Walk Across Texas
At 72, Dave Roberts’ cross-country journey is hardly pedestrian.
by Alan Fisher
“Oh, man, you can see forever up here!”
On a breezy afternoon in March 2016, Dave Roberts stands at the rocky ledge of a West Texas peak, surveying the view of Fort Davis and trails traveled below.
“It took me an hour and a half to get up here, but it was worth it,” he says.
Reaching the remote primitive camping area of Davis Mountains State Park takes some time for any visitor, but Roberts has especially earned this view. In truth, he has walked weeks to get here. Though his face is red from the sun and wind, the glint in his eye and grin on his face show no signs of tiring. Even with a pack on his back and 72 birthdays under his belt, Roberts seems more invigorated by scaling summits than exhausted by them.
“I like people, too, but the solitude really feeds me,” he says as he stares out at the distant horizon.
Roberts has had more solitude than company lately. For several months he traversed Texas and camped at state parks, beginning with Village Creek on the southeastern edge of the state. His travels took him on a zigzagged, park-studded path to the state’s northeast and then to the southwest. His weaving itinerary would be impressive even if completed by car, but Roberts didn’t drive — he traveled through Texas entirely on foot, carrying all he needed in a backpack.
“You mean you’re doing this on purpose?” Roberts reports being asked, with a laugh. Passing motorists have offered many rides and don’t always understand why he would rather walk. But what some might see as a terrible ordeal is more of an unfolding adventure to Roberts. “It just happened one step at a time.”
This Walk Across Texas, as Roberts calls it, is just one leg of a much longer journey, one he calls Weaving Across America. And he decided that this stretch — between New Orleans and New Mexico — presented a grand opportunity to explore a state he knew little about. By now Roberts is something of an expert on the state’s park system.
“This one is in my top three favorites,” Roberts says of Davis Mountains, before seeking a level spot to pitch his tent. “There’s nothing like this out East.”
While Roberts is quick to laugh and is as open and friendly as any Texan, there’s a hint of East Coast intensity in his way of speaking, just enough to tip off a local that he’s not from around here. His home is in Maryland, near Washington, D.C., but Roberts has spent very little time there since he decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2014. He hiked it through, more than 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, and even continued on to the Canadian border.
“It was such an awesome experience, I didn’t want it to stop,” Roberts says. Ever since, he has adopted a semi-nomadic outdoor lifestyle, occupying himself with one human-powered, cross-country challenge after another.
His Appalachian trek was just the beginning. From Maine, Roberts rode his bicycle 3,000 miles to the Florida Keys, shipped the bike to Pensacola, and hiked the length of the Florida Trail. Reunited with his wheels, Roberts then cycled another 2,000 miles from Florida to Minnesota, where he exchanged his bike for a kayak. From Minnesota, Roberts paddled 2,000 miles down the length of the Mississippi River to New Orleans. After two weeks of walking through southern Louisiana, his feat of crossing Texas on foot was underway.
At first, Roberts planned to cover 15 miles a day, but by the time he had reached Tyler State Park, he realized he was far ahead of schedule.
“I wasn’t doing 15 miles a day, I was doing 23 miles a day,” Roberts says, “so I redid my spreadsheet.”
That spreadsheet now records 130 days of walking and a distance of over 2,960 miles since leaving New Orleans. In his planning and detailed record keeping, hints of Roberts’ past vocation emerge.
“I was a computer geek,” he admits. While the work suited him at first, the appeal gradually waned. “Sitting in an office wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
So how does a former software engineer end up hiking, camping, pedaling and paddling his way around the country? Roberts recalls a dream he once had. In it, he arrived in heaven and awaited his turn at the Pearly Gates.
“Saint Peter looks at me, he looks down at his book, and he looks at me again. He says, ‘Why didn’t you take advantage of what they had to offer down there?’ End
Roberts considered the dream a wake-up call.
“You know what? There are places I haven’t been, there are people I haven’t met, there are things I haven’t seen yet,” he told himself. “I’m just wasting my time sitting here in an office for eight hours a day.”
Not long after, Roberts quit his job and decided to pursue more volunteering, serving at a youth camp and at a home for adults with mental disabilities. He served two stints in the Peace Corps, teaching math in Liberia and Vanuatu.
He sailed around the North Atlantic and lived on a sailboat for three years, so Roberts is no stranger to adventure.
