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October 28, 2011 6:45 PM

From Sidley Lawyer to Cross-Country Traveler: Tyler Coulson's Awesome Adventure

Posted by Brian Baxter

Utah Road

We here at The Am Law Daily like to rank things, be it law firms, pro bono efforts, or associate satisfaction. And when it comes to associates leaving the law, we've heard some pretty good stories, including the one about the lawyer who left Vedder Price to take up beer pong.

But that story pales compared to the saga of Geo. Tyler Coulson, a 32-year-old former Sidley Austin restructuring associate in Chicago who left life at the Am Law 100 firm earlier this year to begin a cross-country walk across the United States with his dog, Mabel. Since beginning his trek in Delaware on March 11, Coulson has encountered black bears, dodged bad drivers, discovered the healing power of duct tape, and suffered through inclement weather as he made his way toward the Pacific Ocean.

Almost eight months later, the Griggsville, Ill., native's journey is nearly complete. We caught up with Coulson on his cell phone Thursday morning to talk about giving up a $200,000 a year job to travel across the U.S., where he subsists on trail rations and the kindness of strangers, friends, and family. At the time, Coulson was staying in a motel in Baker, California, nearing the end of a 40-mile hike across the Mojave Desert, and enjoying a bit of rest and relaxation before heading out again on Friday. What follows is a condensed transcript of what he had to say about life on the open road.

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I think anyone who does something like this is unhappy for some reason. It's not something you do if you're happy or content. And this is just about the most pointless thing you can do. It accomplishes almost nothing. But I always wanted to do something epic. I had a bunch of little ideas and this was kind of like a now-or-never thing. I'm not getting any younger and I like the outdoors, so I made the decision to see if I could do it.

There's close to an infinite number of ways you can do this. I did an Internet search and found the American Discovery Trail, which is a network of existing intrastate trails across the country. But it's long and circuitous, and when I got into Ohio in the spring, I hit bad weather and lost a lot of time. It was clear that early it wasn't going to be possible to get through the Rockies [before winter].

I went off the trail in Ohio, picked the straightest route that goes right to left, and basically started walking it. I've traveled along lots of county roads, state highways, and U.S. highways. The majority of my time has been on U.S. Highway 50. The only interstate I've been on was in Utah for about seven miles, because there were no other options.

I try to sleep in either motels or tents. I'd say it's split about fifty-fifty. In the east, I got stuck in motels because of the rain and cold. In the Midwest, we ran into the whole 'heat dome' thing, and it got up to about 115 degrees. And that changes the route a bit, because a lot of times it just makes more sense to push ahead into the next town, rather than spend an hour or two setting up camp.

Mabel and I try to do between 20 to 30 miles on the days we walk. But we take days off to rest, so I'd say that our average probably comes out to about 15 miles per day.

I've stayed with friends in D.C., Ohio, Decatur, Ill., Des Moines, Iowa City, Colorado Springs, and Denver. I camped with a friend in Utah. I also spent about five days with my parents in southern Illinois to recharge my batteries a bit. And someone who I'll call a 'friend of the walk' put us up in the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. I will not forget that. I almost stopped my trip right there!

Tyler Coulson

I couldn't have done any of this without Mabel. A friend, who I think doubted my ability to get a dog, adopted her and gave her to me. She got a laceration on her ear in West Virginia and needed to get stitches, and got a little sick in Colorado when she ate an entire chicken with chicken bones. But other than that, she's been great. Her paws are fine and I make sure I keep her on a leash on the left side of the road, away from the hot pavement.

I've turned down lots of rides, but I do take them every now and then. I'm not trying to set any records. If it's a mile at the end of the day into town or a campground, I'll take that ride. And when descending from mountain passes, you really don't have an option. People have stopped—many of them dog lovers—and told me it's too dangerous. They wouldn't leave until Mabel and I got in, and I'm glad we did.

In Utah, we got a ride from our support driver [the little brother of a law school friend hired to help carry water through the desert] for 50 miles around our intended route because the temperature dropped to 20 degrees. It was snowing and I just felt it was unsafe for us to continue. It wasn't worth endangering our lives.

The weather is so powerful and it can sneak up on you quickly. I've been in a lot of situations where I was really, really scared. When we had the first bear incident, in western Maryland, it was about 30 degrees and raining. We had no shelter.

