You can now read 10 articles in a month for free on BostonGlobe.com. Read as much as you want anywhere and anytime for just 99¢.

The Boston Globe

Lifestyle

Blue highway: Berkshires CEO treks across America

On turning 65, a philanthropist embarked on a years-long trek on US Route 20

STOCKBRIDGE — Turning 60 was a wake-up call for Nancy Fitzpatrick. Was that arthritis starting in her knees? A gray hair or two?

“I immediately started thinking about how much worse 65 was going to be,” she says. So she decided to mark her 65th birthday with some sort of experience that would keep her active, yet give her time to reflect.

Continue reading below

When she told her mother she was thinking about walking across the country, her reply was: “Well, you’re going to need some good shoes.”

Step by step, Fitzpatrick, now 67, is walking across America on US Route 20, east to west. She’s been at it for more than two years now, through three pairs of good shoes, taking breaks for business and family reasons. She returned home last fall to be with her ailing mother, who died in November just nine days short of her 90th birthday. Her father died in 2011 at 88.

Nancy’s parents, Jane and Jack Fitzpatrick, were well-known in the Berkshires, where they owned Country Curtains, the mom-and-pop shop they grew into a lucrative mail-order business. They were founding members of the Norman Rockwell Museum and generous patrons of the arts and civic causes. But they were perhaps best known for their circa 1773 Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, which they gave to daughter Nancy, and Blantyre resort in Lenox, which they gave to their other daughter, Ann.

‘At my age, this was not about misery. This is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.’

Quote Icon

In March, Nancy was home again from her walk, to check in on her various businesses. She’s turned over the day-to-day operations of The Red Lion to stepdaughter Sarah Eustis, but she remains as CEO and owns the nearby Elm Street Market. She also developed and operates The Porches Inn at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, is vice-chairman of The Fitzpatrick Cos., and is a trustee of the High Meadow Foundation, the family’s philanthropic arm. With her Red Lion executives, she recently formed a management group, Main Street Hospitality, to operate other hotels. She served 15 years on the boards of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Mass MoCA and has been on myriad others.

Given the pace of her life, walking across the country might seem a breeze.

Continue reading below

In an interview at The Red Lion Inn while she was on a recent monthlong break from the road, Fitzpatrick spoke about her walk (www.nancy
takesahike.com), which she tweets about @nancytakesahike. On the feed, she describes herself as “Berkshire maven. Loving mother. Wicked Stepmother. Wife. Employer. Lover of quirks & oddities. Now hiking across the USA.”

Lots of people have walked across the United States for different reasons and by different routes. Fitzpatrick, a sturdy woman with a ready smile and crinkly eyes, started reading up on them in preparation for her own trip. “There was a 12-year-old boy from Florida walking to call attention to homeless children. The New Hampshire woman who walked from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Her passion was campaign finance reform, and they called her ‘Granny D.’ She was about 90.”

Art Garfunkel took 12 years. But that’s not the usual strategy. “The classic way for 20-somethings to do it is to fill their backpacks, charge their phones, and take off,” says Fitzpatrick.

She’s more Garfunkel than millennial. She’s taking it in stages and definitely not backpacking. On Feb. 10, 2011, the year she turned 65, she took her first steps westward, starting at the Boston waterfront. That day, she and her husband, Lincoln Russell, walked nearly eight miles. It was the only day he has walked with her.

“I’m her producer,” he says. “I do everything but walk, making it possible for Nancy to do nothing but walk.”

Fitzpatrick plans to end up in Newport, Ore., in October 2015 — 3,365 miles from where she started.

Russell, a professional photographer, takes care of the logistics and accommodations, does the driving, cooks or arranges for meals, scouts the roads, keeps up with her mileage, and plans for safer detours. He coaches her and of course documents it all with his cameras: a Canon 5D and an iPhone.

In 2011, the year her father died, she walked only eight days, from Boston to Springfield. In March 2012, Governor Deval Patrick, a family friend who owns a home in the Berkshires, walked the last three miles of Massachusetts with her, from the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield to the New York State line. He had two state troopers with him.

This is how it works: Fitzpatrick walks for whatever mileage they have set for the day while Russell checks out the local area, shoots photos, and finds food. At the end of the walk, he meets her, and they head to housing for the night: a motel, guest house, cottage, on occasion a campground. They have spent 375 nights on the road so far.

Her goal is 10 miles day, though she often doesn’t make that.

Every five days, she takes a day off to do laundry, rest, and catch up on her tweets. They may spend a few nights in a town, but when Fitzpatrick takes to the road again, Russell drops her off at the exact spot where she stopped walking, so she doesn’t miss a mile, or even a yard.

“I’ll start where I stopped the day before, by hook or by crook,” says Fitzpatrick, who with cropped bangs and long brown hair looks younger than her years. Her husband calls her “half hippie, half Emily Post.”

