Connecting Communities One Step At A Time

Pittsburgh, PA to Washington, DC

It was an easy decision to add nearly a hundred miles to our route by following the GAP and C&O Canal trails. Our first day off of the roads ended in West Newton, PA. We visited the Collinsburg Volunteer Fire Department and had a nice discussion with Chief Koricich and several firefighters. We asked about how the community of West Newton had changed over time (for example, it was interesting to hear first-hand about the positive economic impact of fracking). Throughout the evening we were treated very kindly: we showered, used the laundry facilities, and caught up on work in the old bingo room before spending the night in the department parking lot. The following morning, in a display of typical firefighter generosity, one of the firefighters drove out to meet Adam to return a lost glove, which left us shaking our heads in grateful disbelief. That day we stopped running in Connellsville and decided to rush over to catch the last tour of the day at Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece.

We passed through Confluence, PA (and enjoyed a great meal and terrific company at Sherman’s Ice Cream Parlor) before reaching Frostburg, MD. Once again we found ourselves indebted to the local volunteer fire department, who not only allowed us to park in their lot but also invited us to join them for a company dinner. In Cumberland, MD, we reached another milestone: the end of the GAP trail and the start of the C&O Canal trail. We met with City Administrator Jeffrey Rhodes and City Clerk Margie Woodring and learned a bit about the history of ‘the Queen City’. Cumberland, once a highly important manufacturing and transportation town, was built for a population of about 40,000 people. The population substantially declined over time, partly due to companies moving elsewhere as well as the building of major north-south interstates to the east and to the west of town. Now the town struggles with how to fill the many vacant but truly beautiful buildings in its downtown, and we heard about a few economic development plans from Economic Development Coordinator Shawn Hershberger. We look forward to exploring some of these plans in an upcoming post. We later met with Mia Cross at the Board of Education. A new high school is going to be built on the city's old hospital grounds, replacing a school facility built in 1925. Local 5th graders take part in a 5-night outdoor school in Garrett County. All K-5 grade students are eligible to participate in a Chinese (Mandarin) immersion program, taught by native speakers and ending in a proposed trip to China.

It was an adventure in and of itself to help Rex navigate some of the access points along the C&O canal, but the RV came through once again. From Little Orleans to Big Pool, we gave Rex some time off as Susan, the mother of a mutual friend, came out to support us. It was wonderful to run as a team along the trail. Ashley’s dad took over as the support driver from Big Pool to White’s Ferry. This stretch, split over two days, included a walk over the bridge into historic Harper’s Ferry, WV. At White’s Ferry (where you’ll find the only operating cable ferry on the Potomac river), we were supported by Ashley’s friend/talented photographer Melissa and her lovable goldendoodle Mollie. We had a wonderful run through the spectacularly beautiful Great Falls and ended the day at Carderock, only 14 miles from the Capitol.

We could not have asked for nicer weather on our final day of running-mild temperatures and plenty of sun. The sights became more and more familiar as we approached DC. Adam’s friend John joined us at the Lincoln monument and we ran together along the National Mall towards the west side of the Capitol building. After four months and 3,165 miles, the running component of our journey was complete.

Pittsburgh, PA

Our run into Pittsburgh was cold and wet, and along many stretches there wasn’t a shoulder to run on. We were happy to reach the city and ran the last mile or so along the river approaching the Carnegie Science Center and Heinz Field. After a phone interview with a reporter from the Washingtonian Magazine (see the resulting article here), we decided to run some errands and search for a spot to park Rex. The first sign that Pittsburgh is home to some incredibly kind people was when a sales associate, Oden, at REI generously offered his driveway for the night. We were relieved to be able to stay within the city and enjoyed sharing a couple of Oregon Ninkasi beers with new friends. 

The following morning, we started our off day from running by meeting with Leigh Halverson, Deputy Chief of Staff for Economic Development for the Office of the Mayor. Recently elected Mayor Peduto charged his staff with creating the largest contiguous complete streets grid in North America, which is a progressive move for a city known for its steel-laden history. Traffic21, a transportation research program at Carnegie Mellon University, as well as data management collaborations between the University of Pittsburgh, the city, and the county are all aiming to improve the transportation infrastructure in the city. We were both impressed with the city buses we took during the day, not only were they prompt and clean but the drivers were very nice!

