ONE STEP AT A TIME
AMERICANS OF ALL AGES SET OFF ON THEIR GREAT JOURNEYS,
WALKING ACROSS THE COUNTRY FOR A CAUSE OR A NEED.
Newhouse News Service
America is nearly 3,000 miles wide. Many Americans see just a fraction of those miles. Others cross all 3,000 alone, on foot, step by step.
They are teenaged, middle-aged, elderly. Some have a message to promote, others wish to learn. Some carry money, but many depend on strangers. They take months or years.
No organization tracks their treks. Many walk and return anonymously. Yet they still walk. Why?
“It was pretty much, I heard an inner voice telling me what I needed to do,” said Lori Bohannon, 40, who departed Mendocino, Calif., in March. “I just kind of left. It was the first time I put on my backpack. I broke in my shoes along the way.”
Bohannon said she is “just a mom” walking to “raise awareness about the impact of U.S. policy decisions on the futures of children around the globe.”
Jeanette Wallis, 32, wanted to hear the concerns of rural America. She left Seattle bound for Washington, D.C., two years ago -- and is still walking.
“It is a calling,” she said late in April from Clarksburg, W.Va. “Pilgrims have been around for a long time. It's an old profession not often exercised in modern society.”
Doris Haddock, better known as the campaign finance reform advocate “Granny D,” began her walk in 1999 at age 90. Peter Jenkins was just a college kid when he set off in 1973, with no cause but the restlessness of the times.
Robert McNary, 54, a retired physician in Lavina, Mont., knew he would walk when he encountered a man and his horse on their own walk across the country. “I put him up for a couple nights,” he said. “That was my confirmation that I needed to walk.”
McNary, who is interested in symbols, carried his version of the American flag -- a golden heart superimposed on a single large star in the field of blue -- to the Statue of Liberty. He walked from June to November 2002.
Humans have been fascinated by these journeys “since time immemorial,” said William Graham, who teaches the course "To Far Places: Literature of Journey and Quest" at Harvard University.
“There's almost no culture that doesn't fasten on various great journeys,” said Graham, dean of the divinity school. “It's ubiquitous largely because of the whole metaphor of the journey from birth to death.”
Recurring motifs link cultures and ages. “One is that journeying opens up your eyes and educates you,” Graham said. “Another is that any journey, if meaningful, cannot be too easy. It has to have difficulties to become a meaningful transition for growth and development.”
Many face that struggle in loneliness.
“I wished I'd had company,” McNary said.
Granny D discovered a different longing.
“There's a great loneliness out there, in the country,” she said in a telephone interview. There was a time when Americans could contact their governmental representatives and “they'd listen to you,” she added. “Not anymore.”
Granny D, who lives in Dublin, N.H., prepared nearly a year before beginning her walk in January 1999, in Pasadena, Calif. She was followed by a support vehicle through the scorching desert and fought blizzard conditions in Appalachia. Averaging 10 miles a day, she made it to Washington in February 2000.
“I found,” she said, “that people are very generous and very kind. I walked as a pilgrim and never went without a meal or a bed.”
Other walkers agree.
“I'm having my needs met every day,” Bohannon said.
She accepted a ride across the desert when she couldn't carry enough water. The driver, she said, was “a self-proclaimed right-wing ultra-conservative ex-Green Beret.” Bohannon chuckled. “We disagreed about almost everything. It was a wonderful conversation.”
Jenkins recalled a rancher in west Texas who passed him repeatedly in a pickup truck before stopping. “Boy, what are you doing?” the rancher asked.
A self-described “long-haired hippie” at the time, Jenkins told the rancher he was traveling the country and had walked there from New York. The rancher paused, then said, “You wait here, my wife's gonna make you lunch.”
Not all encounters are heartwarming. One night in northern New Mexico, a man “either drunk or high” got out of a car and waved a knife at Jenkins, screaming “he wanted to cut my head off.” He left agonizing minutes later when another car approached.
Wallis said she's felt “rejected and ridiculed and looked at like I was crazy,” sometimes for weeks on end. Living homeless also is tough: “It's an awful experience to ask for help. People make you feel like a criminal.”
And the journey is physically difficult. Bohannon is fighting arthritis. Wallis' dog, Sherpa, had cuts on her paws stitched. Jenkins went through one pair of sneakers in just 11 days. Granny D was hospitalized with dehydration and pneumonia.
McNary, who carried some cash, finally took to sleeping in motels after a particularly awful night of “horrendous mosquitoes.”
The experience changes lives:
-- Granny D wrote a book and is now in demand nationwide as a political speaker. “It's not often a woman of 93 gets to go traveling as much as I do,” she quipped.
-- Jenkins is now 50 and living on a farm outside Nashville, Tenn., with his wife and six children. He wrote two books on walking -- “A Walk Across America” and “The Walk West” -- and five others about travels worldwide. His original walk, which took six years, “taught me life is best lived if you don't worry too much about the future.”
-- McNary, known as “Dr. Bob” back home, “realized after walking along that when you do something valuable, you just don't do it for a moment. You persist in many different ways.”
Bohannon and Wallis, meanwhile, walk on.
Bohannon, with her dog, Ebony, calls her journey a “Trek for Truth.” She misses her husband, their 10-year-old son, Josh, and her stepdaughter, Mandela, 15. She's soliciting letters of concern from people she meets.
“There are lots of issues,” said Bohannon, who in early May had just passed through Flagstaff, Ariz. “People are afraid of the Patriot Act, afraid of chemicals being put into the earth and the water and air.”
She hopes to arrive in Washington in October and present the comments to first lady Laura Bush. “If she doesn't want to meet me in the White House,” Bohannon said, “I'll meet her anywhere -- within walking distance.”
Wallis and Sherpa probably will arrive in Washington “in a little over a month,” Wallis said, on their “Walk for Democracy.” They carry about 600 “grievances” she hopes to present to President Bush.
“There've been people waiting outside the White House since the 1970s to meet with a president,” she added. “I'm pretty realistic as to what to expect.”
“But for me, this is kind of what the American spirit is all about,” Wallis said. “Despite obstacles and with no support, you can still accomplish the impossible.”