Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.
I thought my brother, Tim Womick, was crazy back in 1990 when he told me about his plan to run across the state.
To do it in a month.
And to talk about trees along the way.
To anyone who would listen.
And to plant trees, like Johnny Appleseed returned to life.
It was crazy.
But he did it.
He set off from the North Carolina-Tennessee border on October 1 of that year, running alongside U.S. Highway 64 as it wound down toward the sea, logging some 20 miles a day. On October 31 he dipped road-weary feet into the Atlantic Ocean at Kill Devil Hills.
I have a copy of a newspaper clipping with a picture taken not many miles into Tim’s improbable jaunt — proof that his energy, his enthusiasm, even his craziness — can make magic happen: The photograph shows Tim and Jim Martin, the governor of North Carolina at the time, planting a tree at the state welcome center near Franklin.
How did Tim — with his entourage of one, a friend who drove a borrowed camper van — convince someone that planting a tree belonged on the governor’s busy agenda?
Who knows? But the tree magic continues.
Nearly 20 years later, Tim still talks about trees.
“Go out and start looking up,” he says. “Look at the trees. Look at their form. They do so much.”
After his successful North Carolina run, Tim duplicated the trip in South Carolina, then Virginia, Florida, New York, Texas, and many other states. He gave up long-distance running years ago but still crisscrosses the nation, sharing a message of environmental awareness and personal responsibility. He has spread the gospel of trees in Canada, in Mexico, and in England.
Tim has talked trees to thousands of children and adults.
And he has planted thousands upon thousands of trees.
Johnny Appleseed would be proud.
Tim has always been a nature boy. Some of his fondest memories harken back to days in the tangle beside the black waters of the Lumber River in our hometown of Lumberton, tramping beneath gnarled cypress trees and towering longleaf pines. Or of clambering up through the branches of a majestic southern magnolia more than three stories tall to sit for minutes, or for hours, and watch the world go by.
After high school, thinking that acting was in his future, he headed for the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. But after an enlightening stint studying acting, movement, dancing, stage fighting, and more, he left school and found a job in the hospitality industry, working in a succession of country clubs and restaurants.
He started in the front of the house, where his assignment was to ensure that patrons were comfortable and having a good time. But he gravitated to the kitchen. He’d loved cooking with our grandmother, Addie Hodges, as a child.
Eventually, he opened a restaurant in Asheboro. The eatery, called Timothy’s, combined Tim’s eclectic flair for decorating, his creative knack in the kitchen, and his pedal-to-the-metal personality.
The restaurant closed after about three years. There were a couple of reasons. It likely would thrive in the Asheboro of today, but was a little ahead of the times in the mid-1980s. Also, Tim burned the candle at both ends, taxing his mind, body, and soul with the frenzy of running a restaurant and then partying late into the night.
After serving as assistant general manager of a High Point country club for awhile, Tim moved to the Jackson County community of Cashiers, where he oversaw the kitchen operations of a racquet club.
That’s where Tim was living when he decided to run from the mountains to the sea. He had started running in 1985 when he kicked the cigarette habit. He was living in High Point then and recalls driving to measure two quarter-mile stretches. He sprayed a dot of paint at the end of the first leg and a second dot at the end.
In those early, out-of-shape days, Tim ran the first quarter mile and walked the second; turning back, he ran to the first dot and walked to the finish. It was not much, but it was a beginning. By the time he moved to Cashiers in the late ’80s, he was running much longer distances.
Early on, Tim says, he envisioned the trek across the state as “a personal thing to show that I had control of my life.” Then, the weekend after Earth Day 1990, he and a friend journeyed to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in western Graham County. The old growth tract of virgin hardwoods is home to trees more than 400 years old, including hundred-foot-tall yellow poplars 20 feet in circumference. There, Tim experienced a tree epiphany.
“Under those elder trees, I heard them speak to me,” he says. “They said, ‘Trees. Trees. Tell people about the value of trees. Talk about us because we’re something special.’ ”
Suddenly, he had a mission.
And a message.
And soon he hit upon something to call his cross-state jog — Trail of Trees — a name suggested, of course, by the infamous relocation of the Cherokee nation from North Carolina to the American West in the 1830s, a forced migration the Cherokee people called the Trail of Tears.
“I’ll just run across North Carolina and leave a trail of trees,” Tim thought to himself.
In his fast-talking, leave-no-stone-unturned style of promotion, Tim lined up corporate support from Hardee’s, a North Carolina-based fast-food restaurant chain. They agreed to pay for gas; Tim agreed to stop at Hardee’s restaurants along the way and talk to people about trees.
Learning on the run
He admits that he was not really ready for this role. “I didn’t know diddlysquat about trees except they had leaves and they had branches and some of them had flowers,” he says.
He learned, literally, on the run. As he pounded the pavement, he was often close to trees growing by the highway. He paid attention, taking note of the changing environments, particularly the differences between trees in cities and trees in the country. He gave out black walnut seeds that had been gathered by volunteers in Cashiers and Highlands. And he began to learn how to play to an audience.
