I just walked across the USA!

Standing in the Pacific Ocean at the Santa Monica Pier at the end of my walk, not even bothering to take off my shoes. © 2012 Jennifer E. Cooper

Never when I began my journey of 3,000 miles did I ever think I would truly walk across the United States. It was an impossible task. I was completely in over my head and had no idea what laid ahead.

Yet, just as the sun was setting on Aug. 20, I was walking into the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica. It was the end of an amazing journey, and a serenely surreal moment. I was proud and amazed I’d finished my walk, but found myself deeply sad the journey was over. In all, it took me six months of walking over four years of my life (and six pairs of shoes) to complete my 3,000 mile walk.

That final day of walking from Los Angeles to Santa Monica I found myself dragging my feet. I was not ready for my walking days to be over, perhaps because really it was never about reaching my destination. As the old saying goes, it was always about the journey.

But once I began walking–along Sunset Boulevard and then Santa Monica Boulevard from Hollywood to Beverly Hills, and then into Santa Monica, the final 15 miles, I couldn’t walk fast enough. At times I was on the verge of running. Unlike other days where my progress was slowed by the many, many people I chatted with and swapped a story or two, on that last day I talked to no one. I was a woman on a mission, and that mission was to walk right on into the sea, shoes and all.

As I neared Santa Monica my sadness at coming to the end of end of a journey melted away. I found myself beaming with excitement, and not entirely believing what was about to happen. That I had to struggle and suffer and make sacrifices to find the time, money and energy to complete my journey made reaching the goal so much sweeter.

In no way am I an athlete. That is not to say I’m not in reasonably good shape, but there is no question that it was not my athletic abilities that enabled me to walk the distance. I found myself standing in the Pacific Ocean because I just kept going. I could have given up when I broke my leg, but I kept going. I could have quit when years passed and I hadn’t even completed half of the 3,00 miles, but I kept going. I could have quit when I began to run out of money and enthusiasm, but I kept going. I kept going until one day I found myself standing in the Pacific Ocean.

The closer I got to the sea, the more I wanted to jump up and shout, “take that Goliath.” Though, to be honest, never did I encounter someone who told me I wouldn’t reach my gigantic goal. My friends and family, and pretty much everyone I met on the road, were helpful, friendly, and supportive. There is no doubt in my mind that without such amazing support I’d never have reached my goal. I have been touched by the overwhelming support, but in some ways it makes me sad that we don’t all join together on a consistent basis. If we all took a little time more time to support each other who knows what could be possible. I do not know what lies ahead. But I know I will never stop walking…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

Doing something is better than doing nothing

As I rode the train across the Mojave Desert last week I talked to a couple from Chicago. They worked with an organization that helped provide affordable housing. They said it sometimes seemed like a never-ending battle to keep a roof over people’s heads, “but doing something is better than doing nothing.”

There is nothing worse than giving up. While in San Bernardino I stayed with a woman who was born and raised there. She said her education was dismal, her school filled with violence, and both teachers and students had given up hope. The city recently declared bankruptcy, and as I walked through San Bernardino evidence of those struggling was apparent everywhere.

Passing by the city probation office in the center of San Bernardino along Route 66 I met a man who was stuck in a Catch 22. After serving his time he was released, but required to wear an ankle monitor. His friends and family all lived in Compton, but the monitor didn’t allow him to him to leave San Bernardino. Left without resources, he was homeless. Even worse, he had to find a way to charge his ankle monitor twice a day. He tried to get job, but no one would hire him with the ankle monitor. He told me that friends of his kept trying to convince him to take part in robberies to make a few bucks and get off the street. “I don’t want to do that no more,” he said. “I’m tired of being in prison, tired of people shooting people over stupid things.” He bears more than a few scars from bullet wounds. Despite being homeless for the past year, and facing two more years of homelessness due to the ankle monitor, “I’m just going to sit right here,” he said.

