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A ‘love letter’ to the Virginia outdoors from Sen. Tim Kaine

US Senator Tim Kaine is seen standing in a forest. He is wearing a gray polo.
Tyrone Turner
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine on the trail at Roosevelt Island.

Read the original story on WAMU's website here.

I meet Tim Kaine on Roosevelt Island. It’s a sunny, humid spring morning after a night of rain. The yellow irises are blooming along the boardwalk through the marsh, and there’s plenty of birdsong overhead. In the intervals between flight take-offs and landings from nearby National Airport, you can almost convince yourself you’re not in the middle of a major metropolitan area.

Kaine says he’s spent the morning reviewing appropriations letters from his staff, and he was delighted to see a meeting outdoors crop up on his calendar. He says he’s been coming here for years, since his son was a student at George Washington University, just across the Potomac. As we talk, he interrupts himself to point out birds and other things he sees.

“Great time of year to be out on Roosevelt Island,” he says. “There’s a cardinal just ahead of us down on the left.”

I’ve seen Kaine at plenty of press conferences and campaign events (“Hi, I’m Tim!” is often his preferred opener), but this morning is different, and not just because we’re squelching along a muddy trail. We’re meeting to talk about his new book Walk, Ride, Paddle, a reflection on his lifelong love of nature and his three-decade career in politics.

The book is a daily record of Kaine’s experiences completing what he calls the Virginia Nature Triathlon. That is: hike all 559 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia; bike the 321-mile length of the Blue Ridge Parkway; and paddle the James River from the Allegheny Mountains to where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. He fit in big chunks of his adventures during recess weeks and weekends, when politicians are usually expected to be back in their states meeting with constituents.

“Instead of having an entourage and having it all scheduled, it was just, who was I meeting that day? You know, the shuttle driver or the hiker or the family that was out for a picnic that I ran into, or somebody who’s operating a hikers hostel,” he says. “It was a really nice way to interact with Virginia [and] Virginians in a different way.”

You might be tempted to assume that a politician writing a book about nature would in fact write a book about politics disguised as a book about nature. But while Kaine does think back on his political career — Richmond City Council member, mayor, governor, U.S. Senator, vice presidential candidate — and meditate on Virginia and the U.S.’s political future, there’s plenty more in the book, too. Along the way, he shares his thoughts about marriage, parenting, friendships, faith, and aging.

He compares the different stages in his life to the front gear shift on a road bicycle: something you fiddle with only when the terrain changes dramatically.

“I kind of feel like I’m on a third ring in my life,” he says. “I had a civil rights career. That was 17 years. Then I moved into a 30-year public service career … I kind of feel like I’m moving into a spiritual, contemplative time in my life where again, I’m bringing the civil rights and the public service work with me, but I maybe think about it in a different way.”

And of course, for constituents tickled by the idea of a sitting senator slogging through his August recess on the Appalachian Trail, Walk, Ride, Paddle has the grimy details outdoorsy people delight in talking about: mud, downpours, bugs, bears, and Virginia heat and humidity. One of his fellow hikers even gives him a trail name: Dogbowl, after the collapsible dog bowl he brought along to wash up after a long day.

Kaine’s quest to complete his self-created Virginia Nature Triathlon sprang from several impulses. He wanted to mark his sixtieth birthday, celebrate a quarter century in politics, and recharge and recover from the Clinton-Kaine campaign’s presidential election defeat in 2016 as well as his own successful reelection bid in 2018.

Did it work? Yes. “It was a tremendous experience that way,” he says.

Since Kaine completed the three legs of his trip in 2019, 2020, and 2021, his adventures also became a way of processing concurrent events. There were former President Trump’s impeachment trials, in which Kaine served as a juror. The nation also saw widespread racial justice protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic happening at the same time. And there was the January 6th insurrection, during which Kaine and other senators were hurriedly evacuated from the besieged Capitol building.

Kaine, a devout Catholic, sees those national upheavals in terms of the Biblical story of Job, a wealthy man who loses everything as God tests his faith. He had that realization on the trail on a foggy, rainy day by himself in Grayson Highlands State Park.

“As I’m walking along, long day hiking and more muddy than this – I was hiking very slowly – I thought, well, maybe that’s what this is,” he recalls. “Maybe that’s how I understand this, is that we’re being tested.”

That sense of perspective, he says, was only possible because of unscheduled time for contemplation in the woods. In a passage that will ring true to fellow backpackers, he describes the mental progression that comes with the physical effort of hauling a heavy backpack uphill: you start out thinking about what was on your mind when you left your car, and then you switch over to what he calls “little incantations” to get through the tougher parts. And finally — this is the real magic — the climb gets hard enough that your mind empties entirely.

“You kind of cease directing your thoughts at all, and then things can come into your mind,” he says. “It might be a song fragment or a really more intense awareness of the bird sounds like we’re hearing right now, [or] your own breathing.”

He maintains a little bit of that present awareness on our walk, keeping track of the animal species we see: a snake, a small turtle.

“What we haven’t seen that are pretty common this time of year are little salamanders,” he points out as we exclaim over the turtle.

He’s also alert to bird species. His wife Anne, a college professor who also serves on the Virginia Board of Education, caught the birding bug during the pandemic. Canoeing down the James River, the two of them delight in seeing pairs of bald eagles, a formerly threatened species now bouncing back in Virginia.

“I’m her bird dog because I have really good long distance eyesight. So I can see something up in a tree and say, ‘I see something up there, and it’s got a little bit of yellow on it,’” he explains. “She carries the binoculars … she’s a really good identifier. She can identify by sight and also by sound. So it’s really fun to be with her because I learn a lot about birds from her walking around.”

Walk, Ride, Paddle is also a journey through parts of Virginia’s history, particularly its legacy of slavery. He shoulders his pack at Harper’s Ferry, site of abolitionist John Brown’s raid, which helped ignite the Civil War. And at the end he beaches his boat at Fort Monroe, where the first enslaved Africans were brought to America and where Black people began to self-emancipate during the Civil War.

He walks along Brown Mountain Creek, a spot in Amherst County that was home to a freedmen’s settlement — until the inhabitants were forced to leave to make way for a reservoir. He paddles by the Manchester slave docks and former plantation homes on the James River and reflects on Virginia’s role in establishing the legal basis for slavery in America.

“Some of the things that the Virginia General Assembly did were these, quote, ‘innovations’ that perverted English law to really create slavery in the U.S. that didn’t exist in England,” he explains.

Today, Kaine sees a commonwealth that still has work to do, but which has gotten closer to living up to the promise implied in the term “commonwealth” during his time in politics.

“There was kind of a museum piece element about Virginia. And we kind of turned from backward facing to forward facing,” he says. “And it’s been wonderful to have played our little part in that.”

Politically, he sees Virginia as “a battleground trending blue,” a place where hard ideologues rarely carry the day and neither party can get complacent.

The national moment today feels every bit as fraught as the ones Kaine processes in the book: a looming rematch of the 2020 presidential election, his own coming re-election bid, and growing calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, which protestors have shown up at his office to demand.

He’s turning to being outside to think through it all.

“Now that I’ve done this, I want to be outdoors a lot. I don’t think I’ve been in a gym once since 2019. I just like, you know — I have rain gear,” he says.

Margaret Barthel is the Northern Virginia reporter at WAMU.
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