Editor’s Note: You might have heard of Nate Damm, either by reading one of his four books for sale on Amazon.com, or perhaps following his blog, chronicling his wanderings. You might have caught his TEDx talk on YouTube (you should). More than likely, he’s a Mainer you’ve never heard of. He’s an interesting person to get to know—if nothing else, to help answer the question of why a 22-year-old student from Central Maine would decide to strap on hiking shoes, hoist a backpack and put one foot in front of the other, mile after mile, until reaching the Pacific Ocean, back in 2011. Instead of asking “why”, Damm is more interested in “when”—as in, when can he do it all over again.
IM: You’ve said that you grew up ‘all over’. Can you explain?
ND: Well, my parents split up when I was five, so that was two households already. My dad was an apple farmer in Auburn. He owned an apple farm, so I grew up partly there and partly where my mom lived. I went to college in Auburn at CMCC. Most of the time I lived in Winthrop [Maine].
IM: How’s it feel to drive after all that walking?
ND: You know, it’s still really, really weird. Mostly, it’s the speed of it that’s still kind of scares me. Honestly, I never thought it would still happen over three years later but it does. It freaks me out a little bit.
IM: You just got back from a kind of an aborted attempt. How was it different than the first walk?
ND: It was very different … it was me and Maggie, my girlfriend. We had a support crew, with two of my friends. Several things just kind of went wrong. It was nobody’s fault really. It’s just that when there’s a lot of moving pieces, stuff can happen. It was partly financial, and partly our friends kind of basically not working out.
IM: It got complicated?
ND: It got complicated really, really quick. I don’t regret it at all. We learned a lot from it and North Carolina is beautiful. We’ll try it again hopefully. I’m bummed out for sure.
IM: What are some lessons you learned this time that you wouldn’t do next time?
ND: Well, I love my friends, but I would go with just Maggie. So, it will just be us. No vehicles. That was a huge expense. It sucked a lot of money up, and it’s hard to camp with them, that kind of stuff. So it would just be me and her with backpacks or pushing carts with our stuff.
IM: So the first time you did it, it was just you.
ND: Just me. Yeah.
IM: In a way that’s better, right?
ND: It was.
ND: It was way, way easier. I don’t think of it as something that’s that difficult to do because it really was not that difficult, to be honest. It was pretty easy. The physical and mental part was hard at times, but I got used to it. And then, I kind of got a rhythm. I mean, I just kind of walked and then camped wherever I could on the side of the roads, bought food when my walking passed a store. It’s really not that complicated.
IM: You weren’t exactly alone. You interacted with tons of people it sounds like, from your writings.
ND: Tons. Pretty much every day. As long as I wasn’t in really desolate stretch, and even then, someone usually stop and talk to me or something. It was great. That was what made the trip. I mean, the walking in itself is kind of boring a lot of the time. It was the people I met and that kind of stuff that made it worth it.
IM: Did you listen to music or anything? I mean, how did you pass the time?
ND: I did. I didn’t listen to any music until probably Missouri, maybe. So, I just…was with my own thoughts, you know, all day.
IM: So, it took you a long time to work through some stuff?
ND: It did. I did listen to music quite a lot out West. I sort of wish I had never done it now because it was actually pretty dangerous. I almost had a few accidents mainly because I had headphones on, with cars almost hitting me. Yeah. I wouldn’t do it next time.
IM: Another lesson learned. How long did it take to do the walk?
ND: I started February 26th and I finished October 15th. It was seven and a half months.
IM: Did you think it was going to take that long?
ND: I thought it would take longer. Once I got in good shape and I started not carrying a backpack, pushing my stuff, the pace was way, way better. I pretty much added ten miles a day immediately.
IM: When you started, how many miles a day?
ND: I was doing twelve to fifteen but I was really exhausted. Once I started pushing a cart with my stuff in it, it was like twenty five a day. Sometimes, more like 30.
IM: The mountains must have been difficult.
ND: I liked the passes though. Once I got in good enough shape,walking was not that hard. Hyper-inclines were the hardest because I was not in shape, West Virginia was just tough.
IM: Those mountains aren’t huge.
ND: No, but they’re steep. I went over a Highway 50 in West Virginia which is a pretty rural, highway through the mountains. Really old roads. They’re super steep, with crazy switchbacks. Out West, the roads are generally newer and they have a slight upgrade.
IM: What was the hardest part of that trip?
ND: The beginning . The first couple of months, it was pretty tough. I left pretty abruptly. My life sort of fell apart right before I left. I gave up everything for the trip, so that’s why I kind of had to finish because I had no reason, and nothing, to go home to at all. So it was tough. The adjustment, plus being by myself all day. I’d never really done that and I’d never travelled before really. I’d never been anywhere, or done anything. So, it was just the general adjustment that any traveler will go through.
IM: When did you realize that yeah, I’m going to do this—I’m going to finish this?
ND: I really knew I was going to finish it from day one. No matter how hard it got, I just knew I was going to finish it, because I really didn’t have any other choice. I trusted that I would come to love it and I really did. I’m glad that I stuck with it even when it was tough at first, because it by the time I hit Kansas, every day was like the best day of my life. I just absolutely loved it, even when it was hard and hot and tough.
IM: You got caught in lots of weather?
ND: I did. It was the rainiest period in a hundred years when I went through the mid-West, I just got flooded out pretty much everywhere I went. It’s brutal, the rain. Then out West…you’re from the desert, so you know how certain times of the year it rains every single day.