I understood his desire to escape a life of dabbling in criminal activities, but it made me sad to think he was just going to accept his homelessness. I don’t know the solution to his problem, but I do know accepting one’s circumstances as fate is no way to accomplish change. He said he’s still trying to get a job despite the constant rejection. For his sake I hope is doesn’t give up.

Though the journey across this country may be far, and seemingly impossible to cross, I didn’t give up. So I hope that those who face hardships that appear insurmountable realize they are stronger than they may think. Anything is possible if you just keep going, just keep taking baby steps towards your goal. I’m nearly at my goal, just 75 more miles to the Pacific Ocean. So on I walk…

Hungry America

Navajo tacos in Thoreau, NM. The woman who sold the tacos by the roadside said she wasn’t making any money, “I just want to feed the people,” she said. © 2012 Jennifer E. Cooper

So many times it seems the harshest critics of those living in poverty are those who are but a step away. I will never understand why anyone would begrudge someone receiving food stamps while billions are wasted on helping the wealthy avoid paying their fair share of taxes. People need food; they do not need yachts.

There is very real hunger in this country. While at the Gallup flea market I talked to a Navajo woman who told me that while her family was camping near a Taco Bell and working on a job nearby they were about to toss an unfinished bite of a taco when a man came along and asked what she was going to do with the food. When she replied that she was planning to throw it away he asked if he could have it. “I haven’t eaten in two days,” he told her. The woman said she ended up giving some remaining food she had planned to eat later to the man and his wife. “I didn’t eat dinner that day,” she said.

In Thoreau, a checkerboard town of part reservation, part US land, I had my first Navajo taco. The woman who made it said she wasn’t actually making any money selling the tacos. “I just want to feed the people.” Other food vendors lined the roadside in Thoreau. One man gave me a cherry turnover even though I insisted I had just eaten.”Food for the road,” he told me.

But a man I talked with as he rode his bike through Gallup, was convinced that American Indian tribes are living large off the government, “they get water for free,” while he has to pay. “I’m hurting,” he told me. I believed his hardship was very real–roughly 20 percent of Gallup’s population is living in poverty. As a white man in Gallup he is a minority; a fact that makes him very angry. The city is surrounded Navajo, Hopi and Zuni Indian reservations as well as several others. “I just want to be treated the same,” he told me. I didn’t ask if he ever walked through a reservation, if he realized that many Native Americans live in extreme poverty. As I walked through New Mexico time and time again I talked to Native Americans who were living without water or electricity; people who traveled great distances to find work as there were few jobs on the reservations.

A pharmacist I met in Gallup who works for the Indian Health Service’s hospital there told me about a Navajo man who ended up having to have his legs amputated as a result of severe frostbite. His brother stole his space heater and he had no other way to keep warm. Had he come to the hospital sooner his legs may have been saved, but he told the pharmacist that he had been drunk when he’d gotten frostbite and didn’t want to be judged for drinking.

As I walk I’ve hoped to inspire people to bring about change in their community. I’ve since realized that I can only change myself. I will never be able to change the mind of the man who thinks Native Americans are living large off the government. I can only listen to his story and hope that one day he realizes he is spending his life being angry at someone who should instead be his ally. Perhaps in listening to his story, he will be inspired to open his heart, his mind and his eyes, and to let go of his misplaced anger. So on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

The forgotten people

Growing up and spending most of my life living on the East Coast, the Southwest is very much a foreign country to me. I am not accustomed to the dry harsh desert and the long open treeless spaces. And I am not accustomed to the extreme poverty of many Native American tribes.

As I walked through Oklahoma I certainly could feel the influence of Native Americans, some 67 tribes were forced by the US government to relocate to the state. But tribes in the southwest are different somehow. Perhaps the poverty is more visible; it cannot be ignored or forgotten. One need only take a train from Albuquerque to Santa Fe to witness the destitute Indian pueblos clustered in the mountains.

