One hundred years ago, everything about Richard Humphreys’ plan would be impossible. 

One hundred years ago, a man like 78-year-old Humphreys probably wouldn’t have lived as long as he has. 

But a century after insulin was first introduced as a medical treatment, this Kirkwood man who has been living with Type 1 diabetes for 64 years is planning to walk 380 miles, from Pennsylvania to Ohio. 

On May 16, Humphreys will strap on his pack with his tent and supplies, pick up his handmade rattlesnake-skin walking stick – a gift from his friend Dale Kirkpatrick – and begin his journey. 

He’ll depart his home, which abuts his Gnome Countryside nature trail, a creation that has provided education and inspiration for thousands. His destination is Camp Ho Mita Koda – the world’s oldest operating summer camp for children with Type 1 diabetes – in Newbury Township, Ohio, about 30 miles east of Cleveland.

Humphreys, who has run the Gnome Countryside nature trail for more than four decades, wants to call this summer’s walk “The Gnome Man’s Walk.”  He hopes to raise awareness about Type 1 diabetes and honor the 100th anniversary of insulin’s use as a treatment. 

He also wants to again raise funds for Camp Ho Mita Koda and for improvements to his own Gnome Countryside. Humphreys’ trail is a whimsical walk through nature, where children can let their imaginations run wild.

“I have some real gratitude to (Frederick) Banting and (Charles) Best (pioneers in the development of insulin as a treatment),” Humphreys says. “It just seemed like a good year to do the walk.” 

Humphreys is undertaking his inspirational, and risky, 380-mile journey across the state to prove that people with Type 1 diabetes can live fulfilling, active lives, while celebrating the advances in diabetes care which make that possible.

It won’t be an easy journey. Humphreys has severely impaired vision due to macular degeneration. He’s never let his health issues stop him from living a life of adventure.

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Humphreys pictured on his Gnome trail with his 11-year-old companion, Riley.

“For me, diabetes challenged me to do so many things that I otherwise wouldn’t have done,” Humphreys says.  “Like this walk. So many things in my life I’ve done just because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.”

He plans on walking about 10 to 16 miles a day and arrive at the camp in late June. Humphreys is still solidifying his route, but he will follow several of the state’s rail trails, including Lancaster County’s Enola Low Grade Trail and the Northwest River Trail. He also plans to follow the rail trail from Clearfield to Grampian – with his hometown of Curwensville, Clearfield County, located about halfway. Humphreys says he has some walking partners lined up, but hopes to meet people to walk with. 

“It’s so valuable for younger people to see an older person successfully living with diabetes,” Humphreys says.

Anything is possible, gnome matter what 

This isn’t Humphreys’ first adventure. 

In 2007, Humphrey walked the 380 miles from Camp Ho Mita Koda back home to Kirkwood – raising $7,000 for the camp. In 1976, Humphreys traveled the globe, ending his trip by riding his 10-speed heavy Schwinn twin super-sport bike from Oregon to Pennsylvania.

As a father of three, a retired Solanco school district art teacher, an environmentalist, a speaker, an author and a former camp director, Humphreys has worked to inspire thousands of people to live life to the fullest no matter what stands in the way.  

You could say Humphreys “walks the walk” – literally, in this case. 

“I love life,” says Humphreys. “I love adventuring.”

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Humphreys hasn't started to pack his backpack this soon, but a few items he will take along are a tent, sleeping bag and reflective vest.

Recognizing the risks

Besides the inherent risks that come with a 380-mile walk, Humphreys will also need to make sure his blood glucose levels stay within a safe range. Extreme exertion can cause blood glucose to drop rapidly, which can be life-threatening. Humphreys will have snack bars to help maintain his levels and will be on the lookout for roadside produce stands, and he plans to eat in restaurants along the way. He’ll have a supply of insulin with him, too; while insulin is typically refrigerated, he says he’s not worried about heat. 

“I’ve backpacked in Thailand with insulin in my backpack and temperatures over 100, and my insulin never lost potency,” Humphreys says.

Canadian surgeon Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best discovered insulin as a viable treatment for diabetes in 1921. Without it, the 1.6 million Americans diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes annually, according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, would not survive.  

In 1922, in a hospital in Toronto, Leonard Thompson, a 14-year-old boy suffering from fatally high blood glucose levels attributed to his Type 1 diabetes, became the first person to be administered an injection of insulin. Less than a day later, Thompson’s blood glucose levels had returned to near-normal levels. Nearly four decades later, in 1957, 14-year old Richard Humphreys was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Without insulin, Humphreys says, he likely wouldn’t have lived passed 17. 

There have been close calls and challenges. When he was first treated in a small-town hospital, he was given the wrong type of insulin.

“It was terrible, and within two weeks, I just stopped taking insulin. I looked like a walking skeleton,” says Humphreys. “My mom heard the Cleveland Clinic was good at treating diabetes. They put me on a short-lasting and a long-lasting insulin, and it was the first time in my life that I felt good.” 

