They hike America: Walk a mile — or thousands — in their shoes and you'll learn something about life
by Tim Lockette
Jul 21, 2013 | 4160 views |  0 comments | 76 76 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Brendan O'Toole is shown in Oxford as part of his run across the United States to raise money for wounded veterans. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Brendan O'Toole is shown in Oxford as part of his run across the United States to raise money for wounded veterans. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
The strangest request Brendan O'Toole has heard so far was from a woman in Tuscaloosa.

She wanted to look at his feet.

"The feet are changing," he said. "I'm going to lose my pinky toenails pretty soon, and I've got some truly nasty blisters."

O'Toole had normal toes last Veterans Day, when he set out from Oceanside, Calif., on a run that's expected to to take him across the Sun Belt and up to Maine by Veterans Day 2013. Tuesday found him in Oxford, jogging eastward along U.S. 78.

A former Marine sergeant and Afghanistan veteran, O'Toole says he's running across the country for veterans — to call attention to their struggle for health care and to raise money for organizations such as the USO.

Fifteen miles per day in the July heat may not be for everybody, but O'Toole isn't alone in his urge to travel coast-to-coast the hard way.

Just last month, another Marine on a similar mission marched through Cleburne County. An Oxford native is now pedaling across the Pacific Northwest, in the middle of a proposed 10,000-mile journey to raise awareness about autism. And a longtime anti-poverty marcher may have recently passed, nearly unnoticed, through Jacksonville.

"A lot of people are doing this lately," said Tyler Coulson, editor of a how-to book for people planning a transcontinental walk.

Five years ago, Coulson left a job as a Chicago corporate lawyer and started on a hike across America with his dog, Mabel. He's been getting requests for advice from would-be transcontinental walkers ever since.

"My stock answer used to be that there are always about 10 people doing it every year, and two or three will make it," Coulson said. "Now I'd say there are about 100 people walking across the country every year."

'We can be free'

There's no official count, but a quick Internet search turned up press accounts of at least 16 people walking, running or biking from coast to coast.

Five of them, like O'Toole, were former Marines walking to honor the troops. Minnesotan Daniel Rienke was on a pilgrimage to inspire Christians to take their faith seriously. Seventy-nine-year-old Bruce Maynard, of Bellingham, Wash., was walking to call attention to the benefits of a healthy lymphatic system. Endurance athlete Jason Lester was jogging from coast to coast to raise money for Hurricane Sandy relief.

Some of the cross-country travelers had nonprofits, blogs and book deals. Others were unincorporated, pushing their belongings along in baby buggies and relying on the the kindness of strangers for a night's shelter.

Most of the current walkers are men. Trace Fleming-Smith, organizer of an annual local 5K walk against violence toward women, said she’d love to see a woman make a cross-country walk to draw attention to that cause. But the very fact of widespread violence against women, she said, may be what keeps many women from walking.

“We’re still being told not to walk in parking lots by ourselves,” she noted.

It's true that many of the walkers have espoused a cause, said Richard Mitchell, a retired Oregon State University sociology professor who wrote a book about the motivations of mountain climbers and other adventure-seekers. But Mitchell suspects most are really motivated by a deeper, harder-to-explain desire.

"It's a compelling type of social experiment," said Mitchell, who spoke to The Star by telephone while biking across the Pacific Northwest. "Life is immediate, it's edgy, it's not routine."

Unlike travel by car, Mitchell said, the journey on foot is an exploration of what it means to be independent. Setting off with few possessions and no clear schedule, he said, travelers feel liberated – but to make it, they almost always have to be fed or housed by others.

"On a trip like this, we can be self-sufficient," he said. "We can be free. But we're also totally at the mercy of the judgment and good nature of the community."

Changing causes

Transcontinental treks date back at least to Lewis and Clark, but the rise of the interstate highway system gave the coast-to-coast walk a more countercultural feel. At the height of the Cold War, a woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim traversed the country multiple times as a protest against armed conflict. In the early 1960s, Baltimore postal worker William Moore marched to various state capitals to deliver letters advocating civil rights to Southern governors. He was shot on a walk through Attalla, and no one has ever been successfully prosecuted in the killing. As late as 1986, a group of pacifists marched across the country to call for nuclear disarmament.

For the most part, today's cross-country walkers aren't as politically prickly. Preacher Jim Buckley is walking the highways to remind people that "homes in America are troubled," according to his website. A group of cancer survivors is jogging from the West Coast to the east to prove cancer is beatable. An Army veteran of Desert Storm is hiking from San Diego to Washington, D.C., carrying a giant poster with photos of all 6,600 Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

O'Toole, the veteran who ran through Oxford, acknowledged that there's already widespread consensus on his pro-veteran cause. Still, he said, not enough is getting done to help veterans.

"We've been in this war for a decade now," he said. “This is something we're going to be dealing with for decades."

O'Toole said the waiting list for veterans who need disability benefits or mental health care is far too long. It's already affected at least one of O'Toole's friends, an Iraq veteran who killed himself shortly before O'Toole's first trip to Afghanistan, he said.

Forrest runs

But it was something that happened in Afghanistan that set O'Toole off on his cross-country journey. O'Toole worked as a radio operator at a forward operating base, and in his time off, he and his friends watched movies — including one of his favorites, "Forrest Gump."

In the 1994 film, the title character sets off on an inexplicable, grief-fueled jog that lasts more than three years, acquiring a cult-like following of fellow runners.

One of O'Toole's Marine friends commented that running across America was impossible.

"That was the question," O'Toole said. "Can it be done in real life? Can you turn art into a real thing?"

