How to Walk at the Speed of Light

The sun never set when we were in Alaska. It just skirted along the mountain tops until morning, keeping the sky bright - even at 3am. I took this photo from a ship, bound for glaciers.

The best stories are the ones that arise from the unexpected. Often, being caught off-guard comes from a lack of preparation. In the case of our hike around Anchorage a few years ago, that was certainly the case.

After spending a few days on a boat exploring the inlets around Anchorage, my mom and I were ready to stretch our legs. In an afternoon walk around the city, we found a huge, blotchy, yellow and orange hemisphere sitting in the middle of an urban park. It was probably 12 feet in diameter.

A plaque nearby informed us that it was a scale model of the sun. About a block away, we found a marble-sized Mercury, also near a plaque. These space objects were scale models of their celestial counterparts, arranged by distance from the sun. Mom and I decided that, the next morning, we would walk to Pluto (which, at that point, was still a planet).

The next morning, we each grabbed a 16-oz bottle of water. She had a credit card, a form of photo ID, and $5 in cash.  Off we went.

We made it through Mercury, Venus, and Earth in about 8 minutes. Mars was just beyond that. We didn’t see Jupiter or Saturn for a while, but we eventually found them along the path.

We were now fairly far outside the city, and had been walking for a few hours. The scenery was gorgeous. On our right was the water, and on our left was a lush green forest, from which moose would occasionally emerge.

By the time we got to Neptune, we’d been walking for about four and a half hours. If you remember, we’d only brought 16 ounces of water each, and that was long gone. Desperately,we hoped that Pluto would be orbiting near some sort of of Alaskan oasis.

Five and a half hours after we started walking, we found Pluto. It was near a multi-purpose recreation center.  In our exhausted mental state, this recreation center was paradise.

We refilled our waterbottles in a bathroom sink, standing next to a gaggle of beautiful bridesmaids prepping for a nearby wedding. There was a vending machine, and we bought those single-serving cheese-dip and cracker packets – the ones that traditionally showed up in 4th graders’ lunch boxes. (Edit: Handi-Snacks!)

Refueled and somewhat refreshed, we made our way back – another five and a half hours – to the sun statue. The real sun was just starting to set when we stumbled back into Anchorage.

Proud of ourselves, and feeling somewhat resentful of the planet walk, we returned to the plaque by the sun statue, this time reading it with a bit more care.

It turns out we had completed the Lightspeed Planet Walk. The scale models of each planet were placed in such a way that, if you were to walk between then, you’d be walking at the speed of light. It took us eight minutes to get from the sun statue to Earth, because that’s how long it takes light to get from the real sun to the real Earth.

And it took us five and a half hours to get to Pluto, because that’s how long it takes light to travel from the sun to Pluto.

We had been walking for about 11 hours.

The moral of the story: Do your research. Preparedness helps avoid all kinds of problems. For example, we probably could have stood to bring more than 16 ounces of water.

That being said, sometimes it’s fun not to know what’s going to happen next. I often don’t look at the course profile of my races until after I’ve run the race. The sense of mystery, and discovery, keeps me entertained for miles at a time.

In preparing for a big trip, or race, have you ever missed something important? What happened?

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