He spoke at schools, churches, civic club meetings, and, of course, Hardee’s restaurants. Talking about trees to someone who simply wants to enjoy a morning sausage biscuit in peace is tricky.
“It’s really easy to perform for an audience that came to see you,” Tim says now.
But he put his heart into every presentation, captive audience or not.
“If I have success today,” he says, “it’s merely because my passion for trees has always been gushing like an open fire hydrant.”
The North Carolina run was a revelation on many fronts.
“I learned a lot about me, about trees, about people.”
Then he was back home, facing the humdrum of his daily life.
As the excitement of his trip receded into memory, he encountered a new feeling: depression. What next? He wondered. And wandered.
As fate would have it, however, someone sent him a copy of The Man Who Planted Trees by French writer Jean Giono. As Tim read the slim volume, a few words describing the fictional main character struck him like thunderbolt to tree. The man believed the land where he lived was dying because there were no trees, and he had resolved to remedy the situation.
Tim paraphrases the passage like this: “Having nothing better to do with his life, he decided to plant trees.”
Having nothing better to do with his life, Tim decided to plant trees.
In take-action mode once again, he placed a call to the South Carolina Forestry Commission and asked to speak to the head forester. To his surprise, the call went through. Tim offered an enthusiastic synopsis of his North Carolina journey and asked for the forester’s help in putting together a similar trip in the Palmetto State. The man told Tim he’d have to get back to him. Tim figured he’d never hear from the fellow again. But he did.
The forester called and said he’d secured a load of pine trees that he wanted Tim to distribute. So, in the spring of 1991, Tim ran across South Carolina, talking about trees. The association continues today. Eventually, his annual visit was scheduled for a few weeks before Christmas to coincide with South Carolina’s Arbor Day activities.
Science of trees
As the years and his tree travels passed, interaction with tree professionals and aficionados were lessons, like undergraduate and post-graduate studies in the life and times of trees.
“I started understanding the science of trees — how men can try to duplicate what nature does so well,” he says.
For years, Tim was a roving ambassador for the National Tree Trust, created by the United States Congress as part of the America the Beautiful Act of 1990, and he spent about three months a year in the nation’s capital.
He was pleasantly surprised that he kept getting calls asking him to come talk about trees, from schools, state agencies, and others. The calls are still coming. He’s on the road about four months a year. For the past three years, he has spent a couple of weeks at the California State Fair.
His one-man presentation often begins with him banging a drum as his audience, typically students who know little and care less about trees, files into an auditorium or gymnasium. Soon, Tim has the kids clapping in rhythm with the drum.
Before they know it, they’re thinking hard about the question: What do trees give us? By the time they leave, they know many answers: food, shelter, medicine, homes for animals, beauty, shade. In between, Tim brings members of the audience on stage and utilizes a potpourri of props, from wooden apples to wooden shoes, from plush critters to signs printed with pertinent vocabulary words, such as “transpiration,” “particulate pollution,” and “heat island.” One lucky participant always gets the top of his or her hair sprayed with a water bottle — and gets to spray Tim’s bare head — to illustrate how trees help prevent soil erosion.
Greg Kinder, who is deputy manager for programs of the California State Fair, has worked with Tim for the past three years. Tim has presented four or five shows daily during the 18-day California State Fair as part of the Green Dream Expo.
Last year, Kinder says, Tim and a sidekick assisted participants who wanted to try their hand at simulated tree climbing strapped into harnesses rigged to rafters in the 30-foot-tall ceiling.
“He kind of started something with his simulated climbing,” Kinder says. “Other people could do that, but it’s not a show if it’s not Tim. He’s the draw. It’s the energy he brings. He’s the deal.”
A few years ago, Tim returned to Asheboro to be closer to our parents. He and an old high school friend founded a nonprofit group called Trees Asheboro.
Soon the city limits were stifling future projects and Trees Randolph was born, blessed by county commissioners. Then Trees NC was born. The idea is to offer the blueprint established in Asheboro in each of the state’s 100 counties.
“We are kind of touchy-feely,” Tim says, “but we take it to the level of sound science.”
The group plants trees and undertakes other projects, particularly targeting children in underserved areas. They have helped with numerous civic projects, including the planting of a Mayors’ Grove in an Asheboro city park, and a community garden elsewhere. They work with schools, other nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations, and corporate partners.
Trail of Trees morphed into an interactive program Tim calls TreeCircus, with a world-class tree climbing competitor, Chad Brey, but he hopes the enterprise evolves into more than a two-man show.
Tim’s inner actor dreams of a tree show with music and lights, song and dance, drama and excitement. His inner advocate envisions sharing tree lessons he has learned with an even wider audience. His inner P.T. Barnum pictures majestic trees in public places peppered with performers and volunteer participants, tethered to the trees, going up and going down on ropes.
I’m proud of my brother Tim, but I still think he is a little crazy.
He called me last summer from California.
To say that he was in a redwood.
Some 125 feet off the ground.
And that he planned to spend the night there, perched upon a branch.
And he did.