Though kind folks and good fortune have certainly outweighed the bad, there have been a few misdeeds and mishaps along the way for Roberts. In Mississippi, an inattentive driver collided with him, totaling his bike, but he fortunately escaped with no injury. In Minnesota, Roberts’ kayak was stolen, along with his camping gear. Roberts takes setbacks in stride.
“If everything is going according to plan, you’re not having an adventure yet,” he likes to say. “When things start going wrong, that’s when the fun starts.”
As it turned out, the boat loss delayed his paddling trip by only a few days, and the good nature of humanity prevailed — a friend from his Peace Corps days learned of the theft, helped Roberts locate a replacement kayak and even helped raise funds to cover the cost.
Troubles in Texas have been few. After days of rain up north, Roberts tried to dry his belongings at a laundromat and accidentally melted his tent, so he had to hitchhike to Dallas to buy a replacement. Further into his trip, Roberts also had an unanticipated medical timeout. Some alarming chest pain led him to seek out some tests and make a detour back home for a visit with his doctor. The diagnosis: simple heartburn. While his diet was keeping up with his calorie needs, it was not doing his digestive tract any favors, so Roberts now supplements his sausage-and-cheese lunches with more fruits and vegetables.
Dinner tonight is a plastic bag of Rice-a-Roni, mixed with an envelope of tuna for protein. To avoid carrying a stove, Roberts hydrates his food over the course of the day, and eats it cold. He should have another care package of dehydrated meals from his daughter awaiting his arrival in El Paso, but he has stocked up at the dollar store in Fort Davis to stay fed until then.
Budget-conscious Roberts even buys $10 shoes at discount stores, instead of $120 boots, since he wears out the soles after a few hundred miles either way. He has, of course, done the math, and as he explains it: “Being able to do 2.5 cents a mile versus 30 cents a mile, now that makes a lot of sense!”
Before climbing into his tent in the Davis Mountains backcountry for a well-deserved sleep, Roberts waits up to see the area’s famed blanket of stars. He bought a star chart at a state park store earlier in his trip and has been learning constellations since.
“That adds quite a dimension to this whole experience,” he says. “When I started, I knew maybe six constellations; now I probably know 30.”
The clouds that made the sunset so colorful promptly clear off, and the moon politely waits a few hours to pop up like a spotlight. Many constellations are noted, once they can be picked out from the endless array of smaller stars never seen in the city.
Roberts is up before the sun and packs quickly. He takes in one last vista from the top of the mountain before starting his descent back into town and resuming his brisk walk along highways leading west.
For the next two days Roberts will walk to Valentine, where he can refill his water supply. Then it will be on to Van Horn. In about a week he will reach Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso.
By the time Roberts reached the New Mexico state line, he had logged visits to 37 Texas state parks while traversing some 3,200 miles on foot. But his walk across Texas was only a portion of his journey. From New Mexico, Roberts hiked the Continental Divide Trail all the way to Canada in five months last year. In September, he departed from the northern terminus of that trail and traded his cheap walking shoes for a kayak. Roberts paddled his way down the Missouri River, passing through the northern Great Plains. He aborted the trip after 11 days due to cold rain and strong winds. Roberts says he’ll return to finish in warmer weather.
After his paddle, and a bike ride to California, he hopes to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail. If he completes the PCT, he will have earned the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking. By his estimation, that would make him the first person to complete the whole thing over the age of 70.
Of course, Roberts doesn’t focus on the end points of his travels as much as choosing a heading and taking each step.
“I’m thinking I’d like to do 25,000 miles altogether, because that’s the length of the equator,” he says. “I mean, it doesn’t matter. If I get tired of it tomorrow, I’ll just go home.”
Roberts quickly clarifies that he’s still having fun. Returning home for good seems unlikely for someone so at home in the outdoors and so comfortable on his own path.
And so he walks. Stride by stride, Roberts makes his way along the narrow shoulder of the two-lane highway, unrolled like a long asphalt ribbon in front of him.
A truck approaches and passes with a whoosh, adding a staggering gust to the already whipping wind. Perhaps the driver wonders for an instant about the lone figure walking here, so far from anywhere, but if the offer of a ride is considered, it is soon too late — the truck vanishes as quickly as it appeared.
That’s fine with Roberts, who has no use for shortcuts or car rides. He prefers to travel at his own pace and take all the time he needs to learn the landscape, see the stars and embrace every adventure around the next bend.
Keep up with Roberts’ continuing adventures at davidowenroberts.com.