Amherst man walks the breadth of Massachusetts

  • During the week, Ken Johnston works from 9 to 5 at Yankee Candle. On weekends, since mid-June, he walks, from west to east, right across the state. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2017 11:20:35 PM

AMHERST — New Englanders love the region’s cuisine, from maple syrup to lobster, and their professional sports teams, including the Red Sox and Patriots, and describe themselves as being independent-minded with a liberal spirit.

These are insights that Amherst resident Ken Johnston has gleaned during conversations with people in recent weeks as he walked across Massachusetts. He started in June and is set to finish with a short leg Monday, after delaying the end of his final hike through several Cape Cod beaches, from Wellfleet to Race Point, and then on to the tip of Provincetown.

“I’m excited about finishing,” said Johnston, 56.

Unlike other area residents who have embarked on these types of journeys, bicycling or jogging across the United States, or the recent row by Jim Brassord along the Eastern Seaboard, Johnston’s walk has not been continuous and is not part of a fundraiser.

Instead, Johnston has spent nearly every weekend since June 17 on the walk, 24 days in total, traversing almost 300 miles. At the end of each weekend, he gets ready to return to his 9-to-5 desk job as temporary staff support at Yankee Candle.

Johnston said the excursion has been about finding insights into the minds of New Englanders, getting movement back into his life and “understanding what the late, great Sen. Edward Kennedy loved about Massachusetts.”

After Kennedy died in 2009, Johnston began mulling over the Democratic senator’s words about Massachusetts. Kennedy’s love for the places and people of Massachusetts was something that Johnston wanted to experience himself, so he started walking.

“It’s proving to be much more than I expected,” Johnston said. “When I first started out I was trying to see if I could just make it.”

During the first day, he walked from the northwestern tip of Massachusetts where it borders Petersburg, New York, parking his car in North Adams and hitching a ride to the border, before completing the walk in about 8 hours. The next day he left North Adams and got to Cheshire using the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail.

Johnson said an observation he has made is how few people walk along roads, especially in the rural communities of the western part of the state, including during his longest walk, 23 miles from Chesterfield to Bay Road in Amherst.

“One of the things I’ve learned in western Massachusetts is you don’t encounter a lot of people walking the roads, outside the rail trails,” Johnston said. “Once I got out to the eastern part of the state, that’s when I met a lot of people walking on the roads.”

But the absence of human contact was OK, as the roads and trails in the Berkshires gave him a lot of time for reflection.

Johnston said he enjoyed crossing over the ledge that creates the descent from the Berkshires into the Pioneer Valley, and passing over his favorite road, a dirt pathway in Worthington.

“It was always exciting when I had a dirt road to cross over,” Johnston said.

The lakes and ponds in central Massachusetts impressed him.

“If not for this walk I would never have experienced Sutton, Massachusetts, an incredibly beautiful small town,” Johnston said.

In the more urban parts of the state, Johnston said he found it easier to park his vehicle and then take public transportation, cabs, or Uber rides to get to his starting points.

“We live in an incredibly beautiful state,” Johnston said. “It’s a very clean state and the state has remarkably clean and wonderful pristine waterways.”

On Sunday, Johnston was two and a half miles away from completing his walk when he was approached by a stranger on a Provincetown beach. The man was preparing to kayak out to the tip of Long Point. A fellow adventurer, the man was impressed with Johnston’s story. After talking for some time, the man — who happened to have a spare kayak — invited Johnston along. For that reason, Johnston chose to delay the last stretch of his journey.

“The man was like an angel,” Johnston said. “This walk has been about learning people, and experiencing a friendly interaction with a stranger is just the icing on the cake. It’s wonderful that my story can have an effect on people. It’s like a universal spirit.”

Johnston said Sunday that he expects to finish his walk Monday. He’s recounted his experiences at, where he’s also posted a survey readers can take about being a New Englander.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at David McLellan contributed to this story.

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