Usually when I tell people I am writing a book about poverty they have one of two responses. I am either told that I need to look no further as I’ve found poverty, or I’m told that it doesn’t exist there, often despite obvious evidence to the contrary. I expected those in Santa Fe to fall into the latter category. So, as I walked through it’s monied streets past art galleries where a single work of art could easily fetch more than some people’s annual income, I was surprised to hear over and over again about the serious poverty in Santa Fe. The city is a place of extremes I was told.

Of course the poverty there is not restricted to Native Americans. As I wandered around Santa Fe I chatted with a couple street musicians. It was unclear where they were currently living, but one told me that he had spent a year living in his car in a parking garage in Washington, D.C., before moving to Santa Fe. One woman who worked in a gallery told me that she doubted that teachers in a local charter school were earning more than $20,000. Considering the high cost of living in Santa Fe, “I don’t know where they can afford to live,” she said.

So many times those living in poverty are accused of expecting hand-outs and the implication is that the poor are reliant upon the government and the wealthy. I suspect the opposite is more likely; the wealthy of this nation rely on a vast army of low-wage workers to clean their houses, mow their lawns, provide their food and a whole host of other services.

Ironically, the street musicians working for pocket change that I chatted with seemed to be far happier than some of those with greater means. One guy I spoke with told me that he hated his job. “How do I find a job that makes me happy?” he asked me. Perhaps it is because so many don’t know how to stop and see the beauty all around. Santa Fe is filled with beauty, and not only in the obvious places. The violin music of the street musician was so beautiful I found myself biting my lip to prevent myself from crying. One woman who worked at a nearby shop brought over some pastries for the musicians. “You make my day better,” she told them. But as I stood and listened to him perform so many walked on by. Though my path moves west, I am listening still…

Poverty of the earth, poverty of the soul

In 25 days of walking through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas it has rained exactly half of one day. Though I am writing about human poverty, I’m realizing that so much of human poverty is related to the environment.

Just as the haves in this country take from the have-nots, we are taking too much from the earth. For the first time as I’ve been walking I find myself in places where the economy is booming. A restaurant manager in Sayre, Tx., complained that he had to pay a premium for graveyard shift wait staff because no one wanted to work for such low wages. Jobs with oil and gas companies are plentiful in parts of Oklahoma and Texas. There are so many jobs that many hotels have no vacancies as workers have flooded the area.

I never expected walking across the United States to make me more of an environmentalist. And yet, in the same way that we neglect the poorest in this country, we also neglect the world around us. We take resources and give pollution. We use water as if it is endless. Of what value is a job that puts food on your table if it robs you of clean air and water?

More than a few people I spoke with proclaimed: “global warming is real.” Yet I saw little inclination to take better care of the earth. I watched one woman take a bag of trash from her car and place it on the ground as easily as she took a breath. She put the trash back in her car after I protested, but I could not wrap my mind around how someone could care so little about the mark left on the world.

One man told me that he believed BP had paid too high a fine for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and was confident that the environment there was now clean and thriving. “Nature cleans itself,” he said. I didn’t know if he truly believed that oil and gas companies could do no wrong, or if he feared accepting the truth.

In some ways it seems as if people have simply given up. When Route 66 was replaced by the interstate so many towns were left to wither and die. Now many of those towns are booming, though one would ever guess from appearances. I asked someone why they didn’t rebuild and he told me it is because people don’t expect the boom to last so they don’t want to build anything new. It seems people can only see their own livelihood in front of them and are blind to the larger picture, the larger cost both to people to the planet.

By the time I arrived in Groom, Tx., I was depressed to see yet another sad crumbling little town; another remnant of better years. Just as the Rust Belt has failed to accept that times have changed, so too have the little towns that sit along old Route 66. But somehow Groom is different. One need only walk into The Grill along Route 66 to feel the energy of the town. The restaurant, once called the Golden Spring Grill, was reopened a few years ago and is now a place where the community comes together. When I entered the restaurant I was gloomy. Before long, as random people, and eventually the owner, came to chat, I couldn’t help but smile.