When Humphreys was first diagnosed, there was no way to quickly ascertain a diabetic’s blood glucose level outside of sending blood to a lab or urine testing – and that level is a vital piece of information for anyone living with diabetes. A blood glucose level that’s too high can result in severe organ damage. A level that’s too low can result in loss of consciousness. Both can be fatal, making Humphreys’ decision to bike across the country at 33 without knowing his blood glucose levels a significant risk. 

Now, modern meters can read blood glucose levels with a drop of blood from a finger. Continuous glucose monitoring systems provide accurate, up-to-the minute blood glucose readings without having to draw blood. 

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Richard Humphreys with his continuous glucose monitor (CGM) - a device which allows people living with Type 1 diabetes to monitor with blood glucose levels without having to draw blood. For decades before advancements like CGMs, Humphreys wasn't able to easily access this vital information

Before the testing meters and continuous glucose monitoring systems, Humphreys had to judge his levels by how his body felt. He admits that could be a dangerous way to live. 

 “I’m in very good touch with my body,” says Humphreys. “But it was a pretty crazy life.”

His vision also adds risk to his upcoming journey, as he could face rocky terrain or need to cross busy roads.

“I have good hearing,” says Humphreys. “I could never do this without good hearing.

“When I’m walking, I’m just totally caught up in being aware,” he adds.  “Where I am and the sounds I hear.” 

One of his favorite quotes, attributed to St. Augustine, is: “It is solved by walking.” Humphreys says he feels that walking is a kind of active meditation – a kind of contemplation through action. No true adventure is risk-free, he says.

“I’m a risk taker,” Humphreys says. “I love the unknown.”

Happy campers

Dr. Henry John – who also co-founded the American Diabetes Association – founded Camp Ho Mita Koda in 1929 less than a decade after Leonard Thompson was saved. The mission of the camp was more than just providing a bucolic setting for diabetes treatment. 

A statement on the camp’s website by John’s late wife Betty sums up that mission: ”I, like Henry John, do not believe it is enough to keep diabetic children alive. They must be given the chance to share the healthy, normal experiences of life.? Ho Mita Koda is one of them!”

That mission has continued, past the lifetimes of the Johns. 

“The focus is to build a community of support and lifelong friendships, while participating outdoors, learning to live active and healthy lifestyles, and realizing the diabetes is by no means a limiting factor in what they can do,” says Ian Roberts, executive director of Camp Ho Mita Koda since 2018.

Humphreys was the program director at Camp Ho Mita Koda from 1969-73, and later directed the camp from 1991-2007.  

“I saw what an amazing difference that camp made in the lives of children living with diabetes,” says Humphreys. “It’s just incredible what the camp does for kids.” 

Humphreys, who regularly dons lederhosen, oversized sunglasses and flowery hats as he presents lectures on gnomes, credits his experiences working with children at summer camps with some of his own self-discovery. He was an extremely shy child, he says.

“Rich has a great deep history with the camp. There are still remnants of his legacy here at camp. We’ve got gnomes hiding all over the woods and in and around buildings,” says Roberts. “When you mention his name out here it rings through the trees – people know of him, his legacy and what he’s left behind.”

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Richard Humphreyson his Gnome trail beating a drum Thursday, April 22, 2021.

Humphreys challenged campers to not let diabetes become a limiting factor in their lives and organized hikes around the lake, Roberts says. 

“Even recently, we’ve had doctors say hiking around the lake is too much for these kids to do – which is not true,” says Roberts. “But he [Humphreys] was kind of the pioneer in bucking the system and saying, ‘Nope, we’re going to do it, that’s what these kids need.’ For many kids, the first time they’ve ever knowingly met another Type 1 child is here at camp.”

His spirit of camaraderie resonated at a place where many of the staffers also have Type 1 diabetes and are former campers. 

“Rich represented this wizard-like human that just made everything at Ho Mita Koda make sense, that made all of diabetes make sense, that made every activity at camp 100 times more exciting and thrilling,” former camper and staff member Lori Kruszynski says. “I would not be the same person I am today if it was not for getting to meet Rich.”

The camp’s mission of creating a community spirit worked for Humphreys; he found lifelong friends and influenced generations of campers. One of those friends was Paul McGuigan – a fellow Type 1 diabetic and specialist at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, and member of the Camp Ho Mita Koda board. 

“He made the camp magical for the kids,” says McGuigan, of Cleveland. “With all of his talents, his personality, his storytelling, his sense of adventure, he would never let his diabetes ever keep him from doing anything, and he instilled that in these kids.”

McGuigan says he plans on joining Humphreys for the last portion of the walk – if he wasn’t so busy, says he’d like to do the whole walk. 

“Rich has not only taught kids about life, but he’s also taught a lot of people who work with kids. The counselors at camp who were in charge of kids learned a lot from Rich too,” says McGuigan. “It’s kind of like a ripple in the water. It just goes and goes.”

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