Why Cross America on Foot?
Some Do It for a Cause, Some as a Way to Survive, But Each Trek Is Uniquely Personal
This August 2013 photo provided by Benjamin Lee shows him, left, and Joe Bell in Colorado. The fellow cross-country walkers met in Steamboat Springs on July 31. Despite the age difference, they hit it off immediately and agreed to travel together as far as Boulder. (AP Photo/Benjamin Lee)
In this Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013 photo, Steven Wescott motions to a motorist as he walks with his goat LeeRoy Brown along a street in Lenexa, Kan. The two have been walking since May 2, 2012 from Seattle, Wash. to New York City to raise money to build an orphanage in Kenya. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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.
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.’ ”
Ostensibly, Malene Comes’ “Conversation with America” walk is about raising awareness of obesity — a condition with which she’s struggled her entire adult life. But it’s much more than that.
Unemployed and awaiting the formal dissolution of her 13-year marriage, Comes had “lost every sense of myself and the world I was in as anything other than a hostile place and a scary place.”
After two suicide attempts in three months, the 41-year-old Eldridge, Calif., woman sold her belongings, put her three cherished cats in foster care and lit out, pushing a modified baby stroller.
On a recent evening, the headlight of a passing freight train was all that illuminated the pitch blackness as Comes put the finishing touches on her simple campsite and prepared to text a nightly “safety check” to a friend in New York.
She had just emerged from a desolate 200-mile stretch of the Mojave Desert. No “couch-surfing” opportunities here, and so she opted for a sleeping bag and blanket of stars.
Comes has shed more than 20 of the 289 pounds she was carrying on her 5-foot-2 frame when she left a Santa Monica beach on Aug. 29. In some ways, though, she already feels so much lighter.
“Yeah, this is scary,” she said as the train cars rumbled past. “But maybe less scary than killing myself.”
Joe Bell came to a similar conclusion.
On Jan. 19, a passer-by found Jadin hanging from a piece of elementary school playground equipment in La Grande, Ore. The high school cheerleader and budding artist died on Feb. 3 without ever regaining consciousness.
When he emerged from the fog of his own despair, Bell 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. Friends helped Bell launch a Facebook page.
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. On June 4, Bell posted a “letter” from Jadin.
“Today I’m celebrating my 16th birthday in Heaven,” it said. “My presents are flowers, rainbows and angel food cake. ... Yes, birthdays in Heaven are wonderful and gay.”
Bell’s way was paved with a thousand kindnesses.
A sporting goods store owner reading of Bell’s blisters helped doctor his feet and fitted him with proper shoes. When his cart was stolen, someone replaced it with a better one. He received gifts of safety glasses, granola bars, bottled water. He even picked up a whole new support system.
Amy Maple, founder of the nonprofit Excuse Me While I Change the World, had asked Bell to give a talk in Salt Lake City. Moved by his passion, she and Ann Clark, who’d met Bell along the road, helped him incorporate his own group, Joe’s Walk For Change, and coordinated speaking engagements for him along his route.
Maple also arranged for Bell to get some training about how to help parents recognize warning signs in suicidal youths. Through it, he gradually let go of any lingering feelings of guilt over Jadin’s death.
By late July, Bell had made it to Steamboat Springs, Colo., a ski resort town. He decided to stay a few days.
He needed the rest. And he wanted to give a fellow traveler who’d contacted him time to catch up.
For as long as he can remember, Australian Benjamin Lee has dreamed of visiting every country. With nearly 40 stamps in his passport by age 24, he was well on his way.
In late 2012, Lee graduated with a degree in environmental science from Melbourne’s Deakin University. He knew he would soon “need to settle down and get a full-time job,” but craved one more grand adventure.
“Something I can tell my grandchildren about.”
He knew it had to be in America.
Planning a transcontinental route that he reckoned would take eight months and 10 million steps, Lee decided to walk on behalf of Oxfam America, part of a global charity.
Like others, he looked to Damm for advice — such as including bear spray in your pack and always walking “so you can face the vehicles that are coming at you.”
Lee and a Canadian woman he’d met online began their trek in San Francisco on May 18.
But a month and a half into the trip, after crossing a stretch of Utah desert, his companion decided she’d had enough. Overcome by loneliness, Lee tapped out a text to his family: “I can’t do this. I’m done.” But he didn’t send it.
As he trudged eastward, Lee kept hearing stories about another walker who’d just passed through. Google searches connected him with the man, Joe Bell, and they met in Steamboat Springs on July 31. Despite the age difference, they hit it off immediately and agreed to travel together as far as Boulder.
On Aug. 2, they hiked 22 miles to the top of Rabbit Ears Pass, straddling the Continental Divide at 9,426 feet above sea level. Bell took to calling his sprightly companion “Young Buck.”
“Hurry up, old man,” Lee would tease, though, in these high elevations, the Aussie was happy for an excuse to slacken the pace a bit.
“I really admire this young man,” Bell wrote of Lee on his blog.
Over the next three weeks, Bell posted many photos of Lee: Standing along the banks of the Colorado River; trying on a Smokey Bear hat in a mountain gift shop. When they went to the movies, Bell would place a piece of Red Vines licorice on the seat beside him, in remembrance of the son with whom he used to share the candy.
On Aug. 18, they gathered with friends and family at a Boulder brewery for a farewell dinner. Bell’s wife and younger son were there, as were Damm and Stalls. As a gay man, Stalls had followed news of Jadin Bell’s suicide. When he learned of the father’s walk, he embraced and encouraged it.
The group of transcontinental walkers swapped stories of near misses and of vehicles swerving to give them a scare. When Bell said he preferred walking after sunset, Stalls was taken aback.
“Oh, man,” he said. “You’ve got to stop walking at night. Especially when you get into these flatter, high-traffic states.”
When dinner was over, the group posed for a photo. Lee posted it on his Facebook page.
“It was great to share our stories because they are some of the very few people who truly know what Joe and I are experiencing,” he wrote.
Following their dinner, Stalls kept in touch with Bell. When the older man reached Kansas, Stalls planned to accompany him for several days.
On Oct. 10, Stalls logged onto Bell’s website to check his progress. That’s how he learned the shocking news: 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.
Stalls was devastated. “I just had a lot of really deep connections with his experience,” he says. “It was a much bigger space of loss than just the cross-America walk.”
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.”
Although Bell’s mission to honor one son has left another fatherless, his wife does not regret letting him go.
“He needed to do this,” Lathrop says. “He wouldn’t have gone if we didn’t support it.”
Shortly before his death, Bell told Maple that he wanted to have a million followers by the time he reached New York. Now, volunteers have pledged to raise $1 million and walk a million miles in Bell’s honor.
And others are continuing Bell’s trek to New York.
As Benjamin Lee neared the end of his own journey, he certainly felt his fallen friend’s presence.
Around midday on Nov. 30, the Australian crested the pine-studded dunes at the upper end of Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware and reached the Atlantic. Lee, who’d celebrated his 25th birthday in September, had walked 3,432 miles.
Several times in the days leading up to this one, Lee’s eyes had welled with tears as he thought about this moment. Now, staring out into the ocean, he felt joy, but also relief.
Lee took off his shoes and socks, and walked into the icy surf, savoring the squish of sand between his toes. Then he reached into his bag and pulled out a package of Red Vines licorice.
He stuck two pieces into the sand — one each for Joe and Jadin.
He said a few words, just to himself, then watched until the waves carried the candy away.
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AllenGBreed.