At lunchtime at The Red Lion, she orders a large green salad — her usual — and a quinoa burger. She’s wearing loose-fitting pants, a long gray T-shirt, wool vest, scarf, and clogs. She looks more like the Peace Corps volunteer she was decades ago than a wealthy corporate executive.

“I love walking from town to town, whether it’s five miles or 12 miles,” she says. The most she’s put in during a day is 13, and she describes her style as “ambling.”

Russell drops her off at about 9 a.m. and picks her up by 4 p.m. But in the heat of the summer — it hit 100 degrees in Iowa — she starts at dawn. She walks with a Camelbak-type water carrier and granola bars and wears a broad-brimmed hat or a red cap with a “US 20” patch on it. She pulls a fluorescent vest over her T-shirt or jacket.

Foodies, they try to find “the best restaurant around” for dinner, she says. Sometimes, they’ll picnic in a park. They have also used the online site Vacation Rentals by Owner to find places to stay, including a weeklong “vacation” in a lakefront cabin in Angola, Ind. In Iowa, they stayed with her cousin Jack Hatch, a Democratic state senator who is running for governor.

On Sept. 16, 2013, she tweeted: “Just walked 5 mi. to a cafe in LeGrand Iowa & it’s closed on Mondays! Alternative: cheese, crackers, nuts, dried fruit, orange. Not so bad.” In Belle Plaine, Iowa, she wrote: “You’re a nice town, but your laundromat is a filthy disgrace.”

Last fall, the couple bought a Winnebago, which will make their journey west — where towns are farther apart — easier. “At my age, this was not about misery,” says Fitzpatrick. “This is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.”

Most of the 1,735 miles she has put in so far have been fun. The couple returned to Nebraska in early April, and Fitzpatrick, now in Stuart, is more than halfway across the country. So far, she’s only had a few blisters, a couple of dead toenails, and a rolled ankle that didn’t slow her down.

Route 20 is the longest road in America and is no travel agent’s dream. There are places where Fitzpatrick has walked on a parallel road or taken a shortcut to avoid danger.

She’s always anxious to see what each state brings. Her favorite places so far have been Galena, Ill.; “an old town on the Mississippi that escaped attention;” and Mount Vernon, Iowa: “You don’t expect such a scenic, shady little town in Iowa.”

But she also walked through Hurricane Sandy in Cleveland, dodging downed trees and wires, and she found Chicago tough. “The suburbs were endless, Route 20 was iffy, and there was day after day after day of malls and fast food restaurants,” she says.

To her husband, Gary, Ind., has been the worst. “There were 350,000 jobs in the steel mills that decamped for elsewhere, and there are boarded-up buildings and broken-down houses.” He pauses. “Frankly, there’s a lot of that on this walk.”

He is concerned about her safety, particularly as they head into the western states: “There are a lot more guns and the speed limit in western Nebraska is 75, which means people are going 80.”

But what worries her most are dogs, not humans. She doesn’t remember where, but “some little yappy dogs came barreling toward me.” She had her walking stick, which she has dubbed “Fabio,” and managed to scare them off.

Last September, Fitzpatrick walked solo for a month. Russell was in Burgundy, France, where he had shot a book on the vineyards and their people, and she wanted to see whether she could find her own way. “And he gets cranky,” she notes.

She loved her time alone. “I would leave the car where I ended for the day, and then I’d get back there the next morning.” She took taxis and hired drivers from the classifieds.

Then she discovered a 54-mile stretch in Iowa where there was nowhere to stay. When she called a bed and breakfast, a woman told her it was closed — and then offered her own sofa, which Fitzpatrick gratefully accepted. The family then hooked her up with others who helped out along the way.

Though she hasn’t had any big epiphanies yet, she has recognized some small truths. “I’ve learned that being in the Berkshires, where I live, is a little fantasyland compared with the reality out there. I’ve learned that it doesn’t take much to get my body aching. I’ve learned that it’s a real privilege to see the country close up, one step at a time.”

But seeing the Midwest close up has been unsettling too. “Super Size Me is the Midwest,” says Russell, who took photos at the Iowa State Fair of deep-fried Oreos and Twinkies and something called “Fudge-Striped Cookie Salad.”

“Everything has bacon and extra cheese on it,” he says. “I love chocolate eclairs and I had one that was the size of my foot.” (He wears a size 12 shoe.)

Along the way, Fitzpatrick has shunned media interviews. “I don’t want to be at a certain place at a certain time to meet a reporter.” And besides: “The biggest story is that not much happens along the way.”

Bella English can be reached at isobel.english@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error in a story in Tuesday’s “g” section on Nancy Fitzpatrick walking across the US, the Globe incorrectly stated that the town of Galena is in Ohio. It is in Illinois.

You have reached the limit of 10 free articles in a month

Stay informed with unlimited access to Boston’s trusted news source.

  • High-quality journalism from the region’s largest newsroom
  • Convenient access across all of your devices
  • Today’s Headlines daily newsletter
  • Subscriber-only access to exclusive offers, events, contests, eBooks, and more
  • Less than 25¢ a week