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We take a hike with Sen. Tim Kaine

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Recently, I took a hike with a U.S. senator.

Hey, Senator. How's it going?

TIM KAINE: Good. How y'all doing?

DETROW: Doing all right.

That's Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who you likely remember as Hillary Clinton's running mate in 2016. In the years since, Kaine has traded running for hiking, biking and canoeing. Facing down a few big milestones, his 60th birthday and his 25th year in public office, he created a challenge for himself, something that he called the Virginia Nature Triathlon - hike all 544 miles of the Appalachian Trail in his state and canoe the entire James River from the Appalachian Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay and ride the entire Virginia section of the mountainous Blue Ridge Parkway, plus Skyline Drive, on his bicycle. He tackled a leg a year beginning in 2019.

KAINE: I didn't know when I started in May of 2019 that by the time I finished, I'd be a juror in two impeachment trials, I'd be in the Capitol when it was attacked, I'd get COVID, I'd get long COVID, the racial justice protests in the aftermath of George Floyd - the events of the world were weighty. But also, being out in nature gave me a way to deal with them.

DETROW: Kaine wrote all about it in a book called "Walk Ride Paddle: A Life Outside," which is out this week. And so during a recent Senate recess, we found ourselves not exactly on the Appalachian Trail, as you'll hear from all of the planes coming in for a landing over our heads. But we did take a nice hike in Arlington, Va., on a path that cut through the woods along a stream down to the Potomac River. This is a trail that Kaine knows and hits when he needs a quick escape from the Senate.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVER GURGLING)

KAINE: Scott, I try to do something outdoors every day. We're in the Senate 36 weeks a year. So I live in Richmond, where I live right on the James River, right on hiking trails, biking trails. I have my canoe in my basement. I can put the canoe in.

DETROW: Kaine says being outside helps him clear his mind. It's made of much less addicted to his phone, which is a good thing with one notable exception.

KAINE: I stopped using my phone so much I forgot to take my phone with me into the chamber on January 6 because, eh, I don't - I'm not going to need it. I shouldn't be on my phone. This is important. And then when everybody else's families were calling them and saying, hey, something's going on outside the Capitol. Everybody was getting texts from their staff. I'm just sitting there, you know, absorbed in what was going on, kind of missing the - missing it for a while.

DETROW: It's been raining a lot lately, and the trail Kaine picked out keeps crisscrossing a swelling stream. The water and the slippery, mossy rocks create some production challenges.

BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: No, I'm scared.

DETROW: You got it. You got it.

SCOTT: (Screams).

KAINE: You got it. You got it.

DETROW: All right?

SCOTT: Oh, my gosh, I'm really getting a workout today.

DETROW: Senator Kaine crosses first to help out our producer, Brianna Scott. Everybody stays upright. We keep hiking, and Kaine talks about some memories from his big Appalachian Trail trip.

KAINE: I get to a shelter one day, and there's one guy there. We're shooting the breeze. Then two other guys come in. Then a fourth guy comes in who's a Virginian, and he goes, Senator Kaine, what are you doing here? And these other guys look at me, Senator Kaine, what? And they go, yeah, no, he's our senator. This guy was on the ticket with Hillary Clinton a couple of years back. And then they all look at me and say, well, where's your security detail? And I just said, well, they blend in pretty well back there in the woods, don't they? And then they all started looking around, like, to try to find - before they realized I was putting them on. So the hike I felt...

DETROW: Kaine doesn't write too much about 2016 in his book, but he does admit that a secondary reason for the outdoors challenge was to help him process what happened in that election.

KAINE: When I finished on the ticket with Hillary, that was - we conceded on a Wednesday morning. The Senate was not in session that week, so I'm back in the office 7:30 in the morning on Monday. I'm just going to come back to work. I hear this pounding at my door - John McCain. He goes, Tim, I'm the only person here who knows how you feel. At that point, 2016, you and I are the only people who've been on a national ticket and lost. And the secret is you got to go right back to work. And I said, well, you found me here at 7:30 on a Monday the first day we're back. He goes, yeah, but I'm going to still check on you. And I kind of felt like the way I handled the feelings of disappoint in 2016 is I just stuffed it all in the pack and just started walking.

DETROW: Yeah.

KAINE: But then - now it's 2019. It's three years later. That time in solitude, that time in nature was kind of me, you know, taking things out of the pack and drying them out and folding them up and making some order out of them.

DETROW: Given the nature of the election, given the nature of the Trump administration, were there moments where you're thinking, if only I had X, if only I had Y, just, like, given - yeah.

