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America on Foot: Pulse Writer Begins Solitary Cross-Country Trek

 

The idea to walk 3,300 miles across the United States first entered my mind at a holiday meal about 12 years ago. I was in my early teens sitting next to my uncle and, judging by the red-checkered tablecloth and spaghetti on my plate, it was either Christmas or Easter.

Uncle Todd told me about the time he rode his bicycle across the country back in 1986 at the age of 28. My cousin Lucas and I listened in amazement, our minds still too small to comprehend the length of such a trip.

Years later, I picked up cycling while Lucas started kickboxing. Cycling led to triathlon and, before long, distance running. As years went by, the distances got longer.

Since that holiday meal, the idea of a self-powered trip coast to coast sat quietly in the back of my mind.

Meanwhile, I picked up books such as Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. While I hope to avoid the fate of the latter, their stories of testing endurance of the body and mind struck home for me. I was a kid from the affluent Chicago suburbs surrounded by relentless support of those around me, naïve of what it was like to really struggle day after day. I somehow envied my dad’s upbringing, living under the shadow of bankruptcy on a family farm in southern Illinois, which cultivated a work ethic that seems effortless.

For that reason, I have not pursued any kind of continuous support along my trip. While many people who travel across the country use support vehicles or partners for different segments of their journey, I’ll have almost everything I need in a 65-liter Osprey backpack, strapped tightly around my hips and chest.

Inside will be a few changes of clothes, a camping stove, a sleeping bag for long nights, and books for long days. I’ll have two pairs of running shoes with me at all times, with additional pairs waiting for me at post offices or the houses of some gracious hosts along the way.

For my route, I will stick to the warmer southern weather between the west coast and Georgia. From there I plan to link on to the Appalachian Trail up the spine of the east coast and into New York. The sand dunes of California’s desert, the bohemian Texas town of Marfa and Tennessee hills straight from the songs of John Denver will pass by step by step, slowly.

I planned the route with the weather in mind, but more specifically, the first 1,500 miles will follow a map from the Adventure Cycling Association, a group that creates cross-country cycling routes while taking advantage of wide-shouldered highways, scenic byways and low traffic roads. The maps will be indispensible in the early weeks, but even more valuable will be the thought that cyclists are likely to pass by in the most barren countryside of America’s western deserts. Even so, it will be impossible to avoid a few 100-mile stretches through west Texas with little more than the red flame of nearby oil rigs to look at and the shells of previously booming Texas towns to rest at night.

Although it’s been 12 years since the idea burrowed in the back of my mind, it’s been two years of true intention to cross the country by foot. During that time, I only shared my thoughts with my parents and bosses. They both met the idea with a mixture of excitement and worry.

It wasn’t until the end of November that I made it public when I posted a map of my route on Facebook with a short statement on what I was doing. I asked if anyone could support me with a safe place to rest along the way. The response was overwhelming.

Not only my own distant friends, but their mothers and college roommates and second cousins all began reaching out to help. Granted, most offers for a place to stay centered around the metro areas of Phoenix, Austin and Washington D.C., but there were a few people from rural Virginia, Alabama and even the ever-daunting west Texas. The offers continued to pour in weeks after that original post; still the only public outreach I’ve done for this trip until the article you’re reading now.

The fact that I haven’t made my journey very public and was uncomfortably overwhelmed (although flattered) by the generosity of people across the country marks the crux of why I’m doing this in the first place.

Despite what many people assume, it’s not for a charity.

The first question anyone asks me is which charity I’m raising money for and my response, that I’m not raising money for anything, has been a difficult one even for me to swallow. There are two reasons for it.

The first is that when I originally thought of this idea, I didn’t have a charity or a cause in mind. Despite the money I could raise for any great organization and how appreciative they would be, I would feel disingenuous latching onto a charity organization that doesn’t really know who I am or have an investment in my trip to begin with.

More importantly to me, I did my best to hold any external motivation for my trip at arm’s length. I didn’t want the reason for my journey to be anything more than a self-motivated challenge.

Forrest Gump, a fictional character many people have recently compared me to, shares this idea. While on his cross-country run, reporters swarmed him asking why he was running across the country. He simply responded, “I just felt like running.”

Gump said it better than I can, but the meaning is only slightly different. I am curious to know what my limits are. I want to know what I would do when I’m tired, hungry and 50 miles from the nearest town in the burning Texas desert; when no one is depending on me to finish my journey to New York City, no charity check would disappear, no sponsorship dollars would vanish. When the only thing moving me forward is the goal that I set for myself, I want to know if I would keep moving forward when things got hard.

I wish I could say that drive was borne out of some inherent disposition that I’ve always exhibited my entire life. In reality, I feel it hatched in some mental health issues that made themselves known in my teens and that I still manage to this day. I joke with others that it must take a crazy person to come up with an idea like this, but I actually believe it and I think I fit the bill.

So in reality, I don’t have a very good reason for why I’m doing this. As weeks go on, some seemingly meaningful reasons float through my head.

One is that I’m curious to traverse the country in the early tenure of a controversial presidential election. Political affiliations aside, the bubble I’ve lived in my entire life seems to be at odds with the political preference of many states I’ll be running through. I’d like to burst my bubble and speak with those who disagree with the people that surround me in my life at home.

My route takes me within arm’s reach of the proposed wall between Mexico and the United States as I ride the Rio Grande through west Texas. I often joke with people that between my Puerto Rican complexion and running through the desert with everything I need to survive strapped on my back, I’ll be a ripe candidate for a visit from border patrol. Then again, there is a part of me that doesn’t think it’s a joke.

All I can say about the state of my country is that, contrary to television news or the social media posts of the majority of people in my life, there are still good people out there. I refuse to believe the world has gone to hell and that I should fear anyone who approaches me on the road.

That same Uncle Todd from before, the one who rode his bicycle across the country before cellphones and hitchhiked through Europe, was quick to warn me of the dangers in our new nation while I explained my journey to him over Thanksgiving dinner. He explained that the world has changed and that the people who live in the places that I’m traveling through have an intensity behind their beliefs that I simply don’t understand.

I smiled politely and dodged his requests to shave my face so that I wasn’t mistaken for a Muslim or a Mexican. I told him that I would be fine, that I could talk my way out of any racially charged danger because I wasn’t someone to fear. I told him that I knew I would experience people that I don’t understand, which is exactly why I’m going in the first place.

I often think about what life will be like when I reach the east coast. I’ve thought about being back at the Wild Tomato in Sister Bay just in time for the summer season, serving pizza and refilling beer as if nothing happened. I’ve also thought about what my interview on Jimmy Fallon would be like or who the first book publisher to approach me would be. As much as I hold people at arm’s length when it comes to this trip, I’m not void of ego.

But that will all go out the window somewhere between the small towns that I’ll likely never visit again. The truth is that I don’t really know why I’m doing this. It was just an idea that I haven’t been able to shake, even though as I’ve gotten older and found a job I love in a place I love to live, I often wish I could just let it go.

Perhaps I’ll be able to let it go somewhere on the road headed east. Or at the very least, I’ll figure out what got me here in the first place.

 

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