It sounds like a crazy idea, but that didn’t deter Jenn Harshfield, her 13-year-old daughter, Noelle, and their big dog, Doof, a German shepherd/Great Dane mix from setting off from Virginia Beach to walk across the country.
Carrying backpacks that at times weigh as much as 35 pounds, the three have been on their journey since March 10. They walk 15 to 20 miles a day and have trekked through Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and are now in Missouri.
Sometimes, they walk 25 miles, which are hard days, Jenn said, and sometimes, they take a day off.
The entire trip will take an estimated 175 days, or roughly six months, to get through 13 states, all the way to Tacoma, Washington. They hope to arrive there around Labor Day. When finished, they will have walked 3,500 miles.
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At the beginning of this month, the Harshfields made their way into Indiana and stopped in Seymour. Because of the hot weather, they took a break at Shields Park, sitting at a picnic table underneath a shade tree.
The hot weather was a change of pace from what they had dealt with already in their travels. It had snowed several times early on, causing them to get a hotel room on three separate occasions.
“One day, we had hail, sun, snow, sleet all in one day,” Jenn said.
When unable to get a hotel room or find other lodging, the Harshfields freestyle by pitching a tent and camping. They were able to camp in Seymour resident Sabrina McKillip’s backyard for a night, and then later on, Indiana State Police Sgt. Stephen Wheeles of Brownstown set them up with a place to stay.
Being outside so much, they also have had to deal with ticks, which have been bad this year, Jenn said.
“We’ve been finding at least one a day since we hit Ohio,” she said. “But that’s about the time it warmed up, too.”
Although the walking is good for their physical health and they are getting to see parts of the country they wouldn’t have otherwise, the trip has a bigger meaning.
The Harshfields are walking for Relay for Life, an event that is conducted in communities across the country to raise money for cancer research and programs through the American Cancer Society.
They set a goal of raising $25,000 over the course of their walk and so far have raised around $3,000 through their GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/walkwithus2018.
After participating in Relay for Life for five years, Jenn said she wanted to do more.
Years ago, she had read the book “A Walk Across America” by Peter Jenkins. The book chronicled a man and his dog’s journey across the country.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome?'” she said.
At that point in her life, Jenn had a career as a human resources director making nearly six figures and had two young children at home. She decided there was no way she could possibly walk away from her responsibilities for six months for a cross-country trip on foot.
But then her situation changed, and she and her husband lost their jobs within three weeks of each other.
The family was living in southern California but moved to Washington, where her sister had a house. Jenn was unable to find a job for about a year. She eventually ended up working in newspaper advertising making barely $20,000.
“I’m so glad I had that opportunity,” she said.
The job helped Jenn get out of her shell because she had to get to know all of the business owners in the community. But it was a lot easier to walk away from a $20,000-a-year job than it was a six figure one, she said.
With her children older and more independent, Jenn decided it was time to start planning her cross-country walk. She has been training for two to three years now.
“I was walking to work 10 miles every day,” she said. “I would get up around 5 o’clock and be at work by 9. I would take my pack with me. It wasn’t as heavy as it is now, so I’m still not used to the weight yet.”
Their backpacks contain food, water, tents, sleeping bags and extra clothing.
Jenn wanted the trip to have widespread meaning, so she decided she needed a cause that people would support.
When she started working for the newspaper, she learned about Relay for Life. She attended a leadership meeting for her boss, and that’s what sparked her and her family’s involvement in and commitment to the cause.
“There are people in our family that have cancer, that have had cancer,” she said. “It’s not about one story. It’s not one person. It’s about many. There are so many friends and family members of ours that have endured cancer.”
She attended another Relay for Life event and discussed her idea of walking across the United States with a representative from the American Cancer Society.
“They were very excited,” she said.
The idea was for her to make the trip solo. At first, she did not want her daughter to go with her because she thought it was too dangerous.
Although Relay is an important cause, Noelle wanted to go to help out her chances of getting into Stanford University one day, she said. To prove she could handle the physical exertion, Noelle walked 43 miles at a Relay event and completed a half marathon.
They decided to get a dog to take along with them for protection and security, and they also carry mace.
“I wanted a big dog, but I don’t know if I necessarily wanted one this big,” Noelle said of Doof, who is a certified service dog.
“He is protective of us, but at the same time, he’s friendly with almost everybody,” Jenn said.
Along the journey, the Harshfields have met lots of people who have offered them a place to stay, a meal or a fountain drink with lots of ice in a Styrofoam cup, Jenn’s favorite. Others offer money or gift cards. Some just want to know about their journey.
“I have felt very comfortable with all the people we have encountered,” Jenn said. “It restores your faith in humanity, that people are nice, and I like that Noelle gets to see that.”
For Noelle, the scariest part is not knowing where they are going to be staying each night. But to keep her mind occupied during downtimes, she pulls out the algebra book she brought along.
“That’s very important to her,” Jenn said.
Noelle attended public school through January and was homeschooled up until the time they left. Although some people might criticize the fact she is not in school right now, Jenn said the life experience her daughter is having makes up for it.
Their experiences also have made Jenn realize “we need to do better.”
“When we see somebody else walking or hiking or even homeless people, we can do better,” she said of reaching out to help those in need.
They’ve also been touched by all of the stories people have shared with them about how cancer has touched their lives.
“One couple we stayed with, she had breast cancer at one point, he had skin cancer and their son had pancreatic cancer,” Jenn said. “There’s nobody that we’ve met that hasn’t been affected by cancer, so that has been very meaningful.”
Although it has not been easy or comfortable and many times is frustrating, Jenn said there has never been a moment of the journey where she wanted to quit. She’s also very thankful her daughter is on the trip with her.
They carry cellphones in order to navigate, make posts about their travels on Facebook and to call home. They also are equipped with trackers that let Jenn’s husband know where they are at all times.
Through it all, Jenn said she has been amazed by the support they have received.
“Indiana has been fabulous,” she said. “We’re walking down the street and we’re getting genuine honks. That’s the first time that has happened.”
If people take nothing else away from their story, Jenn said she wants them to write down the phone number for the American Cancer Society, 800-227-2345.
“They are such a huge support system for anybody who has cancer or had cancer or is a caregiver,” she said. “They do so many things, like provide wigs. They help women who have cancer do their makeup so that they feel better about themselves. They give free rides to people who need treatment. They do research, too, but it’s not all about research. It’s about support. That’s what I want people to take away.”
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You can follow Jenn and Noelle Harshfield’s journey across the country online at facebook.com/walkwithus2018.
Donations to support their cause can be made at gofundme.com/walkwithus2018. They are raising money for Relay for Life to fund cancer research and programs through the American Cancer Society.