Dwight Barnes, a retired owner of two McDonald’s franchises, walks along Route 1 in Yarmouth on Tuesday. Barnes is walking 1,000 miles around New England to raise money for Ronald McDonald Houses. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

I went for a 3-mile walk Tuesday. Like any 60-something guy who doesn’t get enough exercise, I felt pretty proud of myself.

Then I met Dwight Barnes.

“This is the first bad weather I’ve run into,” he said as a violent thunderstorm raged outside the Maine Visitor Information Center on Route 1 in Yarmouth.

A week ago Monday, Barnes, 65, father of five and grandfather of six, headed out for a walk. Six weeks from this Sunday, or so he hopes, he’ll be finished.

In between, he’ll trek 1,025 miles through all six New England states – from Boston to Bangor, all the way over to Burlington, down to Springfield to New Haven to Providence and then, mercifully, back to Boston.

And oh yes – he kind of looks like a clown. Ronald McDonald, to be exact.

Dwight Barnes is walking 1,000 miles around New England to raise money for Ronald McDonald Houses. He said he’s motivate by families’ stories about their ailing children. “It really gets to you,” he said.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Barnes, who lives in Deerfield, N.H., retired three years ago after 31 years as a McDonald’s restaurant franchise owner. He noticed almost immediately that he was starting to gain weight, so he took up walking as a simple way to keep the pounds off and stay healthy.

He also had time on his hands. A longtime supporter of Ronald McDonald House Charities, which helps keep sick kids and their families together as they access much-needed medical care, he decided to do something big – really big – to give the charity a boost.

Barnes’ initial plan: Traverse all of New England on foot and, in the process, raise $100,000 to help build a new Ronald McDonald House in Boston.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We talked about (pulling the plug) because we thought it might be a difficult time to raise funds,” he said. “A lot of businesses were shut down and everything.”

Worse yet, the pandemic also led to the cancellation of Ronald McDonald House Charities of New England’s two major fundraisers for this year – an evening at Fenway Park and a charity golf tournament. Meaning the organization suddenly needed money not for expansion, but to cover a gaping hole in its operating budget.

“So, we just collectively decided as a team that we’d move forward,” Barnes said.

As if Barnes wasn’t under enough pressure, the fundraising goal was ratcheted up to $250,000. And when it came to the “moving forward” part, well, that still meant Barnes’ two feet.

He’s never done anything like this before, although he peaked during training at two 26-mile days. The 330-mile Maine leg of his journey – mostly up Route 1 to Belfast, then 1A to Bangor, then Route 2 to the New Hampshire border – constitutes roughly one-third of the entire trip.

Dwight Barnes is hard to miss as he walks around New England to raise money for Ronald McDonald Houses. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Along the way, Barnes isn’t setting foot on any interstate highways, wears a mask when necessary (with an oversized red nose and Ronald McDonald smile, of course) and will happily document for any who ask that he’s tested negative twice for COVID-19 since he departed Charlestown, Mass., on Aug. 17.

The guy is hard to miss. In addition to two blinking strobe lights – white on the front, red on the back – his hiking garb includes a pair of bright-red-striped knee socks and a 30-pound backpack on which his wife, Audrey, sewed an American flag, a red McDonald’s logo and a patch for “Join the Journey Home RMHCNE,” the name of the project.

Barnes is staying mostly in hotels and motels along the way. Upon hearing from his advance team what he’s doing, at least half of the lodging owners so far have agreed to put him up at no charge – including the Hilton Gardens Inn in Freeport following Tuesday’s downpour.

But beyond the supporters coordinating his reservations and tracking him via his iPhone, the man is on his own. He has no support vehicle and thus no choice but to keep walking to his next scheduled overnight stop – no easy feat considering the wide-open spaces of western Maine, northern New Hampshire and pretty much all of Vermont.

“If I do get in trouble, I think I’ll look for a Little League field and sleep in the dugout,” Barnes said. He’ll feel right at home – he still plays in a men’s baseball league.

Why this? Why now, three years into a hard-earned retirement?

Dwight Barnes, a retired owner of two McDonald’s franchises, walking along Route 1 in Yarmouth on Tuesday. He had put 160 miles behind him, covering 18 to 22 miles a day. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Because over the years, when he wasn’t busy selling burgers and fries, Barnes spent big chunks of time working with Ronald McDonald House Charities and, in particular, meeting with families in crisis, listening to their stories about their ailing children, hearing the gratitude in their voices that through it all, they at least had a comforting, supportive place to stay.

“It really gets to you,” he said, patting his hand over his heart as his eyes momentarily welled up.

Passing through Portland on Tuesday, Barnes paused to visit the Ronald McDonald House near Maine Medical Center – he plans to do the same at each Ronald McDonald facility along his route.

“We are so incredibly inspired by Dwight and how humbly he has taken on this endeavor!” said Robin Chibroski, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Maine, in an email. “During his visit … it was his passion and enthusiasm for our mission that shined brightest.”

By Tuesday, Barnes had put 160 miles behind him – his daily strolls cover somewhere between 18 and 22 miles. What he won’t let himself fixate on are the 800-plus miles still ahead – or the fact that he’s only about a third of the way to his $250,000 goal. (To help change that, go here or text 4RMHCNE to 269-89.)

“That little voice in the back of my head early on said, ‘You’re an idiot. You’re not going to get this done. You’re going to step off the sidewalk on Day 1 and twist your ankle or something,’” Barnes said.

And now?

“The little guy has shut up for a while,” he replied with a smile.

The rain finally stopped. Back out onto Route 1 Barnes strode, still headed north. Can he actually pull this off? Will he arrive back in Boston as planned on Oct. 11?

Bet on it. While the rest of the world goes stir crazy, this clown’s on a mission.


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