"It's all about choices," Dan Rogers said, of his decision to leave his $55,000 a year job to walk across the country. "I don't know how much time I have. If there are things I want to do, I'd better go do them."
As a factory manager in Ohio for Colgate-Palmolive, Rogers put in 15 years of service, accrued retirement benefits, and enjoyed all the perks of a managerial position in corporate America.
Until he came to a realization:
"I had always been there because I wanted to be," he said. "And then I thought, 'I don't want to be here anymore.' I've had enough of corporate manufacturing. I want to do something different. So this is a career change with a hike in the middle."
That, coupled with the fact that his father was forced into medical retirement at age 44 because of heart problems, made the 39-year-old Rogers decide to move on while he is still youthful and healthy. He gave notice at Colgate, restructured his finances, tied on a pair of lightweight New Balance tennis shoes, loaded an 18-pound backpack, and set out to witness America.
His dream was to touch on all 48 of the continental states in a five-year, 20,000-mile journey to include the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide.
He arrived in Payson last week as part of his initial 2,700-mile stretch from Stuebenville, Ohio to California.
"I left Ohio on Aug. 24, 2001," he said, moving his finger along his black-lined route on a well-creased U.S. map. "I went south to Kentucky, into Tennessee and through Alabama and Mississippi."
He stopped to see his fiancee in Louisiana, then headed northwest through Arkansas and Oklahoma, traversed the panhandle of Texas, into New Mexico and arrived in Arizona nearly eight months after his journey began. He would then go west to California, north to Washington, and back east along a northern route.
An experienced hiker, Rogers is among only 10 percent of people who completed the attempt to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. It was then he took the trail name Sheltowee, a name given to Daniel Boone by the Shawnee tribe. It means Big Turtle.
To see Dan Rogers, one would think more of Daniel Boone than a turtle. Big, sturdy and sure-footed, he puts an average of 19 miles a day on his tennis shoes. The most he has walked is 32 miles in one day. His fair skin rebels against the sun and wind with a red, sunburned face and peeling skin on his nose. In contrast, there is a white circle around each eye where sunglasses have provided needed shade for his pale blue eyes. A bushy red beard and shoulder-length hair serve as some protection from the elements. They, and the leather medicine bag around his neck, give him the look and affect of nature's son.
He denies the need for physical training before his adventure, saying he gained conditioning as he went along.
"Anybody can prepare physically," he maintains. "The mental conditioning was tougher. You have to mentally prepare for 15- to 20-degree cold and know that you can't go in anywhere to get warm. You have to get out of your warm sleeping bag, put your shoes on and start walking. The same thing in 100-degree heat of the desert. You have to keep walking and get through the pain."
He prepared to combat the pain by packing the essentials a tent, a down-filled sleeping bag effective for 15-degree temperatures, a hiker's kitchen with a pot and stove, extra clothing, a camera and packaged food. His partners in culinary relief were Lipton noodles, macaroni and cheese, pop tarts and Snickers bars.
One pain on the trail is poor sleep. Camping out is sometimes not an option. Half the time he opted to sleep in motels.
Another pain endured is blistered feet, but he has accepted a ride only once.
"I was in Texas. It was 20 degrees and the wind was blowing 50 mph. I had walked 27 miles that day. So when someone offered me a ride, I took it and rode the last four miles into town."
Such kindness reinforces his belief that human nature is basically good.
He carries a pocket e-mail system to keep in touch with family in Ohio and with people he meets along his way.
Walking the cross-country trails, he goes through small rural communities rather than into cities and takes in the local color, history and personalities.
He is impressed by it all, he says, "by the bayou people of Louisiana, the hill folk of Tennessee, the miners of Kentucky, and the third generation ranchers of New Mexico."
On the General Crook Trail on the Rim, he was impressed by Apache and homesteading history.
"There is only one Mogollon Rim, and it is magnificent," he said.
It corrected his preconceived idea that Arizona is all desert and cactus. "But we all have misconceptions about places we've never been to."
He is recording his adventures in photographs and journals and plans to write a book titled, "America One Step At A Time." A precursor to this chronicle can be seen on the Fine Living Channel on May 5. He will be featured on "Radical Sabbaticals," filmed when he was in Natchez, Mississippi.
But even radicals have their moments of doubt and need. Somewhere on the trail between Oklahoma and Arizona, Rogers considered ending his hike sooner than planned. His traveling companion suffered a stress fracture of his foot in Oklahoma and was forced to head home. Since then, the stretches between towns got longer and the people he met did not satisfy his need for camaraderie. He encountered a pain he could not overcome.
"The loneliness is what got to me," he admits. "That was the hardest thing for me to deal with."
It was in Payson that Rogers made another choice the Rim country would be the end of the trail. He bought a used car and will soon drive back to Ohio. He says he'll use the time to process his experiences and decide on his next choice in life. As an Eagle Scout, he may look for a job with the Boy Scouts of America. He may hit the corporate speaker's circuit with ideas on team-building using hiking analogies. He may become a successful author when his book is published.
He will definitely keep hiking.
But will he remember Payson as a disappointing end or an optimistic beginning?
"It's too soon to know," he sighs, giving a wistful look at the sky and the ponderosas. "It will be a combination of a lot of feelings happy and sad, high and low. But it was here I realized I had found what I was looking for I had enjoyed the trip and followed my dream."
Rogers can be reached through his website at www.sheltoweehikes.com.