Mark Baumer is walking across the United States barefoot, but this isn't his first rodeo. He's already walked the length of the country once before—though that time, he wore shoes. This time, he's walking to "save the earth," and to raise money for the environmentalist group FANG Collective, which resists the natural gas industry in Rhode Island and contributes to other causes like the protestors at Standing Rock. At press time, Baumer had raised a little more than $3,000.
Baumer does not step aside for cars. He will, however, move over for trucks. ("They'll really mess you up.") He's a vegan, so dinner can be difficult—once he bought a can of corn at a gas station. For Thanksgiving dinner, he ate a bag of cashews. Along the way, people have tried to give him so many shoes that he says he could have filled three bags with them, had he accepted the offers. He's been walking for two months now, and his bare feet are doing just fine.
I caught up with Baumer as he trekked down Pennsylvania's Interstate 70. Our phone call was interrupted twice by concerned citizens and once by a cop, all of whom seemed bewildered to see a pedestrian walking barefoot on the side of the road.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Where are you right now?
Mark Baumer: I'm near Washington, Pennsylvania, an hour south of Pittsburgh.
What made you decide to walk across America barefoot?
In 2010, I did a cross-country walk with shoes on. I wanted to do this walk for a cause and use the attention to generate money for something good. Every time another news report comes out about the dangers of climate change, I feel like I need to do something, I need to act. I always hear that this is the most important crisis of our time—but you look around, and people aren't freaking out. If this was a war, people would be rationing. Look at World War II: People were mobilized almost immediately.
Early this year, I found out that I had won a poetry fellowship for the state of Rhode Island, so I decided to take an unpaid leave from work and use the money from the fellowship to cover being out here. And that allows me to give all the money I raise to the FANG Collective, which feels nice.
How'd you get into environmentalism?
After grad school, I started working at an environmental nonprofit. I had always liked the idea of saving the environment, but I hadn't ever really done anything, and I started to learn about all the different things that are wreaking havoc on the earth. I think the first big one was these plastic islands in the ocean.
Horrifying. They're bigger than Texas now, right?
Yeah. So when I learned that, I was like, I'm never buying plastic again! I started looking at every aspect of my life: Why do I do things this way? Is there anything I can do better? A big one for me was just giving up animal products. It's kind of a weird game. The more you play, the better you get.
At some point, I realized that I and everyone I know could live perfectly and have zero carbon footprints—but if we don't get corporations and big businesses to change, then it's all pointless. So that's why I wanted to try and do something big like this, [even] though I don't think any corporations are paying attention.
How long is your trip supposed to take?
I originally thought three months, but now I'm almost done with month two, and I'm not even close. I'm guessing it's going to be February or maybe March when I arrive. The last time I walked across the country, I did it in three months. That was really grueling. Looking back, I feel like I pushed myself a little too hard. My feet were numb for a month after. Now, people are like, "You can't do it barefoot, you'll damage your feet," and I'm like, "I think my feet will be better off than the last trip." I've gotten cuts on my foot this time around, but I wake up every morning, and I can feel all my toes.
So let's talk about your feet. I see you've been posting foot selfies on Instagram. How are they doing?
Originally the plan was to do the whole thing running, but early on, in Connecticut, I stepped on an acorn—and since then I haven't really run that much. I didn't give myself a huge amount of time to train and amp up my mileage. I just thought, I know I can do it right now. Who knows what the world's going to look like next summer?
I'm surprised at how well my bare feet have dealt with the cold. As long as I'm moving, they never get cold. It's weird how the feet regulate the rest of your body's temperature. I'll stop at a store to get something to eat and put on these slip-ons to go inside, and then I start to sweat and shiver. I guess I've gotten used to being barefoot, so when I cover my feet, they can't regulate my body as well.
Have you gotten any negative feedback?
I'm constantly fighting for my space in the road. Technically, in Pennsylvania, you're not allowed to go over the white line as a pedestrian, but the white line is the best place to walk barefoot because it's smoothest and there aren't as many pebbles. A lot of [drivers] are like, "How dare you?!" But I've barely ever seen anyone else walking or riding their bikes, so the fact that for one second out of a driver's day they can't deal with someone walking along is really insane. Something weird happens when you're in a car. I feel like your mentality changes. You're blocked off from the world, and you're like, ONLY I MATTER. ONLY WHERE I'M GOING MATTERS.
I did have one eye-opening experience. This guy drove to the end of his driveway and hopped out of his truck and said, "Get over here." I walked over, explained what I was doing, and he said, "This road is so dangerous. My brother died on this road; someone ran him over, hit and run." Even when people get angry, something in their past is triggering it. We all have these human experiences that dictate how we react to everything.
Do you think people wonder if you're deranged?
Either that or they're worried about me walking barefoot and aren't comfortable stopping next to the big shoeless man on the side of the road.
I've had people yell things, but I don't think it's anything abnormal. I'm definitely in a really privileged position to be a white male doing this; mostly people will give me the benefit of the doubt once they stop to talk to me. A week ago, someone offered me a pair of shoes and then friended me on Facebook and wrote a post about meeting me. At the end of the post, she wrote something like, "So to all you people who were scared for yourselves, this guy's just trying to do his thing"—I guess people had been posting about the "barefoot man" walking through town. It's weird knowing that those posts are out there. But now I get all kinds of people in Pennsylvania adding me on Facebook. And I look at their profiles, and there's no way I would ever be in touch with these people otherwise. These are the people who everyone's blaming for voting for Trump. I'm reaching people that maybe would have never been exposed to ideas of climate change.