In some ways, perhaps, you can't. Gump ran without any visible means of support, lacking even a backpack; O'Toole is followed by friends and supporters towing a camper behind a pickup truck. Gump had no plan and no job; O'Toole said his last tax return identified him as president of his pro-veteran nonprofit.

And Gump's trip was set to music. O'Toole said he started wearing headphones on the run just two weeks ago. He said he spends much of his run thinking about how to pay the bills.

"Groceries and gas are expensive," he said. His nonprofit group sank $60,000 into the run before it started, he said. Along the way, people have given him about $80,000, sometimes just handing him cash in person. Going was rough in the sparsely populated Western states, but by the time the group hit New Mexico, they were able to start presenting checks to veterans' groups.

The run has had its cinematic moments. O'Toole said other runners often join him for short stretches of the journey. In Dallas, he met former President George W. Bush for a Gump-like grip-and-grin photo.

Forrest Gump's creator, the novelist Winston Groom, said he's not sure why someone would want to run that far.

"Forrest's run across America was an invention of the screenwriter," Groom wrote in an email to The Star. "I have no idea what it means, but it seems to have been significant to a good many viewers."

Groom said he prefers to travel by car.

"You can cover a lot more ground, and you don't get all dirty and sweaty and rained on," he wrote.

A sensitive question

If he had to make the trip again, Tyler Coulson said, he wouldn't take his dog. You can't cross a desert with pet.

"If you take a dog with you, it defines your trip," he said. "Humans are just more adaptable than animals."

Coulson made his cross-country trip because he was fed up with corporate bankruptcy law, the field he was working in.

Asked if it makes sense to walk for a cause — in a world where dozens of walkers are doing the same — Coulson was silent for a long time.

"That's a sensitive question that requires a sensitive answer," he said. He said he thought veterans such as O'Toole have a good chance of making an impact, because they have a personal connection to the story they're trying to tell.

Storytelling is a big part of the walk-across-America phenomenon, said Mitchell, the sociologist. He compared walkers to medieval troubadours, who traveled from town to town sharing and collecting stories.

"People expect more of the traveler," he said. "The traveler is a stranger; people listen to the traveler's story. They have a tale to tell, and it may not always be accurate, but it's a good story."

Mitchell said the cross-country walker's story is almost always attractive to newspapers, particularly in small towns.

Still, local news organizations rarely follow up on walkers once they're gone.

Tobiah Steinmetz, the evangelist who dragged a cross through Calhoun County in 2010, did finally complete his cross-country journey, a report by a South Carolina TV station.

Dan Worley, who rode a hand-powered bike through the area in 2008, achieved his goal of biking from Florida to Chicago. Paralyzed years earlier in a collision with a drunk driver, Worley wanted to call attention to the drunk-driving problem, and hoped Oprah Winfrey would meet with him. News reports say he had that meeting with Oprah, but there's no indication he appeared on her show.

Kim Denmark, the anti-poverty crusader who drew a crowd in Roanoke in 2006, is still walking across the country to drum up support for social programs. A schedule on her website indicates she passed through in Jacksonville in April, but attempts to reach her for comment on that schedule were unsuccessful.

'Poets are suspect'

Asked if transcontinental hiking is becoming an extreme sport, Mitchell offered an emphatic "no."

"It's the antithesis of sports," he said. "It's something that has intrinsic value, like a poem. You don't write a poem to achieve a goal."

Mitchell suspects many walkers select a cause simply to justify their decision to walk across the country. Still, he thinks they really shouldn't need an excuse.

"If you say you're trying to ennoble yourself or trying to learn about the country, people will look at you like you're daft," he said. "Poets are always suspect."

Constantino Diaz-Duran always acknowledged that his walk was a journey of discovery. An immigrant from Guatemala, Diaz-Duran set out two years ago to walk across America and learn about the country before completing the citizenship process.

After traveling through several states, he stopped in post-tornado Tuscaloosa for a five-month stay. Alabamians were more hospitable than he’d expected. He’d run out of money, and construction jobs were plentiful.

“Alabama has become a second home to me,” he said.

Diaz-Duran hitchhiked the much of the rest of the trip, and then took Greyhound.

“I’m glad I did it both ways,” he said. “Each has its virtues.”

Walking is more introspective and allows time to process what you see, he said. Traveling by car frees up more time to linger in a few places and get to know the people.

Coulson, the lawyer-turned-hiker, said there’s no shame in not completing the walk.

“There’s a real shift in perspective when you take on something like this,” he said. “People re-evaluate their relationship with success and failure.”

Everything that can go wrong

Coulson said his cross-country trip was "transformative," but not in a simple, easy-to-define way.

"It's a very difficult thing," he said in a telephone interview from Chicago, where he now practices administrative law. "Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. It requires immense patience."

Diaz-Duran said he believes his walk made him a better person. In his time alone on the road, he says, he became closer to God.

“It sounds cliche to say I found Jesus,” he said. “But I started praying again. I started communicating with God again.”

Diaz-Duran, who now lives in New York, said he and his boyfriend have agreed to remain celibate until marriage for religious reasons. He’s working as a writer now, but Diaz-Duran is thinking about becoming a minister.

Coulson said he doubts he’ll make the cross-country trek again. He might be willing to walk across some other continent, though.

"This is something you do once, or you do it for the rest of your life," he said.

O'Toole said he doesn't have detailed plans for life after he finishes his journey. He knows he'll take some time to rest and think about what comes next. He's not worried about adapting to everyday life after war and a long run.

"I don't think anything I do is going to be as tough as this," he said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.
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