December 22, 2013

Inspiration of all kinds leads to cross-country treks

Some go for a specific cause while others are inspired for reasons they can’t quite quantify.

By Allen G. Breed
The Associated Press

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.

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Transcontinental walkers, from left, Benjamin Lee, Jonathon Stalls, Lacey Champion, Joe Bell, Nate Damm, and kneeling, Bell’s son Joseph, gather in Boulder, Colo., last August. At any given time, as many as 20 people are attempting to cross the United States on foot, Damm estimates.

The Associated Press/Lacey Champion

click image to enlarge

Steven Wescott walks with his goat, LeeRoy Brown, along a street in Lenexa, Kan., last month. The two have been walking since May 2, 2012, from Seattle to New York City to raise money for an orphanage in Kenya.

The Associated Press

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.


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?

(Continued on page 2)

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