EMERALD ISLE – By the time she made it my apartment, Deborah Walters, a 63-year-old grandmother, was halfway through a 2,500-mile journey from Maine to Guatemala. She’s traveling in a kayak. Alone.
“A lot of people go out paddling for a day and then pull a short night and sleep,” says Walters. “Well that’s all I’m doing. The only difference is that I’m doing it day after day after day until I get to Guatemala.”
Walters isn’t kayaking simply for the sake of going further than she’s ever gone before – and perhaps further than any woman her age has gone before solo. She wants to raise $150,000 for children living in Guatemala City’s garbage dump by stopping along the way to tell their story.
“In large parts of the world people come up with a hand out, but I don’t get inspired then,” Walter says. “In Guatemala, it’s the people (who are) working really hard to help themselves and, with just a little bit of help from outside, I see how it can make a big difference.”
She was once the board president of a nonprofit in Guatemala City called Safe Passage, which educates and feeds over 500 children – the poorest of the poor, she tells me. The group doesn’t have the capacity yet to help all 2,000 children living in the garbage dump.
For the last two years, Walters has been actively planning this trip. And on July 13, a day after she left Yarmouth, Maine, she kissed her husband, Chris, goodbye on their wedding anniversary for her grand sendoff from Portland.
Five months later, she’s breaking bread at my small kitchen table, politely refraining from scarfing her food to satiate her constant hunger.
Walters is wearing the same outfit she’s worn the last two days: grey cargo pants and a black sweater. She’s only brought a few articles of clothing with her on the trip, the others reserved for either paddling or public speaking. She also wears a Velcro strap around her right forearm for support; it helps with the pain and numbness she’s been experiencing in that arm as she paddles.
Despite having a little arthritis, this is a woman who has kayaked hundreds of miles among the minke whales and narwhals in the Canadian Arctic on six separate occasions. She’s finished first place in kayak races – and last too, the only “solo old broad” in her division, as her friends like to joke. Including, a 300-mile race across the Florida panhandle and through the Everglades.
She loves the feeling of being completely self-sufficient in her kayak and to travel by “human-power,” she says. By hiking or kayaking, “you see more of the world and you’re more connected.”
As opposed to being transported by a plane, when you’re kayaking along the East Coast, Walters says, “you can see the changes in the environment and the changes in the people and in the culture and in the food as you go along — you feel like you’re really there.”
Paddling from Maine to Guatemala, however, will be a physical feat greater than any she’s ever attempted before.
That’s why she’s doing this trip in true granny fashion: safety first. Averaging about 15 miles a day, Walters likes to paddle two days in a row and take the third day off to rest. “I don’t do anything that I think is dangerous,” she says. “If I think there’s a 75 percent chance that I can make it, I would never go out. Conditions can always get worse.”
She’s bypassing the Gulf of Mexico, she says, to avoid getting shot by the Mexican drug cartels. Instead, Walters and her 18-foot kayak are getting a lift, from Key West, Fla., to Belize, on a sailboat where she’ll continue the last 200-mile stretch of her voyage. Or, so she hopes.
At least Walters owns up to her slower pace and cautionary style: “Some people when they go on these expeditions it’s like this big macho thing, like ‘me against nature.’ For me, it’s more like ‘me with nature,’ and sort of becoming more a part of the natural flow of things.”
Already this woman has become familiar to me, returning questions as though she were the reporter. She’s become a friend and a source of great inspiration. But it was only two days ago I was cursing her name.
“This is ridiculous,” I’d said to myself.
I was standing between two private properties on Bogue Sound waiting for sight of her bright yellow kayak, trying not to look suspicious as I stood there awkwardly in the middle of the workday.
Just that morning I’d driven to Morehead City to pick her up on account of the windy weather. I was nearly there when I got the call from Walters that she wanted to carry on another 10 miles to the Goose Creek RV campground, rather than my backyard in Emerald Isle across the sound. She figured she’d be there around 12:30 p.m., so I could pick her up then.
“Maybe you could call and see if I can store my kayak there? That’d be great. Otherwise I’ll just talk to them when I get there,” she said over the phone.
The RV campground was uninterested in helping Walters, so I pulled down into an unpaved boat ramp before Goose Creek. I planned to yell and flail my arms to catch her attention. But, 12:30 p.m. came and went without word.
Fortunately, Walters had a GPS on her kayak that signaled her whereabouts every 10 minutes. I’d never had to track down a house guest quite so literally. I used my cellphone to log on to her website and clicked the “Where is Deb?” button. There she was — a blue dot on a map moving into Broad Creek, about 3 miles up the road. By the time she called me, I was nearly there already.
Walters was standing on the floating dock of a marina dressed from head to toe in warm, wicking layers, a waterproof jumpsuit and a broad brimmed hat. Her face was the only skin showing. She looked stoic and strong armored in her gear. A serious water warrior, holding her paddle beside her like a mighty staff.
