BAKER CITY, Ore. (AP) — Noah Barnes has already taken something like 9 million steps so it’s hardly surprising the 11-year-old ignores the puddle his boot has just splashed through.
Noah is trudging along the sodden gravel shoulder of Highway 245, a few dozen strides short of its intersection with Highway 7 at Salisbury Junction 10 miles south of Baker City.
Clouds cloak the tops of the sagebrush and juniper hills and a chilly shower of half-congealed snowflakes is pelting Noah’s bright yellow rain slicker. Its cuffs hang past his hands and dangle there like snakeskins.
It’s just after 1 o’clock Saturday afternoon, the sort of day for which warm dry blankets and mugs of steaming cocoa were made.
Noah is walking beside his dad, Robert, 46.
They head for the orange Jeep parked at the junction. Its exhaust pipes exhale white puffs with a soft, rhythmic burble. It’s a warm sound, an inviting sound, like the whisper of a furnace.
Robert helps Noah peel off the saturated and stubborn slicker, which clings to Noah’s stocking cap.
Noah climbs into the back seat, which he shares with his two younger siblings. Jonathan is 8, Angela 4.
Their mom, Joanne, 45, sits in the driver’s seat, an iPhone plugged into the console.
Robert extracts a hypodermic needle from a pack and inserts its tip into a vial.
“Butt or arm?” he asks Noah.
Noah rolls over onto his belly. It is the only answer necessary.
“My hands are cold, sorry,” Robert warns as he leans into the Jeep, meltwater trickling off the hood of his red jacket.
The insulin shot administered, Noah sits up straight again.
He grabs an iPad and starts tapping and swiping.
That brief prick of Noah’s skin tells the tale.
It is the reason Noah has walked more than 3,500 miles this year, and why he intends to keep walking until he reaches the Canadian border at Blaine, Washington.
Noah was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes — a chronic condition in which the pancreas fails to produce sufficient insulin — when he was 16 months old.
Last year he told his parents he wanted to do something for the hundreds of thousands of others who suffer from the affliction.
But Noah, who was then 10, was pondering a campaign rather more ambitious than a bake sale or a lemonade stand.
He decided he wanted to be the youngest person to walk across America.
Along the way Noah hoped to raise awareness about Type 1 diabetes, and to raise money to support research into a cure for the disease. About 15,000 children and 15,000 adults are diagnosed each year. His parents helped set up a nonprofit foundation, Noah’s March Foundation Inc.
Although Noah has met hundreds of people during his cross-continental journey — dubbed “Noah’s March” — he is modest about what he thinks his influence has been.
“If I am going to have an effect it’s going to be small,” he said.
But the effect Noah’s March has had on his family has been anything but small.
“We gave up a lot to do this, and I think it’s been good for us,” Joanne said. “We’re very close. We certainly view things a lot differently than we did a year ago.”
The Barnes family has sacrificed far more than just a year of normal life to accompany Noah on his epic trek.
Robert and Joanne sold their home in Juno Beach, Florida — near West Palm Beach on the state’s Atlantic Coast — to help make the trip possible.
“That’s a commitment right there,” Joanne said.
At least Noah didn’t have to travel too far to start his march.
He started walking in January at Key West, Florida, the southernmost point in the continental U.S.
Noah and Robert, who pushes a stroller that has a few supplies, walked by themselves through Florida and through part of Georgia.
Robert said he pushes the stroller, which has a “Noah’s March” sign attached, not only to publicize the purpose of the trip, but also to help alert drivers to their presence.
Being hit by a car is by far the greatest risk of such a trip, he said.
Robert said he and Noah talked with another cross-country walker earlier this year who later was hit and killed by a car.
In 2013 Joe Bell of La Grande, who was walking across the country in honor of his son, Jadin Bell, who completed suicide after being bullied at school, was killed by a truck while walking along a Colorado highway.
Robert said Noah always walks on the outside edge of the road, with Robert, and the stroller, between him and the traffic.
“That’s to create a buffer between him and the traffic,” Robert said.
“We’ve actually been asked, ‘does he walk by himself?’ ” Joanne said, chuckling.
Robert said he and Noah wave at every passing car, both to be friendly and to be noticed.
“We haven’t had any close calls,” he said.
Since March, Joanne, Jonathan and Angela have joined the march, driving in the Jeep as a support vehicle.
So far the family has avoided having to camp — “fortunately,” Joanne says with a laugh. They usually stay in a motel or with relatives or friends.
The latter group includes many people they have met by happenstance — drivers who are intrigued by the sight of a boy and his dad striding along a lonely highway, who wonder what “Noah’s March” is about.
Many of them invited the family to their homes for a meal and a night’s lodging.
“There’s a lot of really good people out there,” Joanne said. “They see what we’re doing as a family and they want to help.”
And then she laughs again, more heartily this time.
“It’s a special kind of crazy.”
The logistics, as any parent of three pre-teen kids could attest, have been challenging.
Joanne and Robert insist on maintaining a regular homeschooling schedule, for instance.
This is not the simplest task to incorporate when one of the students happens to be walking from 15 or 20 miles every day.
Typically the family tries to focus on school work during the mornings. This happens to coincide nicely with Noah’s preferences.
“Noah’s not really a morning person,” Robert said. “He doesn’t like the cold, so we usually try to let the day warm up before we start walking.”
The family takes Sundays off — “we are pretty firm about that,” Joanne said.
STUDYING ON THE ROAD
Joanne said she’s considered Noah’s March as basically a “year-long field trip.”
Their east-to-west journey has in effect followed the growth of America, and that’s a topic they have returned to often during their lessons.
“We have gone through the whole history of America — on foot,” Joanne said. “We’ve visited gravesites of soldiers and battles of the Civil War. We’ve discussed history from a very practical viewpoint rather than reading a textbook and then forgetting it.”
Although the trip has obviously been physically demanding, Noah, despite going through eight pairs of shoes and one pair of boots, has been healthy — healthier, in some ways, than he was before he started the march.
“My feet are much, much tougher now,” he said. “I didn’t even have an idea about how hard it would be.”
And although Noah’s need for insulin injections varies depending on many factors, including the terrain, the weather and even the elevation, Robert said for a period in Idaho his son didn’t need insulin for several days.
“Overall it’s been excellent,” Joanne said. “The exercise has been extremely helpful for his condition. We’ve learned a lot.”
Noah averaged about 15 to 17 miles per day early in his trip, but after several weeks he had increased his average to about 20 miles. He celebrated his 11th birthday on March 27 in Atlanta.
While traversing the generally gentle topography of the Great Plains between St. Louis and Denver, Noah lengthened his daily hike to about 23 miles.
“It’s a floating schedule — he’s 11,” Robert said.
That said, Noah’s March was technically about a month or so behind the ideal schedule when it reached Baker City on Oct. 21.
A stomach bug that spread throughout the family — a Jeep, even a four-door model, makes for poor quarantine quarters — slowed Noah’s progress through Idaho.
The weather, at least once the family reached Baker County, hasn’t been an ally, either.
The snowflakes that dusted Noah and Robert as they descended Dooley Mountain around dusk last Friday were the first of the trip.
But with winter looming, and the Canadian border still more than 400 miles away, Noah can’t afford to dawdle.
“It’s getting so late, we have to go through the rain now,” Robert said.
The family plans to retrace the route of Noah’s March — on wheels this time rather than on foot — next year with a goal of gauging whether the trip had its intended effect, which is to change how people think about Type 1 diabetes.
“Did we make an important difference?” Robert said.