80% of Pittsburgh employment is thanks to ‘meds and eds’, or medical and education institutions. We spoke with CMU Police Lieutenant Gary Scheimer, a former 28-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Police Department. Lieutenant Scheimer remarked that it was an ‘honor to serve’ the students at CMU and he was proud of the good relationships between city and other university police departments. He told us about a popular student-developed program/app built in collaboration with the department that allows one to locate the nearest University bus, and he also spoke highly of the students involved with the volunteer EMT program. Knowing how stressful academia can be, the University provides 24/7 counseling and psychiatric services (CAPS), which was important to hear given our increasing awareness of the national lack of broadly accessible mental health support services. 

In between meetings, we visited the Carnegie Library, where we caught up on work and began researching the final stretch of the run to DC. After speaking with a research librarian and pouring over some guides and maps, we were excited to see that we would be able to run all the way into DC along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and C&O Canal trails! We enjoyed going inside the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, and after a great sandwich at Primanti Brothers, we made our way back to Rex for the night. The next morning, after navigating Pittsburgh morning traffic, we found the car-less GAP trail and ran with big smiles on our faces.

Gary, IN through New Brighton, PA

During our time in Chicago, a number of people expressed concern when we told them we’d be running through Gary, Indiana. Almost everyone we passed on the sidewalks through the middle of town smiled and told us to ‘keep on running!’ The challenging aspect of the run was the lack of road shoulders on the outskirts of Gary: in many spots we had to take detours or run next to railroad tracks because the main roads were too dangerous to run on. As we ran towards Michigan City the shoulders only seemed to narrow. We were thankful to eventually find an access point to a nearby trail along the great lake, which we followed into town. A very nice woman who worked at the Indiana Dunes Park stopped by Rex and gave us a map highlighting more bike-friendly roads. Many of the suggested roads still had extremely narrow shoulders, so we were glad to see sidewalks emerge as we reached South Bend.

On election night, we were treated to a great home-cooked meal and stimulating conversation at the home of a friend’s mother. The following morning we headed to the University of Notre Dame, where we met with Timothy Sexton, the Associate Vice President for Public Affairs. Mr. Sexton gave us an overview of the evolving relationship between the University and neighboring South Bend. Under the guidance of President Edward Mallory, the University helped to rebuild a homeless shelter, put pressure on local leaders to focus on revitalizing the adjoining neighborhood, and collaborated on the Robinson Community Learning Center (RCLC), which we later visited. The RCLC offers a variety of educational programs to anyone from the community, from ESL classes and ‘Talk With Your Baby’ for adults to a popular Shakespeare theatre course for youth. Many University students volunteer in the community by tutoring at the RCLC or nearby Pearly school. The University is helping to fund a turbo machinery center; rather than build this facility on some of the many more remote acres owned by the University, a decision was made to locate the factory downtown to create more opportunities for the South Bend community at large.

Rex seemed please to enter Elkhart, the ‘RV capital of the world’. We spoke with Mayor Dick Moore, who eagerly shared a few stories of which he was proud. The Mayor described how the community passed a referendum to fund public schools, which had struggled after the state legislature elected to cap property taxes (commonly a key public education funding source) at 1% of their assessed value. In 2009, the city suffered from 20.3% unemployment, partly because the RV industry was hit particularly hard by the recession. The city is now down to 4-5% unemployment. Catalyzed by the revitalization of the historic Lerner Theater, the downtown has experienced impressive growth, with the city looking to build an apartment complex to encourage further downtown residents. We were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the beautiful Lerner by manager David Smith.

