Sunday, September 12, 1993

Spaghetti Breakfast with a Real McCoy
------by-------Kathy Bilton----------

We were on our way to the Slackwater area of the C&O Canal (mile 85) to look for signs of the Large-leaved Waterleaf ( a fairly rare plant in Maryland) when I noticed a fellow resting by the roadside with what appeared to be a huge bright yellow backpack that seemed to have a wheel attached to it. It looked like he even had a little dog with him. We made our turn and went on to thinking about things other than eccentric hikers.

Approaching home later that afternoon, I noticed the same guy was headed down-river on the C&O towpath. Had I not seen him earlier in the day, I doubt whether I would have even noticed him as I drove by, as the canal bed is now wooded and one doesn't tend to notice people over on the towpath. I parked the car at home and headed over to the path to find out what this guy was up to. We went up to him and said hello and asked a couple of questions of the kind that probably almost everyone who did stop to talk to him asked - namely where and when had he started and how many miles he averaged per day. Covering about twenty miles a day, it turned out that he had been walking ever since the first of the year, having started his journey all the way over on the other side of the continent in Venice, California!

I asked if he could use anything I might be able to bring him from the house. The first thing he thought of was ice. Then he offered to pay me for some sandwiches. He had hoped to visit a grocery store in Shepherdstown, as he knew the town was just across the river from the towpath. But what he didn't know was that getting to the store from the towpath was not such an easy enterprise for someone who was pulling along a heavy pack. When he realized what making that little sidetrip would entail in terms of hills and distance, he decided to bypass the town and make-do with the supplies he already had. I turned down his money but went back to the house to make him some sandwiches while my friend chatted with him. I brought the sandwiches and ice, we wished him good luck and he hurried on down the towpath to his evening's destination, the Antietam compground about a mile away.

When I got up the next morning, I got to thinking about the hiker, and though I thought it was likely he had already broken camp and was no doubt long gone, I decided to hop on my bike and take a few pieces of fruit to him if he happened to still be there. It was a little after nine - but it turned out that Melvin was still at the campground. He was waiting for breakfast to arrive. A group of Boy Scouts camping near him had promised to bring him a nice, hot breakfast. Shortly after I got there, some scouts arrived with a huge plate of spaghetti. I sat with Melvin while he ate, and heard some more about his trans-continental adventures.

When I met Melvin McCoy, he had just one tiny traveling companion, a small canine named Budman. But when he had started on January 1st, he had had two companions, a human partner and that fellow's large dog. The partnership was not a long-lived one however, as the other hiker, as a consequence of not wearing sunglasses, was stricken with sun-blindness a little way into Arizona. While continuing alone across Arizona, Melvin learned of the plight of a small dog at a pound in Casa Grande. The little fellow was about to be put down - so Melvin decided to give him a chance to live, even though it wouldn't be an easy life for a small dog. Budman did not keep him company for long, though. The summer heat of the southwest proved to be too much for him, so Melvin had him transported to Tennessee to be returned to him later in the trip. In fact, when I met up with the two of them, Budman had only been back on the trail for a couple of days.

When I asked him about how he liked traveling alone, he said he basically didn't mind - but if he could, he'd have along a cook and a foot doctor. He had lost 40 pounds since the start of his trip, something he thought a cook-companion might have remedied. And his feet had been giving him a fair amount of trouble which is not too surprising. He was on his 13th pair of boots, a much larger number than it would have been if he'd had to supply them himself. However, one of the sponsors of his hike was a boot manufacturer.

The purpose of his trip was to demonstrate, gain some publicity for, and test out the pack he was using which was called the M.U.L.E. (Multi-purpose Uniaxial Litter Enginery) The pack consisted of several different compartments, one of which was a five gallon water container, equipped with a long, flexible straw. It had a single fairly narrow wheel about 10" in diameter with a handbrake attached to the frame of the pack. So that the user could stop and get out of the pack, but not have to put it down on the ground, it came equipped with a double kickstand. There were some weapons stuck in the sides of the pack.

I hadn't noticed the weapons he was carrying with him until he pointed them out. What they were were several darts that were to have been protection against coyotes - but he had never had the need for using any of them. The most severe natural problem he encountered on the whole trip had been a tornado somewhere in Texas. He had sustained some injuries to one of his ankles during the storm and had to stop walking for a couple of weeks.

He pulled out a sheaf of laminated newspaper clippings about his trip from various newspapers along the way. A color TV was another thing he had with him, using it to watch the local news on days when he had been interviewed, wanting to see how his presentation had come off so that he could try to do a better job in any future interviews. He seemed to enjoy the press coverage and also felt that it offered him a modicum of protection. I don't know to what extent he may have felt that the fact that he was black might have added to the amount of potential hostility that a lone traveler is bound to run into at some point during a trip. He felt that if people in the towns along the way knew in advance that he was coming, and that he wasn't a homeless vagabond - but rather part of a design team that had engineered the wheeled pack that he was rolling along behind him, he would be less likely to encounter problems.

However, there was one town where the newspaper article that preceded him into town not only didn't protect him, but, he felt, may even have caused the local sheriff to go out of his way to find him and cause him trouble. As Melvin was approaching Morgantown, WV, a police car zoomed up to him - screeching to a halt just short of slamming into him. The two had a rather unpleasant encounter with the officer threatening to have him arrested if he didn't stay entirely off the road. Since West Virginia roads do not have shoulders, trying to roll a wheel off the pavement resented a bit of a problem.

Morgantown seemed like a good place to get his laundry done. So he managed to hail a cab on the outskirts of town and go to a laundromat. On the way, the driver told him of a passenger he had given a ride to not too long ago - an FBI agent who had ended up "lost" in the local jail for a week. Now this sounded a little preposterous to me but, whatever the truth was, Melvin concluded that he didn't wish to risk another run-in with Sheriff Maygrow and decided maybe he ought to get out not just of the county, but of the entire state of West Virginia. So he somehow managed to find himself a ride all the way to the Maryland border. On the course of his ride to the western tip of Maryland, he learned of the existence of the 180 mile long C&O Canal towpath. Following the towpath, he could get all the way to downtown Washington without having to compete with cars and trucks for roadspace.

By this time Melvin had finished breakfast and was getting ready to pack up and move down the towpath. I had begun to wish that I had brought my camera with me so I could get a picture of Melvin, Budman and the M.U.L.E. So I told him I was going home to get a camera and would catch up with him if he had already gotten on his way. When I eventually headed back to catch up with him, I was quite amazed at the distance he had put between himself and the campground in a fairly short amount of time. I rode along with him as he walked until it was time for him to take a break. We then had a little photo session, followed by a bit of a botany lesson (I introduced him to poison ivy and a couple of other plants) and he learned a new word, "botanize," which he said he would be entering in his journal when he made his daily entry.

It was a pleasant Sunday morning and a fair number of people were out on the path. Some stopped and looked at Melvin and his pack with incredulity, and asked him questions. Others passed by without so much as a glance, though I feel sure they had to be quite curious - but just too shy to stop and talk. One couple that stopped was affiliated with the C&O Canal Association and hoped that I might contribute a story about Melvin to their newsletter. -

Melvin McCoy - from Impetus Diversified, Inc.
The M.U.L.E. - Multi-purpose Uniaxial Litter Enginery
1725 B Madison Ave. #11
Memphis, Tennessee 38104

* Hydrophyllum macrophyllum, a plant I had seen in the Slackwater area in the past and wanted to show Allen - but didn't know whether there would be any signs of it so late in the year.

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