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