little kick from an unlikely source—a few glasses of his favorite bourbon, Pappy Van Winkle, on the rocks.

“How the hell else do you think I can walk 25 miles a day?” he says with a laugh.

Tauren Dyson is an intern at the AARP Bulletin.

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