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"Would you mind running that by me again?" asked the bewildered policeman from his squad car. He had been dispatched late that November afternoon to the parking lot of an industrial plant on the outskirts of Mobile, Ala., where he was met by a tall, skinny backpacker in running shoes, babbling about jogging there from Pennsylvania and not taking rides and trying to get through a .62-mile highway tunnel. No wonder the poor policeman was confused.
"I'm sorry," the babbler said. Then he calmed down and told his story. It was the fall of 1979, and the fast-talking transient was I. After three years of selling computers in New York, I had traded in my briefcase and wing tips at the age of 25 for a backpack and Adidases, and had begun running a lap around the perimeter of the U.S. I'd started from my home-town of Mercersburg in the farmlands of Pennsylvania in August and reached the beaches of Florida in October; by the time I had jogged up to the shores of Mobile Bay it was mid-November. I'd covered 1,500 miles—all on foot.
"...but they won't let pedestrians through the tunnel," I was complaining, "and there's no other way to go into Mobile." A friend in the city was expecting me for the night, I explained. Did the policeman have any advice?
"Well, I don't know," he replied carefully. "I suppose you could go north over the Mobile River, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's about another 10 miles, and it's not the kind of place you'd want to run through by yourself. Especially not after dark." He offered to give me a ride.
I thanked him but declined. Couldn't I somehow get permission to go through the tunnel alone?
"Rules are rules," said the policeman, shaking his head. "If I were you, I'd take the ride. If you still want to walk through the tunnel in the morning, you can try talking to the authorities then."
Unfortunately, I'd already tried "talking" to them once. About an hour earlier—sweaty and exhausted from a 15-mile run—I'd been stopped cold at the tunnel entrance by a sign saying PEDESTRIANS PROHIBITED. Hoping to get an exemption, I'd slicked down my hair, positioned myself in front of a closed-circuit security camera and ingratiatingly presented my case. In pantomime.
Hi there! (I'd given a big smile and a little wave.)
I'm walking. (Two fingers walking along my forearm.)
Not hitching. (I mimed thumbing a ride, then shook my head, hands crisscrossing in front of my face.)