Month-long, 200-mile trek reveals the kindness of strangers
For Andi Noakes, seeing Laramie, Wyo., looming on the horizon on a January morning was a sight for sore eyes and sore feet.
On January 8, Noakes completed a 200-mile, 28-day walk to raise money and awareness for Laramie organizations that support the homeless and impoverished. Along the way she visited Unitarian Universalist churches in Wyoming and Colorado, where members provided hospitality and donations. UUs contributed to her cause and hosted her in their homes, giving Noakes much-needed breaks from her cold-weather camping.
In all, Noakes raised $6,000, which she will divide equally between the Laramie Soup Kitchen and Interfaith-Good Samaritan, which assists local men, women, and children in emergency situations.
Noakes says the idea for the walk sprang from what she called a “one-third-life crisis.” She turned 30 in the fall and was beginning to ask herself what she was contributing. A student, Noakes is working toward her bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology at the University of Wyoming. “I looked at the balance in my life between giving and taking,” she said, “and I felt it was out of whack. I wanted to put it back in balance.”
Noakes is an avid hiker, so she decided to do a charity walk during her winter break from college. Someone at her church jokingly suggested that she hike from their fellowship in Laramie to UU churches in Wyoming and Colorado. Noakes thought that was a great idea.
She set out on her odyssey on December 12. During the first week, temperatures dipped as low as 10 below zero at night. After such frigid weather Noakes decided to leave her hiking companion, her dog, Harmony, in the care of friends. It was so cold she couldn’t keep Harmony warm at night, Noakes said.
Sleeping outdoors with her dog during the intense cold snap, Noakes thought of the difficulties homeless people face. “I felt like a single mother trying to keep my child warm. I put her in my sleeping bag, but then I’d be freezing. I was using up all my energy.”
Before Noakes left she alerted three UU churches that she would be walking into town on consecutive Saturdays. She stayed for about 24 hours in each town, arriving on Saturday, staying with a host family from the congregation, attending the Sunday service, and then walking on after church.
The first congregation she visited was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, Wyo. The second was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greeley, Colo., where she arrived on Christmas day. And the third was the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, Colo.
At each congregation the minister introduced Noakes during the service. And each church took up a collection for her cause. She said she was moved by the generosity of the UUs she encountered. In Greeley, a couple invited her into their home on Christmas. Tom and Alice Woodrum, longtime members of the Greeley church, were delighted to host her, Alice Woodrum said. The Woodrums invited another couple from church without family in town to join them, and together they ate a chili supper for Christmas.
The following day, Noakes attended the Greeley church. And then she headed out on foot toward Fort Collins.
Though Noakes is a seasoned hiker, she typically travels in moderate weather. The gear she needed for her cold-weather camping was heavy and bulky, and her fully loaded pack weighed 60 pounds. The combination of the heavy pack and the hard surfaces of the highways took a toll on her feet. They ached, and two of her toenails fell off. She began to shorten her daily walks, which averaged 8 to 12 miles each day. And she occasionally asked friends to drive her pack to the end of her day’s destination to ease the burden on her feet.
As her feet ached, however, her spirits soared. She said she was amazed by the kindness and generosity of strangers as she trudged ahead, carrying her green flag emblazoned with the words “Charity Walk.” People would honk and wave. She saw the same UPS truck several days in a row along Highway 287, and the driver would honk encouragement each day.
One driver stopped to talk to Noakes after he had seen her several days in a row. He told her to stop at a café in Nunn, Colo., for lunch. She did stop there and found that the man had left a $20 bill with the staff to pay for her lunch. When she went to pay, the staff refused and insisted she donate the cash to her cause.
“I’ve been blown away at the kindness of people,” said Noakes. “That made it all worth it.” At times, she said, she got lonely walking the highways alone. “But if one person honked I’d be on a high for an hour and feel strong again,” she said.
Each evening, Noakes would pull out her phone from her heavy pack and email her brother a note. He posted it to a Facebook page created for the walk, “The Circle of Peace Walk,” so that friends and supporters could monitor her progress online.
As she came close to completing her circle and drew near Laramie, she asked friends to meet up with her on January 8 to walk the final four miles alongside her. A dozen people came and walked. They brought her a warm drink and her dog, Harmony.
The next day, she attended church in Laramie again. A newspaper story about the walk had appeared in several area papers. People who had read the story had already sent in donations, and there were envelopes with checks waiting for her at the church. Noakes was never sure she would reach her original goal of $5,000, and she was thrilled that she surpassed it.
As Noakes returns to classes and nurses her sore feet, she has no plans to repeat the walk next year. She laughed when a friend asked her if she is planning another charity trek over spring break. But she says she is interested in continuing to find ways to give back to her community and to other communities. She plans to take a philanthropy class at her college, which raises money to build a school in Uganda.
“My New Year’s resolution is to remember that people are innately good,” said Noakes. “This was an amazing experience that changed my perspective on the world. It showed me the human capacity for goodness that I didn’t realize was there.”
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).
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