After passing through Fort Wayne, we reached Ohio, our 8th state. Mayor Lydia Mihalik invited us to her favorite coffee shop, and between events on Veterans Day spent time explaining the community’s economy and history.  A number of large companies call this region home, including Marathon Oil, MPLX, Cooper Tires, Whirlpool, and others.  Despite these strong companies the town has struggled to attract people in manufacturing and with the ‘soft skills’ to fill the many available jobs.  In response, some schools and companies in the region are offering training programs to fill this need. 

In Akron, we met with Principal Larry Johnson Jr of the city’s STEM High School. The High School was started following the success of a STEM middle school opened in 2009 and is located on the University of Akron campus. These schools aim to educate students at the secondary level, prepare them for higher education studies at the University, and provide them with skills to gain employment in Akron. The desire to provide the education and opportunity to keep young people in the area reflects much of what we had seen across America (namely, that many young people go off to college and do not return to the area until retirement, if ever), and we were excited to see such a unique collaboration between the city, its citizens, and local businesses.  We had a great time touring the classes and speaking with many of the teachers.

We later spoke with Police Captain Daniel Zampelli, who told us about neighborhood response teams and a gun reduction violence team, which aims to identify individuals illegally possessing guns. The Akron Police Department was one of the first to implement training for officers to work with citizens needing assistance who suffer from mental health issues. The lack of a system to effectively handle and treat those with mental illness has been brought up in many conversations throughout our journey and is an issue we plan to seriously investigate.

We were very grateful to spend some time working out and enjoying a warm shower at the New Brighton YMCA during our first night in Pennsylvania. The temperatures began falling that evening and the next day as we ran into Pittsburgh, where we quickly encountered some of the warmest folks we’d met thus far. 

Chicago, IL

Our first views of Chicago were at night after ending a day of running in the western suburb of Oakbrook Terrace. We accidently navigated Rex into the underground tunnels, and while it was fun to pretend we were in the Batmobile, we were happy to get above ground unscathed and head towards Lake Michigan. We spent our first evening walking around the Wrigleyville neighborhood before a comfortable night’s sleep in a friend’s uncle’s home. 

An important, though disappointedly unsurprising, trend during this run has been the difficulty in obtaining meetings with officials in larger cities. We reached out to the offices of the Mayor, City Clerk, City Council, Planning and Development, Police, Publics School CEO and other public school administrators, but were unable to meet with any of the above. This was understandable given our arrival close to the elections, but frustrating nonetheless. 

However, we had much more success and a wonderful discussion at the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, where we met with Shilpa Bavikatte, Shainah Horowitz, and Bill Green. The Chicago branch was started in 1932 and continues to build stronger communities by funding programs focused on improving income, health, education, and safety nets. Like many companies and nonprofits, the United Way was impacted by the 2008 economic recession and ongoing political gridlock that has led to many grants being cut, programs lingering while unfunded, and contracts continuing to be delayed. As the economy begins to pick up, companies and individuals have started to donate more, allowing the United Way to operate and invest in initiatives.

After spending some time at the Harold Washington Library Center, walking from city office to office, and scheduling a meeting for the following morning, we enjoyed a lot of laughs at a taping of NPR’s ‘Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!’. We followed up a previous tweet to host Peter Sagal with a request for him to join us for a run while we were in Chicago. After sharing a beer with Mr. Sagal and some of the show’s panelists and staff, we met with Ashley’s freshman year college roommate at the Green Mill and listened to some great live music.

We were fortunate to meet Xavier Ramey, Senior Assistant Director for Social Innovation and Philanthropy at the University of Chicago. Mr. Ramey grew up in North Lawndale, a Chicago neighborhood historically considered to be undesirable and run down. According to Mr. Ramey, 68% of adults spend a considerable amount of time in the criminal justice system – 90% of whom are male. North Lawndale underwent a transformation when ‘Coach’ Wayne Gordon, who moved to the area in 1975, built the Lawndale Community Church. Through private donations, the Church and the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation funds a health clinic, school, dental care, and a gymnasium. A highly educated and successful professional, Mr. Ramey feels compelled to work on behalf the Lawndale community, in part through acting as a ‘translator’: someone who can effectively communicate between those within the community and those on the outside. It was interesting to listen to Mr. Ramey’s honest thoughts on how communities develop – in a large city like Chicago, meaningful change does not necessarily come from government, but rather from personal interactions within the community. Though we have continually sought examples of successful development initiatives driven by community leaders, our discussion with Mr. Ramey was a timely and critical reminder that effective change must first happen through a change in mindset, not policy. 

