Retired Mooresville High School teacher David Barlow is getting in great shape walking the Blue Ridge Parkway from beginning to end, but a deeper motive lies behind his 40-day, 479-mile trek.
Barlow, 57, is raising awareness for Operation Christmas Child, which collects gift-filled shoe boxes and delivers them to millions of children in need around the world.
I caught up with him by phone when he stopped at the historic Moses Cone Manor in Blowing Rock on Sept. 26, setting down his 30-pound backpack for a spell.
The father of three started his journey on Aug. 30 from Jarman Gap in the Shenandoah National Park near Waynesboro, Va., and expects to finish in Cherokee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the next couple of weeks. He was scheduled to be in the Asheville area this weekend.
In college, Barlow spent summer breaks as a seasonal interpretive ranger on the parkway and always knew he'd return someday. Retirement gave him that chance, but he didn't want to hike for hiking's sake.
“I had an urge to dedicate the hike to some higher purpose,” Barlow said.
His mom, Emily Barlow, 80, of Middletown, R.I., suggested Operation Christmas Child. She and her husband, Bradley, 81, display Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes in little red wagons at their church, David Barlow said. Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan's Purse, the international relief organization.
David Barlow and his family have packed Operation Christmas Child shoe box gifts for three years.
Now he talks up the effort with motorists and others at parkway stops.
Barlow, who taught high school science for 33 years, starts at 8 or 8:30 each morning and finishes at 7. He developed blisters that turned into calluses six days into the hike and grew muscle tissue in his legs. “My feet are doing great,” he said.
His backpack holds a tent, stove, sleeping bag and food for a week. He eats instant oatmeal and hot tea for breakfast, snacks on crackers, a foil pack of tuna or Spam and a handful of dried blueberries, pineapple and cranberries around lunch, and has soup and instant rice at night.
He mainly sticks to the shoulder of the parkway, but occasionally wanders off to see a waterfall. He's seen lots of deer and a 2 1/2-foot timber rattler.
He said he met nearly 300 people by the time I chatted with him. He encountered many kindnesses, including the church that let him camp out and a family that allowed him to stay in their backyard. He also pitches tent in the occasional campground.
David Dutton, former Mooresville Graded School District finance officer, drove through the rain from Mooresville to see how his friend was getting along one day. “He is a unique individual,” Dutton said. “I am not surprised at all that he's doing this.”
“It's been a wonderful time to decompress and ask myself who I am and what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Barlow said.
In some ways, he kidded, “I still haven't grown up.”