When I saw her speak the night before at the N.C. Maritime Museum in Beaufort, she looked more the part of a university provost, which is what she was before she retired. She was slender and tall, her grey hair coiffed back neatly. She wore loose, nice-looking clothes of neutral tans and blacks, and her blue eyes sat behind a pair of glasses. She looked sophisticated yet modest, much like I would imagine a younger Jane Goodall. And like Goodall, Walters had been a scientist, too. Before becoming vice president and provost of Unity College in Maine, she was a neuro-physicist who developed mathematical computer models of the human visual system.
“Hello!” Walters hollered from the dock. I was taken aback by her energy and enthusiasm, expecting she’d be exhausted after paddling nearly 19 miles against the wind.
“That was quick!” she said.
Walters pulled several large, blue, waterproof bags from her kayak. It was at once impressive the amount of belongings she could stow in her kayak and how little she needed to travel so far by herself.
She bounced slightly as we made small talk, clearly in dire need to relieve her bladder. When she returned from the marina building, she smiled brightly with an air of relief that made her seem more human. After all, what she was attempting to do in her kayak seemed almost impossible to me.
With her was a short, middle-aged man. He’d decided to paddle out and join her that morning after learning about her expedition from a friend. By the time the three of us loaded my car with her belongings and moved her kayak somewhere safe, a photographer for Canoe & Kayak Magazine had arrived from Wilmington for a two-hour photoshoot.
When I volunteered to host Walters for three nights, I had no idea how famous she was becoming. I’d only signed up to help a stray traveler as I had with many others before her. Also, I wanted to meet the living proof that at any age one can embark on the expedition of one’s lifetime.
Once I got past the inconvenience of her noble mission to my daily routine, I was grateful to meet and learn from such an amazing woman. It wasn’t Walters that was demanding, but the currents she paddled against. The wind. The waves. The weather. Even the temperature, now that it was December.
The air temperature was freezing the following morning at dawn when I’d dropped her off at her kayak. I stood there watching as she peeled back the frosted cover of her kayak cockpit, layered in frozen dew, before I retreated to the warmth of my car. She would paddle 13 miles that day, from Broad Creek to Swansboro.
“Getting into the kayak in the morning when it’s cold and I don’t know the waters and I hear there’s terrible currents right ahead of me, it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff,” Walters says after we finished our breakfast. “Quite often, I’m not convinced that I can make it, you know? Why am I doing this? I sort of go through this most days.”
Then she recalls the first time she visited the garbage dump.
“The first time that I went there,” Walters says, “there was a family that came running up to the Safe Passage office to ask if we had a metal detector. The husband, who’d actually done some plumbing for us, had driven his pickup truck into the dump to drop off some things but a sinkhole opened up under his truck.
“He didn’t know where you could and couldn’t drive there. He and his truck just disappeared down in this garbage. We found a metal detector really quickly and gave it to them, but they never found him,” Walters says. “So many people have fallen in sink holes there or gotten covered up in a land slide and died.”
The garbage dump serves nine million people. It’s in the middle of Guatemala City, the country’s capital and the largest city in Central America. Medical waste and hazardous chemicals are also disposed there; and the river that runs through it is basically an open sewer, Walters says. Roughly 10,000 people live there scavenging for food, collecting recyclables to sell and sleeping in housing built upon mountains of disintegrated trash.
“Visitors aren’t allowed in the actual part of the garbage dump anymore,” she says, “so we were up on a cliff in an old cemetery looking down. All the people looked like little ants as they were lining up beside the garbage trucks, sorting through the garbage and collecting whatever they could find in there.”
Breathing problems and skin disease are common for the people trying to survive in the dump, Walters says. Even from the cliff where Walters was watching, the air she breathed in reeked of the rotting garbage; and while many visitors applied fragrant oils above their upper lip to help hide the smell, Walters refused. There were great swirls of dust, she says, and many vultures circling above.
Over the last nine years, Walters has listened to the stories of many women and children at Safe Passage. Like Myra, a 70-year-old woman who has been on her own in the dump since she was the age of five. Walters says Myra once told her that she didn’t have any big dreams growing up: “I wasn’t living,” she’d told Walters. “I was only surviving.”
For the mothers, their greatest desire is for their children to go to school for a chance at a better life. The public and private schools used to require uniforms and books, which the mothers couldn’t afford; but even if they could, the schools refused to accept the children, dismissing them as “garbage.”
That attitude has come a long way, Walters says, since Safe Passage opened its doors. The organization has made tremendous progress in the relationship between the schools and the children from dump. And while on average 10 percent of all Guatemalans graduate high school, 40 percent of children in Safe Passage programs will graduate. Though Walters is confident that 100 percent of them would if Safe Passage was a full-time school. If she can raise $150,000, Walters hopes to convert an after-school program into the third and fourth grades.
So she pushes on day by day. Mile by mile. “It’s daunting to think of the whole thing,” Walters says, “but if you think a piece at a time — and when you think that the waterways were the communication highways of the world for such a long time, and maybe become more so in the future — it can be done,” Walters says.
“But, what does it take to do it?” I ask. “To take on what seems like an impossible challenge?”
“It’s what the people in the garbage dump have,” she answers. “Grit, determination, persistence. Because I really believe that ordinary people, like me, can do extraordinary things if you just keep at it, if you just persist.”
This story won the 2nd place award in profile feature from the N.C. Press Association in 2015.