WWII Refugee, Korean War Era Veteran
by Melissa LaScaleia
Continued from last month. Click here to read Part 2.
“So I decided to circumnavigate the United States and parts of Canada via bicycle. I biked from Jacksonville, Florida to Bar Harbor, Maine; then from Maine to Vancouver, to San Diego, and then across Texas and back to Florida. It took me five months.
When planning the trip, I was looking for places to go and visit that I hadn’t been. Plus it was a challenge; I like challenges. It was quite a few miles.
I made many other bike trips. I took the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail that starts in Portsmouth, Virginia, and traverses the country to Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific. It’s 4,822 miles one way. From there I diagonally came back to Myrtle Beach. That was my second trip; it took three and a half months.
My next one, I biked from East to West Canada. I started in Connecticut, and from there biked to Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory. That town is the start of the Dempster Highway, renowned because it’s 500 miles of unpaved road in the Northwest Territory.
I biked it all the way to Inuvik, a little town in the Northwest Territory. From there I biked to Skagway, Alaska. Then I took a ferry from Skagway to Bellingham, Washington. It was a three day ferry. And from Bellingham, I biked diagonally, back to Myrtle Beach. That took about five months.
I also biked the entire Alaskan Highway. It was built during the Second World War to connect Alaska to the rest of the contiguous United States. It begins at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and goes to Alaska.
I got in the habit of doing one trip a year. And then I got into long distance hiking.
Back when I worked with United Technologies, a few of us were inclined every so often to go hiking as a group in New Hampshire and Maine. On one occasion, I met a couple of teenagers— and they looked drab and cold. And I saw that they were trying to cook. I asked where they were going, and they said they were hiking the Appalachian trail, from Florida to Maine. And I never could stop thinking about it afterwards. And I thought: my God, to hike all that distance.
So then it was my turn. I started in Spring Mountain, Georgia. The trail goes through fourteen states and ends at the top of Mt. Katahdin. It took me five and a half months. It’s rather treacherous, and it’s difficult to hike because there’s a lot of rocks and it’s up and down. But I did it.
Two years later, I did the PCT, the Pacific Crest Trail. It starts in Campo California, on the Mexican border, and it goes through three different states— California, Oregon, and Washington state, and up to Canada— 2700 miles.
The last long hiking trip I did was the Continental Divide Trail, 3,200 miles. It starts near the Mexican border as well— in Hachita, New Mexico, and also goes through Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, and you end up in Canada. That took seven months.
In Montana there are Grizzly bears— and I saw one at least every week. And when you’re alone, it’s a little scary. Because all the information tells you that if you’re in a group of 4-5 people or more, you’re relatively safe— that the bears tend not to attack. But if they see a lone hiker, they’re much more apt to attack.
On one trip, I was bicycling the Yukon Hwy. It was 5am, and because I was in the Arctic Circle, the sun doesn’t set, and it was very bright. There were no cars, and then I came upon a huge rock on the side of the road. I thought it was a boulder, but it was a big Grizzly bear. I whistled from afar and he turned and saw me. So I turned and went back 50 yards, and then he was gone.
My favorite hike out of everything I did was the PCT. The PCT is the easiest and most picturesque. You go through old mountain ranges.
I hiked parts of it with four other people, from Switzerland and Germany. You don’t want to pick people to hike with before you get on the trail, because they might drive you up the wall. But you meet people on the trail. And the best way to find if someone is compatible with you or not is to find someone on the trail while you’re there.
The most difficult was the Continental Divide, because of the size. It just seems like it never ends. Eventually you reach the end, and you’re so elated. And then you get back to your life, and I was kind of depressed for a while, because there’s nothing to live for. But then, I’d get over that after a month. So then, after that month that I recovered, I’d have nothing left but memories, and then I started ballroom dancing again— my favorite activity.
After forty-eight years, I went back to Lithuania and saw my sister for the first time since childhood. It was very nostalgic— very interesting. That was in 1972. I returned again when my son got married to a Lithuanian lady. I may go again; my daughter wants to go back.
My first long hiking trip was the Appalachian Trail; I hiked it when I was 65 years old. I was known as the old guy. The reporters used to chase me but they couldn’t catch me. They’d hear about me and say, “A 65-year-old man? Impossible.” They put an article in the Sun News in Myrtle Beach with a headline that read: “65-Year-Old Man Hikes the Appalachian Trail.”
I’m actually planning to hike it one more time, after I get my knees rebuilt. Definitely I’m not going to give up that easily. Anyway, it was fun. I hope I get my knees fixed up and I’ll do it one more time. And I don’t care how long it takes. All you have to do is keep going. There’s 365 days in a year, if I do 7 miles a day, I can finish it in a year.”