KAINE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And particularly, I mean, you know, to win the popular vote by, I don't know, 3 million and lose, that was maddening. But I do think McCain's advice, which I was already kind of gravitating toward, it was good that I had something to go back to because obviously the - you know, the Senate needed to save the Affordable Care Act, and we saved it by one vote. We - you know, it was eight months after Donald Trump was inaugurated, and I was like, wow, what if I hadn't run for the Senate in 2012? This thing would have gone the other way, and 30 million people wouldn't have had their insurance. And in some ways, the Senate got more important, not less important, during the Trump era.

DETROW: The other big question I had was that being the vice presidential nominee is so particularly strange 'cause you go from zero to 100 miles an hour, and you're in the shoot for 100 days...

KAINE: Yeah.

DETROW: ...And motorcades, and then it's gone. Like, it just seems jarring.

KAINE: Yeah. That - well, that's a really interesting point because I've not run for president, and I've never wanted to run for president. So you're right. It was 105 days. I think I was in 140 cities and 41 states. My wife and I together did more than 900 events. You know, there would be days when I'd be in three time zones. And it was surreal and fun, a whole - I mean, a whole lot of it was very fun. But you're right. You start. You sprint. We concede on Wednesday. I did get a plane ride home - that was great - back to Richmond. But then the Secret Service, you know, drops you off, and they all line up and shake your hand. They all pull away. It's like, wow, did that just - did that really happen?

DETROW: Yeah, yeah.

KAINE: You know, a lot of that 105 days felt cool, but a lot of it didn't really feel like me. And then - I used this metaphor at the beginning of the book - I kind of realized I don't need to go higher, but I need to go deeper.

DETROW: And as Kaine has tried to do that on the job in the Senate and off the job in the wilderness, Donald Trump and Trumpism have continued to hang over American politics, even after January 6 and its aftermath.

KAINE: It's very hard to understand. It's hard for me to understand how colleagues of mine who find that horrifying don't feel comfortable enough to say that they find that horrifying. One of the thoughts that bubbled in my head as I was walking along and I was trying to think about these things was the meaning of the book of Job in the Old Testament. Somebody who seems to have it all starts to lose everything. If we deprive Job of things that he had, is he still going to remain faithful to principles he had or is he going to abandon those principles? And I am optimistic enough to believe that there is a sadder but wiser element of the book of Job. Even when everything is restored to him, he still lost a lot, including family.

DETROW: Yeah.

KAINE: But he stayed true. When times are tough, stick to the values and principles you hold to. And if you do, you know, there's a good chance that things are going to turn around and get better. And I - and that, to me, was...

DETROW: But again, one of the main goals of this journey was for Kaine to avoid politics. He did long stretches of it solo, but at many points he was joined by family and friends. The hiking, biking and canoeing helped renew those relationships.

KAINE: At one point toward the end, I had this riverside accident where I burned my foot really badly and kept me off the river for a while as I'm nearing the end of this journey. And I realized some friends from the neighborhood were with me on that stretch, and they packed up the campsite. And they took it all home, and they unpacked everything at my house as I was getting my foot all bandaged up from the burn. And I realized they're not only going along with me to have fun, they're now very invested in me finishing this. It's good to have, you know, these groups of people that, like, they've seen your best, they've seen you at your worst. They've helped you when - you know, we help each other out when there's a health issue or marriages are rocky or, you know, somebody's business or professional life is in disarray. And then we're there to celebrate, you know, accomplishments, too. And it's been really, really helpful.

DETROW: And, like, you had a lot of fun moments with these guys...

KAINE: Yeah.

DETROW: ...But you also had some really serious talks. You're talking about parenting.

KAINE: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

DETROW: You're talking about the difference parenting kids and adult children.

KAINE: Yeah.

DETROW: You're talking about religion - like, real, really deep conversations.

KAINE: Yeah, we are. And one of the friends in the law school group knows that we could easily default into just talking about sports or something like that.

DETROW: Yeah.

KAINE: So he is always - OK, now this week, every one of us has to be the subject of an intense, hour-long set of questions about are you happy with your life? What's your health like? What can we do to help? And we're like, oh, Charles, don't make us do this. You know, don't make us, you know, be so intentional about everything. But if he wasn't forcing us to do it, we wouldn't do it.

DETROW: Yeah.

KAINE: And, of course, those are the best moments of the trip - when we really get into what's going right, what's going wrong, how can we help?

DETROW: And the outdoors helps with that...

KAINE: Yeah.

DETROW: ...Seems like bourbon helps with that a little bit.

KAINE: Outdoors, bourbon - the outdoors, it's the time because it stretches out. You're not - like, if I'm just together with you for an hour, you know, we're - what's going on in your life? And then the hour is going to be over. But if you're outdoors, you might say nothing for two hours on the trail, and then you're kind of tired, and then you want to talk. And you - the time stretches out and gives you the opportunity to converse not in a rushed way.

DETROW: Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. His new book is called "Walk Ride Paddle." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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