Walking Across Rhode Island

Harys Dalvi

October 2023

On October 8, 2023 at 7:11 in the morning, I took this picture, naïvely excited for the journey ahead.

The empty roads of Sterling, CT, on a bright and innocent fall morning

“On October 9, 2022, I walked across the entire state of Rhode Island,” said Charles Alaimo in his essay on the subject. “I’m going again this year and I want to convince you to join me.” And convince me he did: I woke up early and dragged myself out of bed to Brown's Main Green to catch the school bus to Connecticut. I was ready to walk across Rhode Island. After all, I had already walked a half marathon at the University of Florida. How hard could 29 miles be?

I knew it would be painful. I imagined myself reaching Providence with just a few miles to Massachusetts, horribly tired, but pushing through. I imagined telling myself, “you're so close. Don't give up now. Just push through these last few miles and you'll be done.” Then I imagined myself, feet aching and blistered, ultimately reaching the finish line and celebrating with everybody else who chose this adventure.

That was what I imagined.

The reality was quite different. In fact, I found myself with twelve miles left to walk, already limping and in pain. Walking across Rhode Island is already a forbidding task: limping across Rhode Island is really unthinkable. And I couldn't even tell myself “you're so close” because by any measure, twelve miles to walk is not “so close.”

But I didn't know any of that was coming. I just got off the bus and started walking.

Walking through the forest and stopping by a pond

A small wooden cottage barely visible through the trees

We started off in an unspoiled New England forest, probably kicking some pebbles for the first time in human history. The landscape pretty quickly turned into rural America, scattered with farms and small private properties. Some of these properties were little more than small cottages in the woods, reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond.

A goat behind a fence

A notice put up by someone who really didn't want trespassing

A large reservoir we passed by on our walk in Scituate, RI

A few people stopped in their cars, absolutely perplexed as to what a large group of young people might be doing walking in such remote areas. We told them: “we are walking across Rhode Island.”

This usually didn't clear up their confusion. “The entire state?”

“Yes,” we said. “The entire state.” We also shared our fundraiser with them. One man in particular said he didn't have any cash at the moment, but he promised to send some money when he got the chance, and congratulated us on undertaking such a bizarre but impressive endeavor.

As time went on, my feet started to hurt more and more. I relished every time we stopped for a snack break, and dreaded every time we got up and continued walking. Our group split in two as the more experienced walkers went ahead, and I struggled to keep up. I was consistently shocked by the determination of the other group: it was almost 2:00 in the afternoon, and they still hadn't stopped for lunch or even taken a break in recent memory. Even when we tried to run, the distance between us remained constant. As a physics major, I couldn't wrap my head around the physics behind that.

My resolve began to weaken, so I convinced myself (and those around me) that if we could stop for lunch, sit down and relax for just a half hour, I would be able to regain my strength and walk the 15 or so miles to Massachusetts. After what seemed like five hours, the group ahead finally stopped for lunch in a small plaza at the western edge of Cranston, RI. We took every little shortcut we could find, probably cutting about 10 steps off our journey, and finally made it.

When I sat down in the Subway, I think I actually breathed an audible sigh of relief. After resting for a while, I got up, expecting to feel rejuvenated.

In fact, that's when the limping started. Somehow, sitting down had actually made my pain worse, if that was even possible. At that point, walking to the bathroom was a struggle, so the thought of walking the remaining 12 miles across Rhode Island was unbearable. That's when I was really ready to quit. I texted my friends about my progress so far and I was tempted to tell them that I wasn't sure if I could do it, that I was considering just calling an Uber back to campus. But I held myself back because I knew that if I told them I was ready to quit, then in some crucial way it would become true.

So instead of convincing myself that resting would make me feel better, I convinced myself that walking would help me forget about the pain. And that was true, to an extent. Walking brought a different kind of pain than that of sitting and feeling your blood pump through your poor overworked feet.

It felt great when we finally reached Providence; that is, until we realized just how big the city is. It was a five mile walk to India Point Park near campus, and even if we made it that far, we still had to walk all the way to Massachusetts. This moment, above all others, stands out to me as one where I could not have made it without others by my side.

We were still behind, so we tried running, but to no avail. So we discussed Aesop's famous fable and decided to take the strategy of the tortoise. Somehow that allowed us to catch up to the rest of the group. Again, I'm not sure if the physics on that adds up.

Sunset while crossing the Providence River (or, as it felt at the time, the Rubicon)

As we neared Massachusetts, we crossed the marathon mark at 26.2 miles. Now, limping though I was, I could finally use the “so close” argument I had prepared for myself before setting out on this fool's errand. But the rest of the group seemed to march on steadily, while I felt completely defeated, even this close to the finish line. I asked myself the question: will I make it to Massachusetts? Barring some borderline impossible quantum fluctuations, I knew the question had a definite yes or no answer, one that was knowable in principle: I just wasn't sure which it was. I decided that statistically speaking, given everything I knew, the answer was most likely yes.

We crossed from Providence into East Providence, which borders Massachusetts. Soon we had just 15 minutes left to walk according to Google maps. But I simply couldn't take it anymore. I did a short sprint to catch up to the leading group and begged everyone, almost literally on my knees, to take a break for just two minutes.

Surprisingly, it worked. We rested for exactly two minutes on the clock before continuing our walk. Those last 15 minutes were some of the most painful of my life. But for the first time in many miles, I knew for a fact that I wasn't going to quit.

When we finally reached Seekonk, MA, the vibe was incredible. It was around 7:45 in the evening, almost 13 hours after we started our trek. As each group of walkers crossed the state border, everyone cheered and we all knew that despite all the pain during and after the journey, it was so worth it. Best of all, the man who promised to donate to our fundraiser drove by and personally congratulated us. We had met him about 8 miles back, so he must have really loved our work.

When I started, I imagined myself having a similar experience to the one Charles described. While Charles mentioned being fatigued at India Point Park, I think what defined my experience was just how early I was ready to give up. It was precisely the moment in Subway when I got up and realized that far from being recovered, I was now limping. 17 miles in, with 12 to go, I felt completely hopeless in that state.

But I learned that when we have a clear goal, humans are capable of pushing ourselves far beyond what we thought possible. In the productivity sphere in recent years, there's been a shift from big and abstract goals to consistent marginal improvements. James Clear, who wrote the book Atomic Habits that exemplifies this trend, also wrote a post about a British bike team that always had the goal to win the Tour de France but never succeeded. It was only by using a system of marginal improvements, without changing their goal, that their new coach could lead them to victory.

The mathematician in me agrees — it's true that if you improve by 1% every day, you'll be almost 38 times better at the end of the year. But emotionally, I believe this is impossible without a cherished ideal looming over those 1% improvements, a reason to go through the trouble of putting one foot in front of the other 70,000 times. I previously wrote about this idea in the context of science, but it has never felt more real to me than on this walk. The marginal change was well-defined: a journey of 70,000 steps begins with just one. But what truly defined the journey was not the step count, or even the mile count, but the romantic ideal of walking across the entire state of Rhode Island. Even walking a marathon felt like a minor detail in comparison.

So to the British bike coach, I say that it's not just all the marginal gains that led to a victory, although they are certainly important. I would bet that the new coach also made his team believe in winning the race, not as a mere abstraction, but as an exciting ideal to strive toward. For me, it's not about optimizing my individual steps — now that I've walked across Rhode Island, my next goal is to see what crazy ridiculous thing I can do next. Something so crazy and ridiculous that I might just want to do it.

The border between Rhode Island and Massachusetts

A map of our route