His feet blistered and tired, Philip Brown plopped down for a rest.
On the side of Lee Road about five miles outside of Clayton, he took a sip of water and unstrapped a rubber gum blanket from across his chest. The blanket was good for shielding him from the rain, but only strengthened the 90-degree heat Monday afternoon.
“Yeah, it gets pretty hot,” Brown said, decked out in heavy cotton pants, wool socks and leather shoes.
More than 120 miles into a symbolic “soldier’s walk home” from New Bern to the Duke Homestead in Durham, he needed the break. Even if it was only for 10 minutes.
Brown, a historian and Civil War re-enactor, was retracing the steps of Washington Duke, who like many soldiers had no option but to walk home after the war ended 150 years ago. After traveling from Smithfield to Clayton on Monday, Brown continued his journey to the Capitol Building in downtown Raleigh on Tuesday. His trek was scheduled to end May 23 in Durham.
As he chewed on a granola bar and watched cars whiz by, Brown said the trip honored not only Duke but all veterans who’ve returned home after a deployment.
He had met some of those veterans since starting his trip May 11. The veterans, including many who served in Vietnam, helped put things in perspective, he said.
“I’m out here for 14 days walking, and some of those guys spent a year walking through jungles and rice paddies,” he said.
When Brown reached Clayton, veterans walked with him down Main Street.
The Duke Homestead thought up the “walk home” several years ago and started planning it last summer. Mia Berg, manager of the historic site, said she found Brown through another re-enactor and pitched him the idea.
A 24-year-old Charlotte native, Brown has had an interest in Civil War history since he was a child. It’s something that came from his father, who was also a re-enactor, and from the service of his great-grandfather and great-uncle in World War II.
“I looked at this as a way to better understand their lives,” Brown said. “It also sounded like fun at the time.”
Brown and Berg mapped out a route that roughly followed the North Carolina Railroad, which they think many soldiers would have used as a guide home. Berg said she then contacted churches, tourism agencies and historic sites along the route, where Brown could eat and sleep.
“We planned this down to the second,” Berg said. “The partner organizations really helped coordinate the logistics.”
On Brown’s way to Clayton on Monday, Elizabeth United Methodist Church near Smithfield served lunch for him, Berg and other Duke Homestead staff. As he approached the church on Cleveland Road, church members stood next to a sign that read, “Welcome Home, Washington Duke.”
After a prayer and a playing of “Dixie” in the church sanctuary, the crowd of nearly 20 people moved into the dining hall for fried chicken.
Cookie Pope, an Elizabeth UMC member and a Johnston County commissioner, said it was fitting to host Brown at the church, which dates back to the 1800s itself. She said Union soldiers spared the building when they passed by.
“It’s a good day to remember not only those who we lost through the war between the states, but all of those who have served our country,” Pope said.
‘It’s just raw nastiness’
After his meal at the church, Brown had some foot doctoring to do. He peeled off his socks and exposed bandaged and bloody feet, one of several physical hurdles he had faced on the road.
Pulling a needle out of a homemade sewing kit, he popped a new blister. A few days ago, he said, he had to cut off a piece of callus after a blister grew underneath it.
“It’s just raw nastiness,” he said.
Rains from Tropical Storm Ana soaked the first day of his trip, which led to some of the blisters. But the worst part came the day after the storm, when higher temperatures created a wall of humidity to walk through.
Mentally, the biggest challenge was focusing on one day at a time, Brown said. Most legs of his journey ranged between 13 to 20 miles a day.
And when the going got tough emotionally, he tried to think about the veterans he had met. The encouragement he got from people at his scheduled stops also kept his feet moving – step after step.
There were fun times too, like seeing a pot-belly pig and a dog playing together in Wayne County. Playing “name that roadkill” with Julia Rogers, one of his walking partners from Duke Homestead, helped pass the time.
Before his walk, Brown didn’t have a lot of time to prepare, as he was finishing up graduate school at UNC-Greensboro. He graduated with a degree in public history.
After the walk, Brown will start a job as a ranger at Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania. He said he had thought a lot about the new job on his “walk home,” something returning soldiers also likely pondered years ago.
Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104.
A 160-mile journey
Historian and Civil War re-enactor Philip Brown is retracing the steps of Washington Duke, who like many soldiers had no other option but to walk home after the war ended 150 years ago. Brown’s 160-mile journey from New Bern to the Duke Homestead in Durham has several stops in the Triangle. The time when he’ll arrive to certain places will vary on his pace, but his route includes:
May 19: Clayton to Raleigh, where he’s expected to arrive at the Capitol Building late in the afternoon.
May 20: In Raleigh, Brown and other re-enactors will meet with various school groups.
May 21: From Raleigh to Morrisville, where Brown will again meet with students and participate in town ceremonies.
May 22: Morrisville to downtown Durham.
May 23: Downtown Durham to the Duke Homestead.
For more information about Philip Brown’s journey, go to www.asoldierswalkhome.com or search for Duke Homestead on Facebook and Twitter.