To say Tom Kline Jr. enjoys long walks on the beach is an understatement.
The 74-year-old Garth Road resident has traveled to 74 countries where he’s walked at least 60 miles in each.
In his younger days, Kline was a vice president at Pfizer, a pharmaceutical corporation headquartered in New York City.
“When I retired, I said to [my wife] Doris, ‘I want to go on a long walk,’” he said.
With a background in racewalking that started when he entered the Army in 1968, Kline had completed many races, but this was different.
This time, Kline wanted to walk from Point Barrow, Alaska, to Key West, Florida. From start to finish, Kline took about nine years to walk from the arctic coast of Alaska to the sandy shores of Florida.
With a small camper and an all-terrain cycle, Kline set out to accomplish his dream walk.
“I would take the ATC and park it where I was the day before, and then I would drive 3 to 6 miles with the camper and park that,” Kline said. “Then I’d walk back to the ATC, get on the ATC and drive it to the camper.”
That game of leapfrog took place all across the country until Kline made it to his final destination.
Of course, walking more than 6,000 miles wasn’t a walk in the park, and the sojourner accumulated a host of stories along the way.
“I’m always very careful,” he said. “I carry bear spray, a bear whistle and a flare.”
At one point, when Kline was walking in Alaska, he noticed there was a wolf following him. A trucker driving an 18-wheeler loaded with pipes heading toward the Trans-Alaska Pipeline stopped, picked up Kline and took the hiker back to his camper.
Thankfully, Kline said, that was the only hazard he faced along that stretch of the journey.
But, walking through Florida kept Kline on high alert.
“I came up the Florida Trail with 700 miles and it was literally through a swamp,” he said. “There [were] snakes and alligators. I was always cautious and I was never more than 3 miles away from my support vehicles.”
If he had run into trouble in Florida, cell service was not an issue. But to stay connected in Alaska, Kline had to rely on a satellite telephone because there was no cellphone service. His satellite phone — the size of a small radio — connected to the internet before a number was dialed, and it had to be paid for in advance.
He said he continued to rely on that device for a number of years while he walked through British Columbia.
Despite some hardships and the exhausting trek, Kline still recalls the beautiful vistas he witnessed as he approached the United States.
“I had one of the most beautiful days on this whole trip when I walked through the woods,” he said. “There’s no ocean, there’s no security, there’s no guards. And it says ‘Welcome to the United States’ in the state of Washington in a place called Rock Lake.”
Kline’s walks spanning 51 years have brought the total distance he’s hiked to nearly 80,000 miles.
How did all of this come about?
After getting his master’s degree in 1967, Kline volunteered for the Army through the ROTC program while studying for his undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee and became a lieutenant. Because of his ROTC background, Kline was sent to Vietnam.
But before that, he received some words of wisdom from a higher up.
“One day, the colonel came in and said, ‘Tom, you’re doing really well here, but you’re going to Vietnam and you better stay in shape,’” he remembered. “That night on TV, there was an Olympic American racewalker named Larry Young … from Columbia, Missouri, where I had gotten my master’s degree.”
Inspired by Young’s story, Kline drove one Saturday morning to the cornfields of Iowa and started racewalking.
He said his tour of duty in Vietnam had a major impact on his life as well.
“For 10 years, I tried to just get on with my life,” Kline said. “Within a year and a half, I was transferred to Puerto Rico. That’s where I met Doris.”
Life went on, but when Kline moved to Scarsdale 1979, he started thinking about his experiences.
He thought about his four brothers and sisters, who saw him off at LaGuardia Airport when he first shipped out to Vietnam.
“I still remember them waving to their big brother,” Kline said. “I remember thinking I wasn’t sure when I would get home, but this is for my country.”
When Kline arrived in Vietnam, he was already a lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers. His job was to rebuild roads for the troops to travel along.
One night, an Air Force member’s truck got stuck in a ditch and a nearby bridge blew up.
Six young men, including Kline, set off to do what they could to help, which included a mission to rescue children.
“It’s really about leadership,” Kline said about his time in the Army. “You have to be willing to stand up and take the risks.”
Fifty years after Kline served in Vietnam, he returned to the U.S. Army’s abandoned Tuy HòaCamp in Phú Yên Province. From there, he started the portion of his walk that spanned about 170 miles of the country where he spent his time in service.
To this day, he said, he keeps going, simply because he can.
“I know I’m strong,” he said. “I’m going to stay in physical shape.”
One of his goals has been to complete the New York City Marathon again — he’s walked it 30 times since 1976 — but it has taken him five years to commit to it because he didn’t feel like he was ready.
“My excuse was I was traveling the world and I was doing a lot,” he said. “I did a marathon and I said I wasn’t prepared. Finally I woke up and realized I wasn’t getting any younger and I had to stay in shape.”
He’s signed up and training for the 2019 marathon.
His motivation is to just keep going, one step at a time.