But by orders of magnitude, drivers are the most dangerous. It's really staggering once you're out walking around to see how bad some people are at driving. They really have complete disregard for the safety of others.

At the beginning of the trip, I was telling people who asked that they should try doing [a cross-country walk]. But now I find myself saying, 'Yeah, you might want to try doing something else.' And it's all because of drivers. I've had bouts with something that feels like low-level PTSD, because once you're out there with vehicles just inches away from you, it's pretty scary.

The frequency of traffic and the existence—or nonexistence—of a shoulder is very important. Blind corners, when you're going down a mountain, are really something to consider. People like to go about 100 miles per hour up mountains. Going down, they'll do about 40, but on the way up they're flying.

Bears haven't really been a problem. We had bears in camp a couple of times in Colorado, but if you keep food out of your tent and are careful, black bears aren't really something to be afraid of.

When it comes to navigation, it's pretty easy. You wake up and walk away from the sun for five hours, then under the sun for a bit, and then toward the sun for a few more hours. It sounds simplistic but that's basically what I do.

When planning a route ahead of time, the walking directions on Google Maps have been a big help, but I carry a paper map just in case I don't have Internet service. You can have service one minute and then five feet down the road it's gone. I also try to talk to local folks I meet to ask them for suggestions and we've changed routes a couple of times based on their advice.

As for my gear, I went from Delaware to Davenport, Iowa, with just a pack. And that was really stupid. Once I got the cart it changed everything. I'd say about 25 miles with the cart is roughly equivalent to six or seven miles with the pack on. It makes that big a difference in terms of calories and pain.

This has been a lonely journey. For a long time back east and in the Midwest the only interaction I had was with Mabel unless we met someone in town. In the West it's been a bit better with the support driver, some people I've met on the road, and contact with locals.

Almost all of the feedback I've received from my blog, Facebook, and Twitter has been really supportive. And I have to give a special thanks to the folks that sent 'trail magic.' Someone even bought me an iPad!

Most of the media attention was in the beginning of the trip, and I haven't had a lot of inquiries over the past couple months. I certainly didn't do this trip for that, and I don't take myself too seriously, but I appreciate any attention I've received.

The real reason I did this was for myself. I didn't want to get anything out of this trip besides some adventure and lifelong memories. But I've pretty much been convinced that I should write something after this is over. I was going to write some account of my experiences for myself anyway, so maybe I'll just write something and e-mail it to my friends. I'm not sold on the idea that I've got a best-seller here, but I'm going to take some time off and relax and get used to living a normal life again.

I'm finishing at the Ocean Beach Dog Beach in San Diego on November 12. I've got a Facebook page and everything. A friend has promised to bring some treats for Mabel. After that I plan on going home for Thanksgiving to see my family.

Tyler1

I put a poll out on Twitter about where I should live after I'm done with all of this, and according to my followers, it's either New York City or Buenos Aires. I was hoping there would be more love for Chicago, but it only got two votes.

As for whether I'm going to practice law again, I really don't know. It depends on what opportunities are available to me. If it's something within the framework of principles I ascribe to then it's certainly a possibility. I will say the real experiences I've had on this trip have been more helpful to me than any training I got in law school.

Sometimes the way you learn to think about things as a lawyer can be a monumental handicap when it comes to solving problems like figuring out the best way to cross a road. You need more of a blunt instrument.

I feel so lucky to have seen so many beautiful things walking across this country. I'd never been to Utah before, and it's just amazing, I've never seen anything like it. One that stands head and shoulders above the rest was when we came out of Utah, just south of Cedar City, down into Arizona. I had done about 20 to 25 miles this day, which is right around the point where you get a runner's high. One of the benefits of a trip like this is that happens about every other day.

Anyway, the road comes down and you're in the high part of a valley and you're ringed on both sides by a ridge of mountains. It was just about sunset and I was all by myself with Mabel. A full moon came up over the left and the sun set on the right, and the entire half of the valley on the right up to the road was just on fire. On the left the sky was black, but the moon was so clear. That was probably the most profound moment of the trip. But I'm not done yet.

 

All interviews are condensed and edited for style, grammar, and clarity. Click here for Tyler Coulson's blog and here to follow his travels on Twitter. All pictures here are courtesy of Tyler Coulson, except for bottom photo, by Jon Grammer.

 

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