IM: And it rains are really hard.
ND: There was a lot of weather—everything from snow to hail and lots of rain. It was great.
IM: Are you still traveling now?
ND: I never really went back to the rural life after that. I just kind of kept going, and found a way to earn a few bucks. I just started doing freelance writing as well, but I traveled for most of the time up until I met my girlfriend Maggie last summer.
IM: Is Maggie from Maine?
ND: She’s from Idaho. That’s why there’s Idaho plates on the car. I met her through my walking across the country actually, because she wanted to do it. She emailed me with questions about it and then we just kind of stayed in touch. And then, I was hitchhiking last summer and I was in Boise, Idaho and that’s where she’s from. She happened to be there too, so we met up and here we are.
IM: You seem like a pretty normal person. But for most people, walking across the country…..that’s pretty extreme. Even hitchhiking is pretty extreme. It seems a little risky.
ND: [Hitchhiking] is scarier than walking, that’s for sure, but it’s a blast. Last summer, that’s what I did. I went from Southern Virginia to Portland, Oregon.
IM: Hitchhiking the whole way?
ND: Hitchhiking, yeah. It was great! It was amazing. A really, really good summer.
IM: How many times have you been across the country at this point, one way or another?
ND: Oh man, I don’t know. Quite a lot. I never thought I would get to do all the stuff I do. I’ve been slowing it down, honestly, the last six months or so. I haven’t done that much, aside from when we walked through North Carolina. I’m planning to be in Maine for the next three or four months, probably.
IM: Maine is kind of your home base, would you say?
ND: Yes. Always has been.
IM: So why leave Maine in the first place? And why come back?
ND: Why leave? I can’t help myself. Even now I’m kind of anxious. We’ve been back for a couple of months maybe, and I’m kind of ready to go, but it’s nice to be around family. I always want to go see something else or explore. I’ve spent over three years now just in the U.S. traveling around. I’ve never been outside the country, because I just love it here. I love it out West especially. I never get tired of it.
IM: You’d never traveled, before you left here, and now you’ve never travelled internationally. So are you going to walk across Australia next?
ND: I would. I’d say I would. It’s so inexpensive for me to travel here. For a couple of years I lived on a few hundred bucks a month. I camped. I just had my backpack, my tent, and my stove. I hitch-hiked, lived in vehicles with some people at times; and camped out in the desert, out there in California for long periods of time. I want to go back this year–that’s my plan.
IM: Obviously you love Maine because you keep coming back, but where else would you like to be?
ND: I love California. I like Idaho a lot. Idaho is probably the most underrated state. There is just absolutely everything you want there. It’s like Maine in that people underestimate it.
IM: How would you describe what you do now to a five-year-old?
ND: Mostly writing. It’s pretty much all I do right now—focusing on a lot of writing projects.
IM: What kind of writing? I mean I’ve seen your books, but what else?
ND: I did a couple of travel books and right now I’m writing fiction. It’s way, way different, but a lot of fun. It’s challenging, which is why I like it.
IM: What about your parents? What did they think of your journey?
ND: They love it. It’s weird. My dad was kind of an adventurist guy and he’s really into the outdoors. He’s really a hunting and fishing guy originally, so that’s what he did when he sold the farm and became a guide. My mom is just super supportive. I’ve never had any problems about that. Actually if I were to settle down, I think they would kind of give me shit about it.
IM: So, why do you walk?
ND: It’s just simple. I wish I could do more of it, honestly. Things pile up as your life goes on. We have a dog, me and my girlfriend, so, it’s not easy to just take off and walk somewhere now. I still walk every day. I walk around town with my dog and it’s a great way to get out and there’s a lot to discover not far from me, that’s for sure. Even in my own hometown, I still see stuff that I never noticed before. It’s kind of strange.
IM: Do you have any words of advice for people contemplating doing what you’ve done?
ND: Just go for it, I guess. The timing is the main thing that holds a lot of people back. I put off hitting the road for two years, just kind of waiting for a better time to come. But the timing’s never perfect at all, so you kind of just have to jump in and see what happens.
IM: What gave you the idea? I’m just curious.
ND: I always just wanted to explore, even when I was a little kid. My dad always had us outside and I grew up on a farm with endless woods to play in. There was always all kinds of stuff to do outside. I don’t remember watching TV very much when I was a kid.
IM: Why walking?
ND: I read about a guy that walked across the country in probably 2008 or 9, when I was in college. The idea just stopped me in my tracks immediately. I was like, “I have to do that”.
IM: Did you keep track how many miles you covered?
ND: I never figured it out exactly. It was around 3,200 or so. I’m not sure.
IM: And you ended in San Francisco.
ND: Yeah, at Ocean beach there. It was a great place to finish.
IIM: Highways or freeways?
ND: US and state highways. No interstates.
IM: Who are your favorite authors right now?
ND: I love Earnest Hemingway. I can’t seem to get enough. I’ve been reading a lot of different stuff right now, but the book that inspired me to hit the road was “Planetwalker” by John Francis.
IM: What’s next for you?
ND: I’m trying to save up to buy a bus.
IM: Oh, no kidding?
ND: I’d convert it into a little house on wheels. Ideally we would do that and then drive it out West and spend the winter and summer in Southern California. We’ll see what happens.