In the fall of 1999, when I lived in Southeast Washington D.C., I met a 9-year-old boy shooting hoops at my favorite basketball court — his name was Emmanuel Durant, Jr. He was funny, inquisitive, and warm-hearted, and before long, I asked Emmanuel to star in a movie I wanted to make; he was really into the idea, and once his mom granted permission we began to film every day around their inner-city neighborhood. After two weeks, though, I realized how stupid my original story was, and that my idea for the movie was never going to work. At the same time, I’d quickly become captivated by Emmanuel, his mom, Cheryl, and his older siblings, Smurf and Denice. In the months that followed, Emmanuel’s family graciously invited me into their lives, and I documented their individual struggles and triumphs as they fought to keep afloat day by day under extremely trying circumstances.

One weekend that fall, I left D.C. and drove up to New Hampshire to visit a friend. We hiked the Tuckerman’s Ravine trail up Mt. Washington, and I was amazed by the mountain’s beauty and grandeur. On the way back to D.C., I kept thinking about Emmanuel and his family and friends and how wonderful it would be to share Mt. Washington’s majesty with them. Emmanuel and most of the kids in his neighborhood had never been out of D.C. their whole lives. I wondered how it might affect them to have the chance to explore nature, and in what ways participating in something that was completely outside the realm of their day-to-day experience might broaden and expand their horizons. I had the idea to start an annual trip, bringing Emmanuel and some of his friends and neighbors up to New England to hike Mt. Washington. To me, Washington seemed like the perfect climb — it’s within a day’s drive of D.C., and while no special gear or training is necessary to hike it, just a pair of sneakers, reasonable fitness, and a healthy dose of willpower, when you get to the top, the view is absolutely amazing. And without a doubt, you’ve climbed a real mountain!

For a decade, I nursed the idea of organizing these Mt. Washington trips, but never managed to get them going. I moved out of D.C., though I stayed in close touch with Emmanuel and his family and visited them every time I came through town. Over the years, I watched Emmanuel overcome enormous setbacks and grow into a fantastic young man. In June of 2009, he became the first person in his family to graduate from high school. I visited for a week over July 4th, met his wonderful girlfriend, and spent time filming with him and his whole family. In the fall, he and his girlfriend got engaged, and Emmanuel began training to become a firefighter — after everything he’d been through, his successes brought me great joy, and we made plans for me to be there to film his wedding. But on New Year’s Eve, Emmanuel’s sister Denice called me with devastating news — that evening, Emmanuel had been shot and killed. Men with guns had broken into their home, and Emmanuel, defending his brother, sister, and baby nephews, had confronted one of the intruders and wrestled with him. A gun went off and Emmanuel was struck in the leg; still, he was able to usher Denice and her baby son to safety and chase the gunmen away. In the alley behind their apartment, he collapsed and died.

Shocked and hugely saddened, I went to D.C. and spent the next two weeks with Emmanuel’s family and friends. Emmanuel’s funeral was on January 14, 2010, which would have been his 20th birthday. Late that night, I was talking with Emmanuel’s mom, Cheryl, about ways that we might honor Emmanuel’s memory, and I remembered the idea I’d once had for the Washington to Washington trips. We could dedicate these annual adventures to Emmanuel, I suggested. In the months that followed, Emmanuel’s family and friends, as well as other friends of mine from D.C. who’d known him, helped me plan our inaugural hike, and it was an amazing success. Every year, we gather another group of kids from Emmanuel’s neighborhood, plus kids from the Detroit area and New Orleans, and head off to explore a new set of mountains. As much as I regret that Emmanuel was never able to join us on these trips, I believe each summer when we reach the top of the mountain, he is there with us in spirit.

Our trips have no specific agenda — we seek only to introduce kids who have rarely left D.C. (or even their own neighborhoods) to the joys of nature and wilderness hiking and give them a chance to experience something brand-new and have an exciting adventure. If they are inspired in some way by any aspects of the trip and their tremendous accomplishment in climbing such a towering mountain, that’s great! While we’re always aware of Emmanuel’s absence, we’re also sure to honor him the way he’d want us to — by having tons of fun.

2010 was our first Washington to Washington hike. We had about twenty hikers, age 7 to 17, plus about ten older hikers and staff, including many of Emmanuel’s family and friends. Each year we invite back the previous year’s hikers and add a few more! Our second annual trip in 2011 took us to the Shenandoah Mountains in western Virginia; in 2012, Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia; in 2013, the Allegheny National Forest in northeast Pennsylvania; in 2014, Lake Moomaw and Bolar Mountain in western Virginia’s George Washington National Forest; in 2015, a trip to experience my home state of Michigan’s many splendors — Friends Lake and the Waterloo Recreation Area outside of Chelsea, and Warren Dunes and Lake Michigan on the west side of the state, plus an afternoon visit to the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor; in 2016, a visit to Mt. Rogers and the Grayson Highlands area in scenic Southwest Virginia and Eastern Tennessee; in 2017, a week camping at Sherando Lake in Central Virginia and exploring the surrounding mountains near the southern tip of the spectacular Shenandoah National Park; and, in 2018, returned to George Washington National Forest (it’s a really great forest!).

For our 10th Annual trip, July 30 – August 4, 2019, we will take more than 50 hikers from Washington DC, New Orleans, and the Detroit area to Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, hiking Empire Dunes, swimming in Lake Michigan, canoeing, horseback riding, and much more – we can’t wait for another successful trip! There are many ways to help these annual trips come to fruition. Please contribute in whatever ways you can.

I invite you to explore this site — we have many more details about the trip, you can meet the hikers and the staff who will be accompanying them, and learn more about Emmanuel Durant, Jr. And please feel free to contact me directly with any questions, ideas, or suggestions.

Thank you so much for taking an interest in Washington to Washington!

Davy Rothbart