For a week following Jadin’s death, Joe Bell lay in bed, beating himself up, wondering what he could – should – have done differently to help his son.
In the face of relentless bullying at high school, the openly gay 15-year-old had confessed to his parents six months earlier that he’d been having suicidal thoughts. Bell and his wife got their son into counseling, and Jadin appeared to be doing well.
Then he hanged himself.
Racked with guilt, Bell chided himself over scolding Jadin for smoking a few days before the hanging. The Oregon man worried that he couldn’t survive this grief.
Bell knew he had to do something. Then it came to him: He’d walk across the country, sharing Jadin’s story.
At any given time, as many as 20 people are attempting to cross the United States on foot, Nate Damm figures. The website he started following his own transcontinental trek has become a must-read for walkers, full of advice, tracking information and a running debate on the “why” of such journeys.
That last part can get complicated.
Many walk for a cause. Some do it, well, just because.
Two years after his own walk, Damm still can’t put into words just why he did it. His Delaware-to-California hike over eight months in 2011 grew from “an idea that I had that just kind of wouldn’t leave me alone,” says the 25-year-old Maine native, who’s currently tracking about a half dozen walkers. “And I thought about it for a couple of years and I would go, ‘Oh, it’ll pass. It’s a phase.’ ”
But it didn’t pass – for him, or for others.
Even for those who articulate a cause – something they’re raising awareness of, or money for – there’s often more behind these grueling undertakings.
Jonathon Stalls walked under the auspices of Kiva, a group that helps connect small investors with entrepreneurs in developing countries.
In the end, though, he says he was simply answering a “personal call to engage in quieter, slower, and more intentional experiences with less.”
“It’s our most inherent form of transportation. It’s our most basic form. It’s our first form,” says the 31-year-old Denver man, who walked sea-to-sea in 2010.
‘IN THE AMERICAN DNA’
For Matt Green, it was as if he were being urged on by some instinctual, irrepressible need from a collective past to challenge himself.
“It’s almost like in the American DNA,” says the 33-year-old New Yorker, who quit an engineering job at the height of the “Great Recession” and walked to the Oregon coast in 2010. “We have this kind of romance of the pioneers heading west.”
Along his route, Green confronted the same persistent question – people asking for some easily identified reason. He couldn’t really give one.
Near the end of his journey, though, someone visiting his website posted a quotation from philosopher and civil rights leader Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Those words have become his motto.
Ultimately, the reasons for walking are deeply personal. As Joe Bell put it to one newspaper reporter he met along his route, “It was either lie in bed like I was and die, or fight back.”
And so he set out, traveling the land, talking about Jadin, and hoping it might save lives – maybe even his own.
Walkers often set out on what they think is a solitary journey, and yet few really do it completely alone.
When Mike Ross told his grandmother that he and high school buddy George Crawford were hiking to California, she had just one question: What cause are you walking for?
Truth is, the 19-year-old Manchester, Conn., men were just out for one last big adventure before heading to Marine boot camp.
“I just wanted to get out of there,” Ross said while waiting out a recent snowstorm in a donated Colorado motel room. “I figured it would be a great way to get in shape, a great way to see our country.”
But over time, Ross and Crawford decided their trek did need some higher purpose. Both men’s families had been touched by cancer. They decided to walk for the Livestrong Foundation, with a goal of raising $20,000 toward finding a cure.
Some cross-country trekkers carry everything on their backs; most push carts. Steve Wescott has a goat with canvas saddlebags.
“He wasn’t supposed to be a gimmick,” the Seattle man said as he struggled to keep LeeRoy Brown from straying onto busy U.S. 40 outside Kansas City, Kan., on a recent blustery afternoon. “He was just going to help carry the load, and now he is the reason why people talk to me.”
With their matching chin whiskers, Wescott and LeeRoy make quite the pair. Wearing a reflective vest over his red fleece jacket, Wescott flashes the “Peace” sign at passing vehicles as LeeRoy trots along beside him, a red bandanna tied around his neck.
The 34-year-old rock guitarist had already been thinking of walking the country when his bandmates voted him out of the group. He and LeeRoy have been walking since May 2, 2012, to raise money for an orphanage in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Their goal is New York City’s Times Square.
He knows there are easier ways to raise money. But this way, he gets “to see the kindness of America.”
“I want 5,000 people to give $5,” he said. “I want to get to New York and say, ‘Look what WE built.’ ”
TRAGEDY ON TOP OF TRAGEDY
When Joe Bell emerged from the fog of his despair over his son’s suicide, he was seized by a desperate need to help others see what he could not.
He took a leave from his job of 17 years at a Boise Cascade plywood mill and began mapping out his route to New York City – a place Jadin had visited on an eighth-grade field trip, and where he had dreamed of someday living.
On April 20, Bell said goodbye to his wife, Lola Lathrop, and their 13-year-old son, Joseph, and set out, pushing a loaded three-wheeled cart.
With two artificial knees, the 48-year-old’s gait was brisk, but awkward.
Barely a week out, angry red sores erupted on his feet; the skin beneath his toes cracked open and bled.
As he walked, Bell stopped at schools, libraries, community centers, bars – anyplace where he could share his son’s story.
But Bell would not finish his trek.
He was walking along two-lane U.S. 40 about 20 miles northwest of Kit Carson, Colo., around dusk on Oct. 9 when the driver of a tractor-trailer hauling Idaho potatoes to Texas apparently fell asleep at the wheel.
According to the Colorado State Patrol, Bell was walking with the flow of traffic, and was struck from behind and killed.
In a video posted the day before his death, Bell was upbeat, despite an obvious limp.
“I’m not a spring chicken anymore, that’s for sure,” he said with a chuckle. Still, even though he could feel winter coming, he was undaunted.
“This is what I’m out here for,” he said, “is to make change.”
Now, volunteers have pledged to raise $1 million and walk a million miles in Bell’s honor.