Last Saturday at Lula Cafe in Logan Square, Tim Herwig slipped his feet out of his new Gore-Tex cross trainers and peeled off two layers of socks. He did this under the table, discreetly. “I know it’s really bad,” he said, glancing around sheepishly as he rested his bare feet atop his shoes. But he had walked nine miles that morning, and his feet needed some air.

Herwig has been keenly aware of his feet lately. He has realized, for instance, that the heel of his right foot is wider than that of his left and the toes aren’t quite as long. He knows this because he’s spent an inordinate amount of time walking in recent months–four to five miles every other day and between ten and twenty miles on the weekends.

Herwig is a soft-spoken 45-year-old “semiretired performance artist” and the vice president of community affairs at TCF Bank. On the morning of August 14, he’ll leave his apartment in Edgewater, walk south for almost two miles along the lakefront path, west for eight miles on Irving Park Road, south for three miles on Harlem, and then west, right out of the city, on North Avenue. He’ll keep walking, for five weeks and about 550 more miles, through long stretches of Illinois and Wisconsin and Iowa, past his hometown of Albert Lea in southern Minnesota, and on to Minneapolis, where he lived for 19 years.

The idea came to Herwig four years ago. His wife had recently left him, and he wanted both to vanish and to prove he was alive. He had been in Chicago for only two years, and he felt comforted by the thought of walking home, of retreating into a familiar landscape, a landscape he loved.

Herwig comes from a long line of midwesterners. Both his maternal and paternal ancestors settled in central Illinois in the mid-19th century. His parents were high school sweethearts. His father worked for a small midwestern chain store; in 1963 the company transferred him to Albert Lea. “My folks didn’t have a lot of money,” Herwig says. “It was a big, Catholic family. Six kids. So what we did for vacations is drive back to Pontiac, where they grew up. So from very early in my childhood I started making this transit between Minnesota and Illinois.”

As a young adult, Herwig ventured beyond the midwest, but his travels to other regions and countries made him reflect on what it meant to be an American in general and a midwesterner in particular. He began searching for answers on road trips to small towns in Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. Years later, after he’d moved to Chicago with his wife, he opted to drive home to Minnesota and back on two-lane highways rather than interstates, extending the seven-hour trip by a good five or six hours. “I think there’s such an economy of detail in the midwest that you really have to attend to it,” he says. “And when you do, you see that there is a lot that’s beautiful.”

Herwig’s despair over the divorce eventually waned, but his desire to walk home didn’t. He found himself floating the idea at parties and talking about it with friends. The more people he told, the more he began to think he’d be embarrassed not to follow through. So he kept talking to people about it. And the more he talked about it, the more concrete the plan became. People offered tips on how to survive: mail freeze-dried food to post offices along the way, rub Vaseline between your toes every morning, use lip balm with sunscreen.

In September 2002, Herwig began dating a woman he met at a party. It was his first serious relationship since the divorce. It ended after nine months; six months after that he realized he was in love with her. By then she had moved on.

Still, he finally felt alive. “I was burning on all burners for the first time in four years,” he says. “All that amazing energy, it’s there regardless of whether the person reciprocates.”

Herwig had previously told his boss about his walking plan, and in January he asked for six weeks off. A Harley aficionado who understood the call of the road, his boss told him to go for it.

Herwig began doing yoga and walking regularly. He mapped out his route on three scouting trips, typing notes into his laptop about restaurants, places to stay, post offices, and hills that might require an extra push of energy. Concerned about being hit by a car, Herwig has chosen to walk quiet country roads. Most of them have little or no shoulder, and he plans to alternate walking with and against the flow of traffic. “Roads are higher in the middle and lower on the sides,” he says. “If I just walked down the left-hand side of the road my left foot would always be lower than my right. It could really mess with me.”

Despite his meticulous planning, there are things he knows he can’t anticipate. “I just hope that I don’t run into weird people that are going to want to mess with me,” he says. To reduce that possibility, he’s set a few ground rules for himself: no bars, no sex. “I can’t get a hundred miles away in a hurry,” he says.

Herwig will travel with a small pedometer clipped to his belt. He expects to average 20 miles a day, walking between six and eight hours. He’ll stop in the afternoons for a long lunch and in the evenings before dark and will rest completely one day of the week. He’ll sleep in abandoned farmsteads, churchyards, motels, and even graveyards: “They’re mowed, so you can pitch a tent really easily.”

In addition to the tent, he’ll carry on his back a sleeping bag, four shirts, two pairs of pants that zip off into shorts, a medicine kit, a hand towel, toothpaste, Wet Wipes, paper and a writing utensil, a digital camera, a tiny fuel canister, a gallon of water, and a titanium spork.

He plans to eat in restaurants when he can (and to charge his cell phone in them), and when there are none in sight, he’ll suffer summer sausage, oatmeal, and freeze-dried stroganoff.

He doesn’t expect many opportunities for grooming. “I’m going to stink,” he says, resigned.

Herwig expects to reach Minneapolis on September 18. He’ll walk to a friend’s house–and into a party full of family, friends, and colleagues.

He imagines the trip will have lost some of its charm by then. “When I get that far, I’ll feel tempted to say, ‘Why am I going to sleep in a county park and tempt a sheriff to arrest me for vagrancy?'” he says. “Somehow doing that in northern Illinois or southwestern Wisconsin seems a little more romantic than doing it 30 miles from my parents’ house.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.