All it takes is for one person to start to care. One person has the power to make a difference. So on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

Into the Wild West

Heading west on Route 66 in Oklahoma © 2012 Jennifer E. Cooper

In my travels I’ve walked through the Rust Belt, the Corn Belt and the Bible Belt. Now, as I make my way to Amarillo along Route 66, I find myself in the Wild West.

The land I walk through now has known pain and struggle. Temperatures soar to 100 degrees; the earth is hot and dry. Many are out of work or struggling to get by on minimum wage. I cannot help but think of the Dust Bowl that sent so many “Oakies” on a long march west in search of something better.

I met a woman in El Reno, Okla., yesterday who told me that she has watched friends give up the fight to stay out of poverty and turn to drugs and alcohol. She works at a fast-food restaurant to support her three children. Her children’s dad, who she thinks she might marry some day, was laid off from his job. But she is not giving up. Wealth, she told me, comes not from money but from family.

One man I talked to told me that Oklahoma is lucky, “there’s not much poverty here.” I suspect he didn’t notice the waitress bringing his meal who earns just $2.13 an hour plus tips. And I suspect he doesn’t know the woman I stayed with while in Oklahoma City who, after half a year of sending out resumes, is moving on. She was working three jobs just to pay the bills, but had to stop when she got pneumonia. Now she is heading to Florida in search of something better. “You know it’s bad when you have to beg for an interview at Cheesecake Factory.”

That is not to say I haven’t encountered those who are well paid, but often it comes at a high price. There is money to be made working for energy companies–the shiny new skyscraper along the Oklahoma City skyline is evidence of the power of energy giants. While in Geary, Okla., I camped next to a man who works in the gas fields near El Reno. Though he was making good money, like most of his colleagues he was far from home and living in a camper at a KOA campground. The job would likely last a year and then he would move on, perhaps to Colorado he told me.

In the two weeks since I returned to Wichita I’ve come to realize that the woman from El Reno is right. Though people are seeking a better way of life, what they truly desire is not money, but happiness. We have become disconnected from the earth and from each other. As I sat in a coffee shop in Oklahoma City and chatted with a man who worked with juvenile offenders, he told me that he learned more in one yoga teacher training class than in all his years of training. It is about finding one’s center, being happy in one’s own skin, he said.

On and on and on people have shared their stories with me. Sometimes they are sad and filled with struggle; sometimes they are happy and hopeful. Above all, people just want their stories to be heard; so I am listening. And on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

I’m funded! Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

On the road in Kansas. © 2012 Jennifer E. Cooper

A huge thank you to everyone who supported my Kickstarter project and made it a success. And a thank you to everyone who has supported me every step of the way. When I started walking cross-country (exactly three years ago today) I had no idea what I was doing, and I never allowed myself to think that I would really make it all the way across the United States. Now I’m more than halfway through my journey.

Of course if I have learned anything in these three years, I know that nothing is certain. My route can, and will, change. I’ve encountered setbacks and logistical challenges from a lost credit card to inaccurate GPS maps to brutal 100-degree temperatures. And as I was taking a Greyhound bus from Washington, D.C. to Wichita I considered quitting before I’d even set a foot back on the road. This journey is a constant reminder that things, good and bad, often happen for a reason. So, despite wanting to quit so many times, I’m still here; I’m still moving forward. I do not know what propels me forward, perhaps it is the need to tell the stories of America hidden in plain sight.

The more I travel across this country by foot, the more I realize I know nothing of its people, nothing of its culture, nothing of its land. I never could have imagined the amazing people I would meet in my travels. I’ve been back on the road for a week now, and already I’ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of those I’ve met along the road. Each time I struggle to find the strength to continue this journey a friend or stranger always appears to encourage and inspire me.

So on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper

1,500 miles down, 1,500 to go

On July 4, 2009, I found myself standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. with a 54-pound backpack and miles of open road ahead of me. I intended to walk 3,000 miles across the United States. I’ve since walked halfway across the United States, and I’m now raising funds through Kickstarter to complete the journey and self-publish my book.