Over the weekend, we finished our ‘official’ running into Chicago, met with and were graciously hosted by old friends, watched another Oregon Ducks victory, enjoyed some Chicago deep dish pizza, and ended with a run and dim sum with Mr. Sagal. An experienced runner, Mr. Sagal has competed in many marathons, including ones where he guided blind runners to the finish line.  We enjoyed listening to him share his own history with the sport. Our conversation ranged from how life can intervene and make training difficult to Chicago history (we learned the true origin of the term ‘Windy City’). We were delighted, if not a tad surprised, to end our time in Chicago by indulging Mr. Sagal’s curiosity about the RV with the Grand Rex Tour. We left our new friend with some Oregon microbrews and headed east along the great lake towards the Indiana border. 

Marshalltown, IA through Elburn, IL

In Marshalltown, IA, we first met with City Administrator Randy Wetmore, who shared a number of community success stories with us. In the years after three children drowned in the Iowa River, the local YMCA raised funds to teach approximately 600 fifth graders basic swimming techniques. Through private donations, the Marshalltown Educational Partnership offers high school students the opportunity to have half of their tuition covered at a local junior college through GPA maintenance and a high attendance record.

Police Chief Michael Tupper discussed the purpose of an unusual humvee outreach vehicle: after acquiring the surplus military humvee at no cost to the city, it was restored and repainted as a way to start conversations with citizens at community events. The police department works with local churches to help connect with the city’s significant Hispanic, Sudanese and Burmese immigrant population (many of whom work at the nearby pork packing plant).

Both Mr. Wetmore and Chief Tupper brought up the city’s involvement with ‘Not in Our Town’, a national anti-bullying campaign. We met with Times Republican Publisher/General Manager Michael Schlesinger, who spearheaded an effort to proactively engage Marshalltown in creating a safe, hate-free community. A committee comprised of public servants, elected officials, local business leaders and citizens continues to meet to research statistics, discuss how bullying impacts the community, and brainstorm methods of bullying prevention. Marshalltown is the first community in America to adopt the ‘Not In Our Town’ guidelines prior to a major incident.

In 2008, Cedar Rapids was hit unexpectedly hard when many rivers in eastern Iowa flooded. We learned about both the flood’s impact and the city’s recovery during our meeting with city council members Susie Weinacht and Justin Shields. More than 10 square miles of the city were impacted, 1,360 jobs were lost, 6 major city buildings were damaged and displaced, and many homes were destroyed. The city’s quick response (partly thanks to frequent nuclear disaster drills) resulted in zero deaths, and while the community was emotionally and structurally distraught following the event, local leaders actively promoted an attitude of resiliency. During our visit to a city council meeting, the council voted on the final flood project, nearly six years later: the location of a new community recreation center. We also enjoyed meeting with Stephanie Neff and learning about the city’s involvement with the Blue Zones Project , which aims to make healthy living choices accessible and affordable to the community. 

In Iowa City, we were hosted by the Zeitler family and treated to a meal at the famous Hamburg Inn No. 2, home to the Iowa Coffee Bean Caucus and site of a ‘West Wing’ episode. We enjoyed running through the Quad Cities area and crossed into Illinois over the Mississippi River. Our first stop was in Prophetstown, where we met with Police Chief Bruce Franks. The town hosts an annual kid’s fishing derby and a large July 4th celebration. In 2013, a fire destroyed a portion of the downtown area, which is now in the process of being rebuilt. Our final stop outside of Chicago was Elburn. After a visit to the town’s wonderful public library (they even have a donation-based coffee bar), we had a great time speaking with local firefighters. They are truly some of the kindest and hardest-working people we have come across during our journey, and we are always honored when they take the time to tell us about their community.