A good pair of running shoes lasts only two weeks, about 400 miles, the foot liners worn away inside and the soles softened to the point of melting on the black Western asphalt: an early walking day in June reached 109º on the Mojave Desert. They made only 20 miles that day. When they reached the next town, they ditched the backpacks for baby strollers.
Anthony Greco, 23, and Rob Bonora, 22, flew over America Memorial Day weekend so they could dangle their feet in the Pacific Ocean at a San Diego marina before walking back home to Nutley, New Jersey. Summer’s not the best time to walk across the Southwest desert – there is no good time for that – but after graduation with finance degrees from Montclair State University, they had time.
Since their days on the Nutley High School football team, the friends have enjoyed a good challenge. They used a four-month study-abroad sojourn in 2008 to visit nine countries while ostensibly earning college credits in Florence, Italy. Last spring, Bonora suggested that walking across the United States might make more sense than beginning their finance careers.
Last week the men crossed from New Mexico into Colorado at Branson, population 75, where they were feted at the local community center, fed locally-raised beef steaks, and given proclamations by Mayor Chuck Vernier. The walk proceeded to Kim, CO, where Greco and Bonora encountered the town’s annual potluck and reunion festivities – this is a place enough people leave that the whole town holds an annual reunion.
To avoid the heat, they had turned north at Albuquerque and walked all the way to Taos before resuming their eastward trek. After the desert and backpacks held them to 20-mile days, they’re now averaging 30-plus. They rarely rest. “We’re in shape now,” says Greco, “so I think we’ll just keep walking. When we need a break now, it’s more mental than physical.”
From Cimarron, NM, the next town was Raton; they walked the 42 miles non-stop, taking a motel room at 10 p.m. Enjoying actual beds – they often sleep on the ground – they stayed over for a day, then walked 37 miles to Folsom. When they met the mayor across the state line in Branson, they’d just walked 16 miles; it was 11 a.m.
Their high school football coach used his connections to get three athletic stores to each donate two pairs of shoes. The last of those were discarded in Colorado, worn dead.
There wasn’t time to court and land corporate sponsors, but friends and neighbors helped. Nutley’s mayor, Joanne Cocchiola, wrote to the mayor of every town on the route in hopes the men wouldn’t walk through unnoticed. Greco and Bonora chose small charities to benefit; they’ve been asking people to pledge for each mile they walk, at coasttocoastforacure.com, where they also post their route and blog. They’re financing the walk themselves, so all contributions go directly to the charities.
The biggest help has come from strangers along the way. There was the state patrolman in Arizona who drove a one-hour round trip to refill the walkers’ water jugs. Motels and families have offered beds for a night. Pummeled by a stinging hailstorm in central New Mexico, Greco and Bonora joined a pair of dogs under the eaves of a shed; the owner saw them and invited them to wait out the storm inside over fresh coffee.
Walking off the roadway for the first week, Greco recalls, “We had disgusting blisters and our knees were going. We switched shoes but it turned out to be the backpacks, not the shoes.” Bonora jettisoned his pack for a high-end jogging stroller at the K-Mart in Brawley, California. It worked so well that Greco took the next opportunity – the Wal-Mart in Payson, Arizona – to get his own. Since then they’ve pushed their strollers along on the pavement, even on interstate highways. “We thought we’d get in trouble walking on the interstate,” Greco says, “but no one’s bothered us. The police have been great everywhere.”
Now, though, they not only have to replace shoes regularly: they’re replacing tires, too. It takes only two days to wear away the treads on a new set of stroller tires.
In Branson, they weighed themselves for the first time. As he expected, Greco had lost 11 pounds, but Bonora seemed embarrassed to have lost only two pounds. “My mom and aunts flew out and rented a car. They followed our route for a week, from Albuquerque to Taos, and they put all my weight back on me!” Not for long.
Greco wakes naturally at dawn every morning. If they’re sleeping on the ground or in their cheap pup tent, they hit the road by 6:00 a.m.; when they’re giving up a bed, they’ll leave an hour later. They carry iPods and spend their days listening to music while maintaining a brisk 3½ mph walking pace. The strollers carry their gear, including a 2½–gallon flexible water jug, which they refill every chance they get.
The men snack as they walk and plan to take a rest stop every ten miles, though they sometimes skip that. For meals, it’s catch as catch can. They try to end each day in a town that has food – which can be a stretch on foot in the West.
After completing a route planned online by Greco, the men plan to walk through the front doors of their homes in Nutley, six miles shy of New York City, in early October. Judging by their stayover in Branson, the first things they’ll look for will be showers and time off their feet, not necessarily in that order. Mom’s cooking will be “to die for”, although it may not include grass-fed Colorado beef.
In Branson Friday afternoon, Greco and Bonora rested up in Brad & Jodi Doherty’s guesthouse, then feasted with a roomful of well-wishers. At 10:30 that night, having covered only 16 miles earlier in the day, they were restless and set out in the dark for a few miles toward Kim. Brad Doherty went out late to bring them back to Branson for some sleep, then dropped them the next morning where they had left off.
It’s hard to imagine these two walking all that way home, and then getting offices to begin careers in finance. Bonora thinks of starting a healthy fast-food chain, one he can franchise to others. Both may want something that allows them to take on new physical challenges. They say the best thing about their walk has been the people they’ve met. Whatever they decide to do next fall, they’ll have plenty of time to think about it this summer, walking across America.
©2010 Tim Keller