As I’ve told friends and acquaintances about my journey I’ve heard over and over again: “I can’t wait to read your book.” Well, here is your chance to buy my book.

Funds raised through Kickstarter will cover some basic supplies and food and lodging while on the road, as well as editing, design and printing costs for my book, to be called Talk to Strangers. I plan to return to Wichita in late June and will walk through Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff, finally arriving in Los Angeles in late August. I anticipate my book to be completed by late November 2012.

When I began my journey, I had no idea what I would find. But, deep inside, I knew I was hoping to see what made America tick. I wanted to know what lied within her soul. And I wanted to know what was buried within mine—to know that I was more than a “skinny girl afraid of spiders” as I was called by a newspaper reporter who wrote a story about my travels.

What I found was far different than the stereotypical fat, loud and selfish America we hear so much about. I was humbled by the strength and generosity of the people I met, and inspired by their stories. I will never forget the woman in Kantner, Pa., who took me in for the night and paid for my dinner when she was only earning a meager $5 an hour pay and living in a trailer with no hot water and a leaky roof. Nor will not forget the man in Sturgis, Mich., who told me of his sister’s decline into homelessness and subsequent death on the streets of Kalamazoo as his friend quietly slipped a $50 bill into my hand.

Though a stress fracture prevented me from reaching California that first year, I’ve since walked halfway across the United States. In 2009 I walked 700 miles from Washington, D.C., to Chicago; the following year I walked another 600 miles to St. Louis and eventually Kansas City; and last fall I found myself back on the road walking 300 miles from Kansas City to Topeka to Wichita.

Along the way I’ve gotten arrested, survived a tornado, had a run-in with a polar bear (slight dramatization) walked for two weeks on a leg I didn’t know was broken and met so many amazing people. I’ve also been blessed to have an endlessly supportive network of family and friends. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Thank you, thank you, thank you, I couldn’t do this without your generous support.

Drowning in a sea of inequality

There are so many wrongs in this world, it is easy to feel paralyzed by the obesity of inequality. Hopelessness attempts to set in as the weight pulls us down. We wonder: if the Mayans are right, what is the point of change?

This year (and this new year of the dragon) I have made a conscious effort to take a different tactic. I will still dream big, still believe it is possible to make the world a better place, but I will take small steps. Just as I have taken many small steps as I’ve walked from Washington, D.C. to Wichita; I will take small steps every day toward change.

And so, this post is what it is: short, sweet, and to the point. Are you ready to start walking? I am.

–Jennifer E. Cooper

No vacation for the homeless

Earlier this week a couple from Florida couch surfed with me for a few days while on a biking trip from Florida to New York. Both had spent a portion of their lives homeless. She lived in her truck for a time while she was in college. He spent much of his childhood on the streets, living as a squatter. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that they were truly roughing it on their trip–often pitching a tent in the woods along the side of a road.

But, after seeing them a week later at a happy hour for Couch Surfing, an international travel group that shares accommodations among its members, I wondered if they were really on vacation, or traveling homeless.

Certainly I would not be surprised to find a few homeless in my travel group. Members of the group, Couchsurfing.org, open up their couches to each other as both a low-cost way to travel and an opportunity for cultural exchange.

“Amy” told me she’d become homeless in college when her situation with her roommate didn’t work out and she consciously decided to live in her truck. Being homeless helped her save money since her family had made it clear to her when she turned 18 that if she wanted to go to college, she was on her own. For a while she got by sleeping in her truck, showering at her gym in the morning before heading to class or to work. But it came to an end when a car smashed into her parked truck.

“Matt” found himself homeless at a young age after the family that adopted him decided to move and left him behind. As he’d already been paying rent to the family–he earned money at the age of 8 bagging groceries–he just decided to live on the streets. Eventually Matt helped organize squatters and several homeless shelters.

After spending two days with me they told me they were staying with a friend in the northern suburbs of D.C., and then biking onward towards New York City. Learning that they were still in the area made me realize their trip wasn’t vacation, they were just doing what they could to get by, living on the edge of their means.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper