Eight months ago, Oregon resident Jodi Harrington set out on the adventure of a lifetime: hiking 4,834 miles from Delaware to California to raise awareness and research funds for a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis.
On Saturday, Miss Harrington and her hiking partner, Josh Howell, reached their final destination: Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California.
"When I see the U.S. map and look at how far we've walked it doesn't even seem real," said Miss Harrington, 27, who gave up her job as an Oregon real estate agent to do the hike. "I'm doing well, but it's been tiring ... I think I need to sleep for a week!"
Miss Harrington's epic trip has taken her to 12 states, through national forests, up mountains, and across the Nevada desert. She and Mr. Howell, have passed through close to 200 cities and towns, carrying their backpacks and a sign reading "Hug Me."
The sign was to help the pair raise money for two separate causes: the national charity Neurofibromatosis Inc. and the Alzheimer's Association. At each stop, Miss Harrington and Mr. Howell gave away hugs in exchange for donations. In all, they have raised more than $20,000.
Miss Harrington chose neurofibromatosis as her cause for the benefit of Jeremy Eby, whom Miss Harrington has known since the seventh grade in Oregon. In 1999, he was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis, an incurable condition that causes non-cancerous tumors to form on the nerves. Because of the disorder, the former Clay High School athlete has had five brain tumors removed, is deaf in his left ear, and uses a wheelchair.
Mr. Eby flew with his family to greet Miss Harrington in Point Reyes.
"It's really neat," Mr. Eby said, as he got ready to fly out to
California. He said many other people with neurofibromatosis called him when they found out about Miss Harrington's hike. Although Miss Harrington fell short of her $100,000 goal, Mr. Eby said he was surprised at how much she had raised.
"She went way, way beyond what we expected," he said.
Along the hike, Miss Harrington and Mr. Howell camped or stayed in people's homes. Some of the home stays were arranged through Neurofibromatosis Inc. and also through family and friends, but Miss Harrington said many were with people the couple met on their journey.
"Most of the house stays were with strangers. In the Midwest - Nebraska, Iowa, and Ohio - we would go to farmers' doors to ask if we could put up a tent, and eight times out of 10 they would invite us in," Miss Harrington said. "Above and beyond kindness was the theme of the hike, I think."
Both hikers avoided any major injuries during the trip, but Miss Harrington said some parts of the journey were physically and mentally demanding. Hiking along a remote route from Denver to Grand Junction, Colo., the pair carried backpacks weighed down with food and they didn't take a shower for days at a time because of the distance between towns.
Another challenge was walking U.S. Route 50 through the Nevada desert, also known as "The Loneliest Road in America."
"The desert was just absolutely, uniquely beautiful in its own right, but it was very monotonous the scenery never changed. It was just sage brush and sand," said Miss Harrington. "You got to the point where you think: This is beautiful, but give me something new!"
Still, when things got tough, Miss Harrington and Mr. Howell encouraged each other to keep going. They didn't know each other before they started the hike. They met through the online trail journals they had set up to document their trips. Both planned to hike the American Discovery Trail, one of the longest series of hiking trails in the United States. Mr. Howell wanted to raise money and awareness for Alzheimer's research in honor of his mother. They decided to hike together after two friends with whom Miss Harrington had arranged to hike changed their plans.
Mr. Howell said he initially agreed to hike with Ms. Harrington because he thought she would give up a few weeks into the trip.
"Reading her journal and her prep stuff, I said 'This girl's not going to last more than two weeks,'•" said Mr. Howell of Biglerville, Pa. "But here she is eight months later. She's a very strong woman."
In the end, both discovered they had a lot in common. Mr. Howell said he's not sure he would have finished the hike without Miss Harrington's companionship.
"When you're with somebody 24/7 for eight months, you get to know them, so that's been neat," Miss Harrington said. "It'll be interesting to see what happens after the hike."
Although they couldn't make it to California on Saturday, Miss Harrington's parents were proud, and relieved, that their daughter had finished the hike.
"For her dad and I it's been a huge worry," said Joanne Harrington, Miss Harrrington's mother. "If it was somebody else's daughter [on the hike], I'd say 'Wow! That's really cool!' But when it's your own daughter, it's very frightening. We're happy she's coming home."
Miss Harrington may not stay home for long, however. While she hasn't figured out exactly what she wants to do next, another long hike, or bike ride, could be on the horizon.
"I feel like one of the main things I have done, what people have said that Josh and I have done, is inspire them," she said. "One year of hiking isn't enough. I want to keep inspiring."
To donate to Neurofibromatosis Inc., go to firstgiving.com/adt. Checks can be made out to NF Inc., with Hike4NF in the memo area and mailed to: John Everett, Neurofibromatosis Inc., P.O. Box 18246, Minneapolis, MN 55418.
To read Miss Harrington's online trail journal and see photos, go to trailjournals.com/adt4nf.