As many people do on crisp, sunny mornings, Donna Picone laced up her Sauconys, grabbed a bottle of water, and set out for a walk with a close friend.
But this was no ordinary get-the-blood-moving, enjoy-the-outdoors stroll: The women were in for a nearly 9½-mile trek from their Danvers neighborhood to the North Reading Fire Station.
They weren’t training for a sporting event; they weren’t raising money for a cause; and they didn’t have too much time on their hands.
Their many footsteps served a different purpose: To raise awareness of the dangerous job firefighters do, and to show their appreciation by donating one of the most precious things a person can: time.
“Everybody can raise money for a charity,” said Picone, 55, who has made it a personal quest to visit as many fire stations north of Boston as possible by foot or, if she has to, by car. “I give the support by walking the miles.”
Over the past six years, Picone has walked from her Danvers home to fire stations in 15 area cities and towns, from her old hometown of Salem all the way to North Andover.
Last Friday, she logged several more miles on her silver-and-turquoise walking shoes when she and her friend Patti Lynch meandered down Route 62 to North Reading.
In September, she plans to lace up her shoes and head south to Lynnfield’s two firehouses.
And next year? She’s considering Topsfield and Boxford (one in the spring, one in the fall). Eventually, her goal is to cover the whole region.
“I enjoy giving them my time,” she said.
It was the Worcester Cold Storage Warehouse fire — and the deaths of six firefighters battling the blaze — on Dec. 3, 1999, that inspired her crusade.
“It was a senseless tragedy,” she lamented.
Having several relatives on fire forces — including her late uncle John Monahan Sr., who was a captain; his son, John Monahan Jr., also a captain in Salem; and another uncle, Charles Jodoin, a Revere firefighter — profoundly affected her, and reinforced how dangerous the job is.
But before walking, she drove. She started in 2000, and has visited hundreds of stations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as well as about 30 in California and Florida while on vacation.
She realized she could make more of an impact with her soles than with wheels, and she did her first walk, to Salem’s five stations, in September 2006 with her sister, Gail Corsetti.
Since then, first with Corsetti, then with her friend Karen Shah, and now with Lynch, 59, Picone has visited the fire departments in Beverly, Danvers, Gloucester, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Middleton, North Andover, Peabody, Rowley, Swampscott, and Wenham. She typically tries to walk to two communities a year, one in the spring and one in the fall, prefacing the visits with handwritten letters to their chiefs.
In between, to stay in shape, she walks about 1½ miles every day through her neighborhood, listening to the birds and watching planes descend to Logan Airport. She’s a bit of an aviation enthusiast; she has a 28-inch-long model airplane in her basement, and can point out the types of commercial aircraft passing overhead.
Because she’s been to so many stations — and because she’ll often stop in on a whim when driving through a place, as she plans to do this summer while visiting Cape Cod — it’s hard for her to give an exact number. That’s not what she keeps track of: She keeps track of the thanks, the hugs, and the appreciation she receives when she reaches her destinations.
At each station, she meets and talks with firefighters, is usually given a tour, and hands out tokens emblazoned with a firefighter emblem on one side and a prayer on the other.
“It does mean something to them,” she said. “It helps them realize that people appreciate what they do.”
This is a point she stressed to members of North Reading’s force last Friday.
It was 60 degrees when she and Lynch set out just after 9 a.m.
They were equipped with two bottles of water, peanut butter crackers for a snack, Excedrin for headaches, sunglasses, and a small plastic bag filled with the tokens.
They first passed through their manicured neighborhood on the edge of the Putnamville Reservoir (starting off from Picone’s house with its fire engine mailbox hand-carved by her father), then worked their way west on Route 62.
As the road wound along — in a couple of places sans sidewalks — the pair passed houses, schools, businesses, sloping fields, wetlands, and country clubs; investigated lilac bushes; and dodged poison ivy.
At 12:45 p.m. — 3 hours and 45 minutes later — they turned the bend into North Reading Center.
At the station, firefighter/EMT Matt Carroll met Picone and Lynch, shaking their hands.
“We appreciate what you did,” he said as he invited them in.
The rest of the men in the station — five in total — gathered around as they talked.
“I love what you people do,” Picone said as she handed out the tokens. “I have since I was 5 years old.”
It was then, she recounted, that she learned just how quickly firefighters respond to a call. On a dare from a boy, she pulled the switch on a firebox. Instantly terrified, she threw her bike on the ground, sprinted home, grabbed some cookies, and hid in a closet. All the while, the sirens got closer, and the engines arrived within minutes.
Carroll, in turn, shared the burdens of the profession.
“It’s a stressful job, that’s the truth,” he said. People are having “their worst day in a long time when they call you. You absorb a lot of other people’s stress.”
Then the men led Picone and Lynch on a tour of the 1967 building, which operates with four engines, two ambulances, and one ladder truck. Carroll showed off a mural of firefighters climbing a ladder into a blinding cloud of smoke, then took the pair into the truck bay lined with flaming red lockers, one or two ajar to reveal a jumble of gear and photos of daughters and wives.
Before she left, Picone even got to ride around the block in a firetruck, fulfilling a longtime wish.
“We get thanks a lot on the job,” Carroll acknowledged later as Picone prepared for the trip back (by car; her parents picked them up). “But when people go out of their way, it makes it a little more special. What she’s doing is simple, but effective.”