Former Cuesta College professor gathers insight — and data — in walk across U.S.

Bill Fairbanks stands next to an old horse-drawn mowing machine and canoe south of Catskill, N.Y., on Oct. 22, 2013.
Bill Fairbanks stands next to an old horse-drawn mowing machine and canoe south of Catskill, N.Y., on Oct. 22, 2013.

Retired Cuesta College anthropology professor Bill Fairbanks believes “you can never have enough data, and that data will inform you for the rest of your life.”

So after his 40-year teaching career at Cuesta ended in 2007, he embarked on an odyssey by foot to glean more insight into his country — an on-and-off cross-country walking journey that lasted five years.

His reasons for the adventure sprang from a desire to challenge himself in his retirement and to pursue an informal anthropological study.

Fairbanks didn’t have a goal except to observe the country and consider its current state in the context of U.S. history.

“The U.S. has changed in a lot of ways,” he said. “Some of the changes are very striking, and some are very subtle. Americans don’t seem to realize the significance of some of these changes.”

Among them are depleted resources, Fairbanks said. Land that was once abundant and cheap or free is now covered with “no trespassing” signs.

He also saw growing inequality, recalling an impoverished neighborhood near the Statue of Liberty — a symbol of hope and opportunity — contrasted by the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

As the population grows, Fairbanks said he wonders, “How will we cope with sharing the space and available means?”

Fairbanks was 72 when he embarked on his ambitious trek in 2009, heading north through Salinas and then east over the Sierra Nevada range through the Midwest — then zigzagging his way north after reaching the East Coast.

Over the five-year period, he braved horrendous downpours, frigid weather and lightning (once ducking into a factory during a storm), cars whizzing past and crime-ridden cities.

He went home for part of that time, including for nearly a year after gashing his foot and needing to recover, before resuming where he’d left off on his trail.

Fairbanks didn’t seek out bad areas in metropolitan communities, he said, but he didn’t avoid them, either; he interacted with people in inner cities along the way.

He intends to write a book about his experiences, starting this year by organizing his information.

“I have a lot of data, and I’m really trying to sort through that,” Fairbanks said. “I have a lot of ideas.”

On July 18, about 200 friends and former colleagues gathered to throw a party for Fairbanks in Los Osos, where he lives, to celebrate his journey.

During his long march, Fairbanks would stop and talk with strangers in towns or attend civic meetings — planning commission, city council, beautification committee, library and state board of education gatherings, among them.

His wife, Carole, accompanied him on wheels and would drive ahead to a meet-up spot before they found shelter for the night; he walked up to 23 miles a day.

They stayed with some family members in various states, as well as in hotels.

Carole Fairbanks, who likes to sew, crafted 38 quilts while touring the country with her husband.

Bill Fairbanks said his observations led him to think about what the nation must have been like centuries ago.

He watched people with “somber faces” entering a cash-for-gold store in Placerville to hock their jewelry. It took him back to when people panned for gold in nearby rivers in the 1800s.

When he visited West Baltimore in July 2013, he was touched by the goodwill of people in the poor, predominantly African-American community, which later became the scene of deep frustration and community unrest in April over the death of a man in police custody.

Many people there said, “Bless you,” to him, which he said he appreciated, as they sent him on his way.

“I met an African-American man who was in his 40s with his son who was in his 20s,” Fairbanks said. “He told me, ‘We’re living in a nation governed by fear, and you’re walking through it.’ And he pulled out his wallet and handed me a dollar.”

The exchange touched him, he said.

Others also offered money, including a woman in Kansas who stopped to see whether he was OK during a downpour and handed him $10 to get new socks and a cup of coffee at the next town.

Fairbanks said he grew up on a farm and would walk 2 miles to school and back as a child. In his professional days, he’d walk on the Morro Bay sand spit after work, noting that “walking has always relaxed me.”

Fairbanks finished his trip in August 2014 at the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Mass., which was built in 1636 and is thought to be the oldest standing timber frame building in North America. Those with the last name Fairbanks can trace their family roots to the home, he said.

Fairbanks said he wanted a challenge in retirement, and walking offered him that, a kind of “rite of passage” into his next phase of life.

“I had a lot of time to think,” Fairbanks said. “I also learned that the weather forecasters always exaggerate what the weather will be. About the only thing I took seriously were hurricane and tornado warnings.”

Seeing the country reminded him of how beautiful the United States is — the farmhouses and fields, even the coal mines of West Virginia that “kind of blend into the scenery.”

“It was a great walk, a great experience,” Fairbanks said. “The data I gathered will keep informing me for the rest of my life.”