When Ray Brown retired last month after 36 years of teaching, he embarked on a journey that combines personal fulfillment — he's long dreamed of walking across the United States, in the spirit of Lewis and Clark and the pioneers who came West — and education.
EUGENE— Patrons and employees of the Oasis Cafe in the tiny Eastern Oregon town of Juntura should not have been surprised to get a dinnertime visit from a costumed stranger on this Fourth of July.
Appropriately enough, he looked like he stepped from the pages of a U.S. history book circa 1776, in waistcoat, breeches, cravat and tricorn hat.
He likely was road-weary and possibly scruffy, if he couldn't grab a shower first at the nearby RV park. Not too weary, though, to recite the Declaration of Independence from memory if the spirit moves him, or to hand out parchment copies of the Bill of Rights he carries in a leather bag.
"We'll see what happens — it'll just be a serendipitous type of thing," Ray Brown said by cell phone Friday about 12 miles east of Burns on Highway 20, where he'd taken a brief pause from a 3,000-mile, cross-country trek that began June 12.
Brown is an avowed civil libertarian with a lifelong passion for U.S. history. When he retired last month after 36 years of teaching, the past 22 at Eugene's Cascade Middle School, he embarked on a journey that combines personal fulfillment — he's long dreamed of walking across the United States, in the spirit of Lewis and Clark and the pioneers who came West — and education.
"When I talk to people I try to talk about the principles and ideals we can all relate to, no matter whether you're blue state or red state," said Brown, a registered Independent who grew up Republican but has veered more Democratic over the course of his career. "I'm just talking to people in a general way about their opinion about the Bill of Rights, and what does freedom mean? I mean really, we use those words quite freely, but what does freedom really mean?"
Brown grew concerned about what he saw as an erosion of civil liberties following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Inspired to take action, he ordered a custom-made period costume and eventually began handing out copies of the Bill of Rights at local festivals and speaking to groups.
Last Fourth of July, he recited the Declaration of Independence in costume in front of a crowd of 5,000 at the Springfield Utility Board's Light of Liberty celebration, just before Herman's Hermits took the stage. The year before that he did so at a celebration in Lebanon, the year before that in Harrisburg.
"The year before that I was at Art and the Vineyard (in Eugene) and they wouldn't let me on stage," he said, laughing. "They didn't know who I was."
Juntura, population 160, was a different scene. He didn't set out to spend the Fourth there; it was just the natural stopping point given his pace (he figures he's averaging between 20 and 24 miles a day).
"I've done 32 twice," said Brown, who is towing an American flag-adorned Equinox trailer carrying camping gear, dehydrated meals, his computer, his copies of the Bill of Rights and, of course, his costume. "The hardest day was going just north of Clear Lake up to Sisters. I wanted to get there so I was kind of pushing."
Brown has been on the road all but three days since his June 12 send-off in Florence, for which about 75 of his Cascade students joined him on the first three miles. He took a pause in Eugene to teach his last couple of days of classes. His route will take him through Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
His itinerary is fairly flexible, he said, though he has to be in Casper, Wyo., by Labor Day weekend to meet his wife, Eugene School District administrator Cynthia Sainz. He anticipates completing the journey sometime in December, possibly January. When he reaches the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, he'll collect a vial of seawater and mix it with the one he's carrying from the Pacific.
So far, he's had no serious mishaps or scares, though one night, with no camping options, he found himself sleeping on the porch of an abandoned house to escape the rain.
He has a new appreciation for water, and is finally able to gauge just how much he'll need to lug along in a day. He figures he's lost about 12 pounds, "but that's OK, because I was carrying a little extra." He's seen jackrabbits and coyotes and mule deer, and hopes soon to see his first pronghorn.
He's keeping a blog, sharing stories of his travels but also musings about patriotism and what it means to be an American.
"Really, the Fourth of July ought to be celebrated every day of the year one way or another," he said. "It's so much more than shooting off fireworks and drinking beer on the lake and having a picnic. There's a real message there in the Declaration of Independence."